Within a week of our arrival in the Holy Land, we had a memorable trip to Mount Sinai, which was a round trip of over 1000 miles. We left Stella Maris Monastery at 4.10 a.m. and arrived at St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, at 4.20 p.m., though we did have some nice stops along the way. We passed by Gath, famous for the encounter between David and Goliath.
We had breakfast somewhere around Beersheba, and the desert began shortly after that - and I mean desert! About four hours driving on a good road through pure unrelenting sand, with not a sprig of green in sight, and no life (Photo 183).
We went through the Negev desert first, then the Valley of Zin (not Sin!). After a while, it became mountainous, initially sandy mountains, then pure hard rock. There were some awesome sights, of shapes and colour (Photo 184).
There was one mountainous area called the Crater. It had been under water at some stage in the distant past; then the river dried up. The result is a geologist’s paradise, as the different layers of rock from 200 million years are clearly visible (Photo 185).
We stopped in Ben Gurion’s home village and burial place, a kind of oasis in the desert. He is known as “the father of the nation” for he steered Israel to becoming a State in 1948 (Photo 186).
186 - Tombs of Ben Gurion and his wife.
He told his people: “Make the desert bloom”, and sure enough there is a University there in his home place, for that very purpose. The ibex appeared when we stopped, looking for food. They are lovely gentle deer-like animals, and very tame (Photo 187).
We got to Eilat in mid-morning. It is the last city in Israel, going south. It is more like a European city and a thriving tourist resort, with the Red Sea right alongside. We had a picnic on a patch of grass just off the main street, less than 100 metres from the runway of the international airport! It must be the only airport in the world where the terminal is within walking distance of the city centre – quite amazing! (Photo 188).
188 - Eilat
At the border into Egypt we were one hour getting clearance, first out of Israel, then into Egypt. We ditched our own car there and a Coptic Christian by the appropriate name of Moses became our guide, with Mohammed the driver. Just inside Egypt we were able to see four countries: looking back at Israel, and two miles across the Red Sea at Jordan and Saudi Arabia! (Photo 189).
189 - Red Sea
Our mobile phones were going mad, with the various networks welcoming us! We journeyed alongside the Red Sea for about two hours - it was absolutely beautiful, blue skies and breathtaking scenery. Just outside Eilat, we saw Saladin’s Palace, which is a fortress plonked in the middle of the Red Sea. It is also called Pharaoh’s Island, and even Solomon’s Island, for it is mentioned in the First Book of Kings (Photo 190).
190 - Saladins Palace
By the way, the Red Sea was deep blue, but because of the red limestone in the surrounding mountains, the water sometimes takes on a crimson sheen. And there were vast mountains the whole way down on either side, with extraordinary rock formation (Photo 191).
Farther down, we stopped at the Valley of the Gazelle (Photo 192). It was here that we saw a natural phenomenon: water coming out of a rock. Limestone is more porous and stores water, and leaves a residue of salt to seal the water in. Bedouins strike the rock to remove the salt and get water! Moses knew his stuff! The biblical Moses, that is.
192 - Valley of the Gazelle
We could see Mount Sinai from quite a distance away, but it was only one of a multitude of peaks, all of them mountains in their own right. Huge mountains of hard granite (Photo 193). The Monastery of St Catherine, where we stayed, is already 1400 metres up. There are about 25 monks there, Greek Orthodox, all but two of them from Greece.
193 - Sinai Mountains
St Catherine’s is the oldest Christian monastery still in existence, and it has seen its fair share of action over the years. In the early centuries, there were hermits living around the mountains in the style of the Egyptian hermits. St Helena wanted a home for them and built a small monastery and a Chapel to Our Lady. The monks got many precious gifts, which kept being robbed. The Emperor Justinian ordered a fortress to be built around the monastery in the 6th century to protect the monks (Photo 194).
194 - St Catherines Monastery Sinai
The Chapel was named after the Transfiguration, because of the connection with Moses and Elijah. The monks were often persecuted, but a letter of Mohammed, which is still preserved, asked that the monks be always spared. In the 19th century the Sultan had a mosque built within the monastery – but it is never used. There is harmony between Moslems and Christians in this area – and the local Beduoin protect the monks. The monks are good to the local people, and they give of their plenty that comes from tourism.
We stayed in the Guesthouse in St Catherine’s. After supper, Moses briefed us about the day ahead. We had two options: to set out at 2.30 a.m. and see the sun rising from the peak, or make it a daylight trip, starting at 11 in the morning. We opted for the daylight trip. Another option concerned the route to take. We could go by the camel route, or by the 3000 steps constructed laboriously by the monks over the centuries. Local knowledge considered the camel route the easier of the two. Another option ( a no-brainer as far as I was concerned!) was to go on foot or by camel! It was the best $20 dollars I ever spent! The day was magnificent, blue skies and warm temperature, and the views all round were stunning (Photo 195).
195 - The view from the camel
The camel’s name was Dushan and he was led by a man called Adam, a Beduoin. Dushan was a bit sluggish in the beginning and he was distracted by a following she-camel. But eventually Adam went behind him, and he picked up after that. It was scary enough at times, as the camel would occasionally put his head out over the edge, especially when he was turning a corner. But thankfully his feet didn’t follow his head! I had been warned about this, so I was half ready for it (Photo 196).
196 - Adam and Dushan
‘Whisper of a gentle breeze’
We could see Mount Sinai long before we reached it (Photo 197). In fact, the camel only went as far as a place called Elijah's Plateau - it took us about an hour and 20 minutes. We waited for the others there; then we climbed a small distance, went through a cleft in the rock and came to beautiful level ground (the actual plateau).
197 - First view of Mount Sinai
The camel would not have been able to manoeuvre through the cleft in the rock. There were still 750 steps to go to the top, so I decided to stay put, and the others went on to the top. I had over an hour to myself to rest, and take in the scenery, which was magnificent (Photo 198).
198 - The Everlasting Mountains
There was only a whisper of breeze. I had time to read Exodus 19 and 24, as well as 1 Kings 19 and Elijah’s experience in this very place, even the cleft in the rock (198a).
198a Mt Sinai cleft in the rock
This mountain is so much part of our religious and Christian psyche, and the awesome drama played out here 3000 years ago still touches us today.
When the others came back down we had Mass there on the mountain, with the appropriate readings. It was a unique setting (Photo 199).
199 - Elijahs Plateau
We were the only ones on the mountain: partly because of the time of year, and partly because of the security situation in Egypt. After that we had our picnic and began the downward climb at 3.25 as the sun began to go down. No camel on the way down (not recommended because you'd be falling out over him!), but the way was easy enough, by meandering paths, and we got down just before dark at 4.50. The whole experience left a glow. An extraordinary thing – the image of a calf was engraved by a natural process on a rock at the base of the mountain, a reminder of the golden calf as Moses delayed on the mountain! (Photo 200).
200 - The Golden Calf
St Catherine’s Monastery
Before the climb, we were given a tour of the monastery. Within the monastery walls, we saw what is claimed to be the Burning Bush where Moses had his first experience of the God who called himself “I Am” (Photo 201).
201 - The Burning Bush
The monks have tried to reproduce the burning bush with shoots from this one – but without success! It is found nowhere else in Egypt, but it does grow in Israel. It has thorns. A short distance way, and still within the monastery, is Moses’ Well, where he met his wife Zipporah (Photo 202).
202 - Moses Well
The chapel of the monastery is an awesome sight – with treasures of icons, and precious vessels (Photo 203).
203 - Church of the Transfiguration Mount Sinai
The library is second only in importance to the Vatican library for the number and rarity of its manuscripts – over 6000 in all. Sadly missing is the Codex Sinaiticus from the 2nd century, stolen by a visitor in 1859 and sold to the Russians, who in turn sold it to an Englishman in 1917 for £100,000; it is now in the British Museum! The monks keep trying to get it back. It is the oldest and the only existing complete copy of the original Greek manuscript of the Scriptures. The chapel also houses the relics of St Catherine of Alexandria; legend has it that her martyred body was transported here by angels.
After spending a second night in the Guesthouse, and saying Mass of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we left the monastery under a police escort. Apparently, there had been an attack on tourists a short time before that. Whatever visitors besides ourselves who had been in the monastery overnight had to leave at a fixed time in a convoy. The police escort left us after about five miles – we noticed they went behind the convoy, rather than in front!
On the way home, after Eilat, we were able to take a different route, up by the Dead Sea, which was particularly dead-looking because it was shrouded in the aftermath of a sandstorm (Photo 204).
204 - Dead Sea
From there we entered the Jordan Valley, but it was getting dark at that stage and had begun to rain. The whole journey took us about half an hour less than going down.
We passed by well-known biblical names along the way: Sodom, Jericho, Megiddo, Mount Gilboa, Nazareth, and alongside our own Mount Carmel, which was almost invisible because of pelting rain and the encroaching dark.
A trip to the Holy Land is a once-in-a-lifetime experience – and to have been able to spend almost three months there was a rare privilege indeed. Visiting the places trodden by the Son of God enlivens one’s faith certainly, but it doesn’t take away the mystery. It is borne in on you how complete the Incarnation was – from birth right up to death. And faith is still needed. Indeed, faith makes every land a Holy Land!
To go on pilgrimage is much toil and great labour.
The God you seek, if you have not found him at home,
You will not discover there.
On our travels, we saw the ruins of many kingdoms and civilizations, while the legacy left by the God-man from Nazareth lives on, far beyond the confines of the Holy Land. “Their span extends through all the earth, their words to the utmost bounds of the world”. The Gospel has a perennial youthfulness and it still has a power to inspire all those who hasten to “the new Jerusalem” (Photo 205).
205 - Empty Tomb