I had dreamed of this trip to Mount Sinai for decades. And now here I was in a landscape devoid of vegetation and strewn with rocks of varying sizes, from boulders to truckloads of gravel. Being atop a camel wasn’t exactly what I had envisioned.
The day before, our friend, Stacey, who has climbed Mount Sinai several times, told us, “Really, you should take a camel.”
“A camel?” I said. “You’ve got to be kidding. No way I’m going up that mountain on a camel. I haven’t ridden on any animal since I was 13 years old, and that was a pony, not an ornery-looking critter with lumps in all the wrong places.”
“But you’ll need your energy for the final climb to the top,” she said.
“But people sit on camels to have their pictures taken at tourist spots. I intend to climb the mountain, not to be a make-believe Lawrence of Arabia.”
“It’s not a tourist thing––that’s how people get around here. Either you go on foot or you take a camel, and I’d recommend the camel. It’ll be easier.”
I wasn’t convinced. Wasn’t taking a camel cheating? And what did she mean I’d need my energy for the final climb? But the next afternoon found my wife Celeste and me walking out past the walls of Saint Catherine’s Monastery to a group of Bedouin guides and camels gathered at their staging area. Stacey, we then learned, would not be joining us on the climb, as she had arranged her own tour of some outlying sites (probably by car, I thought).
Celeste went first. She mounted her kneeling camel, throwing her leg awkwardly over the saddle and clambering aboard. Then it was my turn. The two horns on a camel saddle extend high both in front and rear. There were no stirrups, so I swung my leg up and over and tried to center myself on the saddle. My legs just dangled, putting all my weight on my groin. Then, I was whiplashed back as the camel stood on its front knees, then forward as it straightened up its rear legs, and I felt like it was tossing me over its head. Finally, the beast stood fully up, and I found myself towering eight or nine feet off the ground with no control over the camel’s movements and no way to get off, with no foothold and only the slender horn to hold on to.
Our guides attached Celeste’s camel’s lead to my saddle, and we were off.
I had been to Sinai before, in 1983. That was a fulfillment of a dream I had conceived reading and rereading a National Geographic article in my high school days, featuring the restoration of the monastery’s priceless collection of early Christian art.
We had flown in to the small airport (no longer operating) near the monastery on a side trip from Jerusalem. The airline’s schedule obliged us to return the very same day, after a stay of only three hours. We had time to climb over the flat rocks overlooking the southeast wall of the monastery, gazing in wonder at the fortress-like walls dwarfed by the surrounding mountains, a scene that had not changed in over a thousand years, and then to enter the main basilica, finished in 565 under the Roman Emperor Justinian, its walls lined with ancient icons, the air redolent with the scent of incense. A priest was intoning a service in the ancient Byzantine chant, his face reflecting the patience of generations of monks who have lived here. Then, back onto the bus for the return trip to the airport. We had missed the traditional climb to the summit, a visit to the library, or a chance to see the most significant art treasures in the monastery’s possession.
Of all the places I had visited in the often-frenetic and overbuilt Holy Land, this one appealed to me most because of its ageless, otherworldly quality. I longed to return some day for more than a few hours.
We swayed with the camels’ gait as they moved along the gently rising trail. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
Our two guides walked along at a leisurely pace, occasionally turning to check on us, “OK?” and getting a brave answer. They then resumed their conversation or made calls on their smart phones.
Mountains towered above us on three sides, so I asked our English-speaking guide, Ahmed, which one was Mount Sinai. He pointed toward the soaring vertical wall far to our right and said, “It’s up and behind this one.”
Lulled by the languid “floof, floof, floof” of the camels’ hooves, I took to surveying the landscape as new vistas presented themselves as we climbed higher. Far below, a large Bedouin village sprawled down the middle of a wadi (dry river valley). With each turn of the path, the monastery came faintly into view, its red granite walls fading into its surroundings. A tiny building, probably a chapel or hermitage, was silhouetted on a ridge of the mountain opposite us.
I was startled out of my reverie when Ahmed announced, “You get off the camels here.”
We had finished our zigzags and had reached the plateau called Elijah’s Basin, with its pair of stone huts selling water, soda, and snacks, hugging the face of the mountain that hid our destination.
“Now we go on foot.”
Hold on, there was still a lot left to go. Our path led around to the beginning of what would be the most difficult leg of our climb––a jumble of boulders and rocks of various sizes and shapes leading upward to the summit. A stone marker at the base informed in several languages: 750 steps to the top.
We soon learned that most of the “steps” consisted of rocks of various sizes and shapes, with top surfaces that were often uneven. Sometimes it was difficult to determine which rock was the next “step.” There were no rails or walls to help maintain balance, an occasional tall rock sometimes serving this purpose.
In the shadows formed by folds of the mountain on either side, small streams of melting late-winter ice flowed along the side of the steps. Another plateau with its refreshment hut, and the final expanse of tumbled rock rose to the summit.
In my impatience to reach the top, I had hurried ahead of Celeste and Ahmed, and so sat down to wait for them to catch up before our final climb. I had a moment to reflect on our visit so far.
Soon after our arrival, we had been introduced to Father Justin, an American monk who is the librarian of the monastery. He offered to give us a private tour of the library.
So that morning we found ourselves in the bank-vault-like depository, divided into upper and lower levels, the lower for ancient manuscripts and the upper for later books. The manuscripts are stored flat in individual compartments in larger cabinets. In the future, each book will be kept in a metal container that will fit into these compartments. The dry Sinai air has provided very efficient climate control through the centuries.
Why are the books stored flat? Father Justin explained that Byzantine books were bound using endbands that protruded from the top and bottom of the book’s spine. So standing the books on end would not only be awkward, but over the years the wear would compromise the integrity of the binding.
Then we examined three books from the collection from different time periods, the most engaging of which was a ca. 12th century Byzantine manuscript of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, an ascetic work by St. John Climacus, a seventh-century abbot of the monastery. Completely intact illuminations illustrated the theme of each chapter.
Meanwhile, more serious research was going on at other tables by scholars from Greece and Russia, studying techniques of Byzantine bookbinding.
Our next stop was the Sacristy, really a museum, where, immediately upon entering, we found ourselves face to face with icons I had seen so many decades before in National Geographic, some dating from as early as the 6th century. Further along were rooms displaying sacred vessels, liturgical vestments, processional crosses, and other items, many donated over the centuries by Byzantine and later European royalty. Finally came a room devoted to some of the monastery’s most noteworthy manuscripts and printed books, most notably a few pages of the famous Codex Sinaiticus, a copy of the Bible dating to the middle of the fourth century.
Having caught our breath, we began what we hoped was the home stretch to the summit. Shortly, we encountered a group making their way down. One of them reassured us, “You’re almost there—only another hour to go.” His smile and the sight of the roof of a building not far above betrayed his tease.
Five more minutes, and the stone blocks transitioned to a concrete path leading alongside the Greek Orthodox chapel, and we emerged onto the summit, capped by a concrete platform divided into several levels containing the chapel and, catty-corner to it, a mosque.
Mars-like terrain spread out in dull red-granite waves to the light haze that covered the horizon, punctuated in the middle distance by Mount St. Katherine, higher than Mt. Sinai by 1128 feet. “We can take you up there, but it takes all day,” Ahmed said.
Far, far below was the now-Lilliputian Bedouin village we had seen on the way up. “My two daughters go to the school in that village, even though we live in another village that you can’t see from here. But come look at this.” He led us over to a cleft in the rock next to the chapel. “This is where Moses hid while God passed by,” Ahmed said as he crawled into the cavity to show us the fit. He then brought us down narrow stairs beside the mosque to show us the cave where tradition says Moses stayed during his 40-day sojourn.
After a half hour and plenty of selfies, a practice I abhor, but this time could not resist, we picked our way back down the steps to Elijah’s Basin. There would be no camel ride down. The camels have difficulty carrying burdens downhill, so they go home another way.
We started the two-and-a-half-mile path down, stopping at a hut selling a selection of rocks. Selling rocks on rock-rich Mount Sinai seemed at first an occasion for a joke, but the mountain is home to a unique type of rock that has tree-like patterns in it that run through each piece.
The walk gave us more opportunity to talk with Ahmed, a member of the Jabaliyya Bedouin tribe. The Jaballiya are descendants of soldiers who were moved to Sinai in the sixth century to guard and work for the monastery and over the years had converted to Islam. We were impressed by the loyalty that he voiced towards the monastery and, as transpired in later conversations with the monks, the high regard and trust the monks have for them.
The late-afternoon sun now cast a jagged gray-tan shadow across the mountains opposite us. As we rounded one of the hairpin turns, we were met by a line of five camels bearing a group of Asian men and women, each wearing a neon-green vest. Looking down the mountain, we saw about 20 more camels in groups of five to eight making their way up the switchback trail. I was immediately transported in my mind centuries back to the arid mountains of Central Asia. Was this a caravan making its way through desert mountain passes carrying–what? Tea, spices, silk?
And then I realized that I had fulfilled my dream. I had returned and climbed Mt. Sinai. I had become part of this ancient narrative of pilgrims and seekers and scholars wending their way to this hallowed place, a place made more so by the faith and reverence of those who had come before, and who come to this day.