Suddenly the mirage that was Sharm el Sheikh has disappeared and our bus makes its dusty way towards the Sinai Desert, passing the rough rock- built Bedouin homes, clustered together in small villages as though for protection against the harsh reality of sand, stone, sun and mountain. I become aware of a shift in mood, of tension on our guide’s face, of whispered conversations, of long unexplained delays as we move deeper into the Sinai. Only later will we come to know that border skirmishes with Israel, involving the Bedouins, have very nearly scuttled our journey.
We arrive safely and without incident at the base of the long hill that climbs upwards towards the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint Catharine of Alexandria. Here the bus rests as we climb, gazing up at what looks like a fortified medieval town, protected by walls of sand-coloured stone that soar upwards to a height of perhaps eighty feet. St. Catharine’s is one of the oldest Christian Monasteries on the planet.
Saint Catharine’s Monastery
Tradition says it was on this height of land that God called out to Moses from a burning bush. Inside the walls, we go first to the place where, just above our heads, a rose bush, a hardy, long-lived strain native to the Sinai, spills out in blossoming welcome. The Monastery has a continual supply of fresh water from the Well of Moses which taps an underground spring. It is traditionally held to be the well where Moses met his future wife, Zipporah.
Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, was so impressed by the sacredness of this place that in the year 330 she had a small chapel built on the site, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In 530, Emperor Justinian had a much larger basilica constructed, the Church of the Transfiguration. From that time, the monastery took on the character of a walled city. The Prophet Mohammed also visited the monastery, giving the place his personal pledge of protection.
Our delayed journey has brought us here outside visiting hours. Of the monastic community in residence, we see only a sandaled foot, a wind-whipped robe, as the men pass by. Like children outside a candy store, we peer through the darkened windows of the locked chapel door, trying to catch a glimpse of the magnificent icons on the walls. Jean is determined that we shall not miss this wonder, arranges a visit on the following morning. I am feeling heavy, tired, not open to this experience. Knowing there’ll be a second chance tomorrow feels like a reprieve.
Full darkness has risen like a cloak over earth and sky by the time we reach our accommodations. We emerge from the bus onto flat rock-strewn sand that spreads itself in homage at the feet of towering mountains of ancient, weather-sculpted stone. One of those hovering shadows is the place where Moses received the commandments of Yahweh. Tomorrow at dawn we’ll be there….
Tonight however, we make our way along paths that intersect a series of small stone dwellings, looking for the numbers we’ve been given that identify our lodgings for the night. Once settled, with time for a quick shower, a change of clothing, we gather in one of the larger buildings, a conference centre. Jean tells the story of Moses who led the Israelites out of Egypt, escaping the pursuing armies of Pharaoh.
For the first time, the question is an important one for me. What I have learned of Egypt gives a different weight to the Biblical story. Jean responds that most scholars believe it was Ramses the Second, the thirteenth-century BCE pharaoh who ruled Egypt for more than sixty-five years, whose statues and temples dominate the Egyptian landscape.
The theological questions are interesting. The Egyptians had honoured many gods, had, as we had learned earlier, gods or neters for almost every human activity, every need. They lived in an atmosphere where the spirit of the gods filled their lives. In the fourteenth century BCE, the Egyptian Pharaoh, Amenhotep IV, declared that God is One, the sun god, Aten. He changed his name to Akhenaten, and moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes to the newly-built city of Akhetaten (Tell -el- Amarna) to honour the Sun god. But his beliefs were widely opposed, and after his death his monuments were destroyed, his name removed from statues and reliefs.
Moses and the Israelites worshipped One God whom they knew as Yahweh.
Patriarchal Religion began here on Mount Sinai, a name that means “Moon”, suggesting the mountain may once have been a site of goddess worship.
From the conference building, we make our way across the rocky ground up a low hill to the building where supper is waiting. The large undecorated room echoes with voices of other groups who are here, including some Canadians on their way to Israel. The place has the look and feel of a hunting lodge. We take plates and fill them with from a table of basic foods, eggs, beans, bread. We find places on wooden benches at long tables. Conversation turns to plans to climb Mount Sinai. As the sunrise from the 7,500 foot summit is spectacular, and the climb will take two and a half hours on foot, less for those who are ready to pay for a camel for the journey, wake-up calls are arranged for one-thirty a.m.
Sunrise on Mount Sinai. A camel ride. Surely this is one of the highlights of the journey. Yet, when Jean asks whether I want to go, I feel uncertain, respond crossly, “I haven’t decided”. I am aching with fatigue, but there is something deeper, something harder to acknowledge. Egypt has shifted my spirituality away from patriarchs, from commandments carved on stone, from arduous climbs so beloved by the ascetics of my faith. Memories, sensations return of the more feminine spiritual experiences I have had on this journey: the magnificent coral, the rainbow coloured fish I saw under the Red Sea, the moment in a tomb, in the Valley of the Kings, when I felt a sweep of tenderness beside a wall painting of an ibex….I cannot summon desire to make this pilgrimage.
But those who plan to go are eager. The night will cool down considerably and there is a flurry of borrowing jackets or sweaters. Suzanne needs something warm to wear, and I offer her the long cotton coat I’ve brought. It feels like a blessing. Part of me at least will go with her. My last tinges of regret dissolve.
Jean herself will not go. From within my own fatigue I can see how tired she is. But she will stay awake, keeping vigil for those who are making the climb.
“Take care of one another,” Jean says.
Sunrise from Mount Sinai