Our first destination was Dahab. This is a beach town in Sinai. Most everyone I knew had already been; some had even been several times! When I asked anyone what their favorite place was so far, everyone unanimously replies Dahab. Everyone had such strong, positive feelings about Dahab, so I knew it was something I had to experience.
Getting there takes quite a while. It is a nine-hour bus ride from Cairo. We left on the overnight bus Thursday night hoping to get lots of sleep on the bus. Unfortunately we did not meet our goals. They played action movies at full blast, and there was a security checkpoint at least every hour, when we were woken to show our tickets and passports. I was so excited about going to Dahab though, I really couldn’t care less whether I slept well.
The contrast between Dahab and a city like Cairo is extreme. Dahab was so relaxed with fewer people and a lot of space to move around, even on the board walk. It was comparatively quiet, too, without the sounds of cars, people and amplified calls to prayer. This was a wonderful change from Cairo.
While I love being in Cairo and experiencing everything in a city so large and teeming with life, I needed a break from the pace of city life. Dahab was my answer and I was immediately relaxed when our taxi driver dropped us off at our hotel.
We decided to go straight to the beach. We threw on our swimsuits and went in search of food, eventually deciding on a shorefront cafe called Nemo’s. Themed like the Disney Pixar movie, Nemo the fish was featured on the sign and the menus telling restaurant patrons certain Arabic phrases. Nemos says, “Lau Semat means excuse me.”
Wanting nothing more than to lie on the beach, we found ourselves some chairs and soaked up the sun for hours. It was good that we got some rest and relaxation here because tonight would be an eventful night for us. We were climbing Mount Sinai in the middle of the night so that we would be there to see the sun rise from the top.
The dark journey up
We left our hotel in a shuttle at around 11pm. We got to the base of the mountain around 12:30 and started climbing with our guide after 1 am. I was in a group of about sixteen people, most of whom I didn’t know. However, we all got very close as the night went on. After all, friends who climb mountains together stay together.
Our first fifteen minutes took us through what I like to call “the path of camels.” Here we passed narrowly through the walkway while camels grunted at us and the camel drivers yelled “Camel ride! Camel! Camel! Good Price!” Assuring them I had no desire to ride a camel up a treacherous mountain in the pitch black of night, I continued on.
It was so dark that we couldn’t even see the outline of the mountain. I had no idea how high it was, or what exactly I was getting myself into. Looking back on it, I am actually very glad I didn’t know how high it was! I would have been overwhelmed!
We started up the mountain looking down at our feet the whole time trying not to trip over rocks and slide on the sand. I was incredibly glad I had bought a flashlight for this, because otherwise I think I would have fallen many times! Following the mass exodus of people, we slowly journeyed up the mountain. Some were slower than others. I was definitely one of the slowest in my group. If only I had known that I would actually be climbing Mount Sinai with a group of mountain men!
I was exhausted when I looked up and saw the top of the peak. We were almost there! Not two seconds passed before an Egyptian man stationed with a camel told me “Halfway there! You are halfway!” Apparently, I was nowhere close to the top!
We kept moving up the mountain with several other tour groups right around us. A large Spanish-speaking tour group was climbing behind me with several of its members riding camels. The path was incredibly narrow at this point and the group was attempting to pass our tour group, camels and all. Needless to say, I was nearly sandwiched between camels. I had to push the camels away from me just to get out! I was not expecting so many people to be climbing the mountain this early in the morning. It seemed even more like a pilgrimage with all these people around me.
There were rest stops and numerous people offering us camel rides for if we were too tired to climb anymore. However, I felt a lot safer on my own two feet, so I happily declined.
We were told to dress in layers, because of how bitter the cold was. Nothing can prepare you for how cold it is up there. As long as I kept moving, I didn’t really feel it. However, once I stopped the cold penetrated my clothes!
The last 750 steps
Near the end of the trail there is a series of 750 steps that lead to the top of the mountain. These steps are huge stone blocks, seemingly randomly placed and fairly deep. Finishing these steps felt like the biggest accomplishment of my life. I was so proud that I made it all the way to the top! They had a stand where we could buy hot chocolate and coffee to warm us up, which I was grateful for.
I highly recommend renting a blanket up there. They offer them for 20 pounds and it’s much better than shivering on the mountain top waiting for the sunrise for an hour and a half.
I laid down on the cold ground, huddled in my blanket and just watched the stars while I waited. I have never seen so many stars in my life! They were so well defined and I could easily make out some of the major constellations. All I could think about was what a contrast this was to Cairo. I’ve seen probably one or two stars in Cairo, and that’s if I’m lucky!
All of a sudden the sky began to light up. The sky slowly transformed into different colors of pink and blue and purple. The colors swirled together forming different shapes as the time went on. Everyone else realized that it was actually happening, we were watching the sun rise from the top of Mount Sinai.
Everyone stood in awe for a while, trying to absorb all of this majestic beauty. As more and more light filled the sky, the peaks of the surrounding mountains were illuminated and we began to see our surroundings. Everyone around me seemed to be speaking a different language. I heard Arabic, French, Spanish, Russian and many other languages. While I am not fluent in all these languages, I could understand exactly what they were saying. Everyone was expressing the same emotion: awe.
While we stared at the sky in amazement, the light began to get brighter. The woman in front of me started jumping up and down. I began to smile in anticipation. The sun was peaking out from the horizon, rising to greet this new morning. Its blazing orange color stood in stark contrast to the purple skies surrounding it. We collectively sighed with appreciation at this remarkable sight.
As the sun rose higher and higher, I thought to myself what an amazing opportunity this was. I had read Exodus in the Bible. I knew the story of Moses climbing this mountain to receive the Ten Commandments from God. As a child, I remember hearing this story in church and imagining what the mountain would have looked like and how tall it was. However, I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would ever see it, let alone climb to the top and watch the sun rise!
It truly was like a pilgrimage, to climb in the footsteps of Moses and see something so majestic and serene. Whether you are religious or not, the sheer beauty of the nature surrounding you was an amazing experience. As the sky lit up with the new day, I finally was able to look down and see exactly where we were.
Surrounding us were jagged peaks of rock. As I leaned over the edge of the mountain, I saw just how high we were. The mountain is 7,500 feet high, something that I only learned upon my return to Cairo. I felt as if I were at the top of the world right then.
Journeying down the mountain we moved together as a mass of humankind. Slowly stepping back down the way we came I was able to see just how steep some of the areas were. It looked like there were thousands of people in front and behind me on the way down. I shared this amazing moment with so many other people, of all different ages and from all over the world. Seeing their faces, I knew that most everyone appreciated it as much as I did.
In the heat of the sun we journeyed down, finally making it to the base. Here we saw St. Catherine’s Monastery, which is located right at the base of Mount Sinai. The most exceptional part of this was the burning bush. The story from the Bible says that Moses saw this bush that was aflame, but none of its branches were burning. This bush survives in the monastery and we were all allowed to take pictures with it.
Looking forward to the sleep I would get during my nine-hour bus ride, I still did not want to leave the mountain. It was a beautiful experience and in many ways cannot be completely described. In that respect, it was all the more memorable. I don’t have words to describe this experience, but I have the feelings and emotions that come with my memories and that will survive forever.