Its a 4.2 mile hike up the mountain which is the second highest in Egypt at more than 6,000 feet. There was no trail here when Moses made the climb thousands of years ago. You can imagine him clawing his way up through the loose rock on his hands and knees, searching for a way up through the cliffs. He must have been bleeding from head to foot and covered with flies by the time he reached the summit. But here, in a state of exhaustion and ecstasy, he spent 40 days and nights communing with God.
But, as you may know, when Moses brought the stone tablets of the Commandments down from the mountain, he found that his people had grown bored and fearful in his absence and had melted their gold to make a golden calf to worship. In a rage, Moses hurled the Commandments at the calf, breaking both the tablets and the idol in his wrath.
Beneath Mt. Sinai is the Monastery of St. Catherine, which was built around the Burning Bush of the Bible. At 1,400 years of age, this is the oldest Christian monastery in the world, buried deep in the desert of the Sinai Peninsula.
In the Book of Exodus, God spoke to Moses from this bush, ordering him to return to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and demand the release of the Chosen People from slavery.
Sad to say, the monastery is anything but holy today -- its one of Egypts biggest tourist attractions, packed with hundreds of people each day from every land -- black Africans in tribal dress, tour groups from India, France and Germany, and most of all, Russians, who come by the thousands to the beach resorts of the Sinai. Theyre all elbowing each other and shoving -- straining to pluck a twig from the willowy Burning Bush, which we are told may or may not be the original.
One of the recurring themes I find on my slow trip around the world is the exaltation of religion in every land.
In Europe, the focal point of every city of any size was its cathedral, some of which took hundreds of years to build. I found most cathedrals to be packed to the rafters with golden snickerdoodle, like an explosion in a spaghetti factory. That, and paintings of saints and angels the size of barn doors. The emphasis on gold and jewels strikes me as rather hypocritical, considering the hundreds of millions of people whove died in pursuit of this glittering stuff.
Then theres Egypt, a country which is one vast monument to the religions of the past, crammed with temples and tombs. The ancient Egyptians lived and died their religion. When a new Pharaoh took office, his first act was to begin construction of his tomb, which would serve as his home in the afterlife. Construction lasted until his last gasp. Thus, in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, you can walk several hundred feet underground into the tomb of Ramses III, deep in the side of a mountain. Yet poor King Tut, who ruled for only three years, has a tomb not much bigger than a shoebox.
Each temple and tomb is covered with thousands of sculptures and paintings of the weird old gods of Egypt. Its hard to believe that rational people were crazy enough to worship beings with the heads of falcons, jackals, snakes, beetles and an ibis, among others. But it turns out these gods were meant to symbolize our connection to the natural world -- half animal, half human. They represented ideals to be worshipped; and so, even today, a statue of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead and protector of tombs, sits outside the Luxor Police Department... along with a very ominous looking paddy wagon and some bored looking cops with submachine guns.
Then theres the Muslim world of today, amazing to an American traveler. Imagine if there were loudspeakers on top of every church in Northern Michigan, and every morning at 4:30 a.m. they began blaring a message five times a day: Hey everybody -- get up! Its time to say your prayers! Its time to say your p-r-a-y-e-r-s!!! This, followed by readings from the Bible.
People would flip, yet thats the reality of the daily call to prayer of Islam, with readings from the Koran. And in less secular countries than Egypt, failing to toe the line can get you busted by the religious police, with a month in jail... or worse.
But back to the Sinai. At a beach on the Red Sea in Egypt, I could see the mountains of Saudi Arabia, just a few miles away. Down the way were the lights of Aqaba, Jordan, right across from Eilat, Israel.
These countries all coexist peacefully, but not because they are at the heart of holy ground and three great religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Its because tearing each other limb-from-limb these days would mean nuclear annihilation from Israels atomic weapons.
Strange, isnt it, that religion teaches brotherly love, yet is the fountainhead of so much hatred in the world. Perhaps Moses set the mold here at Mt. Sinai when in his own frenzy of intolerance, he threw the holy 10 Commandments at someone elses object of worship.