Sinai Desert

Suzi and I decided not to take a bus tour from Sharm to St. Catherine’s Monastery (featured in the next post) the home of the burning bush at the foot of Mt. Saini, but to hire a car and guide, Said.  We told Said, up front, no shopping.  It didn’t matter.  He still dropped us off for the obligatory stroll through the souk in the desert, isolated from anything else, so there was no escape.  Such souks sell expensive items from which he would have gotten a commission if we had bought.  Since we said we were traveling light he took us to a gem merchant rather than a carpet shop.   The merchant preformed a test to show us that the gems were not glass.  Suzi and I started laughing.  Twenty six years ago, in India, we saw a similar demonstration and bought two “star sapphires,” one each for mom and pop.

Pop said he said he always regretted not getting those stones while stationed in India in World War II.  We brought them back and had a Sitka jeweler set them in rings.  In the assessment of my mother’s estate we learned that the stones were fake, the settings worth more than the “sapphires.”  Brian, Kevin, Suzi and I all laughed about this because we were together in India for the demonstration and each remembered the “show” surrounding the purchase.  The stop in Egypt brought that all back to Suzi and me.  I am sure the sales person wondered why we were laughing, or perhaps he knew because the demonstration ended before we finished our tea.  I wonder if Pop ever had the stones appraised.  If so he had the grace not to tell us.

Our party became an entourage.  Because we were Americans traveling independently we needed security.  A few Westerners had been kidnapped recently by Bedouin tribesmen, not as acts of political or religious terrorism, but for ransom.  We were assigned Ayman, an off duty Egyptian cop, who wore a suit and tie, had a flag pin in his lapel and rode “shotgun” reading the Koran most of the way.  He spoke pretty good English and was very polite. “You can leave things in the car, I will guarantee they will be safe.” And I would bet on it.

The desert is spectacular with veins of black rock running through yellow, red and brown mountains and sand dunes drifting up the buttes.  Said said that the Red Sea is so named because the water sometimes reflects the red mountains.  That is credible.

The highway along the coast is a freeway, built when Israel occupied the Sinai and Israelis wanted to drive comfortably to the beaches and diving at Sharm el Sheikh.  (In early 2011 Israeli’s still came to the Sinai.)  The road to St. Catherine’s is a good two lane with sections needing work.  There had been rain a few days before we traveled and at one checkpoint we were diverted off the road and into the dust because the road had collapsed.  A sink hole formed under the pavement and a silver Toyota dropped through the pavement while approaching the police officer.  The bumpers were ripped off the car as dropped.  It sat there, next to the sink hole.  We drove around the sinkhole and Toyota to a officer who recognized Ayman and waved us through the checkpoint.  That happened a lot so, even though we left Sharm about a half hour later than most tour busses, we got to St. Catherine’s Monastery before them, which was a very good thing.

We arrived at St. Catherine’s just as the tired pilgrims, who climbed the 3700 steps to the top of the mountain for the sunrise, were coming down to the monastery.  An extraordinarily stressed monk tried to keep the pilgrims and the first tranche of tourists moving because the Monastery is only open for about two hours a day and he knew what was coming from the dust kicked up by the convoys of busses avoiding the sunken Toyota and converging on the holy valley from Sharm and Cairo.

In the fourth century St. Helena identified the very bush that Moses saw burning some 1,600 years before. (This is the same St. Helen who identified the site of the nativity in Bethlehem and the crucifixion in Jerusalem, the first holy tourist.  Who could argue, she was the mother of Emperor Constantine.  Of course there are those who do argue and there are other mountain candidates for the title of “Mt Moses,” the holy mountain, both in the Sinai and across the Gulf of Aqaba in Saudi Arabia. But Helen had the final say.)  She ordered the bush transplanted and built a chapel on the site.  Justinian finished off the monastery a couple of centuries later.  Others added to it, including Napoleon.

Whether or not this is “the” site and whether or not this is “the bush” the monastery was much more interesting than I thought it would be, and I had thought it would be pretty interesting.  In these early images Jesus does not look Greek, or Roman.  Mary is not blonde.  They look Jewish.  So does Moses.   The way the brilliant desert light spiked through the church windows created a mystical play of light and shadow glinting off the icons that I wish I could capture on camera, but cameras were not allowed.

At the entrance to the monastery museum a monk asked where we were from.   “Sitka, Alaska,” He smiled.

“Sitka, Are you Orthodox?”

I was honest, which meant that I had to pay the admission fee, but the fee was worth it.  After seeing the “original” burning bush we climbed a little to get an overview of the complex with the mountain behind and listen to the bells toll for the noon mass.  After the bells we went by the shops on the path to the monastery selling crosses made from wood from the original burning bush.  It must have been a big bush.


The shops also sold fossils which look like they are prints of branches.  This is one of the “proofs” that priests use to confirm this is the site.  There were several “Bible tours” that we encountered at St. Catherine’s and we heard one guide, a pastor in best preaching voice and preaching cadence, stand before a rock with the bush fossil prints proclaim,  “And the power of the Lord came down and the holy light from his presence imprinted the bush on this rock as Moses took off his shoes.”  In my mind I added “Say hallelujah!”

I listened on a more scholarly Bible tour guide explaining, in the museum, the difference between Aramaic and Arabic script in some of the early books.  The museum has a reproduction of Mohamed’s writ giving the Monastery protection, signed with his palm print.  The original is in Istanbul.  The Bedouins who protect and serve the monastery have converted to Islam but still follow the prophet’s dictum for Moslems to honor this place.  This is reputed to be the only Christian monastery with a mosque inside, to serve the protectors.  See the next post for pictures of St. Catherine’s

Nine days after I wrote this, on January 25, the demonstrations that would bring down Mubarak started in Tahrir Square in Cairo.  I had gone back to work in Belgrade, Suzi in Cairo.  Now there are fewer tourists visiting St. Catherine’s and Mt. Sinai.

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