Ascending the God-Trodden Mountain of Sinai

My dear Fathers and Mothers, and brothers and sisters, in the Faith,
Greetings to you from the God-trodden Mountain of Sinai!

My apologies for the delay in getting this next pilgrimage update out to you. Temperatures dipped to freezing during the nights after the recent thunderstorms, bringing snow flurries at the monastery, snow at the peak of the mountain, and power outages due to the excess burden on the small diesel generator in the village. We also experienced a small earthquake tremor on Sunday, which I’m told is not uncommon here. This is definitely still a wild place where man has yet to domesticate “Mother Nature,” which won’t happen anytime soon.

After the rare heavy rains last week, I was encouraged by the monks to climb the mountain as soon as possible, to experience the arid desert coming to life. It is approximately a 2.5 hour climb up 3,750 “steps of penitence,” ascending from 5,000 feet at the monastery to 7,500 feet at the summit of Mt. Sinai, the tallest peak of Mt. Horeb. This is my offering to you this week, a journey to the summit of Mt. Sinai, following the old way originally taken by the Holy Prophet Moses to receive the Law from God. When Moses ascended, “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire…and the whole mountain quaked greatly.” (Exodus 19:18)

View up the mountain toward two peaksI began my trek filled with much anticipation and excitement for the things nature and God might reveal to me, a simple pilgrim following in the footsteps of the Holy Prophet. Departing from the south side of the monastery, Moses’ route is seen traversing narrowly between the mountain shoulders on the left and right (about center in this picture above), not to be confused with the modern, more accommodating, gradually sloping trail heading eastwards from the monastery. It is a rather steep, precarious climb requiring scrambling in some places and constant awareness due to the many unmarked switchbacks in the trail along the cliffs edge ( below). The climb became even more hazardous after the storms, with rainwater runoff streaming across the trail making the granite stones very slippery and loosening many of the rocks used for steps. Recent archaeological discoveries give rise to a new theory that the famous abbott St. John Climacus is actually responsible for the construction of these steps along Moses’ old route.

Rocky trail between low cliffs

Due to the heavy rains and subsequent flooding the previous day, many of the roads in the southern Sinai were washed out, stopping tourist traffic to the monastery. I benefited from this immensely, avoiding “rush hour traffic” on the trail (below, pictured here are Bedouin rest houses along the modern trail), having the whole mountain to myself in peace and silence, save for the occasional birdsong or rushing of waters.

Bedouin rest houses on the trail

I was rewarded with spectacles of nature that are very rare here, due to the rarity of this amount of rainfall, such as mountain waterfalls and flora of many types blooming from the rocks.

Water trickling down between rocks

Tiny lavendar-colored flowers

Water trickling down between rocks

Tiny yellow flowers and silvery green leaves

Ferns

Views back towards St. Catherine’s Monastery below were awe inspiring (below, first picture), before the trail turned around the right shoulder of the mountain (below, second picture), slowly rising to the first chapel on the trail, the “Economisa” (below, third picture).

View looking back down the mountain at the Monastery

Trail as it turns up the mountain

Small chapel on the mountain

Once when the monks ran out of provisions and were on the verge of starvation, having abandoned all hope, they reluctantly decided to abandon the monastery. On their way to the peak one last time to pray, the Virgin Mary appeared to them at this place. She gave them encouragement and the promise that if they returned to the monastery, all of their needs would be provided for. In faith and obedience, they returned to the monastery in time to greet a caravan laden with goods in abundance for all their needs. In honor of this miracle, they built and dedicated this chapel to her as “Economisa,” generous steward of household and material resources.

Steep trail up to St. Stephen's GateFrom this point, the trail steps rise sharply again towards St. Stephen’s Gate (above), where traditionally a venerable priest-monk would sit and hear the confessions of pious pilgrims before they continued on to the summit of the God-trodden Mountain (below).

St. Stephen's Gate, an arch of stones between two rock wallsThis gate is named for the most notable of these “hermits of the high places” who achieved sanctity in this life, as evidenced by his partial incorruption. He is seen still seated today, as he was at the gate, in this special reliquary in the monastery’s ossuary (below, notice the incorruption of his hands and feet).

Relics of St Stephen dressed in his robes and hatViews got even more breathtaking as other hermitages come into view across the valley, such as the one dedicated to Sts. Galacteon and Episteme, a betrothed couple who undertook the monastic life by mutual agreement and were also martyred together at Emesa in 253 (celebrated November 5th) (below).

View of another monastery seen from the trailAfter passing through a second gate, I reached Elijah’s Basin, where the Holy Prophet Elijah (Elias) fled from Jezebel’s revenge, after slaying all of the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, to hide in a cave here on Mt. Horeb. This is where the Lord revealed Himself to Elijah and commissioned him to return to the faithful remnant of Israel and make Elisha his disciple (I Kings 19). A double chapel has been built over the cave, one to Holy Prophet Elijah and the other to Holy Prophet Elisha (Elisseos), and can be seen in the photo as the larger building in the upper left of the photo (#1073).

A pool of rainwater near the chapels which can be seen a little above the pool on the rocky groundDue to the heavy rains, the small, dammed collection pool was filled to the brim, flooding the lower Bedouin tea houses and rest stops in the photo. The peak viewable in the center of the picture, behind the Cypress trees, is the summit of Mt. Sinai. All around the basin and as you make your way to the summit, carvings decorate the stone, markings made by earlier pilgrims from days gone by (below). Armenian, Georgian, Greek, Latin and Slavonic inscriptions can be found.

Crosses scratched into the rock wall

Stone steps

For the last stage of the trek, the trail rose very steeply, but was composed almost entirely of steps (above). During the final ascent, I was rewarded with jaw dropping views of the desert valleys and mountains beyond (below, first picture), as well as, Elijah’s Basin below (second picture).

View of the valley from the trail

View of Elijah's Basin from the trail

Chapel built of stoneIt made me feel like I was on a rooftop being amongst the tallest peaks in Egypt. At the summit I was greeted by a small chapel (above); a mosque sits adjacent but just below it. The chapel encloses the rock considered to be the source for the Biblical tablets of stone and sits on the site of the original, smaller 4th century chapel built by Empress Helen (of which only part of the original apse remains), which was enlarged in the 6th century by the Emperor Justinian when he also enlarged the Monastery of St. Catherine in the valley. Today what we see has been rebuilt after earthquakes and is smaller in footprint than the prior chapel enlargement. Amongst the stones used to rebuild the walls, one can find carved stones with crosses and Christian symbols from the support planks used in the Justinian construction (below).

Two narrow windows just under the peak of the chapel roof with a stone just below their base showing carvings from Justinian's timeAt the eastern end along the north wall next to the bell, adjacent to the altar, is the cave that Moses hid in when he waited upon God to deliver the Law on tablets to him (below). (Exodus 24:12-18)

Cave under a large stone where Moses waitedTo the west one can see the highest peak in Egypt, Mt. Catherine at 8,625 feet, crowned with a chapel dedicated to St. Catherine where the angels laid her body to rest after her martyrdom (below).

View of the peak with a chapel on itI spent quite some time at the peak alone enjoying the silence, seizing the opportunity to read the Gospels, and pray on the God-trodden Mountain. Oh the wonder, splendor and awe, meditating upon the significance of that holy place and its natural, rugged beauty.

Losing track of time on my challenging and blessed adventure, I spent all day on the mountain, and had to make haste coming down to be able to get any food before the dining hall closed that evening. Traveling light, I took only an orange, a handful of mixed nuts, and a mini bar of halva (sesame/tahini), but it was enough. Thankfully on my way back, a friendly Bedouin young man named Yusef (Joseph) offered me a bottle of water, too. Since I haven’t done any mountain climbing in a while, my knees were complaining, so I descended using the modern, sloping trail. It affords a host of different stunning views, including one of the chapel atop the summit of Mt. Sinai from the eastern side (below, first picture), a contemporary ascetic hermitage in the crags above St. Catherine’s (below, second picture), and a majestic view of the Chapel of the Sts. Theodore (below, third picture), as seen looking back along the modern trail upon arrival at St. Catherine’s.

View of the chapel on the peak

 

Contemporary hermitage set in the rocky side of the mountain

View of another peak with blue sky behind itUpon my returning to the monastery, several people immediately asked how the journey went and what I encountered. After recounting a tale or two, I also revealed my “battle scars” from the trek. One novice quipped, at least I made it back and in one piece, that the mountain is God’s and humbles everyone. I realized he was exactly right. I have climbed my fair share of mountains and am an experienced rock climber, but none have humbled me like this one. Albeit, it left me inspired spiritually, flying on the wings of eagles. God still brings forth life and living waters out of the rock today like He did for Moses and the wandering Israelites (Exodus 17:1-6), both physically as I saw on the mountain, as well as spiritually from our hardened hearts when we turn to Him.

God bless your continued journey to the celebration of the Resurrection!

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Justin Daniel ("Hadji J") is a part of Transfiguration Greek…
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