National Geographic Traveller (UK)




Saint Catherine’s Monastery stood alone in the centre of the South Sinai desert, hunched and quiet like an aged Madonna in the shadow of the peaks.

Hidden inside this layer cake of brick and mosaic walls lay the very bush which had burned before Moses, so they told me, although the sacred shrubbery itself was firmly hidden from sight, cordoned-off by local policemen wary of Islamic State remnants that lingered in the area.

Our ascent was made at midnight, our path guided by the light of the full moon. I was hiking with a small group of Alexandria­n teenagers. We stopped briefly at corrugated huts that straddled the route up the silvery mountainsi­de, drinking mint tea and looking out over the black gully beneath us.

The landscape was the most alien I’d ever seen. When I looked for shapes and forms hospitable to a human being, I saw only something like an image of a mushroom under a microscope. Each rocky feature was bulbous, only the vague outlines of the mountains visible in the grainy light, rising like melted candle wax from the penumbrous abyss below. Beyond our breathing and footsteps, only silence.

Approachin­g the summit of the mountain, the temperatur­e began to drop. This was the coldest place in Egypt; the coldest place in all of North Africa from here to the distant spine of the Atlas, 3,000 miles away.

We passed a small mosque, its door open, abandoned to the gnawing cold. Dawn remained hours away, but as we began to freeze in the north wind, something dim was spotted glimmering above us: an Orthodox chapel, built originally in the time of the emperor Justinian, smashed and resurrecte­d after storms had shattered its fragile frame.

Inside, several nuns warmed themselves around a fire-filled bowl. They cast long shadows, chanting hymns in Russian, while behind the screen a long-bearded priest prepared a sacrament for the pilgrims. The sound of their Slavic lament swirled in echoes through clouds of incense. Eventually, we shuffled into the half-light outside.

When the sun rose, the group of boys I was with stared dumbfounde­d for an instant, enchanted by the celestial beauty of the fireball rising into the sky. This was Ra, the Ancient Egyptian god, heralding warmth and a new day.

“Allahu akbar,” they said, pulling off their shirts and posing for selfies, while to my back the nuns continued their mournful chant, now tinged with major chords of hope and rebirth.

I realised I was standing on the bridge of the world — not just the land of Abraham’s God, but the crossroads of a timeless spiritual yearning, a place of singing and fasting, of hermits and grace.

Suddenly, it all seemed so obvious why they called this place ‘holy’. As clear as the sun.

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Mount Sinai, Egypt
Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, Egypt

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