It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
That’s the reaction I had on an opportunity to drive into the Sinai desert when Silver Spirit called on Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt.
I almost gave the tour from the ship a pass, after reading the description of a three-hour bus ride each way through the desert to pay a visit to the remote St. Catherine’s Monastery, which dates back to the fourth century
But I was intrigued, because the monastery has long claimed that growing in its courtyard is none other than the legendary “burning bush” that the Bible says is where God first made contact with Moses. As flames leapt from its stems, Moses was told he was the one to lead the Israelites from their decades-long exile in the desert to a land flowing with milk and honey.
From picture books I had a mental picture of the Sinai as being a endless landscape of monotonous sand. But the reality was so ever-changing and fascinating I actually hoped the bus ride would be longer.
I wondered whether much of the sand had blown away. The predominant features are craggy peaks of granite, limestone and weathered sandstone in colors that range from stark white to rose to burnt ochre. I wandered how the Israelites even got around or over such imposing cliffs, whose rocks have been fractured by 40 C (104 F) heat in the daytime. And I imagined if you tried to climb many of these mountains you might be the first human ever to attempt it.
The few signs of habitation I saw also seemed straight out the Bible. Children dressed in homespun tunics rode on donkeys. Bedouins in flowing robes led trains of camels bedecked with colourful home-made saddles. And shops were little more than goods laid out on a convenient rock.
I came away with a deep admiration of the fortitude of people who live in a climate like this. One advantage, though, is that the air here may be the freshest on earth, because there is not a source of pollution for hours in any direction.
Was the trip worth it? Definitely.
The only downside was that on a day trip you only get a few precious minutes inside the still active monastery filled with pre-Renaissance icons, artworks and illuminated manuscripts. We arrived at 11 and the monastery closes to the public at noon. I might even want to go back and stay overnight at one of the small hotels near the monastery that book up months in advance that would let me arrive when the monastery doors open at 9 a.m.
And spending a quiet morning in the monastery would give you time to contemplate the burning bush, or at least a green bush that is very much like the one that grew on the spot more than three millennia ago. It’s a nice touch that they put a fire extinguisher next to it—just in case.
The adventurous can also climb the 3,000 steps to the top of Mount Saint Catherine, which was believed to be the Mount Sinai referred to in the Bible.