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By Irene Butler
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

"Let's climb that biblical mountain!" After a week of barely moving from our lounge chairs facing the Red Sea, except to partake of delectable cuisine along restaurant-row in the touristy town of Dahab, I feel some calorie burning is in order. My husband Rick isn't sold on my suggestion for its workout value, but in anticipation of great photo ops he agrees to go, stipulating, "as long as I don't have to carry down any stone tablets." Leaving our seaside haven in a tour van filled with fellow adventurers, we head into the interior of south-eastern Egypt. Stunning desert-scapes of shifting golden sands are succeeded by rugged mountains of limestone and granite. Arriving at St. Katherine's Monastery which lies in a gorge at the foot of Mt. Sinai, our guide Mohammad explains, "Mt. Moses is not visible until after our visit to St. Katherine's when we take the path up around the monastery."

[1.St. Katherine's Monastery]

We inch along through this small Orthodox centre, transfixed by the beauty of the icons covering the walls, gigantic gold chandeliers, and exquisitely designed ceilings. The bones of martyr St. Katherine are entombed here, as well as a pile of skulls behind glass; the remains of monks who were first buried, the bones later disinterred. This bizarre custom arose from the difficulty of digging graves in the rocky ground, and as a reminder of man's mortality.

The monastery's roots can be traced back to 330AD, when Byzantine Empress St. Helena built a small chapel on the believed site of the biblical burning bush, where the Man-in-the-Sky first had words with Moses. In the 6th century Emperor Justinian built a church incorporating the chapel, and the monastery with a protective wall to house icons and ancient manuscripts.

It is time to begin our Mt. Sinai ascent. Rounding the bend alongside the monastery Mohammad points at a 2285-metre peak and says, "Look! Jebel Musa (Mt. Moses)!" I know our athletic abilities will be taxed. "There are two ways up," Mohammad continues, "one being 3750 'Steps of Repentance', laid by monks as a form of penance. The route we will take is the winding path ahead that at a steady pace takes approximately two hours - and then there are 750 steps to the summit."

[2. Camel rides]

From this point, some in our group mount camels for a ride up to the steps. We start off with the walkers, noting far ahead others on foot appear as ants weaving their way upward. Bedouins leading camels along the route call out, "Want ride? Air-conditioned taxi?" "No," we reply, "We go like Moses." It becomes a matter of proving we can do it.

I am overjoyed when we come to a small stone-benched rest house. Mohammad tells us this is the first of six of these welcome reprieves, and that they will be more frequent as the trail gets steeper.

[3. Tea and water for sale]

By the time we reach the steps I feel the burn of lactic acid in muscles I didn't know I had. We wolf down energy bars and gaze up to where the mountain top fades into the ether, then begin. The rock cut steps are uneven and of varying depths, requiring our concentration for each foot placement. After the first 300, we need to stop every 20 steps to slow our pounding hearts. At about 400 steps, Rick pants, "I have new respect for that Moses fellow, as wasn't he in his 80's when he brought down the 'Big Ten'?"

The top! Eureka!

[4.Stone church at summit]

A stone chapel stands at the highest point of the summit, and a mosque on the flat rock slightly below. The splendour of the surrounding mountains and valleys is breathtaking; earthy hues of caramel, sienna and charcoal change with chameleon swiftness as deep rose streaks of the setting sun embrace the sky. While Rick's camera captures this rare beauty, I sit on the precipice waiting for spiritual reflections befitting the mount, but my lone thought is 'Oh Lord, we still have to get down!'

[5. Rest before descent]

Darkness falls like a stage curtain as we begin our descent. My legs are likened to cooked spaghetti by the time we reach the sinuous trail. With gravity on our side from then on I only have to shuffle one foot in front of the other. In the café at the bottom we clink our cups of sweet milk tea and relish the elation of conquering Mt. Sinai...and that Rick and I were neither stiff nor sore the next morning is a miracle.



" St. Katherine's Monastery - a UNESCO site, is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world.

" Mt. Sinai [in Arabic Jebel Musa (Mt Moses) or Jebel al-Lawz (Mt of God)] - There is controversy whether the biblical Mt. Sinai is in the Sinai region of Egypt or a mountain by the same name across the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia.

" Dahab is known for its dive sites, dive schools, Mt. Sinai tours and desert safaris.

Getting to and from Dahab:

" East Delta Bus Company leaves to and from Cairo (9 hours) " If coming from Jordan - fast ferries leaves from Aqaba Jordan to Nuweiba Sinai (then hop a bus or taxi to Dahab). " EgyptAir flies from Cairo into Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport, which is then a short bus ride to Dahab.

PHOTOS: By Rick Butler

1. St. Katherine's Monastery
2. Smart Folks Chose Camel Rides
3. Tea and Water For Sale Along the Route
4. Stone Church At Summit
5. Rest Before Descent

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