The Sinai

Three Sinai Mountains

There are three particularly striking mountains around Saint Catherine’s. Each is just a few kilometres from the town and can be reached and hiked comfortably within a day by folk familiar with mountain treks.

1) The most popular is Jebel Musa (2,285m) the mountain remembered as Mount Sinai, the place Moses received the Ten Commandments.

2) The remains of a half-built stone palace at the top of Jebel Abbas (2,383m).

3) The highest peak in the Sinai and the whole of Egypt is Jebel Katharina (2,637m).

For every walk out of town in the wadis and mountains, it is necessary to take a local guide with you. Book the day before and give them your ID so that the guide can get the necessary permission from the authorities. You can book a guide through Fox Camp or Sheik Mousa’s Bedouin Camp. They will take a hefty commission but it is the simplest way until you can get to know guides personally.

Hiring a Bedouin guide helps significantly with the economy and puts everyone’s minds at rest. Someone explained to me that when people try to walk without a guide it is like having a stranger in your garden. Bedouin guides add significantly to the day’s experience whether they are showing you native plants, rocks and water sources, sharing food and beverages, or simply being a quiet companion.

Jebel Musa / Mount Sinai (2,285m) 

Jebel Mousa means the Mountain of Moses. It is thought to be the place where God spoke to Moses from a burning bush and told him to go and bring the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to worship the Lord on this mountain. After completing this task God spoke and gave the Ten Commandments to Moses and all the people of Israel from the mountain. 
Old painting of Moses on Jebel Mousa
A depiction of Moses and the Burning Bush

There are two main ways up Jebel Mousa which start at Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the head of Wadi el-Deir. The ‘Path of Penance’ involves a climb of 3,750 steps. 

The more common gradual route taken by the camels has been made into a well-used path winding around the mountain. There are a series of stone Bedouin huts along the way where you can sit, rest and purchase refreshments. At the end of the camel trail, there are 750 steps to the summit.

A bedouin store on the way up mount sinai
A bedouin store on the way up Mount Sinai

Up to a hundred tourists may be taken up the mountain in tour groups during the night. They come to watch the sunrise. It can get very cold waiting for the first gleam of dawn in the early hours, especially in the winter, so come prepared. Near the top Bedouin hire out blankets, hot soup, coffee, and tea to those who need it.

Climbing mount sinai in the sinai desert
A bedouin store on the way up Mount Sinai

Smaller numbers go up to see the sunset. The benefit of climbing the mountain during the day is that there are far fewer people and one can enjoy the views going up and down.

Saint Catherine's monastery at the base of Mount Sinai

Saint Catherine’s Monastery near the base of the mountain is well worth a visit on your way up or down the mountain. It is open 8 am – 6 pm and its museum and church 9:30 am-11:30 am except for Sundays and holidays.

Jebel Abbas Basha (2,383m)

Looking west from Saint Catherine town a fortress-like building can be seen at the top of Mount Abbas. This mountain was named after Abbas Pasha, the viceroy of Egypt under the Ottomans from 1848 to 1854, and successor to the great reformer Mohamed Ali. Abbas suffered from asthma and possibly pneumonia. His doctors advised him to spend time in a dry climate, so he chose this spot in the middle of the Sinai to build a residential palace. He also ordered the camel path to be built up Jebel Mousa. Unfortunately for him, he died before he got to live there, and the construction was halted before completion.  

A few hours’ ascent leads you away from the business and concerns of human activity into the beauty and serenity of the mountain. There is love as vast as the oceans in these mountains that can make the human heart live again. A Sinai poet Seliman Abdel Rahman Abu Anas expresses it well:  

Oh valley, your love is a home for the soul’s joy
Whenever I see you my heart grows

I come to you in longing full of pains
My soul returns to me as I approach your grounds

Bedouin brewing coffee at mount abbas
On the way my guide Youseph showed me how to find water in the mountain and brewed delicious coffee.
On a clear day the summit of Abbas has magnificent views to Jebel Mousa and Jebel Katharina, as well as to Saint Cathrines town which can be seen in this picture.
The way up and down the wadis pass by garden orchards which bear blossom in the spring and fruits in the summer and autumn months.

Jebel Katharina (2,637m)

Jebel Katharina is about 5km due south of Saint Catherine’s. You can start from anywhere in town. The initial track out of town is used by the Bedouin and their goats. It leads up the wadi past a series of gardens that are tended in the summer months. 

I did the walk with a quiet and gentle elderly guide. He settled in the shade two-thirds of the way up and waited for me there. A dog also attached himself to us and accompanied me from town to the summit and back again. He was also very pleasant company and seemed to enjoy the day out as much as we did. 

At the top, we met a wonderful character from Israel who made a fire and a brew. We had a delightful conversation about the purpose and joy of life. It felt as though we had known one another all our lives. 

That day the air was clear and the views in every direction were spectacular. We were able to see the southern edges of the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt to the west, across the Gulf of Aqaba to Saudi Arabia to the east and the beginnings of the lower desert to the north of the Sinai. 

There is a hermit’s cottage near the top followed by a Russian/Greek Orthodox Church at the summit. There is a visitor’s book where you can sign your name and read other travellers’ comments. 

Once out of town, the silence is deafening. It literally rings in your ears! Sit, listen to, and absorb the silence as much as you can. See if you can carry a little of it home with you in your heart.

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