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Desert Days

The original plan, to fly in to Tel Aviv, Israel and then drive across the border to Sinai had to be abandoned.  It wasn’t through conflict that we resorted to Plan B, but through something completely out of human control – floods.  The floods experienced that year (1997) had been the worst seen in decades and as a result, all roads crossing into Sinai had been washed away.  Quick – thinking meant we would fly to Eilat, southern Israel and cross the border at the southern point of the Sinai / Israeli border.

My companions and I boarded a rickety propeller plane in the hope of a safe landing nearer our destination.  The clouds had silently drawn in closer, thickening by the minute creating an apprehensive atmosphere in the tiny plane sailing the ocean of sky.  The heavens opened and rain pelted the plane, struggling to maintain balance.  The ominous clouds rolled in faster spouting forks of lightning echoed only by the previous crack of thunder.  Was this the power and mighty wrath of God in which we were at his mercy?!  Was this in preparation for a respected part of the Holy Land?

From the sky, was it not for the display of nature’s anger, the Sinai peninsular can be seen as a rift stretching from Turkey and the Sea of Galilee descending towards the famous Great Rift Valley of Kenya.  Like a cracked pane of glass, the Sinai region is imprinted with wadis (river valleys) marking geological changes of the earth’s crust.  As a stepping stone between Africa and Asia, the southern mountains impose onto the sea to form a rocky coastline sloping into the Gulf of Aqaba.

The purpose of my trip was to step back in to the Ancient World.  At the time I was studying A – Level Religious Studies and although not a religious individual, I couldn’t miss the chance to step in to the history that has shaped the morals and beliefs of three major world religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

A few days involved living along side the nomadic tribe of the Bedouin.  Bound by kinship and loyalty to the desert, the Bedouin live in a timeless world dictated to only by the rise and fall of the sun.  They classify as pastoral nomads raising goats, sheep and camel as they roam across a vast and dramatic landscape.   

The days were spent ambling through the mountainous desert winding through wadis here and there.  The camels, although notoriously grumpy animals, seemed to have a similar frame of mind as the Bedouin.  They were content wanderers with a significant loyalty to their masters.

The sky would be magnificent vibrant blue rarely littered with the odd lost cloud and at the very peak of the day, we would rest for lunch, cramming as many of us as possible under the few trees present.

The Bedouin would squat, letting only the soles of their bare feet touch the scorching ground.  Their ‘kafias’ or head scarves protected their head and allowed them to bear the heat of the sun to build a fire.  The fire would first be used to boil water for tea, a necessity to keep the sweat process going in order to cool the body.  This did of course mean a profusely sweaty aroma but with a noticeable lack of water, you can’t be choosy.

While drinking sweet, black tea, the Bedouin would use the ashes of the fire to cook ’fattir’, a flat bread made of flour, salt and water.  Unfortunately with these basic cooking facilities and a wind that whipped up the sand, the dough would often get a helping of sand giving the bread an altogether crunchy texture!

On the occasional time we stumbled across a gathering of Bedouin women, we were given a display of their crafts, ranging from handmade necklaces and bracelets to beautifully decorated shawls.  Although aimed at visitors, there seemed so little tourists present that it didn’t seem to matter.  However, whatever you bought, nothing could compare to the souvenir memory of the views across the expense of desert.  Stopping for lunch one time at the foot of a small hill, we walked up and found our way to the entrance of a shallow cave where some of our Bedouin guides had started to boil water for tea.  Blankets had been laid out to provide some comfort against the rocks in the cave.  As we turned to sit down, we were presented with awe – inspiring panoramic views of the Sinai Desert laid out in front of us, stopped only in the horizon by the beginnings of another mountain range.

I had felt the wind, I had seen the sand and now it was time to see the stars.  As much as one wishes to, I still don’t believe words can justify the majestic stars of the Milky Way spanning a night sky.  With no unnatural light and no pollution, it seemed the night sky had been a blank canvass flecked with glitter paint from an enormous paintbrush.  Similar to how a single flame can encapsulate and mesmerise, the stars become captivating.  But it wasn’t just still stars. Sleeping out under the stars in the Desert allowed me to see the ‘Dance of the Asteroids’.  Shooting stars darted off in synchronisation providing a never – ending silent firework display.  I can still remember to this very day watching a shooting star from one end of sky right across 180° to the other.  Rightly so, the Sinai Desert has aptly been named as the place where the ‘heavens touch the earth’ and this certainly felt the case under the stars.

From camel trekking in the Desert, we moved to St. Catherine’s Monastery, characterised by an ever – increasing tourist trade but as yet, seemed untouched by the perils of the modern world. 

Run by Greek Orthodox Monks, St. Catherine’s Monastery is certainly rich in history – regarded now as one of the oldest working monastery in Christian history.  It is Byzantine in style with extensive fortifications of granite walls some 40 – 200 feet tall surrounded by gardens and cypresses.

The interior is equally mysterious and impressive with its steep staircases and narrow passageways, housing the second largest collection of manuscripts from Greek, Coptic, Arabic and Hebrew origins.  Perhaps more famous though is the Chapel of the Burning Bush locating the point at which, according to the Old Testament, God ordered Moses to deliver the children of Israel out of Egypt.  Surprisingly, when I saw the so – called Burning Bush, it was all rather green, lush and looking somewhat quite healthy.

Overlooking the Monastery is the Mountain on which, according to legend, Moses received the Ten Commandments from God, named now as Mount Sinai, or Mount Moses.  Mount Sinai stands tall and forbidding amid landscape as harsh and wild as the moon.  Once at the summit, you feel an un – describable sense of immense mightiness contained in the memories of the mountain.  If true or not, is not for us to say but certainly there is a living legend brought to life by the pilgrims who come to visit here.

A slow return to modern life is started by a visit to St. Catherine’s village just beyond the gates of the Monastery.  A quaint yet sparse set- up with dusty roads and tourist shops become a relaxant for the hard – going tourists who climbed Mount Sinai.

Despite spending only a week in Sinai, I feel like I have travelled across centuries of history, back into the ancient world where tracks of the Bible originated.  

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