Saint Catherine, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt

October 2, 2019

The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up.

Exodus 19:20

Jebeliya Bedouins had always believed one of the barren peaks in southern Sinai Peninsula to be where Moses received the Ten Commandments from Yahweh. Religious tradition, not archaeological evidence, placed the biblical Mount Sinai at what the desert dwellers called Jabal Musa (Mount Moses). This belief was further cast in stone some 1,500 years ago with the founding of Saint Catherine’s Monastery in its shadow by early Christians – St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, among them. The tradition had endured to this day when modern believers would troop to the mountain in organized tours – my sister and me among them.

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TTT @ Mount Sinai, Egypt
Mount Sinai
Tour Guide Mina Waheed and a Bedouin Camel Whisperer @ Mount Sinai

After a quick visit to the monastery, our tour group splintered into rickety cabs that took us to the foot of the holy mountain. The summit was accessible either on foot or by camel. We opted for the latter more for experience than convenience. Bedouin camel whisperers awaited us at the trailhead and led each one to our own beast of burden. Mine grunted before I even mounted, perhaps complaining about the impending chubby load.

Trekking Commandments @ Mount Sinai
TTT with Camel Whisperer @ Mount Sinai

My camel negotiated the circuitous gravel path called Siket El Bashait, longer but less steep than the hiking trail intriguingly called Steps of Repentance, for a little over an hour. I had ridden one before in Morocco; I anticipated shooting off the ground once it stood on its long legs. Just as soon as we were off in an unsteady gait, the herder unceremoniously left his camel and me to our own devices. I momentarily panicked like a passenger in a running vehicle abandoned by the driver.

Elena on a Camel @ Mount Sinai
Fang @ Siket El Bashait, Mount Sinai
Siket El Bashait @ Mount Sinai

Soon, I realized the animal actually knew the way as if on autopilot. It simply lumbered up the winding trail without human intervention, perhaps a hundred times in its lifetime. Every wobbly step took a leap of faith as it occasionally veered to the left and pebbles in its wake tumbled down the steep, rocky mountainside. I could easily join the pebbles down the slope should the camel decide to shake me off its hump. I was left with no choice but to trust the good graces and surefootedness of my four-legged ride.

TTT @ Siket El Bashait, Mount Sinai
Siket El Bashait @ Mount Sinai
Camel Caravan @ Siket El Bashait, Mount Sinai

Whatever trepidation I felt on the back of the camel was easily overcome by the breathtaking view. At times I literally held air in while steadying my phone to take photos. For someone from a lush tropical country, the utter lack of vegetation was otherworldly. Not one tree was in sight. The barrenness of desert mountains mimicked Martian landscapes. The late afternoon light gleamed on dust and rocks as it cast eerie shadows on the furrows of jagged slopes. I caught the long shadow of our own camel caravan evoking silhouette depictions of the Three Wise Men. The truth of the matter was we were all on a journey to have an audience with God.

Siket El Bashait @ Mount Sinai
Siket El Bashait @ Mount Sinai

Amidst the potentially unforgiving desolation, the occasional roadside kiosk stocked with soft drinks and snacks became a sight for sore eyes, not so much an eyesore. It was reassuring to know that this was not the harsh wilderness of biblical proportions. Rather, it was a controlled environment by pilgrimage tourism. My thoughts wandered to the time of Moses. He certainly did not have the luxury of convenience stores in the middle of nowhere and was known to strike rocks for a gush of potable water. Moreover, his divine encounter was nothing short of cataclysmic, heralding the physical appearance of God.

Now all of Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. 

Exodus 19:18
Pitstop @ Siket El Bashait, Mount Sinai
Siket El Bashait @ Mount Sinai
Siket El Bashait @ Mount Sinai
Siket El Bashait @ Mount Sinai

Miraculously, my unattended camel delivered me to the appropriate destination in one piece. The final pit stop was 750 steps short of the summit. This base camp was an oasis of sorts: a teahouse for refreshments for both humans and their furry friends – camels, donkeys, and at least one cat. At about 2,000 meters ASL, I could not get enough of the commanding view of crinkled earth and glassy sky. As we were paired with our own camel at the trailhead, we each had the option of hiring a Bedouin guide for the final leg of the ascent. Ours was not a young, adventurous group; we all went with guides.

Cat and Camel @ Mount Sinai
TTT and Summit Manager @ Mount Sinai
Final Pitstop @ Mount Sinai
Philippine Flag Represent! @ Mount Sinai

Mine was a hefty, sturdy man named Salaam who had been working in the mountain for 25 years. Before we took to the summit, he pointed at a bowl-shaped plateau called Elijah’s Basin. Right at the center stood the only trees I ever saw on the mountain. A pair of cypress marked the spot where the prophet heard the voice of God.

Elijah got up, ate and drank, and the food gave him enough strength to walk forty days to Sinai, the holy mountain. There he went into a cave to spend the night. Suddenly the Lord spoke to him, “Elijah, what are you doing here?”

1 Kings 19:8-9

I had confused the story’s setting with Mount Horeb, the name I mentioned in my video. Different biblical texts used Sinai and Horeb interchangeably and so did I. Salaam, however, corrected me and explained that they were two distinct mountains in the same cluster, the third being Mount Catherine, the highest in Egypt.

Elijah’s Basin @ Mount Sinai
Elijah’s Basin @ Mount Sinai
TTT @ Mount Sinai

Guiding tourists and pilgrims from all over the world had expanded Salaam’s pep talk repertoire. Two Tagalog expressions he knew were spot-on to whip me up into hauling myself up the mountain: tara na (let’s go!) and dahan-dahan (he translated it himself as “slowly but surely”). I needed such push to climb the final 750 steps to the summit. A couple in our group gave up and retreated to base camp. The treacherously jagged outcrop was reason enough to have a trekking partner to hold on to like a crutch.

Moment of Truth @ 750 Climbing Steps, Mount Sinai
TTT @ 750 Climbing Steps, Mount Sinai
TTT and Salaam @ Mount Sinai
TTT @ 750 Climbing Steps, Mount Sinai
Almost at the Summit! @ Mount Sinai

Salaam and I finally summited in over half an hour. In God’s perfect time, we caught the sunset that had painted pastels and shadows on the crumpled canvas of the landscape and the glossy sheet of the firmament. The soft chilly breeze wiped dry the sweat of climbing.

This sensory and spiritual space at 2,285 meters up took me back to a childhood memory of a National Geographic photo that left an emotional impact on me. It was of a man sitting at the summit of a rocky mountain at sundown, looking out to the barren landscape. I could feel the loneliness and sense of isolation emanating from the page. Four decades later, my Bedouin guide took a photo of me on the Sinai summit that looked uncannily similar: the landscape, the sunset, the pose, the emotions. I was stunned.

TTT @ Summit of Mount Sinai
Summit Kitty @ Mount Sinai
TTT, Sis, and Our Grandfather’s Dog Tag @ Mount Sinai
Sunset @ Mount Sinai

Moses alone shall come near the Lord, but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him.

Exodus 24:2

In the Old Testament, only Moses was allowed to tread on holy ground and witness the presence of God. The new covenant had since allowed my sister and me to enter this space of grace. There was no isolation and separation. We broke into a teary rendition of How Great Thou Art.

Our spirit wept as we intoned the names of our parents and grandparents whose faith had eventually led us here. “The legacy of faith for all those who came before us: Lolo Pedro, Lola Natang, Dad, and Mom,” my sister made a roll call and added our living siblings, “Bar and Noy.” By God’s grace, our family was whole again in spirit. I clutched at a memento from my grandfather that my mother had given me. I brought something of him to this sacred mountain as a symbol of his own journey of faith. My Instagram post was thus captioned:

Mom gave me her father’s metal identity tag when he was a young man. Lolo Pedro eventually became a Baptist minister, I brought it with me to the Holy Land to honor him and our parents for their legacy of faith. This was taken at sunset on the summit of Mt. Sinai. Like Moses, Lolo Pedro was not able to physically visit the Promised Land, but he will be in our hearts in a kind of transfiguration as we tour Israel.

Summit @ Mount Sinai
Chapel of the Holy Trinity @ Mount Sinai
Chapel of the Holy Trinity @ Mount Sinai
TTT @ Mount Sinai

The rock from which Yahweh hewed the tablets of the Ten Commandments was said to be under lock and key in the Chapel of the Holy Trinity on the summit. The original fourth-century Orthodox chapel was rebuilt as recently as the 1930s. To the south lay the Cave of Moses, a crevasse on the rocky ground accessed by a small staircase, where he waited for God’s law in stone for forty days and nights.

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there; I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”

Exodus 24:12
The Cave of Moses @ Mount Sinai
My Favorite Sister @ The Cave of Moses, Mount Sinai

More than 3,000 years later, my sister said a prayer of gratitude at the very spot:

We thank you Lord for this opportunity to come here and celebrate your goodness and your faithfulness in our lives. And we thank you Lord for blessing us and guiding us throughout this whole trip. Thank you for establishing us in families like ours. We also pray for everybody who is in need of your help now. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Loida P. Mayo

Darkness had fallen when we returned to base camp. The group opted to retrace the trail on foot guided mainly by moonlight and the occasional torchlight from passing Bedouins. Only my sister had the blind faith to ride down the slopes in pitch blackness on a wobbly camel. By the time we all descended the mountain of God, the heavens had likewise descended upon the land. Sky and earth were enveloped in the same space of grace.

Moon Over Mount Sinai

*****

This post is dedicated to my grandfather, Rev. Pedro C. Cachopero. Glory to God for the legacy of faith!

Rev. Pedro Cabalinan Cachopero (April 2, 1897 – July 21, 1940)

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