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Monastery of St. Catherine, 1996.  This Greek Orthodox monastery, established around 550 AD,  is situated in the middle of the southern Sinai desert at the base of the mountain believed to be Mt. Sinai, the site at which Moses is believed to have received the Ten Commandments.  St. Catherine's was originally called "The Monastery of the Burning Bush," because the monastery's main church enclosed the site of the bush from which God was supposed to have spoken to Moses.  There is evidence from as early as the third century AD that hermits settled in this area because they believed this to have been the actual site of Mt. Sinai and the Burning Bush; however, there is no archeological evidence to support this tradition.  Nevertheless, by the fourth century there were monks living in this area, and Christian pilgrims began to visit it, and we can only surmise that they knew of some oral traditions, now lost to us, that associated Mt. Sinai with this particular location.

St. Catherine was a legendary Christian martyr from Alexandria, Egypt, who died in 307 AD.  The monastery was renamed for her in the ninth century, after miracles associated with her relics gained fame among European pilgrims.



Church Bell, Mt. Sinai Summit at dawn, 1996.  St. Catherine's is a favorite starting point for the traditional midnight trek up Mt. Sinai.  The objective is to make it to the summit in time to see the sun rise.  The ascent in the dark can be strenuous and sometimes even dangerous.  One may choose to ascend via the ancient "Steps of Penitence," following in the millenia-old footsteps of monks and pilgrims who labored up these 2,000 steep, rock-hewn steps in atonement for their sins.  Or one may ride a camel most of the way up and then ascend only the last 700 steps.  When my husband and I made this trek, it was pleasantly cool, the moon was nearly full, and the scenery was spectacular.  As we hiked we could look back down several thousand feet of trail and see a continuous procession of flashlights winding up the mountain.  Every so often a camel and rider would stride unexpectedly out of the shadows, the camel groaning at us and forcing us on to the margins of the narrow path. 

The summit was crowded with tea kiosks and strewn with sleeping hikers.  As the sun began to rise, the scenery around us was transformed - on all sides there were mountains and valleys of dead alien rock, sharp-edged crags only slightly softened by the haziness of the morning light. 

After sunrise, Orthodox Christians celebrated the dawn service in the tiny church perched on the summit.  A Catholic priest climbed down the rocks, lugging his cups and wine and wafers with him, and began to celebrate mass on one of the niches below the summit.  Then a Korean choir began to sing hymns.  As the sounds of worship mingled in the air, the hordes of waking hikers became quiet and listened.


Pilgrims Descending Mt. Sinai, 1996.  After the dawn service on Sinai's summit, a steady stream of people pour off the mountain.  Here you can see the steep "Steps of Penitence," which were constructed using rocks that just happened to be lying around, and thus are sometimes three times as tall as a normal step. 

Mt. Sinai (known locally as Jabal Musa or Mt. Moses) is the second highest mountain in Egypt (6,800 ft.).  The tallest in Egypt is its neighbor, Mt. Catherine (8,200 ft.).  The range of which they are a part is the most rugged area of Egypt.  The mountains are composed of igneous rock (granite and schist) that was thrust up eons ago by the collision of the African and Arabian tectonic plates along the Great Rift Valley.  The mountains were then exposed to intense erosion, which sculpted them into an eerie, almost alien landscape.

 The region is too barren to permit much agriculture, but Bedouin nomads have inhabited the area for centuries, and some of the wadis (valleys) support small farming communities.   Most of these communities grow date palms, which require little water.

Ben Ezra Synagogue, Old Cairo (1995)
This synagogue is built over a well that the local community believes to be the site where Moses was pulled from the river Nile.  There have been synagogues on this site since at least 400 BC, and though the Jewish community in Cairo is dwindling, there are still Jewish families living in Old Cairo.  This synagogue was also the location of the "Cairo Geniza" - a collection of  thousands of documents describing commercial transactions throughout the Mediterranean, written in Judeo-Arabic - a genuine treasure trove for historians.

Baba Shenouda blesses the chocolates, 1996.  A group of students from the American University in Cairo interviewed Baba Shenouda III, the Coptic Patriarch, about Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt and about his efforts to facilitate the unification of all Christian denominations.  We found him to be friendly, engaging, and genuinely interested in our comments.  He also showered us with free copies of his books and chocolates.  Here you see Baba Shenouda blessing the chocolates as he hands them out.  (That's me with the black sweater and the chocolates clutched in my fist.)

Copyright 1999 Indira Falk Gesink

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