I can’t think of too many more rewarding things I’ve done than climbing Mount Sinai in Egypt. It was beyond the experience I had expected and hoped it to be. It wasn’t just a spiritual or religious experience like many believe it to be. Both being at the summit of the mountain where Moses was said to have received the Ten Commandments and the stunning landscape were overwhelming.
I booked a tour to the UNESCO World Heritage site through my hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh the day before and was picked up shortly after 11pm. From there, it was a long and bumpy two hour ride in an uncomfortable minivan to the town of Saint Catherine. We made a short stop at a gift shop for a bathroom break and continued to the base of the mountain.
It was pitch black when we met our tour guide, a Bedouin local who was to lead us to the summit of the mountain, 2,285m. We had a group of 16. They were mostly Russian tourists and an extremely rude and aggressive Belgian guy. The guide explained that it would take a few hours walk up the Camel Trail, an easy path to the top. At the end, we would have to walk up a steeper, more difficult path. It was possible to take a camel up to the end of the Camel Trail for an extra fee.
We started our climb at 2am. It was the middle of winter so I had several layers of clothes on and a flashlight to light my way. At the base of the mountain it was still relatively warm so I shed a few layers and put them back on as it got colder on my way up. We stuck together as a group and made stops every 15 to 20 minutes to check on everyone in the group. Unfortunately, a few of the Russian women couldn’t make it and were taken back down via camel. I felt terrible for them.
At the end of the Camel Trail we stopped for tea. The rest of the way up was going to be a dangerous walk up a very icy path that had been smoothed over by thousands of pilgrims. It was steep and slippery. Bedouin guides strategically placed themselves on different sections of the path to lift people up if they needed a hand.
With the amount of people walking up the mountain, just one person slipping could be extremely deadly for others below. Nobody had the right kind of equipment or shoes to be climbing up such a slipper path – except for the Belgian guy. He was shouting and pushing people out of his way as he made it up the path. I along with a few others yelled at him to tell him he was making it unsafe, but he didn’t listen and continued to act like an idiot.
Just before 5am we stopped at a hut for some hot tea and a short rest. It was blisteringly cold. I borrowed a couple blankets and took a quick nap. At 5:30am we were rushed out of the tent and led up another path. It was only 20 minutes to the summit, but up another dangerously icy path. Thankfully, there were less people this time. Many had decided not to go on.
At the very top of Mount Sinai, we sat at the edge of a cliff with a straight vertical drop down to the bottom. As we waited patiently for the sun to rise, one of the Bedouin guides told us how every year a few tourists commit suicide by jumping off the same ledge. They believe they will be rewarded by killing themselves in a place so close to God.
The eagerly awaited sunrise was hands down the most incredible sunrise I have ever witnessed. As the sun peeked up over the horizon, the colors of the sky and mountains changed dramatically.
The sun warmly lit a Greek Orthodox church built in 1934 on top of the ruins of a 16th century church. The church is built over the rocks said to be used as the source for the Tablets of Stone, the stones used to inscribe the Ten Commandments. It’s closed to the public.
Right next to the church is a mosque which is still used by local Muslims to pray. Mount Sinai is holy to all three Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. However, there is no place of worship for Jews on Mount Sinai.
After about an hour at the summit, it was time to head back down the dangerously icy path. I managed not to slip once on the way up, but I slipped twice on the way down. I was lucky not to be seriously hurt!
At the bottom of the dangerous path, everyone was given a choice of how to make it back down to the base of the mountain – the original Camel Trail or the Way of the Steps, an ancient stairway used by monks at Saint Catherine’s Monastery to reach the summit. The trail is 3,750 steps from the monastery.
I decided to take the Way of the Steps, which was an excellent decision. There were almost no tourists along the way. I had the whole trail to myself most of the time, except for a few who I passed on the way down.
The scenery was nothing like I had ever imagined. I found a small lake with crystal clear waters. It was so calm the reflection of the mountain above it was a perfect mirror image. The lake was formed by a dam built by the Byzantines in order to control flooding at the monastery below.
Further along the path there were stone archways and an Orthodox chapel.
About halfway down the path, I was able to spot the walled Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the bottom. The rest of the way down, I didn’t find anything in particular except views of the monastery, which I would explore once I reached the bottom.
As I stated in the beginning of this entry, the experience was quite spiritual. The only problem I had was that it was overcrowded at the beginning of the tour. There were so many people on the path up to the summit of Mount Sinai that at times it was dangerous in the pitch black darkness of night.
There are two tours available, one that leaves the night before to climb Mount Sinai and another one that leaves in the morning to visit the monastery only. If you’re in decent physical shape and want to get the full experience, it’s extremely well worth it to do the overnight tour. You won’t regret it.