Sunrise on Mount Sinai
Nestled within the southern part of the Sinai Peninsular, Mount Sinai offers an exhilarating climb which rewards you at the summit with some truly amazing views of this mountainous desert region of Egypt. Moses’ Mountain, as it’s called in Arabic, stands at 2285 metres and is said to be the place where God passed to Moses The Ten Commandments.
Mt Sinai is seldom the primary reason why one might fly to Egypt, but if you find yourself traveling around the Red Sea, it makes a great day, or more appropriately night side trip. Whilst the climb can be done at any part of the day, the majority of people decide to make the ascent at night in time to watch the sunrise from the summit. Most visitors’ arrive by organized tours, these are frequent, cheap and by far the simplest way of reaching the start point. Virtually all hotels and camps will be able to organize this. The foot of Mt Sinai can be reached in two hours from Dahab, an additional hour is required if travelling from Sharm El Shiekh.
From Dahab the usual course of action will start with a pick up around 11pm, when you’ll be whisked away through the night desert in what ever mode of motorized transportation your host has acquired for the 2 hour journey. Arrival time at the foot of the mountain should normally be 1am. The base of the mountain is a hub of activity with traders, shop-keeps and camels’ handlers all biding for your attention. Here visitors are introduced to their Bedouin guide. He’ll explain the biblical significance of the mountain and go over some safety tips. This will also be your last chance to use a “toilet” for a few hours.
Your guide will briskly take lead as you start to climb the mountain, ascending in the dark is truly a surreal experience. With the absence of any electricity and light pollution, the stars truly come to life, meteorites skim the atmosphere, constellations become defined, and the Milky Way twinkles brightly. The sheer beauty of the night sky is best enjoyed while resting, as its best to keep your eyes and touch on your feet while you climb the rocky path to the summit. When you’re not admiring the night sky, you’ll be able to see enormous dark shadows which will start to resemble the neighbouring mountains and slow moving beams of flash lights from the hikers below. The gradient of the track frequently changes, there’ll be parts where it climbs steadily and others where it zig-zags past steep walls. The route is littered with make shift shacks which sell refreshments and snacks. At higher altitudes close to the summit, these shacks rent out blankets and mattresses as it can get very cold before sunrise. The last such shack or “tea house” stands just before the final push to the summit begins. This is also where the camel tours dismount. Oh yes… if your’e not one for putting in the hard work, you can arrange for a camel or donkey to take you most of the way, but be warned riding a camel for a few hours should not be taken lightly. Here you must take the final 750 steep steps up to the summit.
The entire climb takes about three hours, here the wind blows fresh and the temperature can truly get crisp so if you haven’t brought some extra layers to keep you warm, it’s well worth renting a blanket.
At the summit you’ll find a few brave souls who have slept there in anticipation of the morning sun. Most parties arrive well over an hour before sunrise, this maximizes your chances of find that perfect spot where you can await sunrise. The summit is home to a small Greek Orthodox Chapel (closed to the public) and a small Mosque still used by locals. The nature of this sacred place means that it attracts members of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths and one can quite often see people reciting ancient texts, praying and singing hymns as the sunrise. Finally, the bell of the chapel breaks the sound of the wind. This signals the official time of sunrise. One day there may be applause, the next a chorus of hymns. How the crowd at the summit react to the start of the day is often as unpredictable as how a day will unfold. As the sun rises into the clear sky, you start to see the shadows fade away as the surrounding peaks start to turn different shades of red and orange.
Eventually, it’s time to make the return journey. Walking back down the 750 steps is necessary, back to the last shack and return your blanket if you’ve rented one. Now you have to find possible routes back down to normality. You can now take the same route as you came up and take in the view this time in daylight, or a greatly steeper route aptly named the Steps of Penitence. As the sun rises, so will the heat so if you’d rather descend at a faster pace (and many do) aim for the luxury of a shade; the 3750 steps may be more appropriate. The definition of steps is a quite loose, almost as loose as the actual rocks that you’ll be traversing down, but it is the shorter and more direct route which eventually take you to the Saint Catharine’s Monastery at the Base of the mountain.
Famed as the oldest working monastery in the world and dating back to the 6th century (at this particular location). The grounds are open to the public to use the facilities and purchase refreshments. The actual monastery building opens its doors at 9am, meaning for those wanting to take a look inside, you’ll have an hour or so wait, depending on how long it’s taken you to arrive from the summit. Groups are allowed to enter every few minutes after listening to a priest explain that taking pictures, talking and making any noise is strictly prohibited. Frankly, unless you have a particular interest in the field, missing a trip through the monastery is no great loss. However, most organized trips factor the monastery in as part of the trip. If you’re on such a tour, if you descend quickly from the mountain, you’ll have to wait for the monastery to open, be spoken to like a child, be rushed through and then find your transport back at around 10am arriving back in Dahab two hours later. The cost of this entire excursion, including transport, the guide, entrance to the mountain (which by extension to the nature reserve) and entrance to the monastery can be obtained for 120 EL (£12). If you’re not interested in entering Saint Catherine’s Monastery you can get this reduced, but be sure that the pick up arrives at a more appropriate time.
This is a very fine yet demanding fete, partly the physical effort needed and partly concentration needed in the night part of the climb. When you get back to the shores of the red sea after a sleepless night, you’ll have earned a relaxing holiday that most tourists come here for.
It should go without saying that good walking footwear is essential. Ideally carry a backpack with layers of clothing. It will get very cold at night particularly when waiting for the sun to rise at the summit. However, upon returning, the temperatures increase dramatically. Take a bottle of water and bring your wallet as you can replenish your supplies in the many shacks up the mountain. Finally, and surprising often neglected by many visitors, if climbing by night, BRING A TORCH.
Need to Know
There’s no need to follow the stereotypical itinerary outlined in the article. If you’d rather have the summit to yourself, you can climb up during daytime and watch a sunset instead and descend at night. Or if you can take the daytime heat, climb and descend in a day. It’s worth emphasizing that Mt Saini is not the highest mountain in Egypt, neighbouring Mount Catherine with its peak at 2,629 metres is.