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Paying My Dues to the Mountain: A Sabbatical Pilgrimage  

By Dorothy Jean Weaver

In the fall of 2002 I was on sabbatical in Cairo , Egypt , teaching several New Testament courses at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (ETSC). During that semester I had the opportunity to join a pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai , or as the Egyptians know it, Jebel Musa (that is, “ Mount Moses ”!). It was an experience I won’t soon forget . . . .  

I had been on the ground in the Middle East only two or, at the most, three days back in the fall of 1995, when I went to Petra ( Jordan ) and "paid my dues to the land."  That took the form of an eight-hour marathon trek in through the amazing and beautiful stone walls of this "city of the dead," up 800 steps to the "Monastery," back down those same 800 steps and back out once again through the site!  . . . But if I "paid my dues to the land" back in 1995-96, I have now "paid my dues to the mountain," Jebel Musa , that is, " Mount Moses " as they call it in Arabic!  This was one of those absolute "must do" activities for this fall semester here in Egypt .  When else will I have a better chance?!  When else will it be as close and accessible… or as inexpensive to get there?! This was a "no-brainer."  There was no question whatsoever.  If the chance arose, I would need to take it!  It did.  And I did.  And therein lies the tale…  

Some 24 of us, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, overnight bags in tow, gathered at St. Andrew's at  8:00 AM one Friday morning, several weeks ago, for the start of a two-day pilgrimage along the route of the Israelites on their "Exodus" from Egypt .  Dave Grafton, Pastor of St. Andrew's, our fearless (and very well-prepared!) leader, gathered us in the apse of the church for a brief introduction and opening prayers; and then we were off.  Our route took us from downtown Cairo north and east, up past our neighborhood here in Abbasiya, and on up through Heliopolis to the road heading east to the Suez Canal .  The first stop on our "pilgrimage" route, just this side of the Sinai Peninsula , was 'Uyun Musa (Spring of Moses), a beautiful little oasis with an ancient well.  This site is associated with the story of Moses and the Israelites at Marah, where Moses turned the water from bitter to sweet.  Here we gathered around the well for a scripture reading from Exodus 15 and a brief meditation (just in time before two more busloads of tourists, one of them European sightseers and the other Egyptian school children, pulled up and swarmed over the site!).  

Then it was on to the Suez Canal and beyond that, the awesome and magnificent barrenness of the Sinai Peninsula . For a while we were driving south along the Gulf of Suez , with beautiful sea vistas off to our right.  Farther on, we headed inland into the heart of the Sinai.  To either side of the road were vast expanses of flat desert floor, brown and barren, "interrupted" every now and then by small scrub growth of one kind or another and the occasional flat-topped acacia tree.  No obvious nourishment here for man, woman, or beast!  Small wonder that the Israelites complained bitterly about thirst!  I can't think of a more terrifying place to be than a vast desert such as this with few obvious sources of water, the most urgent "stuff of life"!  Before you give the Israelites too hard a time for all their complaining, I urge you to come to the Sinai and see what they had to contend with…  

And then there are the mountains… those incredible, massive rock formations rising straight up out of the desert floor, thrust into being from who knows what pre-historic pressures in the heart of the earth!  No forewarning here, no foothills, no gently rising terrain to hint at the steep ascents to come… just flat desert floor and then, without any warning, steep rock walls climbing high into the sky!  And barren!  O how incredibly barren!  Not a tree, not a bush, not any noticeable ground cover of any kind!  These are not the beautifully carpeted mountains of Virginia , covered bottom to top with deciduous trees, glorious in their vivid fall foliage and exquisite in their gentle spring greens.  Nor are they the stunningly beautiful slopes of the Swiss Alps, covered as high as the air will permit with tall, stately evergreen trees and topped year-round with snow and ice.  No!  These mountains are a veritable moonscape, as bleak and barren as the desert floor out of which they rise, and even more "treeless"!  But there is unbelievable grandeur in these mountains, precisely in their steep rock walls and their forbidding and barren heights.  If there are mountains like these anywhere else in the world, I have not yet seen them.  This is the world of Moses and the " mountain of God "!  

Our next "pilgrimage" site was Wadi Feiran, a lush and beautiful oasis in the midst of all the barrenness.  Here we stopped at a Greek Orthodox convent, with lovely gardens and a beautiful little church, where we ate our lunch under a shelter of palm branches and read the story from Exodus 17 of the Israelites at Rephidim (where they once again complained to Moses about having no water and where they defeated the Amalekites in battle while Aaron and Hur held up the hands of Moses).  And then we had the first of an (excellent!) series of ""Reflections" by Dave on Egeria, a fourth-century pilgrim, Spanish perhaps, who traveled to the Holy Land and wrote detailed accounts of her experiences for the benefit of the other sisters in her convent "back home."  Egeria's pilgrimage included a trip to the " mountain of God ," a journey which she describes in fascinating detail.  So throughout our pilgrimage we followed along behind Moses and the Israelites… and the early Christian pilgrim Egeria as well.  It was a journey rich in many ways!   It was late afternoon, coming up on dusk, before we finally arrived at St. Catherine's Monastery, a walled fortress huddled on the desert floor right at the foot of Jebel Musa , " Mount Moses ."  Dave had arranged for us to spend the night (such as it was!) right at the monastery, in the guest rooms there that have recently been renovated for none other than the entourage of Pope John Paul II!  It was a wonderful gift to be located there, rather than in some tourist hotel!  The view of the mountain from below was nothing short of breathtaking… and to a "timid" mountain climber like myself, "intimidating" beyond belief.  I took one look at the sheer rock walls rising up just beyond our courtyard and inquired out loud, for whoever wished to answer, just which mountain it was which we were going to climb!  What I saw in front of me looked totally inaccessible to ordinary human beings with ordinary mountain-climbing skills!  How in the world had Moses and Egeria and all those thousands of pilgrims over the years ever arrived at the top of this awesome and forbidding rock wall?!

  I didn't have long to wait for my answer.  We had a lovely dinner in the guesthouse dining room at  7:00 PM , then another biblical meditation and a new "Reflection" on Egeria's experiences climbing the mountain.  And by that time it was about 9:00 PM .  I was fading fast, as it was, the morning having been quite an early one for me, and the day long and tiring.  And I knew that 2:00 AM (sic!) would come unmercifully soon!  So I called it a day and tucked myself in.  The beds were excellent!  But my sleep system wasn't cooperating.  So I spent the next few hours lying awake, pondering the mountain climb just ahead and listening to the "people sounds" coming from the courtyard just outside our door.  Who knows?  I may actually have gotten an hour or so of sleep.  But at one o'clock sharp one of my roommates was already stirring; and at 1:30 I joined her.  I pulled on my clothes, checked that the essentials were in my bag (cameras, film, sesame bars), grabbed my water bottle, and headed out to the courtyard…  

It was "Grand Central Station" out there by this time, a fact that I could hear well before I left the room.  The courtyard was filled with dozens and dozens of people, several hundred most likely, most of whom had arrived at St. Catherine's from other tourist hotels nearby or come directly on tour buses from Sharm El Sheikh.  People were talking and laughing with each other, the canteen was doing a brisk business in beverages and snack foods, and nearby an Egyptian tour guide had "corralled" his group of German tourists and was holding forth in an outstanding German accent.  As we stood there, waiting for the rest of our group to arrive, I saw one small contingent of climbers march off quietly across the courtyard, climb the stairs leading to the roadway above, and head off into the darkness, the first of the large caravan to follow…  

Our route took us up the stairs of the guesthouse courtyard, along the road leading up to the monastery, then down a flight of stairs, around the fortress walls of St. Catherine's, and out into the darkness.  The first "way station" on our path was the "camel staging area" just beyond the monastery.  There were literally dozens and dozens of camels here, lying patiently in the dark and waiting, while their camel drivers persistently recruited riders.  Part of the trek up the mountain was, in fact, "camel accessible"; and the camel drivers were out in force.  We walked resolutely on past, uttering countless "La, shukran's" (No, thank you!) to the camel drivers along the path, and started our long, slow trek up the mountain. 

    It was an extraordinary setting… and a breathtaking sight.  The night sky over our heads was brilliant with stars; and our human entourage, on the desert floor far below, was itself a ribbon of moving "lanterns" snaking up towards the mountainside in front of us and trailing on behind, as far as we could see.  Ahead of us in the darkness loomed the huge black hulk of Jebel Musa and off in other directions, the black outlines of the lesser mountains nearby.  The 2:00 AM air was blessedly cool; and a full moon cast its gentle light on the climbing expedition.    

The path itself was crowded… with people and with beasts.  We were hundreds of miles from the dangerous streets of Cairo ; but all the same we needed to watch out constantly for the traffic from behind!  Every few minutes, it seemed, there was a "camel alert"; and we would "hit" the edges of the path to get out of the way of these lumbering beasts, laboring up the mountain, singly or in caravan, with their riders in the saddle and their drivers on behind!  The people traffic was heavy as well, but not so dangerous.  Some of them were, to be sure, young "whiz kids" in the "fast lane," who passed us up in a hurry as we trudged up the mountain.  But there were many others, just like us, on the "slow track."  My climbing partner was Ruth, a lovely Welsh woman from our St. Andrew's group, someone whose climbing pace matched my own amazingly well.  We were both keenly aware that this was a not a race but an endurance test.  And we climbed accordingly, with countless little stops along the way, and encouraged each other step by step up the mountain.  Ruth was an absolute godsend! 

Every now and then we came to little huts built along the pathway as concession stands and liberally stocked with beverages and snack foods.  We had been told that the prices got higher as the path went up.  So I labelled the first of these the "5 pound" stop; and I continued counting, adding 5 pounds each time to the supposed price, as we climbed higher and passed still more concession huts.  I think we had arrived at the "40 pound" stop by the time we reached the top of the mountain.  Who knows what the prices really were!  We didn't buy anything at all.  We simply stopped, sat on their stone benches covered with Bedouin blankets, and rested along with the crowd gathered there; and then we picked ourselves up and headed on up the mountain.  

For several hours we followed the (relatively easy!) switchback path up the back side of the mountain.  The walkway was wide and flat, if liberally strewn with rock outcroppings to be avoided.  But then came the terrifying moment when we looked at the ribbon of light up ahead of us and realized that the "lanterns" were going straight up the steep rock wall!  OH, HELP!  And in just a few moments we ourselves arrived at the "cutting," where all the camel riders had to dismount.  From here on up it would be genuine climbing all the way, on exceedingly rough stone "steps" going vertically up the mountainside!  These steps would be a major challenge at any time of day, but most especially in the dark of early morning.  With the large crowd of climbers immediately up ahead, it was difficult to see where the path was headed or to search out secure footing visually in advance.  Surely there was an entire legion of "guardian angels" somewhere right in my vicinity that night, doing overtime duty to see that I didn't lose my footing or turn one of my  (two!) weak ankles!  The potential for personal injury was immediate and immense!

But God was gracious!  Just before 5:00 AM , three long and exhausting hours after we had set out on our trek, Ruth and I, in the midst of the crowd before and behind, finally climbed up the last little stretch to the summit of Jebel Musa !  We had made it!  Safely… and without major--or even minor--incident!  Just past the "40 pound" concession stand we staked out our "claims" on the rocks nearby, in the midst of the wall-to-wall press of people, and sat down to await the sunrise.  I have heard tell that there is a church up there.  I have even seen photos of it.  But we never got that far.  We simply stayed put on our rocks and rested.  Nearby the concession folks were noisily hawking "Mattresses!  Blankets!  Coffee!  Chocolate!"  And the crowd around us was alive with good cheer and languages of all description.  An Italian man right next to me practically lost his balance and fell onto the folks nearby as he tried to maneuver into position on the rocks; and his wife scolded him loudly for simply saying "Scuzi"!  (Mind you, I don't really know Italian!  But I think I caught the drift of that interchange!) 

  So we sat and waited, almost an entire hour, Ruth at a little remove from me.  So there I was, "alone" in the midst of the wall-to-wall crowd.  Surely there would be profound thoughts that one could think while seated on the top of Mount Sinai , weighty reflections on the significance of life and faith.  But none of them came to me… no profound thoughts, no weighty reflections, nothing at all like that.  Instead I was caught up with the sheer, powerful emotion--massive amazement and relief, I think it was--that follows the accomplishment of an impossible hurdle, or perhaps, the safe emergence from a terrifying danger.  I had actually made it up that mountain, 715 meters (2145 feet?) high off the desert floor, surely the biggest physical hurdle that I have ever faced; and I was now seated safely on the summit!  I wanted to cry…  

The sky turned light by infinitesimal degrees; and then the sun was there, rising up above the mountains and the clouds on the horizon, a small red ball in the desert sky.  Ruth and I didn't waste any time.  We knew that the pathway down would be exactly as long as the pathway up.  (There was in fact a shorter--and steeper!--set of steps that we could have taken down the mountain.  But neither of us wanted anything steeper than what we had already encountered.)  So we picked ourselves up and headed back down the steps towards the "cutting" and the flat pathway beyond.  The views out over the mountain and the desert floor far below were magnificent in the early morning sunlight!  I hope that my photos will do them even just a small measure of justice!    

Our trek down the mountain was faster and easier than the ascent, but nevertheless long and slow.  Was it really possible that we had trudged all that way uphill in the dark of night?!  The last mile of our trek seemed the longest of them all.  The monastery seemed eternally distant, even from the foot of the mountain!  But at  8:00 AM , in the bright desert sunlight, we finally arrived back in the guesthouse courtyard… exhausted, ravenous, and triumphant!  We had made it!  Al hamdulillah!  And thank God as well!  Breakfast that morning was for me a rare act of celebration!  I had now "paid my dues to the mountain"!