The most recent adventure around here has been hiking up Mount Sinai with my Welsh companion Matt.
We went with a tour group leaving from our hostel. The cost for going was $15 – that included round-trip transportation, a guide, and admission costs (everything, as we found out, but the fees for using the bathroom).
Our trip started at 11pm last night. The green taxi below picked us up. The Japanese fellow already onboard is one of my bunkmates and was quite sleepy. In preparation for climbing the mountain, he had drunk many bottles of beer. Why? I don’t know.
So we were taken by taxi to a mini-bus shuttle (think 15-passenger van) and off we headed across the Sinai Peninsula to St. Catherine’s monastery.
The drive took about three hours, including several lengthy stops at security checkpoints.
Around 2am we arrived and started the trek up the mountain, along with about 100 other tourists. That is probably only a fraction of the tourists who usually make the trek, but if solitude was any type of goal, 100 is still too many.
Matt and I were assigned a local guide and put into a small group of eight. Represented among us were nationalities from USA, Canada, Taiwan, Japan, German, and Wales. Later, an older Dutch man joined our group after his group left him in the dust. He wasn’t with us long though as we soon left him in the dust as well. Poor guy.
The trek up to the peak took our group two hours. The elevation is 7,500 feet. Not super high, but I saw snow up there, and it was cold. I was wearing six layers… far cry from earlier in the day when Matt and I had been comfortably snorkeling in the Red Sea.
From the moment we arrived at the base of the mountain we were faced with shameless commercialization. I wasn’t out of the car five seconds before wares were being hawked in my face.
I discovered the big thing Bedouins try selling at Mount Sinai is a camel ride to the top. About every ten steps we were pestered by yet another Bedouin standing by his camel asking if we would care for a ride? They would strategically place themselves at the top of every difficult stretch. There were enough camels amassed on the mountain to easily transport a small army.
I was constantly barraged with yet ever more solicitations: “Sure you don’t want a camel ride now?” And their sales tactics were on the shameless side… our guide practically raced up the mountain; I’m convinced he was purposely trying to wear us out such that we would purchase a camel ride. Two hours is a long time to hike straight up the side of a mountain at breakneck speed! We did take several breaks, and at each break they tried selling us more stuff. As it turned out, there was no big rush to reach the top as we arrived a full hour and a half before sunrise.
Here are some tourists availing themselves of the camel riding service on the way down:
I didn’t ride a camel. I don’t think Moses rode a camel. But the prices were right. I was offered a ride for as little as five dollars! Or if I only wanted my picture on one, as little as one dollar.
They tried selling tea to me all the way up too (as well as Snickers bars), but I held out until the top. It was cold up there, and a hot drink hit the spot, though the price tag was gouging. Luckily I’d brought my own Snickers bar. A bad taste was left in my mouth though after they made a stink about how one in our group hadn’t paid for their tea – I volunteered to be the sacrificial lamb who paid twice, covering the transgressions of the Judas and silencing the murmurings of the Bedouins.
The moon was full as we walked up the steep mountain. The desert was bright and I felt like I was living Arabian nights. The terrain was just exactly like the Wichita Mountains. I was expecting one single mountain rising from the valley floor, but nothing further could be true. Mount Sinai (at least the Mount Sinai I climbed) is only one in a series of rugged peaks surrounded by canyons, gulches, and steep, rocky terrain.
So like I mentioned already, our guide rushed up to beat the band. We passed a number of other slow-poke groups as well as constantly scuttling around camels. I got bumped by a camel once or twice as they take up more than their fair share of the trail. Getting stuck behind a camel is like getting stuck behind a semi-trailer on the highway. You’ve constantly trying to peer around their backside to see if there’s room to scamper past.
Up close, camels are taller than I remembered. Of course, never having seen a camel up close, my memory isn’t that good. These camels stood much much taller than me, and were intimidating. Especially when they nearly ran me over. Their legs are long and gangly, while their hooves resemble soft massive pads. Unlike a horse, their walking gait follows a lilting back and forth motion as they lift up both feet on each side at the same time, followed by their two feet on the other side.
There is a nice chapel at the top. Thankfully, it’s closed to the public. I’ve seen too many chapels.
From up there, we shivered an hour waiting for sunrise. Or at least, some of us watched the sunrise. Others, after having scaled the summit in the dark, turned around and headed straight back down in the dark! They missed the glorious breaking of dawn! Oh, the capriciousness of some.
Sunrise was beautiful.
For the record, here are Matt and I on top:
The emphasis on the Biblical importance of Mount Sinai by our guide was… how shall I put this? negligible? non-existent?
Yet what should I have expected? I’m in Egypt, and this is Mount Sinai I’m visiting. The very Mount Sinai that was the Israelites first stop out of Egypt-town as they wished good riddance to Pharaoh and his minions.
But regarding the educational aspect of the tour. Our Bedouin guide knew absolutely nothing about Mount Sinai except how to race up it like a Billy goat. And that his family had lived as nomads in the area for five hundred years. Before making a living off out-of-shape tourists needing a Snickers bar and camel lift, I have no idea what his family did to survive in this desolate wasteland.
Among other things our guide didn’t know, the age of St. Catherine’s was one of them. This was the first question I posed, and he just shrugged his shoulders and told me it was old. Turns out he was right, I could see as much.
At the top, wheezing and sputtering, we had lots of time to kill (on account of our group having arrived in such record time). Matt began debating whether it was appropriate to sneak a smoke? I told him it wouldn’t be the first time fire had rested on this mountain, and that it would probably be OK. He agreed and lit up.
I used the time to read in the Bible about the giving of the 10 Commandments by God to Moses. Matt wanted to know if smoking was a sin? I assured him it wasn’t. At lesat, it wasn’t one of the Big Ten. Sin aside, he already knows my opinion about the health risks.
The story of Mount Sinai doesn’t begin with the 10 Commandments, but with God meeting with Moses in a burning bush that didn’t burn up. In an area devoid of firewood, I could see how this type of bush would be a serious boon to the local economy.
“Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.
There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, ‘I will go over and see this strange sight-why the bush does not burn up.’” (Exodus 3:1-2)
Amazingly, they still have that same bush down in the monastery. Lucky for the monkish business, it never burnt up and is on display to this day.
In the passage above, I find it interesting Mount Sinai is called the “Mountain of God.” It sure is a barren mountain. And this is where God met Moses in the bush, and where God later led the Israelites to receive the Law. I had the thought that God often meets us in the barren places, where he has our attention and only He gets the glory.
But continuing with the story… as you remember, Moses resisted his calling, but God promised Moses a sign:
And God said, "I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain. (Exodus 3:11-12)
Fast forward to the Israelites leaving Egypt. As promised by God, they returned to this very mountain to worship God.
Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said,
"This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the LORD had commanded him to speak.
The people all responded together, "We will do everything the LORD has said." (Exodus 19)
There seems to be a close link between obedience and worship. The Israelites worshipped the Lord that day through pledging their obedience. Unfortunately, not too much later they were worshipping a golden calf instead.
Probably a lesson is in here somewhere. Maybe one lesson is to keep our eyes on God because it’s easy to worship for awhile and pledge our obedience, but it requires sobriety and steadfastness to follow God for the long-haul.
As I climbed up the mountain, I of course had to think about how there was a time when God had said anyone who touched this mountain would die (man or beast). And now here I was, not only touching the mountain, but merrily skipping right up to the tippy top!
Fortunately, we are under a New Covenant now. The writer of Hebrews paints a striking picture of the contrasts between the terror of the Old Covenant, represented by Mount Sinai, with the joy of the New Covenant, sealed in Christ Jesus.
I’ll end this post with these words and sober warning from Hebrews:
You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: "If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned."
The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, "I am trembling with fear."
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?
At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens." (Hebrew 12)