“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.”