The muezzin woke us up with the Adhan (The Muslim call to prayer). It was dawn in Jerusalem and we had spent the night in my favorite hotel, The American Colony in East Jerusalem. We rose early to join our group for the ride down to Eilat, in the south of Israel, where we would pick up our transport, a 6-wheeled command car for the journey into the Sinai desert. There were about eight couples and three guides and after brief introductions, we set off into the Sinai. This was 1979, before Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt. Sinai was a fairly safe area to explore.
Our first stop was Nuweiba, on the Red Sea. In those days it was a sleepy beachfront with minimal facilities and the most glorious beach. We camped (meaning, we laid out our sleeping bags) on the beach and watched the sun turn the mountains in Saudi Arabia ochre, crimson, and purple as it set behind us.
The next day we set off for Wadi Feiran, sometimes called “the endless wadi (dry river bed).” At about 80 miles long, it is the largest in Sinai and even though we were in an open but covered command car, it was a long and arduous drive. The temperature was around 110 degrees and the reflected sunlight was draining. We stopped for lunch at one of the few overhangs offering shade. After eating I strolled a little and on looking up saw some graffiti high up on a ridge. Horrified to see desecration in such a pristine place, I climbed up for a closer look. There were about three words, but in a language I couldn’t recognize. It wasn’t Hebrew or Latin or Arabic, so I called down to one of the guides and asked him to look at it. He started to laugh.
“It’s Syriac,” he said. “It’s the script used by the Nabataeans over two thousand years ago.”
Some fellow traveller, over two millennia before me, had left his mark.
A few miles later after setting up camp and eating supper, we heard a strange sound. It was a splash. We all ran up to see a pool of clear water with palm trees all around it. Swimming after a long hot day in the desert was a welcome and entirely unexpected delight.
At the far end of Wadi Feiran, where we had set up camp, is the Sinai’s largest oasis and is believed to be the spot where Moses struck a rock in anger and water poured out so the Hebrews could drink. During our orientation our guides encouraged us to drink large quantities of water throughout the day, for most illnesses in the desert were due to dehydration. They were not wrong; quite a few members of our group (including my wife) were taken ill the next day. After that, they all drank water like crazy. They also told us that the dryness of the desert preserves things for the longest time, so that when we went to the toilet we had to bring matches, so we could burn the toilet paper after use. If we didn’t it would litter the desert for eons to come. Matches aside, the eeriest aspect of relieving oneself was the absolute stillness and quiet of the desert. There were no birds or insects, no wind and no rustling of trees. The loudest sound was your heartbeat. I enjoyed this solitude, but many found it disconcerting.
The following morning we woke up at 3 AM for the long trek up Jebel Musa (Moses Mountain), which we know as Mount Sinai. This is the place where, according to the Old Testament, God gave Moses the 10 Commandments. It was still dark when we reached the summit but very soon the sky began to lighten. As this early morning white light washed over the rocks and slowly illuminated the landscape I felt that there certainly was something mysterious about the place. Perhaps it was the light, or maybe its significance, but as I thought of Moses spending 40 years here I began to understand how religion could have had its genesis in these hills.
We then started our descent towards the Monastery of Santa Katarina, which lies at the bottom of the mountain. Legend holds that Moses encountered the burning bush at this site. The burning bush is a type of local bramble. As no fire was erupting from it as I passed, I was unimpressed.
Entering the Monastery can be tricky, as the monks are fickle, but on this day they granted us admission. The monastery, which is over 1500 years old, has the second largest assemblage of old manuscripts in the world. Inside the church was a massive door covered in a rich dark patina. Even though it was said to be over 1000 years old, it was in beautiful condition. This is testament to the constant low humidity of the desert. We also were allowed to see the Chapel of St. Tryphon, which exhibits the skulls of deceased monks. The monastery also has a wonderful collection of icons, some of which also date back over a thousand years.
From the monastery, we headed east towards the Red Sea. At one point, the trail ended at a wall of earth about 7-8 feet high. For the first time I lost confidence in our guides as they seemed to be amazingly competent and never lost. Thinking that we may have to back up, I was startled when our driver put the vehicle in very low gear and proceeded to climb the wall. The command car had six enormous wheels and they effortlessly eased their way up the embankment and onto level ground. We were now in Dahab, a fishing village consisting of a collection of huts and lean-tos. It is famous for its coral reefs and the “blue hole”—a sinkhole over 300 feet deep. Against the vastness of the desert, the coolness and serenity of the water was a welcome break.
Before we left the desert I once again pondered on the mysteriousness and serenity of the Sinai. If I had wandered these hills for 40 years, thousands of years ago, would I have become religious? Would I have believed in a god…?
From Dahab, we headed north to Eilat, and then to the van that would take us back to Jerusalem.
Our first stop? The wonderfully clean toilets of the King David Hotel.