On Holy Ground

text by Jennifer Reidy
photos by Tom Stevens

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The last hundred feet to the top of Mount Horeb, or as it’s known in Arabic, Mount Moses, the legendary peak where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments, are the most grueling to climb. The stone stairs, crudely carved out by monks and maintained over the centuries, are steep and treacherous.

After two hours of trekking up the dry, barren slope, my body screamed at me for doing such a thing. But, I thought, if an old man in sandals can make it to the top, and then carry a couple of heavy stone tablets down again, I better be able.

Up ahead I spotted the chapel at the top of the mountain and knew the climb could not be much longer. Tom, my photographer, and I were on holiday, that is if you call climbing a 7,497-foot mountain a vacation. As we reached the summit, I could not wait to sit on a lonely rock, listen to the silence, and marvel as the sun set into the painted landscape.

Instead, gasping for breath as I reached the top, I heard a voice. “You want tea? Coffee? Candy?” it asked. “You are American? Very good.” A bedouin with a large suitcase filled with candy and snacks had set up a blanket, a small fire, and was heating a pot of water. Another Arab entrepreneur with similar enticements also vied for our attention nearby.

I noticed discarded water bottles and wrappers on the ground, graffiti painted on the boarded-up chapel, and the lingering smell of the thousands of tourists who once passed through. I thought about how this place was not the remote, pristine retreat I hoped it would be. Even Moses would not recognize it now.

A pilgrimage to the top of Mount Moses may not be everything a believer would dream it to be. Hordes of Western tourists come to the Sinai peninsula to trample to the top every year, especially at Easter. The summit itself, which is about the size of a tennis court, can get jammed with people. The need for tourist access to the mount even prompted the Egyptian government last year to think about installing a cable car up the side of the mountain.

But despite the reminders that this holy place has become a tourist site, a journey to the top of the mountain, as well as a stay in St. Catherine’s Monastery nestled at its foot, can be a rewarding and unforgettable experience.

Tom and I rode on a bus to St. Catherine’s from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, which attracts divers and snorkelers to see some of the most breathtaking coral reefs in the world. After looking at miles of craggy rock outside my window, I saw, wedged in a valley of a towering mountain range, the 1,400-year-old monastery, ever tolerant of the new visitors who pass through its gates.

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Tags: Egypt Pilgrimage/pilgrims Monastery Icons Tourism