Climbing Mount Sinai and visiting St Catherines' Monastery
This website tells my family's first hand experiences in Egypt.
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Climbing Mount Sinai and visiting the Burning Bush at St Catherine's Monastery
Climbing Mount Sinai
When I first floated the idea of climbing Mount Sinai, where Moses is supposed to have received the ten commandments while in the Sinai desert in Egypt, in the middle of the night with the children there was no a lot of enthusiasm but once they learned we would be going up by camel they quickly changed their minds. However, the round trip from Cairo involved more than just the mountain - a visit to Moses Springs, getting up at midnight and climbing the mountain on camels, seeing the sunrise from the top of the mountain, visiting St Catherine's Monastery and seeing the Burning Bush.
Traveling to Sinai from Cairo
We had landed in Cairo only the night before and our guide, Ahmed and the driver collected us from our hotel (Les Meridian Pyramids) at around 8am. It was a long drive on straight roads and it was the first time we'd really got a chance to see Egypt and get a sense of the scale of Cairo itself. Cairo is an enormous city of at least 22m people and always seems to be busy. Away from the centre it was clear that there remains significant poverty with many poorly finished apartments lining the main roads. However it is also clear that there are enormous building projects too and I soon lost count of the number of construction sites, many for luxury apartments.
Visiting Moses Springs
The full journey to Sinai took 5-6 hours of driving but on the way we visited Moses Springs which is part of the biblical story of Moses crossing the Red Sea. When he arrived on the other side with the Egyptian Army being destroyed behind him he found himself and his people in a dry barren land but several springs of what emerged, providing fresh water - Moses Springs.
The Springs themselves are not particularly impressive any more main tried up holes leading surrounded by lots of small sellers in wooden huts and dotted with a few palm trees. However the sense of history is great. Walking just beyond the springs to the top of a small rise you can see a sweep of sand down to the Red Sea and really imagine the historical scene.
St Catherine's Plaza, near Mount Sinai
On our holidays we're normally pretty fussy about the hotels we stay at but there are some occasions where you want to visit somewhere that has little choice. This is true at the foot of Mount Sinai. There are only a handful of hotels in the area and we stayed at St Catherine's Plaza. There is not much really to recommend the hotel other than its location. It does have a pool but the rooms are old and tired and the service extremely slow, where it existed at all. But the food was fine and there is a small number of shops inside the hotel courtyard plus its a good place to start off our journey up the mountain.
Climbing Mount Sinai
Having got up at midnight, we set off at about 1am by car to the foot of the mountain. The mountain that we were actually going to climb is technically called Mount Moses. Walking in the dark with just the light of our torches to show the way was exciting and then suddenly we came to an area that was obviously packed with camels and their drivers. It was so dark that the camels seemed to emerge from the dark like ghosts which was a little alarming. We passed through most of them, trying to politely ignore the calls from all sides to book a camel until we were suddenly at our camels. Then we were mounting up - there wasn't much time to think about it or consider the size of the camel. The drivers paired us each up with a camel and quickly there were exclamations on all sides as the the camels lifted themselves into a standing position.
If you've never ridden a camel before, the experience is one not to be missed. Camels stand in two distinct movements. The initial lift is quick and you think its not very high up, and then they stretch out their legs and you rise even further. It is not like a horse - you're a long way up with just a wooden hand holder at the front and back. There are no stirrups, your legs just hang down (shorts are not advisable as your legs brush up against the camels sides!).
It all happened very quickly and we were moving. There was a lot of nervous chatter and laughter from the children which was good because Lisa and I were concentrating enough on our own camels and couldn't look round to see that we were all together. After the initial shock of riding (its not really riding nor being led - the camels seem to know where they're going and just walk pretty much unguided which is very disconcerting), we are able to settle down and it really is one of the most wonderful experiences you could imagine. With the camel in a fairly steady climb you can sit back and look at the stars which are miraculously clear with many shooting stars. You have to trust your camel though as it walks up relatively narrow passes towards the top. The camel drivers though are constantly reassuring and I never really felt frightened that we'd go off the edge!
The camels can't however get to the top of the mountain and we dismount with another 750 steps to climb. After a quick drink at one of the main cafes dotted up the pass we set off with our mountain guide towards the top. It really is tough last stretch up the steps which are large and wide but made from natural rock so not uniform (apparently they were laid by a monk doing penitence!). It was a bit of a struggle for Lisa who has bad knees but she was helped by man who was clearly making a living by helping people up (we paid him fifty Egyptian Pounds for his help). Tom our eight year old also had a bit of trouble but our guide promptly put him on his back and carried him up!
At the top of Mount Moses
A peppermint tea and a can of Sprite at the top of Mount Moses revived our flagging bodies and we sat down to await the sunrise which when it came was a fabulous sight. Our guide clearly didn't need to see it again - he simply covered himself with a heavy blanket and was soon asleep. The children too were tired and rested on one of the many benches (which are actually just below the summit but still in a great position to see the sunrise). The air was a little chilly (something we didn't experience much while in Egypt!) and it was definitely worth bringing a light jumper but it was not really cold (although the guide had told us that during the winter months it really does get cold).
After seeing the sunrise (and spending a lot of time trying to capture it on camera!) Kate and I take a quick trip to the very summit (leaving the rest relaxing just below). It is well worth it - the 360 view is not quite possible from one place but the picture speak for themselves.
Back down Mount Sinai
Here is where I am happy to give some advice on camels from our own personal experience. Climbing the mountain on the camels was fun but sitting on a camel as it negotiates down steep steps is no fun - especially for men and boys! On fifteen minutes into the journey I decided I'd had enough and soon after the children bailed out as well. Only Lisa made it to the bottom on the camel - we all followed on foot!
St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai
The heat truly was sweltering after we reached the bottom of Mount Moses and we didn't really give St Catherine's its due attention. The building itself is interesting mix of early Christian and Islamic buildings (with a mosque contain within the grounds) but we fairly rushed through it, moving from shady area to shady area stopping only really to take a quick look at the famous burning bush before returning to our mini-bus and starting the long drive back to Cairo.