an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

Revelation at Dawn Atop Mt. Sinai: Coffee, Tea, Mattresses... Moses?

The Egyptian tour guide, Ahkmed – who had specialized in Russian at the University of Alexandria in order to become a tour guide, spoke to our half-full bus of Russians, and one American, who were determined enough to see Mt. Sinai (Moses’ Mountain) that they would leave the hotel at 10:30 at night, be driven for three hours and then have a three-hour hike by “flashlight” (British: “torch”) in the dark to the 7,500 foot top of “the Holy Peak” – said that those who watched sunrise from there...have their sins washed away. (Though it only rains in this very dry, barren place in January, though then strongly.) Such ideas – to the real diminishment of the meaning of “pilgrimage” and “purification” – are treated like quaint, distant beliefs in our disbelieving time.

Traveling through the mid-night, the terrain of the southern Sinai Peninsula was only visible as dark shadows in the light of the bus and stars. There were only some two areas of “civilization’s” lights: military/police check points. No towns; no villages; no street signs; no lights.

Arriving, but before our climb – already armed against the dark with “flashlight” – at one of Christianity’s oldest and most important monasteries: St. Catherine’s, which even Napoleon put under his protection, we rested, amidst other groups of tourists from varied lands and languages, for some half-hour in a special cafe open for the climbers. Then we began the ascent...we had to reach the top about a half-hour before dawn...

Photo by Stephen Lapeyrouse

Hardly had we walked past the tall walls of the Monastery in the night, when we heard many voices coming from the sides of the sand and rock path, from men we soon discerned to be turbaned, sitting amidst hundreds of “mounds” which could gradually be seen to be camels. For some 30 Egyptian pounds you could ride – almost to the very top – on a “verblud”, “kamel”, and so on, offered in a few languages.

The hike was underway, and our young, novice tourist guide seemed to imagine it was a race... I am in fairly good condition physically, but I soon decided to saunter (this was my vacation time) leisurely along at my own pace to the top. Let my guide, and those who wish to rush with him, take their own pace to the top. When I arrived at the first rustic (though the word seems misapplied to this dry) Bedouin hut, selling drinks and snacks under an electric light, I found my group already moving on again after their short rest. Like the time in my life in which I had first heard of “Mt. Sinai”, I recalled the tale (at least a TV cartoon) of the tortoise and the hare. Though I didn’t really much like the image and idea, I was definitely walking the walk of the “tortoise”.

This was not a smooth and easy tourist climb – though there was a breeze from time to time. The path was often very populated by jagged, unsteady rocks, large and small – stumbling, stumping, or even just falling down (which happened to a few, as some bloody, though minor, injuries showed) was easy to do, and not casual to avoid. Walking required focus, concentration. The rocks were mostly pieces of red granite. No one I saw rented a camel to the (near) top of “Moses Mountain”; though there were “camel-drivers” strategically positioned along the long, winding, climbing way, to pick up any business by hikers who had come to reconsider how they ascended. Being in a “tortoise” position, they thought I would soon want or need a lift. I had to almost angrily tell one camel-driver – to quit asking me; “no problem”, he finally said.

After about ninety minutes ascending, at perhaps the third rest stop, I passed my group of “hares”, taking tea on the blanket-covered benches of that Bedouin inn; I just kept on going at my steady pace, alone in the night, sometimes passing, sometimes being passed by, a walking flashlight. The higher up I got, the stronger, and cooler, I found the wind to be.

At about the fifth “rest inn”, where I did stop for some hot chocolate (it was quite cold up there!) just before the final ascent up some “800 ‘steps’” (impassable at night to or by camel) I left just as the “hares” arrived. The “tortoise” awaited them on the top – though we didn’t find each other again in the dark, and crowd, till after daybreak.

The Mountain of Moses...ancient Biblical history...the “Holy Peak”; going to the top to watch the sunrise...sins washed away...pilgrimage...

I did not expect any great revelation there; but I had planned to quietly and thoughtfully watch the sunrise on one of the most important, famous, even mythical, places in the history of not only “Western” humanity.

Tourists vs. Pilgrims: “Moses had wasted his time!”

Some religious pilgrims of the East, travel hundreds of miles like “inch-worms”, laying their bodies down, standing, laying down forward again, standing,...for days, and even months en route to holy places. At the top of Mt. Sinai – which I had read and heard about since childhood “in Church” – I found when I arrived a modest number of people (the “hares” were still hurrying up) speaking a far from modest variety of languages. What I had not at all expected to find, was: a lit, if rugged, Bedouin inn, selling, as had the others: coffee, tea, Coca-Cola, Fanta, Snickers, Mars, granola bars, etc., in addition to the needed water!; and the very strong and cold wind on the mountain top.

Photo by Stephen Lapeyrouse

The Bedouin sellers called out, more or less comprehensibly, in a variety of languages (Russian, English, Italian, French, German, et al.): “coffee, tea, chocolate, blankets, mattresses”. I had been forewarned it would be “cool”, and had borrowed a jacket at the hotel. But this was cold, though it was May 12.

One needed to try to find a place, a “cut” in the granite rocks, to shield oneself from the strong, blowing cold wind. Flashlights helped; but some of the drops around the top, that one could hardly see well at night, turned out by daylight to be thousands of feet straight down!

“How much?”, I asked, in which language I can’t remember. (Tired; sleepless; cold, and getting colder; 5:00 am.)

“This blanket...five fund [Egyptian pounds, about 5 = $1]...this one: ten...more warm blanket ten fund”.

I later regretted economizing; though I found a great “cut in the rock”, facing the East, and blocking most of the wind. Afraid of heights...had I found it in the daylight, rather than at night by flashlight, I might well not have seated myself there at all! So high; and near the edge…

I had noted the very dim glow of the coming dawn before many others, and in my “great spot” tried to snuggle into the blanket to stay warm, and meditatively watch the dawn on Mt. Sinai. I, stupidly – as I slowly, incredulously and simmeringly came to realize – had assumed that others had the same idea and attitude to watching the sunrise on the “Holy Peak”. Covered as I was by a gray blanket amidst the rocks, I recognized as I heard voices approaching that I had to be sure that others climbing on the rocks did not step on me. Soon, by chance, two English-speaking women (by accent: American) approached, and, to my selfish irritation, sat in the same rock cut as I. They could see nothing more of me than a blanket covering a nameless, sexless, nation-less, silent body...a shade in the dark. They immediately began discussing whether to eat their granola bars now or later. I assumed, wrongly, that this topic, and type of topic, was temporary, and would soon be ended, by the light of the dawn which was increasing,...this was Mt. Sinai,...the Holy Mountain where, at least so it was said, “watching the sunrise would wash away one’s sins”... Though the light grew brighter, they did not grow quieter, nor more circumspect. Still discussing granola bars, and the cold rock (“please tuck my blanket in behind my neck more”),’s plans, tomorrow’s plans, yesterday’s plans,...pssst went the soda can top. Naive me: I kept believing – as the dark grew lighter – that this amazing array, none related to the mountain or the dawning, of trivial topics would soon cease....

After some fifteen minutes of such nonstop trivia – and, in my unpopular view, unconsciousness and disrespect to the time and place, by these and the lots of other tourists now sitting and clambering in the rocks – I, one “gray blanket in the rocks”, really almost said to them the frustrated formulation that came to me: “Moses had wasted his time.”

I moved to another now discernible rock cut, further forward, and really alone...except for the many, hardly-avoidable human voices jabbering in a great variety of languages behind me. These two women were far from alone in their, to me, dubious “presence” on the Holy Peak, to which sincere “pilgrims”, including the Prophet Elijah, had for centuries journeyed: German, Russian, French, American, various northern and eastern European languages, Japanese, Hebrew and many others from around the world were to be heard chatting indifferently. (I would guess there were some twenty languages on Mt. Sinai that morning.)

This multilingual chat – three of which I understood, from about seven which I recognized in my immediate vicinity – in the lightening darkness behind me, sounded more like a crowded metropolitan cafe than any “Holy Peak”. I tried as well as I could to ignore with my ears what I gladly could not see with my eyes – it turned out that by mere chance, and necessity, in the darkness I had found perhaps the best, most forward “seat” on this part of the mountain from which to see the dawn and sunrise.

Mount Sinai, May 13, 2002
Mount Sinai, May 13, 2002

Some people joked; others just chattered about their various activities while traveling; others complained regularly of the uncomfortableness of the rocks, the temperature, or the wind. A common Russian girl, perhaps 18 years of age, who spoke with almost no attention to how loud it might be to those around her, complained of her blanket, trying to get seated, etc. I heard her in Russian say something like “What’s taking the sun so long to rise?” (By this time it was fully dawn, but the “ball” of the sun could not yet be seen.) A young man – in his late 20’s I’d guess by his voice – speaking English with a German accent, bragged loudly of the “500 photos of temples” he had taken, adding that he was going to Viet Nam, “because it was less ‘touristic’”. Right, I thought. From time to time the Egyptian Bedouin “salesmen” called out “tea, coffee, blankets, mattresses”. One could almost think.

The mountain scenery – truly what is commonly called “dramatic” – became more and more visible, and what I had already predicted to myself happened: when the whole sun was visible through the gray haze, someone called out “hurrah”. It was the young Russian girl.

I had been astonished by the whole dawning event. Contrary to my expectations, the people who had come to Mt. Sinai – the vocal majority I should say – had no interest, intent or inclination to be quiet, or thoughtful. For them “dawn” seemed to have been a sort of slow, overlong, tedious prelude to “the event”: the sunrise. People had talked in their various languages of the minutes till the sun would actually rise. And after it rose, they rose,...and started to walk back down the mountain. Thank God, I thought, as the crowd – who had most all (except for a few camel riders) walked three hours by “flashlight” in the night up to this sunrise – quickly began their descent. They had had, I suppose now, their “experience”. Soon, of the some perhaps 200 people on the peak, only a few remained here and there standing, sitting. Finally – quiet. Time to look, and reflect.

Photo by Stephen Lapeyrouse

It was truly – as pictures can indicate – an “austere”, “forbidding”, powerful mountain scene surrounding Mt. Sinai on which the Sun’s light now shown. Rugged. Not a tree in sight, except the Lebanese Cedars at a Bedouin camp nearby in a valley to the East. I saw to my surprise several black spots moving amidst the huge boulders and rocks far below; on closer attention, I saw that they were goats, foraging in the rocks, far below for scrubs, with two robed shepherds ambling nearby. The colors of the scene were earth hues of red, tan, grey. Dry. The mountains around were so still, stark, yet dynamic that they seemed like a sort of loud, screaming silence.

I myself frankly doubted – as since presumably only Moses and God knew the exact location where he had received the Tablet of the Ten Commandments, amidst all the mountain peaks in the area – whether this was the peak. With no “steps” it would have been a much more difficult place to reach; but as Moses had already seen God nearby in the famous “(Non-)Burning Bush”, he was, surely more serious than the multinational mass tourists who – though it was during an uncommon alignment of the planets, and the night of the “new moon” as well – came on the night of May 12/13, 2002 to Mt Sinai.

I had some quiet time on Mt. Sinai, after the crowd had begun to descend, before I too needed to go down again towards the Monastery and bus. After a quick, limited tour of St. Catherine’s, which focused especially on the 6th century Orthodox Church (with Russian priests escorting us), the return trip to the hotel began in the hot, mid-afternoon. But on the bus trip back to the young resort town of Sharm-el-Sheik, while the rest of the “pilgrims” slept as it drove through what a book on St. Catherine’s well describes as a “moonscape of granite rocks”, with Bedouin tents, camels and goats in unexpectable places visible from the road amidst the barren rocks, mountains and sand, I had to reflect on the depressingly clear “revelation” about humanity – multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-etc... – in the dawn atop Mt. Sinai.

First published in English, #30, August 2002, p. 1-14.