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Signed and dated painting by 'David Roberts. 1839. inscribed and dated 'Mount Sinai Feby 17. 1839

 

Traveling to the Holy Land is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most people. No matter what your beliefs, the trip is an amazing adventure.

 

All of the places and events you have heard about, read about or seen pictures of are suddenly right in your face.  You are there physically retracing the history of civilizations and people that have gone before you by many millennia. 

 

Our collective belief is probably that of a flow of ancient civilizations covering large land masses in their migrations.  Being there you discover how small the area where all of this  history that looms so large for so many people actually took place and come to realize how small the world was to the ancients.

 

After doing the normal tourist things in Israel our group of twenty or so senior citizens left Eilat, the southernmost city of Israel on the northern tip of the Red Sea and entered Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.  It was a long bus ride through the desert, a desert which has been a crossroads for so many civilizations.

 

 Our destination was a hotel on the shores of the Red Sea across from the mountains of Saudi Arabia.  We were to leave at midnight to be transported to the base of Mt. Sinai where our trek was to begin.  It was an adventure few get to experience for many reasons some of which are described below.

 

The image of Charlton Heston descending Mt Sinai clutching the tablets was foremost in my mind as we boarded our air-conditioned bus.  It was to be a two hour ride through the blackness of a desert lit only by the stars visible in numbers greater than I have ever previously seen.  

group of tourist on Mount Sinai at night
Nightime on Mount Sinai ~Photo credit Grand Parc - Bordeaux, France

 

It was to be an experience that none of us will ever forget. While the experience was painful to many in the group during its happening, it is now quite humorous in the telling.

 

At 2 AM we arrived outside the gates of the Monastery of St. Catherine at the base of Mt. Sinai and the historical site of Moses’ Burning Bush.  It was previously mentioned how close so many of the Biblical events were to each other.  In this spot you could see the burning bush and Mt. Sinai without having to turn your head. 

Visiters going up mountain to Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai
Monastery of St. Catherine ~Photo credit Berthold Werner

 

With little warning, preparation or discussion, each member of the group was basically grabbed by a camel owner, taken to his kneeling animal, and ordered to mount for a two hour ride in the dark up to the mountain’s summit to view the sunrise.  As it turned out, this was to be my first and last experience on a “ship of the desert.”

two camel owners and camels waiting tourists at Mount Sinai
Camel owners await tourists ~Photo credit Warren Wesen

 

On the steep climb in pitch blackness the camels hugged the outside of the trail where sheer drop-offs went straight down for hundreds of feet.  At times I had to close my eyes as the beast with its steady plodding gait plowed through hikers who, brandishing flashlights were laboriously making their way up steep paths. At one point, having no control over my beast I shouted, “Out of the way…runaway camel.”

 

If you have seen videos of downhill skiers holding torches and descending the slopes in a group, you might be able to visualize the sight of hikers going up a mountain with all manner of hand held flashlights and/or headlamps illuminating their way. While the skier’s torches are for effect, the hiker’s lights were necessary to pick out the trail and rocks underfoot.  The path was a zig-zag affair and in the dark, the bobbing lights resembled an endless procession of oversized fireflies stretching into infinity.

 

Nearing the summit, we awkwardly dismounted our camels.  While trying to get the blood flowing again to our legs, the men in the group vowed never again to get on a camel, ever.  It wasn't a tough decision since our tour leader had advised against a downhill ride informing us it would be particularly uncomfortable for the men because of the location of the front wooden saddle horn.  I didn't find the ride up to be particularly comfortable either. Dealing with my camel driver was also an interesting experience.

 

Before mounting my camel two hours earlier, the price of the ride was quoted as $1.00 US…period. But before my driver ordered his camel to kneel so I could dismount, he told me he wanted $5.00 US.  Since he had walked behind me for two hours, I had intended to give him a tip, but this was extortion.  I agreed to $3.00 US just to get back on my feet.

 

After dismounting, it was a steep, arduous climb to the summit.  Not everyone elected to go.  The extra 500 foot climb didn't seem worth the effort to some.  So the women went and the men stayed behind. The men thought that staying right where they were was good enough.  I agreed with the collective wisdom of my own sex. After the sun had cleared the distant mountain peaks and was a yellow ball low in the sky, we started our trek, on foot, back down the mountain.

 

The mountain’s summit is 7,497 feet above sea level. The ascent form its base at the monastery begins at 4,100 feet so it was only 3,397 feet straight up.  However nothing here was either straight up or down.

 

At this point you should know that three of the men in the group walked with canes because of knee replacements or back problems.  In the brochure describing this optional trip, the tour company had mentioned that this was not an easy adventure, but nothing could have prepared us for the reality. 

 

Surrounded by hundreds of others who had previously made the arduous climb on foot in the dark, we hiked for 2 hours downhill  over slippery rocks and loose sand all the while hoping our legs, especially our knees, would hold out until were once again at our starting point.  At times, some lost their footing and wound up on their butts, including me. Eventually it became an effort just to lift our legs over rocks.  So taking frequent breaks, we watched the passing throng of people and camels.

 

You've certainly seen unprepared hikers on various trails wearing the least amount of clothing possible and not even carrying water in the heat of the day.  The sights here were unbelievable.

 

Men, women and youngsters of all ages, some wearing nothing more than shorts and t-shirts, were on their way down from the summit where only a short time before, jackets and sweaters were needed against night’s chill.  The array of footwear was even more startling.  Paper thin flip-flops on this grueling mountain trail were not an uncommon sight, nor were the looks of pain on many faces. Those carrying drinking water were in the minority.

 

I thought the downhill ordeal would never end.  But as with all things there eventually was light at the end of the tunnel and we arrived back at the monastery and I am  not referring to a light in any Biblical sense.  We wanted to head straight for the bus and burrow into our plush seats but our guide insisted we go pay our respects to the Burning Bush before returning to our hotel. 

 

So the group hobbled over to the monastery, paid homage to a towering bush which had been relieved of all vegetation up to the point where the tallest person could reach anything green to take home as a remembrance of the experience. .  

 

On the way back to our bus some in the group did a quick march to claim their seats. We eventually did get back to our hotel by late morning.  No one from our group was seen again until dinner when the day’s adventures were relived but this time without the pain and an almost nostalgic feeling about leaving this special place.

                                                   

 


 

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