Exploring Mount Sinai
By Jacqueline Schaalje
The American archaeologist Edward Robinson was not the only one who was slightly disappointed when he finally stood on top of the Jebel Musa in Sinai. He writes: "The view from Mount Catherine is actually more impressive. From the Jebel Musa one cannot see the convent of St. Catherine, nor can one see the open plain where the Israelites would have camped."
Robinson, travelling in the footsteps of Moses from the Nile Delta to the Holy Land in the year 1838, was accompanied to the Jebel Musa (Mount Sinai) by monks from the nearby St. Catherine Monastery and Bedouin guides. He was one of the first archaeologists in Israel and Egypt. In Jerusalem he discovered the so-called Robinson's Arch (named after him; a part of the former south-west corner of the Temple Complex).
Today the situation around Mount Sinai is a bit different. First of all it is very busy, really bustling with people. We start our climb in the middle of the night so we can see the sun come up over the mountain in the morning, pretty original we thought. But it seems that many others had the same idea. "Camel, camel, camel?" asks a Bedouin nudnik behind us. He is indeed riding on a transport animal and two other camels carrying freezing tourists follow suit.
We are walking in the opposite direction, to go back to a Bedouin camp site at the foot of Mount Sinai, to buy the services of a Bedouin guide with a flashlight.
Mount Sinai is the name of the whole ridge. The mountain that we are going to climb first is the Horeb, whose name comes from the Bible. The southern peak of this mountain is called Jebel Musa, or Mount Moses. In the Book of Exodus, where the story of the Israelites and Moses in the Sinai is related, both the names of Sinai and Horeb are used indiscriminately, and also refer to the peak of Jebel Musa. Jebel Musa is most generally identified as the place where Moses received the stone tablets, containing the Ten Commandments, from God.
While Moses climbed the mountain, the Israelites were in their campsite at the foot of the mountain. Experts are not really sure where the campsite opposite Mount Sinai would have been (Exodus 19:2). The only place that is big enough is the Wadi el-Sheik, a large wide valley. Today this is where the parking place is. Of course there are no archaeological traces of the Israelites, because they did not build anything.
After we had followed the path from the parking place to the St. Catherine convent things had become very dark indeed. We could barely see each other, even though the sky is brimful with stars. We unsuccessfully tried to hook on to some English mountaineers but they were practically running to the top. Then we bumped into two hesitating Japanese pilgrims, but they themselves seem to be lost. "Do you know where we can get to Mount Moses," they asked. Soon we are all stranded on a path which did not seem a real route, as it is strewn with heavy boulders.
We happily follow our 10-year old Bedouin guide, and yes, he has a torch. He is also imprinted already with the idea of "camel, camel, camel", asking all the time whether we would not prefer to leave all this toil behind and just take an easy ride to the top. But we want to walk. We buy his flashlight and let him off.
The path is easy here anyway. The problem is just that it is so freezing cold. The other people who are passing are dressed warmer, in winter coats and shawls. "Camel? Camel?" We have to move to the side again to let the stinking animals pass.
The path is full with camel droppings. Luckily they do not smell that much. Along the road are straddling Bedouin huts with a counter over which drinks are sold. When we see a Bedouin hut with benches inside, we huddle inside with an elderly American couple both in warm red coats. They are still shivering. So are we. We decide to stay inside until the early morning, to avoid the worst cold of night, and then make a big rush to the top in time to see the sun. It is four o'clock now. We ask what time the sun is expected. We receive different answers. "About" five, thinks the Bedouin manager of the hut. The guide of the American couple thinks at "about" seven. We stick to about six.
When the first light peeps through the holes in the wood and carpets of the hut we wake up, and start our march to the summit. The sun is coming up already. It is a surprise to see the grey stones suddenly ignite, and turn a glowing red. The rocks of Mount Sinai are red with grey granite, but in the sunlight the red tones dominate.
Very soon we reach a steep path with stepped rocks which leads to the top of the Jebel Musa. Before that, we had climbed on the base of the mountain, the Horeb. Pilgrims from the top trickle down already. Their faces are glowing, but also show signs of wear and tear. They must have been cold up there.
We sit on a rock to see them pass. We hear Italian, German, Dutch, and English. On the top we meet a nice Israeli couple in the Bedouin tent. We are now the only visitors left on the summit. After we drink tea and exchange views, we stand outside and are rather impressed. Okay, we do not see any traces of Moses, or any sign that this was the place where Moses met God and received the Stone Tablets with the Law. But then again - who can say anything against it?
John Lloyd Stephens, another explorer and archaeologist of the Middle East in the pietistic nineteen hundreds, said that "Among all the stupendous works of Nature, not a place can be selected more fitting for the exhibition of Almighty power." All around us we see the magnificent red and grey granite peaks. East lies the Gulf of Aqaba where we were lying on the beach less than a day ago. Some of the peaks are covered with white streaks of clouds.
On the top also stands a small chapel. It stands next to the cave where God sheltered Moses: "I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand while I pass over (Exodus 33:22)." The simple building was newly erected 1934 on top of the old chapel built by Christian pilgrims in 363 (at the beginning of the Byzantine time). It is rumoured that the Egyptian government thinks about building an ecumenical centre, in which the Jewish, Islamic and Christian faiths will be united. This has not materialized yet. The Moslems believe that Mohammed's horse, Boraq, ascended to heaven on Jebel Musa.
We slowly begin the long climb back. On the advice of the Israeli couple we try the alternative route down. After the same walk back we pass a small open space guarded by a 500-year-old cypress tree. The tree's greenness looks alien in the barren wilderness. In this "Elijah's Hollow" two low rude buildings commemorate the prophets Elijah and Elisha. In the one of Elijah is a hole: this is the cave in which the prophet spent 40 nights and days in a cave on Mount Horeb (Book of Kings 19:9-18). Nearby are also the ruins of another small monastery and a mosque.
Cautiously we follow the stepped path which is much steeper and a bit shorter than the eastern path which we took on our ascent. The steps were all hewn and laid by Byzantine monks. The path consists of 3750 steps, leading to St. Catherine monastery.
On the way we pass two stone gates, which are also hewn by the monks. As it is, Mount Sinai is mostly the territory of the St. Catherine Monastery, which belongs to the Greek orthodox church. In former centuries it is said that monks from the monastery stood at the paths on the ascent in order to convert passing Jews. It is said that no Jew could pass them. Today of course this practice is over.
Finally we reach the monastery of St. Catherine. It is open to visitors in the morning (modest dress required) and it is also possible to sleep there. Monks settled at the foot of the mountain from 337 onwards, after the mother of the first Byzantine emperor Constantine, Queen Helena, identified it as the place where Moses heard the voice of God from the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:10). The desolate convent was at first not overly popular with monks, and their population dwindled. Today the monastery of St. Catherine houses 20 monks, most of them are Greeks.
The premises contain lovely gardens with fruit trees. One special shrub is of course the famous Burning Bush, the bramble tree from which God spoke to Moses. Whether this is really a species of the biblical bramble must be doubted. First of all, it is not even a bramble. It is some sort of an ever-green plant. Second, shoots from the plant have been moved several times outside the monastery and they all died.
Almost twelve hours after we started our walk we stumble back to the parking place and get in our car. We are utterly exhausted. Clearly the Israelites were living in a time of athletic giants.
from the May 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine