Climbing Mount Sinai

I’m the first to admit that I am NOT a morning person. Last year, when we were in Prague and my husband opened the blinds early one morning, I screamed and clawed at the sunlight streaming in like an angry vampire.

So imagine my disposition when I’m awakened at 1:30 AM to go on a hike. But that was when our wake-up call was so we could climb to the top of Mount Sinai in Egypt to watch the sun rise.

As if getting up in the middle of the night wasn’t bad enough, I was still upset with myself from the day before. We had gone to the Blue Hole outside of Dahab the day before for a snorkeling excursion. I discovered the hard way, as I jumped into the deep, churning water with all the rented snorkeling gear on, that somewhere along the way in my life I had forgotten how to swim and was now terrified of the water. I had a panic attack and had to scramble out, only to spend the rest of the day sitting in the outdoor restaurant drinking beer and cursing my chicken-heartedness.

I’m also scared of heights, but I was determined to climb Mount Sinai, if only to prove to myself that I could accomplish something despite my fears.

So I dragged my sorry butt out of bed, joined the rest of our tour group for a quick breakfast, then boarded the bus from our hotel in St. Catherine’s to the entrance of Mount Sinai.

For those who are unfamiliar of Mount Sinai’s significance, it’s also known in Egyptian Arabic as Gabal Musa, or Moses’ Mountain. In the bible, Mount Sinai was where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. In actuality, there are several mountains (including volcanos) that are considered to be the true “Mount Sinai.” However, Gabal Musa seemed to have been identified as the official site as far back as 100 AD, as evidenced by early Jewish pilgrimages to this location.

Before beginning our hike, first we had to go through security, which took some time as there were dozens of people waiting in line. We were then paired up with a Bedouin guide, which is also mandatory for anyone visiting Mount Sinai.

Needless to say, since it was pitch black when we began our hike, we didn’t take any photos of the ascent. However, we were given a choice of going on foot, or going by camel.

camel at Mount SinaiEveryone in our tour group chose to hike, even though Mount Sinai is 2,285 metres (7,497 ft) high. But we got up at 1:30 AM precisely so we could arrive at the summit for the sun rise; no matter whether we went by foot or by camel. So we chose to enjoy the hike. We also bought flashlights the night before at a roadside stand so we would be well-prepared to hike in the dark.

The mountain has tea houses every few kilometres along the way if you need a hot beverage or just a short break. Even though it is the desert, it cools off a lot at night, so layers are vital for this climb.

Taking the camel path wasn’t too harrowing. But it is difficult to hike in the dark with your head down, watching every step. You have to be careful about stepping on loose rocks or tripping yourself on uneven ground.

There are actually two paths you can take up the mountain. We took the longer, gentler route. But there is also a shorter, steeper route, called the “steps of penitence”. This is due to the 3,750 rocky steps to the top. Pretty sure I’m glad we didn’t take that one.

The route took about two-and-a-half-hours in total to the top. This included some ridiculously huge, uneven stone steps at the very end. But we made it with plenty of time to spare. In fact, it was still dark when we reached the rocky summit. There was just the barest hint of light appearing on the horizon.

Before the sunrise at Mount SinaiThere were probably a hundred or more people at the summit, all different races, languages, religions and cultures. But something incredibly powerful happened with that first sliver of sunlight in the distance. All the excitable early morning chatter ceased. A collective, audible gasp escaped from every single person on that mountain.

slow sunrise over Mount SinaiIt was astounding how something as simple as a sunrise connected all of these people from such different backgrounds and life experiences.

Mount Sinai sunrise

As the sun rose slowly higher, the air started to warm. Luckily we dressed in layers, otherwise the descent with the quickly-rising temperatures would have been brutal.

sun rising higher from Mount Sinai

At the summit there are a few small buildings. There’s a Greek Orthodox chapel, built in 1934 on the ruins of an older church; a small mosque; and an area called “Moses’ cave,” where it’s thought that Moses waited to receive the Ten Commandments.

We remained at the top for a short time, then began our descent. Honestly, going down those big steps was even harder than climbing up! They’re not exactly even, but it helps to see them in the bright light of day.

Descending Mount Sinai

Again we took the camel path down. It’s just an easier trail and seems to also be the most popular for this reason. But regardless of the path, you are rewarded with some spectacular views:

Views from Mount Sinai

Now regardless of religious affiliation or belief system, there is something about Mount Sinai that really is special. I think some of us were hoping we would reach the summit and experience some sort of life-altering epiphany.

Although that didn’t happen, there is something profoundly spiritual and calming about this place. I believe a lot of that feeling came from the shared experience of watching the sunrise with a bunch of strangers. We didn’t need to all speak the same language, or come from the same place to know we were sharing a once-in-a-lifetime event. Many of us nodded and smiled at each other in understanding; some embraced; a few wiped away a tear. It was awesome and beautiful, much like Mount Sinai itself.

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