Ask me why I never realized that Mount Sinai was in Egypt. Never a great geographic or Biblical scholar, I still could have figured it out. I knew that Mount Sinai was the site of the burning bush where Moses received the tablets of the ten commandments as he led his people out of Egypt. Sinai peninsula—yup!
Our well-loved guide Moustafa met us at the Sharm el Sheikh ferry station and brought us to Dahab, a popular Red Sea diving community. We stayed in a luxurious beachside hotel, where we took full advantage of the pristine beaches and sunshine. We’d be leaving to climb Mount Sinai at 2:00 AM so we could experience the night sky and the spectacular Sinai sunrise.
Or not.
We climbed into our van bleary-eyed, shocked that we had our own private security guard, Khalef. He was a clean cut young man sporting a formal suit, and we didn’t realize until two days later that his jacket concealed a considerable weapon. He charmed us through five (count them) security roadblocks, one where we had to show our passports. Mount Sinai is well-protected.
Just our luck, the weather had turned cold, and St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of the mountain would be closed (Sunday), so there would be few hikers on a trek usually made by hundreds.
When we were told that the peak was snowy, my warm-weather friend Terri announced, “I have no burning desire to do this climb,” and returned to the van to sleep for the six hours we’d be gone.
The rest of us donned our warmies and started up the wide, dark, rocky path. Our Bedoin guide, Mahmud, often climbs the mountain two or three times a day (6 K each way to the 7,498 foot summit) . We smelled camels and were offered camel rides from the darkness, but we refused.
It took us a while to get used to the slope, and breathing was hard. The cold was shocking, too–about five degrees Fahrenheit with a major wind chill. Quite a change from lounging on the beach that afternoon. We were FREEZING!
Moustafa had never climed Mount Sinai and he’d never seen snow, so when spots of white appeared along the path, he was excited. Within an hour of climbing our shoes were soggy from the ever-increasing snow.
Rock hut refreshment stops are scattered along the path, but most of them were closed. About halfway up the mountain, Mahmud led us into a hut and lit a lamp. Lo and behold, there was a young Bedoin man curled up under blankets in the corner of what seemed like a little corner store, complete with a gas burner. Moustafa treated us to coffee, tea, and candy bars while we chatted with our guide and his friend.
Once again warm, we braced ourselves to continue our trek, which grew steeper, icier, and more difficult. Determined to get to the top, stars or no, we picked our way carefully up the mountainside, avoiding icy spots. We had flashlights, and the moon cast a pale glow through the fog and snow.
I thought we had 149 rock steps to climb near the summit, so you can imagine my dismay when I learned there were 749. Mahmud called them the Steps of Repentance, and believe me, I repented every stupid thing I’ve ever said or done. That’s a LOT of steps (and I’ve done a LOT of stupid things).
Actually, there’s another route up Mount Sinai, 3750 steps straight up the mountain, built by a monk as repentance for his transgressions, (which must have been considerable). Imagine how much repenting you’d do on THOSE steps!
Along the way we came across a small group trying to revive a man who had passed out from the altitude. THAT was a bit unsettling, but our guide seemed unruffled, so we continued. We saw the man later, helping a woman as she slipped down the path. Unfortunately, a number of hikers were underdressed and wearing slick (though fashionable) footwear. Oops!
In any case, we finally made it to the top, where there’s a small mosque (12th century) and the Chapel of the Holy Trinity. A group of young Egyptians were huddled under blankets on the lee side of the chapel, and they invited me to join them. They enjoyed practicing their English, and I found them very entertaining.
The sun rose while we were on Mount Sinai, the only sign a hint of light through the enveloping clouds. We shivered at the summit for about 20 minutes, then headed back down. Sun peeked through the clouds a few times, and the girls attacked Moustafa with snowballs. He was a fast learner and insists that he won in spite of getting snow down his neck. It’s a guy thing.
When we finally got to the bottom, Moustafa negotiated a private tour of the St. Catherine’s Monastery to see the reputed Burning Bush, a huge weeping rosebush. The monastery houses a Christian church, a Jewish synagogue, and a Muslim Mosque. All three faiths share the Old Testament, and at least in that one monastery, they cohabit peacefully.
Would that it happened everywhere!

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