I crave spiritual experiences. There is something about pilgrimages. They give you a rush of joy and a sense of emptiness once they are over. Pilgrimages are spiritual tourism. As a continuation of my Umrah, I was hoping to eventually hike Mount Sinai, which is where according to Christianity the Ten Commandments were revealed to Moses. In Islam, this is where Moses used to pray, where he brought the Jews after saving them from the Pharaoh. It is the place where Moses’s Prophethood was revealed to him. Having seen all the major pharonic sites in Egypt, hiking Mount Sinai was just as important an adventure. It would be like a second Umrah.
Sinai is a strategically important area in North Africa and Middle East. It borders both the Suez Canal and Israel. The Suez Canal is a military area so it’s not a place to go for picnic, however on the road to Sharm el Sheikh, you can see the oil rigs and tankers along the shore of the Gulf of Suez. They are massive. Until this trip I had never seen an oil rig and the neighbouring residential containers in real life. Egypt reclaimed the Sinai Peninsula on 6th October 1973 from Israel. Land and ports are always contentious issues of conflict in geopolitical affairs.
However, if I have to go by the international media with what is happening in the Palestinian territories, and even if the Egyptian Army is allegedly receiving the most US support, as a Muslim, I’m glad the Sinai Peninsula geographically belongs to Egypt. If the Israelis can fence off a nation from the rest of the country for security purposes, imagine what they could do to the Muslim world regarding international shipping and trade. However, there is a likelihood it would not come to this, considering the Middle East, particularly, the GCC countries, Iraq and Iran are the biggest oil producing and exporting countries. Moreover, oil is shipped to other parts of the world by sea. Hence, allegedly no matter how threatened a country may be by its neighbours, money and natural resources make the world go around. Furthermore, just like land, oil and any other kind of fossil fuel are equally contentious. Nonetheless, it is a scary scenario, so good on the Egyptian army for winning back the Sinai Peninsula.
On my travels around Egypt I would always visit the souvenir shops in the hotels I stayed in. They usually stocked gifts made elsewhere, China in particular. Alabaster items such as decorative tea sets were usually made in Pakistan. I guess they forgot to remove the ‘Made in’ sticker. I even found it strange that considering they call themselves an Arab republic, in some shops in Aswan they sold African wooden masks and statues. The only African looking people are the Nubians. In modern, recent times I guess most of them migrated from Sudan at some point. They consider themselves Arab as opposed to African. I suppose the masks and statues are a Nubian thing.
In one shop the shopkeepers were actually interesting to talk to. I pointed out that the souvenirs, except the gemstones, none were made in Egypt and they got slightly taken aback and asked me to tell them how I knew they weren’t Egyptian. My love for handicraft and community trade is such that I make it a point to explore the quality of local produce wherever I go, but considering the company, I thought it inappropriate to divulge my trade secrets. In this shop they had staff from different parts of Egypt, one of them was from Sinai. His colleagues joked that he ‘s not Egyptian, he’s Israeli, he’s Jew, he will cheat you so don’t buy anything from him. Straightforward as I am, I blurted, how can he be Israeli if he’s from Sinai? Isn’t Sinai in Egypt? As for him being Jew, there are many Jews in Muslim countries, so you shouldn’t say that, it’s Haraam. Obviously, the conversation was jovial. The guy wasn’t Jew, but belonged to the Sinai area.
In Islamic discourse it is unclear whether present day Mount Sinai/Jebel Musa is where Moses was informed of his Prophethood and all the other events associated with this mountain. One discussion I read mentions that in Arabic mountain is jebel and there is no mention of this in the Quran. The area mentioned in the Quran is tur and there is vegetation in that particular area. The tip of the Sinai Peninsula is called Tur Sinai. It is a lovely sandy area.
Mount Sinai itself is not barren, there is a little vegetation, some herbs and shrubs scattered around the cliffs/rocks as you ascend it. There is wild life also besides birds. Just before the place where the Steps of Redemption begins, we had to walk through an alley shaft type area which was quite nice because the sun was not shining directly on this particular spot, it was windy and it was like natural air conditioning. As we were walking through this shaft a robin was tripping towards us, as if it was walking in its own world. It came quite close and from its body language it seemed as if it was stunned to see us so it flew away. Many of the birds have created nests in the holes and crevices of the rock walls. There are lizards as well. These ones are greyish and change colors matching the hills.
When I used to go to field visits in the rural areas of Pakistan I used to see the same kind of lizards crawling out from the fields onto the mud walls of the houses. I’m not fond of lizards, but these are actually quite beautiful because they have different colors, as opposed to the tiny ones you find in the houses in the cities which are pale and sickly looking. We also saw dragonflies. The hike from Saint Catherine Monastery to the Steps of Redemption is at least an hour and a half, so the shaft like path with natural air-conditioning was a good resting place before actually going up the steps to get to the top.
It was on the way to the top, up the Steps of Redemption I saw the lizards, the shrubs, herbal vegetation. It was easy going up the steps. Normally, it’s harder to climb, walk up a hill than it is to walk down. I kept thinking if this is easy, it must be an easy jog coming down and I started looking forward to the trip down to Saint Catherine’s Monastery. Perhaps it was the spiritual experience associated with hiking Mount Sinai that fooled me into thinking it’s an easy climb, because the few times I climbed the stairs in the underground I was completely knackered by the end of it and vowed never again, no matter how great the need for exercise!
I kept having the lyrics of the Bob Marley song in my head, go tell it to the mountain. Like in the song, I was hiking to the top to go tell it to the mountain and make the Almighty listen to me the way he listened to Moses. Albeit he being a Prophet and I a mere mortal, obviously our standings in the eyes of the Almighty Benevolent and Beneficent Lord are incomparable. What was in my power was to wish that by hiking Jebel Musa/ Mount Sinai to get to Musa’s Musalla, the Almighty would listen to my prayers and wishes the same way he listened to Moses whenever he needed guidance. This is because being human is practically impossible when you are living in a position of weakness and perceived as a bird of prey. This is not victimhood, this is acknowledging your weaknesses, keeping in mind your strengths, pursuing whatever opportunities there are, and facing your threats, or shall we say fears?
We made it to the top some 3 hours later. It was nice. Mission accomplished. Beautiful scenery. There is a small church which was locked by the time we got there, We saw the priest and some nuns at a resting place on our way up. There were blankets and sitting areas after every 30 minutes. People come here to view the sunrise with their tour guides, but not many make it to the top, which I think is a waste of money if you’re not going all the way. However, it could be the construction adjacent to the church, on the other side of the hilltop is a mosque. On Wikipedia it say it’s a mosque, but it didn’t have any features to indicate it as such, unless they had turned it into a prayer room facility for Muslim hikers.
On this trip, I completed my list of everything there is to see in Egypt. Like Pakistan it is an interesting place for someone dabbling with social sciences.