Monday, August 10, 2009

Mount Sinai and St Catherine's

The Sinai Peninsula is a demilitarised zone by international treaty - part of the deal which secured the return of this triangular piece of land from Israel to Egypt and relative peace between the two countries. A major moment in the history of the region, regardless of the hostilities and tensions that remain. For this reason it was not troops who stopped us to say hello at various points as we were carted across the desert in the middle of the night, but a collection of police officers. Amongst these you apparently have secret service who call the shots. Whether tourist police or some other denomination, in general these guys were far from polite.

The repeated bone of contention was the Israeli nationality of one of my fellow travellers. As I was to later find out, she was anything but a hard-line nationalist Israeli, but she understandably would not back down with her eyes when the check-point police acted towards her with barely shielded disdain. Thanks to a Brit who spoke some Arabic, I caught a glimpse of the "uniform" attitude towards us – “five Americans and one Israeli”, even though we had shown passports from Canada, the UK and other European nations. Oh well, after a customary gap where the guy spoke to his superiors about the Israeli we were waived on and caught a few more disparate winks.

To think only a few years ago the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba was covered in camps of Israeli youth having fun. Now they are largely deserted. Bombs.

The Mountain

At the dry core of the range of mountains that makes up the spine of the peninsular, Mount Sinai rises to 2,285m. I cannot be bothered to go into the lengthy debate as to whether it is the very same mountain to that on which Moses is meant to have received the ten commandments, suffice to say that for many a century many people have thought that it is, which adds some resonance to the steady climb up its hard rock paths.

Amongst many others, we were joined on our saunter by numerous religious ladies of Russian Orthodox persuasion. This indicates that while the climb takes a few hours, it is little more than a walk. Slow steady steps in the darkness past camels waiting for over-weight North Americans, boulders and the occasional hut selling Snickers. Only towards the end did the climb significantly steepen, winding back and forth up the far side of the mountain.
As the pre-dawn showed itself, my father, an English lad and myself were positioned atop a rocky outcrop below the Orthodox church which adorns the peak. A lovely moment. As the first blues came over the horizon, I caught sight of a number of other precarious outcrops below, which were similarly occupied by people staring out over the mountains or curled up in sleeping bags.
Eventually, the blues gave way to yellows creeping over and into the hills, casting giant shadows and showing off the different colours and ruffling shapes of the surrounding mountains. An Orthodox ceremony started behind and the place took on a very special mood.
It was certainly worth making the climb. A large slapping of added bonus was that I was sharing such a moment with my father.
As we fuelled up with snacks and prepared for the trek down, I think we both enjoyed the intriguing sight of a take-your-breath away ballet dancer whom we had climbed up with, pulling choreographed poses on the cliff edge for some stunning pictures. An unlikely to be repeated composition. She was only upstaged by the backdrop.

The Monastery
For me and certainly my father, the main reason for coming here was not the mountain for all its beauty and mild yet refreshing challenge, but what lay at its base. Built by Justinian in the sixth century, it is according to one line of thought the oldest working monastery in the world. From where the steep mountain sides plant into the desert earth, mighty early Byzantine walls rise up. Along with the harsh climate and, vitally, the protection of many rulers of the region (most notably Muslim), these have protected the inhabitants and treasures of the monastery for nearly 1500 years. A remarkable place. We entered with the mass of others who had walked down from the summit. There was a real hustle-bustle as people raced around with their cameras and worship beads. After walking through the central church, where the understandably impatient Orthodox priests were on a non-stop mission to make the passers-by not spoil the peace, we came to the Burning Bush. It did not look like much, but it is held out as that of Exodus fame – God himself is supposed to have showed himself to Moses through it. I have to admit, it looked a bit of a young sprightly thing for such ancient roots. In fact it looked a lot like something I cleared from my mother’s garden a few years back. Yet despite its appearance it was for most the main draw and was constantly “pruned” by every tourist, nun and their mum taking a nip out of it.
During a wander to get away from the crowds, I found something far more impressive. For just a few Egyptian Pounds you gain entry into the an exhibit showing some of the treasures of the monastery, and quite some treasures to, in a place which holds the most impressive collection of early Orthodox icons in the world.

Just a couple of months beforehand I read a fascinating book on Byzantine history (Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin) and here, just around the first corner, the first thing that caught my eyes was an icon highlighted in that book.
The Saviour. I’m not sure how well it will work with your finger and this miniature, but on the original, the slightly peculiar and haunting look of the icon is enlightened by covering up one side of Christ’s face and then the other. A duality comes clear. A striking image coming across sixteen centuries. Look for yourself.

By the time we left the museum, the monastery had largely emptied. We were able to walk back through the church and the small other parts of the monastery open to the public in quiet (understandably most of it is closed off). Monasteries are not meant to be experienced surrounded by noise.
Eventually, out we walked, just before the tour buses rolled in. We met up with those we had trekked up the mountain with. To me, shockingly, a couple of them had not bothered to look in the monastery. For one, it was that they had been there before. For the other, it was that it was Christian so why should they care. People are entitled to their own opinion, but I admit I found this distinctly disappointing, if not in them personally, then certainly as a generalised criticism. Not too often when I travel do I seek confrontation and this was not going to be an example - as already said, people are entitled to their own opinion and, if their opinion does not harm anyone else, then it is simply not worth it.

They're loss. They're ignorance. What a place!
Back across the desert we went. There was more diving to be done!
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