The third leg of this journey takes us to the southern part of the Sinai desert. Despite security concerns from militant groups, recent bombings of airplanes and the harsh desert climate, this region has a sporadic bunch of settlements and tribes that call it home. One of these tribes is the Bedouin of Jebelaya, who will be our companions for the next leg of this journey of discovery. The word Bedouin, comes from the Arabic Bedawi meaning “desert dweller”. Nothing could be truer – the expert indigenous knowledge in these herds man, salt traders and camel caravan leaders remains one of the most valuable commodities within this barren and unforgiving landscape. The historian Ibn Battuta reported as far back as the 14th century that the Bedouin were lifesaving guides and local experts in the region – knowledge spanning generations back, until the present day. Beyond trading and herding, the rich oral histories and poetry contained in the cultural envelope of this region is the root of the rich cultural legacy of these people. Something they share freely and willingly with travellers who join them on their travels across the desert.
Our journey starts in a little town called El Tor on the South Western part of the Sinai. We are met by our local Bedouin contact Saalim who takes us to a camel riding school, so we can learn how to master this amazing ship of the desert – our thrones for the next 5 days. The camel school takes you through the journey of saddling the camel, how to ride and how to interact, rest and hobble, or tie the camel. These amazing animals are expertly adapted to the terrain and climate. Stubborn and smelly as they are – they at many times do mean the difference between life and death out in the sandy expanse of the Sinai. Our classes took 2 days to complete – and once we had learned how to master this amazing animal – we set off on our trek.
Lets be clear – this was no tourist day trip. The Bedouin are tradesman, taking rock salt from the mines by camel back to the port of Taba in the central north of the Sinai, from where its sold to other countries in the region. Our party joins them on this weekly trip, via the central Sinai. Day one takes us out toward the barren interior of the Sinai. The camel, as the ship of the desert, rocks from side to side, like an ocean vessel. It almost lulls one to sleep, except the core strength it requires to maintain posture and control keeps you focused. The beauty of the desert is inspiring. It is easy to see how tales of 1001 Arabian nights and T.E. Lawrence got their imaginations carried away in this environment. The peaks, and valleys, the relief and comfort of the cool oases, the hot sands at prayer time and the cold evenings at the camp fire all combine to create the perfect canvas.
On day two we arrive at Mount Sinai – Jebel Musa (Mountain of Musa). The biblical and Qur’anic traditions teach us that this is the mountain Nabi Musa ascended to receive the 10 commandments. As a spiritual and cultural journey, this was an important part of our trip. We leave the camels behind and start the hike up Mount Sinai, toward the summit. The hike up is very rocky but the views are stunning and the air is crisp and fresh. There is a noticeable change in temperature as we ascend, despite this being the middle of the desert. With the sun fading we camp over night just shy of the summit. The greatest hotel room on this planet – a sleeping bag and a billion stars! Despite all the many millions of megapixles, 4 cameras and multiple lenses, nothing could capture the beauty on that mountain during the evening. We woke at 4 am, and began our trek up toward the summit. The sunrise over the valley, across the desert and the memory of Prophet Moses being on this very path echoing in our minds as we take the last steps toward the summit. This mountain has seen the footsteps of 3 major Islamic prophets – Nabi Musa, Nabi Harun and Nabi Muhammed (SAW).
At the very top there are two structures – a church and a mosque. We prayed morning prayers in this little mosque. An amazing experience in its own right. Enjoying a breakfast at the very top – we started our descent back down the mountain, no commandments in hand, but the list playing in our thoughts as we took the path back down to where our camels were awaiting our arrival hours later.
The caravan then continued toward St Catharine’s Monastery, one of the oldest working monasteries in the world. Originally built 500 years following the current era, the working monastery has been a place of refuge, learning and relief for many travellers over the centuries. A significant stop as one crosses the Sinai, the compound has been strategic for many many years. The biblical burning bush is said to be in the gardens of the monastery. Beyond this, during the time of Muslim rule, the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) visited the sacred sight. Being the brilliant strategist politically, militarily and socially, the holy Prophet issued a decree from this site known as the Ashtiname of Muhammad. This important historical document, among others was housed in the monastery library for a significant period, before being moved to the Topkapi Palace in modern day Istanbul. The document guarantees protection and other privileges to the followers of Jesus, travellers not of the Islamic faith and promotes tolerance and fellowship within the region. Most importantly, it offers protection and makes defence of other religions obligatory on Islamic forces, however makes no such requirement on any other faiths to join in the Muslim battles and armies while under their protection. It is essentially a Book of Peace – literal translations – and is indicative of the foresight and diplomacy in every action of this, the greatest of all human beings. The document its self is signed with a handprint of the holy Prophet of Islam, and is certainly a must see. The monestary has a mosque in its walls as evidence of this agreement with the Muslim world then, till the present day. We spent some time exploring the library and other historical treasures in this monastery before again finding our camels and continuing on our journey across the Sinai.
The next part of our journey takes us along a number of Wadis (dry river beds) and Canyons within the Sinai. We saw the White Canyon and the Wadi Freah, Hiking through these canyons and amazing geological features really gives one a sense of perspective – the smallness of who you are in the enormity of the planet we call home. So far removed, no communication – no phones, no whatsap, no Instagram – just the desert and your thoughts. This is tranquillity. On day 4 we arrived at a port called Taba, on the eastern side of the Sinai. Did I experience something – YES. Did I learn something – YES. Did I come out a richer person – Most certainly. Then on Camel back, in this very harsh, challenging trip – we found the Mountain of Moses, the place where the basis of morality emerged in the 10 commandments. I cant explain it – but I almost feel older…and if with age comes wisdom – perhaps some knowledge came along with the sand in my shoes. Knowledge not only of the people, the place and the history, but knowledge of myself, my life and the purpose of coming here. This must be the ultimate reward of this journey.
History is being threatened here. As the Bedouin become more urbanised and forego their nomadic lifestyle, these skills, traditions and the centuries old knowledge is slowly being lost in the newer generations. The impact of the loss in tourism similarly forces new generations to leave the area and the culture is therefore at threat for future generations. My hope is that as time goes on, more people start returning to the Sinai. More still discover this place for the first time, do these peoples will find a market hungry to experience their cultures and traditions. Not commodification of the culture as much as sharing this experience with the world. The 256 km journey took us from the modern city of Cairo, to El Tor, Through history religion and culture and out on the other end at Taba. National Geographic calls this the number one new trail in the world – We call it a-must-tick on our bucket list – you should add it to yours.
Join us, next week, as we follow our path toward the Rose City.
Scientist, Adventurer, Rock Climber, Author, Eternal student
Cape Town, Republic of South Africa
Facebook: Saahier Parker