Mountain of the Lord

Beyond the war zone, Mount Sinai remains a refuge in a landscape of strife

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“Sinai,” wrote T.E. Lawrence—better known as Lawrence of Arabia—to a friend in England in 1926, is a “jolly desert.” It seems an odd choice of words to describe anything in this war-torn region. Although violence holds sway for Israelis and Palestinians, only a day’s drive away, this desert seems removed from the terror. The arid landscape is punctuated only by the occasional anemic acacia tree or red-stone formation rising from the sand. Despite the desolation, my grizzled driver, piloting a hired Mercedes up the potholed road that winds unforgivingly from the Gulf of Suez to the Mountain of the Lord, insists, “In truth, it is beautiful here.”

This might well be a landscape of ten million years ago. Today, the only signs of human habitation are the road itself, high-tension wires strung alongside it, and the Egyptian checkpoints, manned by peacekeeping-force soldiers. From time to time, the Mercedes passes a black goat’s-wool Bedouin tent with a camel beside it or, rarely, a Toyota pickup.

No wonder that for thousands of years, only the hardiest of nomads chose to live here among these roseate granite mountains slashed by black volcanic dikes, and ravines gouged by intermittent floods. This forbidding terrain, straddling Africa and Asia, endured as an eternal no-man’s-land, swept over by invading armies from the time of Pharaoh Ramses II and Alexander the Great to Napoleon Bonaparte and Moshe Dayan. But no one ever settled here.

The Hebrews, who, according to the Bible, spent 40 years wandering this wasteland—some scholars believe in the 13th century b.c.—regarded Sinai as a “great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought.” Once they crossed into their promised land, flowing with milk and honey, they never expressed the slightest desire to return. On a stony peak somewhere in this region, according to biblical accounts, God spoke to Moses “face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend” and handed down the Ten Commandments on two tablets of stone.

The authors of the Old Testament never bothered to pinpoint latitude and longitude for what they variously called Mount Sinai, MountHoreb, and the Mountain of the Lord. As a result, biblical scholars have argued for some halfdozen different peaks scattered over the peninsula. Jewish tradition does not fix any precise location. But for almost 2,000 years Christian tradition, at least, has ordained a 7,310-foot pinnacle, known to the local Bedouins as Jebel Musa, as the Mount of Moses. Trodden by millions of pilgrims over the ages, this sacred site is marked on many maps as Mount Sinai. Muslims believe that the prophet Muhammad journeyed here also.

The road to the holy mountain turns sharply to the east and begins to climb. Soon the desert’s silence is broken by the chattering, huckstering, donkey-braying, engine-idling, children-playing noises of Katriin, a settlement with a population of about 6,300. Beyond it, halfway up the mountain, the thick walls of the Monastery of St. Katherine, built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian 1,437 years ago, come into view. There is no easy way to reach the summit. You can ride a camel, with a Bedouin to guide you, as far as the rock basin where, according to legend, the prophet Elijah was fed by ravens. All visitors, however, have to climb the last 750 punishing steps, carved out of solid rock, to the top. Each night, a few dozen trekkers sleep out on the cramped plateau, next to the small church and a mosque. They brave the hardship, in large measure, to witness a spectacular sunrise. On one recent morning, a hardy band clambered down from the heights to tour buses waiting in a small parking lot. “I could not sleep for all the singing,” one woman grumbled. “I froze and froze and I prayed and prayed,” said another. But they both insisted the experience was worth it. “The dawn,” reported one fellow with a nod to Kipling, “came up like thunder.” To an elderly man, “it was a spiritual experience. We were touched by an angel’s wings.”

When the pilgrims piled into buses and were gone, a bearded monk closed his eyes, as if in gratitude for the return of silence. “You would think,” he said, “that God had made this mountain so that people could enjoy a pretty view.” It wasn’t always so. “Men first came here to worship, not because they thought it was a historical, or a beautiful, landmark.”

Indeed, as early as a.d. 300, hermits went to Egypt’s deserts to live in caves. “He who receives visits from men,” explained an Italian traveler to the region in a.d. 400, “cannot expect to be visited by angels.” Gradually, the hermits formed communities. In the sixth century, Emperor Justinian, in the last great age of Roman magnificence, endowed his monastery— the oldest surviving in the Christian world—on the flank of Mount Sinai. At this elevation, snows guarantee water; shrubs and lichens grow among the rocks. One such shrub was responsible for Justinian’s choice of location.

It rises about ten feet high, green and bunchy, behind a retaining wall. “There it is,” says the monk, “the Burning Bush.” According to the Book of Exodus, this fabled bush—a relative of the blackberry bramble—burned with fire but was not consumed. From its depths, God spoke to Moses: “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet; for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” The monks, tending the shrub, water it from the well at the place where Moses is said to have met his first wife, Zipporah.

“This particular specimen,” says geographer Joseph Hobbs, author of the invaluable Mount Sinai, “might well have flourished in the days of the pharaohs who reigned at the time of the Exodus.”

Behind the bush the monastery looms. Constructed also to function as a fortress at the farthest limit of Justinian’s empire, the monastery’s walls, punctuated with slits for raining arrows down on attackers, are up to 45 feet high and 3 feet thick; they have never been breached. Within this redoubt, monks pray and conduct their services, as they have for almost 1,500 years, surrounded by gifts showered on St. Katherine’s by the pious hands of Justinian, the impious hands of Ivan the Terrible, and scores of other benefactors.

There are resplendent mosaics of biblical scenes, made in the workshops of the imperial palace in Constantinople. A collection of 2,000 icons, the largest in the world, constitutes a living, blazing history of Orthodox Christian iconography. The library, where learned monks copied and illustrated manuscripts for centuries, contains more ancient texts, says Father Justin, “than any other library, except at the Vatican.” Travelers can now view a selection of the most significant books, manuscripts and icons, housed in the refurbished sacristy. This gallery, according to experts, “takes its place among the finest small museums in the world.”

In the entrance corridor of the monastery hangs a copy of a document said to have been dictated by the prophet Muhammad, who once, according to legend, was welcomed here. In it, he enjoins his followers to respect the sanctuary: “If any person violates the protection . . . he foregoes the protection of God.” The Sinai’s Muslim overlords, with few exceptions, have honored the monastery’s inviolability. In return, the monks allowed a mosque to be erected next to the basilica bell tower within their walls during the turbulent 12th-century Crusades.

The monastery’s greatest treasure reposes in a golden casket inside a marble chest. Opened on the holiest of days only, it holds the remains of St. Katherine, who was martyred in Alexandria, Egypt, in the fourth century. Angels, it is said, transported her body to the top of what is now Jebel Katarina, or MountKatherine. According to legend, a monk discovered the remains there in the 11th century; they exuded a sweet-smelling oil with curative powers. In about the year 1025, when the abbot of a monastery in Rouen, France, touched the oil and other relics, his excruciating toothache stopped hurting. Other cures followed, and vast numbers of pilgrims began flocking to the saint’s Mount Sinai shrine.

Because reaching it was almost impossibly arduous—devout travelers faced voyages over seas teeming with pirates, followed by jolting camel rides through hundreds of miles of desert—St. Katherine’s became the most exalted, outside Jerusalem, of Christian pilgrimage destinations. It took, so the saying went, “good intentions, stout heart, ready tongue and fat purse.”

Less than a century after the monastery was built, the armies of Islam, emerging from Arabian deserts, quickly conquered the Middle East, North Africa and, within a hundred years, a portion of Europe. St. Katherine’s was transformed into a windblown outpost in the middle of a vast Islamic sea.

The monks suddenly found themselves negotiating with victorious sultans and their soldiers, making peace with Bedouin tribes and maintaining good relations with potentially helpful Christian potentates a thousand miles away.

Today, the community numbers less than 25, down from hundreds in Justinian’s day, the smallest independent church within the Orthodox union, ruled by their abbot, Archbishop Damianos. “St. Katherine’s remains the most perfect relict of the 4th century left in the world,” says historian Adrian Fortescue. But it does so, as scholar Joseph Hobbs points out, with the help of “a diesel generator, a telephone, a fax, a photocopier, tape cassette stereos and short-wave radios.”

The modern world burst in with a vengeance during the Six-Day War of June 1967, when Israeli forces pushed the Egyptian Army back across the Suez Canal. The victors introduced such amenities as roads and airports. Seaside resorts soon followed. By 1979, some 50,000 visitors a year were arriving to enjoy the beaches of the Gulf of Aqaba.

After the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and the signing of the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1979, the Sinai peninsula was restored to Egyptian control and became an integral part of that country. A well-equipped hospital, new schools, farms and hotels provided jobs, and a commodity the Bedouins, whose economy was based on barter, had little need of before—cash.

On the morning of my last day in Sinai, I listened to the monks sing their eternal praise to God. By midday, I was lunching on the poolside terrace of a luxury hotel in lively Katriin. In the afternoon, I took tea with a Bedouin elder, who offered me apricots from trees in the walled garden surrounding his sturdy stone house on the mountainside.

During the summer, the Bedouin Mahmoud Mansour takes his 30 sheep to mountain pastures above the snow line, where he sleeps in a cave, “as any of my forebears might have done,” he says, smiling. As an employee of the Egyptian government, he also patrols—on camel—the St. Katherine Natural Protectorate, which covers 1,740 square miles and which supports a rich assortment of desert wildlife: ibex, hyena, endangered North African wolves, the Egyptian spiny mouse, the sand fox and the rock hyrax (a rabbit-size, very distant relative of the elephant).

“I know every single cranny in these mountains,” says Mansour. He has helped stop illegal construction of houses, put an end to unauthorized rockquarrying and cracked down on poachers trapping rare falcons. He explains to his fellow shepherds that the occasional sheep, killed by the desert’s wild beasts, is far less valuable than the potential revenue brought in by the tourists.

Still, he mourns the passing of many traditions. “My people,” he muses, “are no longer interested in the mountains or in gardens. Instead, they open coffee shops and work as mechanics.” He is troubled that camels, once a Bedouin’s most precious possession, are turned loose to run wild in the desert. But he remains optimistic. “If you do good deeds in life, like fixing a bird’s broken wing or planting a tree anyone may eat from,” he avers, “these gestures will earn you Paradise.”

By evening, I was in Dahab, not long ago a sleepy beachside hamlet, now another stop amid a concrete line of resorts running for miles along the shore. The town’s main street, parallel to the waterfront, was all lights and bustle. Foreigners and Egyptians lurched gaily through the starlit air. With waves lapping at one side of the road and mountains rising in the distance, the stresses of Cairo and the dank filth of the Nile seemed far away.

I was having dinner in a restaurant jutting out on the water when a wave, in the unpredictable way of the Red Sea, rose up and drenched me and my companions. Over loudspeakers, we could hear the voices of women singing, as they must have done 3,000 years ago after a much greater wave disposed of Pharaoh’s chariots. According to Exodus, Moses’ sister Miriam, celebrating that dramatic deliverance, “took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.”

For a fleeting moment, Lawrence of Arabia had it right after all. The Sinai seemed a most “jolly desert” indeed.

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