A while ago, I told my mother that I’m going to St. Catherine – I meant the town – with friends. She opposed the idea so fiercely and, like a typical Egyptian mother, said things like, “You'll fall off the mountain like all the others” and similar overly pessimistic dark notes. To evade further aggression, I put the matter aside for a while. Yet, whenever I read or knew about someone who’s traveled and climbed a mountain, my excitement skyrocketed. Mind you, I’m the epitome of an adamant Aquarius so I resolved to not only visit St. Catherine but also climb its famed mountain: Mount Moses, or Mount Sinai. After several attempts to convince my parents, they finally came around when I pointed out my work in photography. At the time, I was really disappointed as I read many Facebook posts that trashed mountain climbers and called into doubt the hype around straining yourself for nothing. Apparently, we are a people who revel at giving terrible feedback on things before giving them a try.One time, a friend of mine posted this on Facebook: “Why would you tax yourselves just to watch the sunrise from atop? Ever heard of balconies before?” I couldn’t comment. I felt that the only way to prove that statement wrong or at least have a comeback was to try out the experience myself. Since none of the anti-mountain climbing people have ever stood on a mountain-top, they have every right to say whatever the hell they want. Like they say, “Foreigners are blind even if they have their sight”, so we can excuse our blind friends.
I had no experience whatsoever with mountain climbing. I didn’t even play any sports, save for the occasional Corniche run. So, as you can expect, it was so physically taxing on my limp body. It took me around four or five hours to reach the top, but as soon as I did, I looked for a spot to warm myself while watching the sunrise. I clutched onto a supposedly hot drink that quickly gave away all its heat to my frozen hands. I got my camera set and ready to shoot, but, for reasons that I’ll explain below, I didn’t get to capture what I wanted.
I did the same trip again the following year, but that time I was more physically ready to take on the brutal exercise. I worked out and found myself charged with excitement and the sense of adventure, like I was Omar Samra himself. I also got better at getting a hassle-free parental approval: I told my parents that I was going for work -– a white lie, as some of my co-workers were with me on that trip.Unless you’re physically ready, you can ride one of the Bedouins’ camels to get to the top. I personally embraced the spirit of adventure and climbed all the way on foot. Remember to pack some light food and energy-packed snacks like chocolate and dates to fuel your body, but try not to drink too much water. Believe me, you don’t want to use any of the five-star restrooms up there. There are a number of rest stops where you can warm yourself up with some hot beverages, which, again, you shouldn’t drink too many cups of for the same reason.
You’ll need a flashlight because moonlight isn’t enough to light your way. Plug your earphones in and, if the sky is clear and silence reigns, you could really get lost in Om Kalthoum’s voice as she sings, “the night, its sky, its stars, its moon, its insomnia, and you and me, my darling.” That’s not to say you should get too lost in the moment; focus on the climb to reach the top before sunrise. You don’t want to miss possibly one of the most beautiful scenes you could ever lay your eyes on.
Finally reached the top? Congratulations! You’ll find blankets and many blanket-clad figures sleeping on the ground. When you feel rested after the ascension, you’ll be one of them, too, especially if you’re prone to getting cold. As a white light starts filtering through the serene sky, which slowly turns yellow as the sun goes up, you’ll find yourself looking around you in awe, forgetting all about the tiresome climb. I, for one, was pretty happy with the whole achievement and couldn’t quite wrap my head around the beauty before my eyes. I actually did climb a mountain!
I think my reply to those who doubt and make fun of “mountain climbing for the sake of watching the sunrise” is now in order. To be honest, I wasn’t just doing it for the sunrise. There’s a lot more that you feast your eyes on over Jebel Musa’s top: the most scenic color transformation in the sky paints the other four or more mountains – ElSefsafa, ElSana’a, St. Catherine, and Ahmar – in marvelous colors. That’s not all: when the sun comes out and you’re on the way down, you get to see what you couldn’t make out in the darkness the previous night: religious sites amidst the mountains, St. Catherine’s monastery, and the bedouins’ houses tucked inside the mountain folds.The actual climb didn’t exactly end for me at the top. All the way down, I kept meeting people from different cultures. Fact: So many non-Egyptians come from all over the world to enjoy what some Egyptians think is a pointless feat.
When I went all the way down, I noticed the hordes of people lining up before the restrooms and others on the mission to find something to eat. The largest crowd was around St. Catherine’s monastery, considered the oldest in the world. I can’t even begin to talk about its long history, but suffice it to say that many tourists come to pay it a visit. There’s even a visitors’ hostel and a historic tower. Bedouins living nearby ensure that the monastery is well maintained.
The monastery is a work of art and a historical gem. It is host to the tagally church, which has a library full of loads of Greek and Roman manuscripts and wall paintings dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. The library is said to be the second-largest manuscript library after the Vatican.
Right in front of the church, there is a humble 11th-century Fatimid-era mosque called “The Monastery’s Mosque” as it was built to protect the monastery from attacks. The place is also famous for its sacred ‘Ancient Tree’, a centerpiece that Christian and Jewish visitors flock to see for two reasons: first, it’s said to have been planted where Moses saw God, as the Quranic story says; and the tree’s type itself is rare and unique to the St. Catherine region.
The Ancient Tree
Stories never end and, every time you travel, you see the small world you live in becoming even smaller. There’s such a vast world beyond the tiny reality that we know; we just need to travel and experience it.