When folks find out that I’ve traveled a lot, they always ask me, “Uh, so where’s the coolest place you’ve ever been?”
For a number of reasons, I conjure up the hot and dirty days I spent in Israel, Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula, and Turkey. I was twenty-three, and wandering around the Middle East alone. Just me, a backpack full of film, and my cameras. Stupid, I know. But I apparently had something to prove to the world and myself. I had bought a round-trip ticket to Tel Aviv, figuring I’d nose around the region for a few months and see what kind of stories I could shoot. It was the first time I’d really traveled by myself, and I was itching for an adventure.
From the minute I got off the plane and onto the actual tarmac( No jet way?—to the moment I landed back in the States, I was adventure incarnate.
After spending three or four weeks traversing the Israeli countryside, eating Sabbath dinner with welcoming strangers, sleeping at Kibbutzim, and visiting olive and lemon farms, I decided to head to the Sinai Peninsula. Here was some the best diving on the planet (even though I only knew how to snorkel, it was still amazing!), the site of the famous Mideast Peace talks—and, of course, Mount Sinai.
Mount Sinai is revered as the site where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.
I got off the bus near Saint Catherine’s Monastery, which is at the base of the mountain, and followed a couple of French tourists up the dusty road toward a cluster of ancient-looking buildings. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “But I thought Moses was a Jew? Why is a Greek Orthodox monastery there?” Well, all I can tell you is that this region is the cradle of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. One religion’s holy site is often footsteps away from another’s—as is the case here. In fact, Saint Catherine’s Monastery is built atop the famous “burning bush.”
The temperature was about 120° F in the sun; the shade was slightly more comfortable at about 100° F. I had my big pack on my back (that’s the one with my two changes of clothes, toiletries, Powerbars, and a seemingly endless supply of film), and my camera daypack on my front; my tripod was hooked to the loop on my khakis. I looked like a retarded weeblewobble, for sure. But what did I care? I didn’t know a soul for miles around, and I had a mission to accomplish.
I made my way up the road slowly, having grown accustomed to my geriatric gait in the last few weeks of trekking around with all this stuff, and went in to the visitor’s center. There were a bunch of multilingual signs in Hebrew, Arabic, French, German, and English, offering information about the monastery, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, and the grounds. I browsed through with a handful of other visitors, and after I had used the restroom and filled up my water bottle at the drinking fountain, I was off.
There were only two other people on the trail ahead of me—the French tourists. From the looks of it, I figured they’d gotten a fifteen- to twenty-minute head start. The path was rocky and very dry, and it was hard to be certain where the actual trail was underfoot. For the first hour, there was just a slight incline, so I spent a lot of the time taking in the scenery. Even though it was late morning and the light wasn’t very good, I snapped a few pictures every now and again.
Slowly, I could feel the ground get a little steeper and rockier, so I dug in, kept my eyes on the ground in front of me, and kept plowing up and ahead. My shirt was sweat-soaked, and I was hot, but I was still feeling pretty good. My guidebook said that a person in decent shape could hike the mountain in about four hours. I figured I’d tack on another hour or hour-and-a-half to that, because of my heavy packs. I’d be up on the top well before sunset, and with plenty of time to scope out my shot. So I kept going… making sure to drink my water slowly—in sips, not gulps.
Another hour and a half passed, and the next time I looked up, the French were tiny ants on the landscape! Was I really that slow? I thought I’d been steaming along at a good clip. Had they veered off and taken a different path? Determined to make good time, I kept climbing.
And soon, the peak of the mountain came into view. My heart raced as I scrambled to the top. I looked out across the rocky, treeless horizon, and saw that I was completely alone… on the wrong mountain! NO!!
I let out a pathetic yelp and slumped down on my heels. I, in my infinite wisdom and pigheaded stubbornness, had declined assistance from the Bedouin down at the monastery, and now I was paying the price. I had not hiked up the holiest mountain in all of Judaism—but instead, its taller, lonelier neighbor.
I checked my watch and calculated that it would take me nearly four hours to climb down, and four hours to climb up the correct mountain. If I was lucky, I might get to the top just after sunset. I unwrapped a Powerbar, gulped down some water, and started my descent. I alternated between a jog and a funny-looking fast walk, depending on the terrain. I made it down in good time. And I only toppled over twice.
When I reached the bottom, I saw the Bedouin man and his donkey. I showed him a US $10 bill, and he smiled and patted his donkey’s back. I took off my pack and laid it across the donkey, and hopped on. We didn’t exchange words, only hand gestures and smiles, but it was easy to understand one another. He took me about three-quarters of the way up the mountain, and then motioned for me to get off. I assumed it was because it was getting too steep, but it could’ve been because he was hungry or didn’t want to get stuck on the top after dark. Regardless, he’d saved me a bunch of time and a lot of energy, so I smiled and got down.
I reached the top of Mount Sinai just after the sun had gone below the horizon; I had missed my sunset shot. I saw the French tucked in their sleeping bags (holy crap! I hadn’t thought about where I was going to sleep!) and watching the sky change colors. I found a flattish patch of ground near a big boulder, and took off my packs and tripod. Looking out at the purple horizon, I suspected that not much had changed since the time of Moses. Sure, there was an enterprising Bedouin man selling bottled water out of a makeshift tent, but I was willing to bet that the sunset looked the same in Moses’ time.
As the sky darkened, the temperature dropped quickly, and I was reminded that I was indeed on the top of a mountain, albeit a modest one. I dug into my pack, put on every available piece of clothing I had, and hunkered down for the night.
I didn’t sleep much, partly because it was near freezing (somewhere near 40°F), and partly because I had a sense that I was treading on hallowed ground. I woke before the sun came up, and wandered around with my cameras… looking for something that said Mount Sinai. As the sun peeked over the horizon, I saw the Bedouin water vendor saying his morning prayers. I spent an hour or so shooting and wandering around before heading down the mountain.
As all of this took place before the advent of digital cameras. I didn’t see the image of the man praying on the top of Mount Sinai until months later, when I returned home and had my film processed. A flood of warmth came over me, as I remembered the frustration and moment of panic I felt during that exhausting day in the Sinai. Then I thought, “Wow, that was one of the coolest places I’ve ever been.”
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Photo: Lori Epstein