As I stumbled over loose gravel ascending the dirt track in darkness, streaks of light emerged from the heavens as stars danced across the night sky. Despite being on a pilgrimage of sorts, I was not so deluded to consider it divine intervention. As I approached the summit – climbers I’d overtaken earlier now miles behind – groups of bodies huddled together emerged under fragments of starry light, all wrapped snugly in woollen blankets, sitting on the mountain edge. I’d been told to get there early to “guarantee” an idyllic position to witness sunrise. I paced forward and, with a swift sideways flash of the torch, identified it: a rock, at the top of Mt Sinai, that projected beyond the mountain’s core. I sat wearily on the ledge and, in a warm self-embrace, waited patiently for the sky to splinter on the horizon.
Rooted in ecclesiastical origins, the mountain – synonymous with Moses’s receipt of the ten commandments – plays host to innumerable Christian, Jewish and Islamic pilgrims every year. Given abundant mention throughout the Book of Exodus, it has become a place of sacred significance to zealots worldwide. Even though the biblical message focuses on the commandments, a visit to the purportedly holy site is nonetheless impressive thanks to the sunrise – apparently one of the best in the Middle East.
Triumph over Adversity: Food Poisoning in Dahab
Based in Dahab, leaving the resplendent shores of the Red Sea was a difficult decision to make, particularly given the nature of my health at the time. However, I knew making the ascent to the summit of Sinai would be memorable. So, after twenty-four hours of continuous diarrhoea, I stumbled to the pharmacy at six in the morning and banged on the door. “Drugs, I need drugs, to stop the flow. Please,” was my desperate request to the weary-eyed Egyptian man who’d clearly been roused from sleep.
After filling my body with chemical goodness in a fervent attempt to plug the hole, I bought a ticket from the untrustworthy man outside the hotel. Uncertain if I’d ever arrive at the mountain’s base, I returned to bed and passed the hours listening to the unrelenting gurgle emerging from my abdomen. Sleep clearly eluded me.
Surprisingly yet to my horror, a minivan arrived shortly after midnight. The four of us – who’d never previously met – loaded ourselves drearily into the back and chose separate rows in which to lie down. I’d nearly been killed two weeks earlier when a fatigued minivan driver fell asleep at the wheel while transporting me to Abu Simbel. It had been a three am start and he had been driving at one hundred and thirty kilometres per hour. Minivans and fatigue are now eternally etched as a negative memory into my psyche.
Fortunately, after a short sleep, we arrived safely at the base and were met by a kindred-spirited kind-faced Nubian man. “Are you ready to climb?” he asked, as we gradually roused ourselves from sleep.
“I’m so tired,” I complained, to which he kindly responded, “The climb will wake us.”
His words were laced with a tenor of honey, so kind and sweet it dismissed any outpouring of negative emotion I may have otherwise oozed at two in the morning.
Ascending Sinai: Fuelled by Words of Consolation
Our guide motioned us past hordes of shivering and languorous souls, dragging their feet along the same journey into history. Silence initially enveloped the night, until gravel emerged and the deafening roar of crunch-crunch underfoot pierced the crisp air spiralling through the darkness. When we wanted to stop, he discerningly and gently motioned forward, reminding us of the beautiful morning sky that awaited.
Fragments Piercing the Sky: Sinai Sunrise
After arriving at the summit sometime later in the wee hours of that August day, I was joined at my seat – perched snugly on the rock – by the virile-bearded Swedish guy from the minivan. I generously released the warm embrace of the woollen blanket that had been snugly wrapped around my shoulders, and shared it with him. We watched the horizon together, in silence.
As the morning hours rolled on toward dawn, new faces emerged from the footpath, forlorn yet filled with a mild tone of anticipation. The atmosphere evolved as nervous energy filled the air: the sun’s arrival was imminent – perched only inches behind the horizon.
As darkness began surrendering to the night, colours of vibrancy emerged, and froze – shattering the black expanse of heaven – each for a moment in time. A single spear of rasin appeared, piercing the night sky, dividing it from the earth below. As deep rosewood followed suite, silhouetted mountain ridges formed in the corners of God’s oil painting. Fire orange and persimmon erupted volcanically, luminously reflecting their lustrous tints in our faces. Moments before the radiating glow of the golden orb poured light through our splayed fingers, the heavens melted into butter. As a salty tear coursed down my cheek, the sun was lifted above the horizon, radiating its glow onto the earth. I’d witnessed perfection.
Pious Indignation: The Integral Monastery Visit
Inherent to any Sinai visit is a homebound stop at St Catherine’s Monastery. Following a slow descent and gradual defrosting in the morning sun, we stopped at the foot of the mountain and entered the sixth century stone establishment. Pretention permeated the air and, as I was physically pushed – in a sleep deprived state - to and fro by the clergy, I exited the building as quickly as I’d entered.
I didn’t want my short fuse to ignite, resulting in an explosion of words. It would not have been as beautiful as the eruption of the morning sky. According to my new Swedish friend who had stayed inside moments longer, a visit at an alternative time of day would have been better. Regardless, it is one of the oldest operational monasteries in the world and is likely worth a visit for indulgence in historical intrigue. We were collected by the spritely driver who flew us back to Dahab at one hundred and sixty kilometres per hour.
Sinai's Splendour: Worth the Effort
Regardless of ecclesiastical dispositions, climbing – or rather walking – to the summit of Mt Sinai is a must-do adventure inherent to any Egyptian holiday. The beauty exhibited by mother nature will leave you breathless. It’s a prominent memory that regularly features in travel recalls, and sits towards the higher end of my top-fifty-experiences-of-all-time list.
The author stayed at Seven Heaven Hotel in Dahab. However, there are various lodgings based at near St Catherine.
The currency utilised in Egypt is the Egyptian Pound. Please refer to the following website for current and up to date exchange rates: