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Gabal Mousa / Mt. Sinai

by Nadeem Mazen

Gabal Mousa / Mt. Sinai [.mov, 18.4 MB]

Mount Sinai – Gabal Mousa

The 7,507 foot (2288 meter) high granite peak of Mount Sinai is a holy site in the Judeo-Christian tradition and is thought to be the site where Moses received the Ten Commandments (hence its Arabic name, Gabal Mousa, or “Mountain of Moses”). The site includes what is considered to be the burning bush described in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as well as what are held to be the cave of Elijah and the waiting place of Aaron, which are described in the Christian tradition. At the base of the mountain is St. Catherine’s monastery, a 4th century A.D. chapel that became a monastic community and was later dedicated to the martyrdom of Dorothea of Alexandria (Saint Catherine) at the hands of the Roman Emperor Maximus. The site also became a sign of peace between Muslims and Christians when the Muslim prophet Mohammed instructed his followers to protect the monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery.

The Climb

Our group arrived to the base of Mt. Sinai at 3 am on a cool summer morning in mid August. We were told that it would take 3 to 3.5 hours to hike the mountain comfortably, but we knew that 3 hours would put us at the summit after sunrise, so we did our best to book it up the mountain double time. We kept pushing up at a pretty good pace...but one by one we saw our group thinning out and falling back. We had started with six hearty adventurers and half-way up there were only four left. So much for "no man left behind." Then suddenly there were three. And then by the time we reached the summit, still keeping pretty good pace, there were only two of us. It had seemed to us that we were still racing against the clock, but when we checked the time, it turned out we had made the hike in about 1.5 hours.

We rented blanket from a Bedouin boy and then paid him to go down the mountain about 50 meters to get the key to the summit's small mosque. When we had a critical mass of our group at the summit, we prayed the pre-dawn Prayer or "Salaat Al-Fajr," and being on Moses' Mountain, it was quite a spiritual experience. Unfortunately, the experience was soured by a rather surprising show of intolerance. I gave the call to prayer next to the summit’s small mosque in case there were Muslims who wanted to join us. The call was brief and, because the high winds of the summit drowned out my voice, the call was also quiet and unimposing. As I began to call out a few Israelis made their way over to me and started wailing loudly in mock-Arabic, gesturing and laughing. This stopped quite abruptly as two of my humongous Muslim friends made their displeasure clear and the Israelis rejoined their girlfriends, chuckling. This is not meant to portray Israelis in general in a poor light, just that these particular tourists deserved mention and it makes a pretty interesting story anyway. It was a particularly unfortunate occasion given that the site is mentioned as a special place in all three Abrahamic religions and, given its history and the diversity of modern pilgrims and visitors, the site should be a symbol of sharing and unity.

After prayer, we all grabbed a spot on a huge boulder, already home to about 40 European and Asian tourists and watched the twilight gradually illuminate the surrounding mountains, followed by a breathtaking sunrise (which I couldn't film because one of my video filters was malfunctioning and the sunrise just looked like an orangish blur...I was kicking myself the whole way down for not fixing everything earlier). All in all it was a very worthwhile experience, but we were all extremely weary during the trek down. It was much warmer than on the way up as the sun was now upon us and it was also much slower on the way down: to be safe and avoid stumping down the steep decline we had to take each step very carefully. At the bottom we visited St. Catherine’s Monastery, home to a significant collection of ancient books and priceless art. Most of us were too tired to fully appreciate it, but it was a nice conclusion to our early morning adventure.

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