I AM freezing cold, yet pouring with sweat, my heart is banging away as if about to burst and my legs feel like jelly. After three days of battling post-Cairo stomach problems (the details you don’t want to know) I’m already weaker than a decaf latte. And I’m still only 30 minutes into the three-hour climb up Mount Sinai. If I am to see the sunrise at just after 5am, I need to find some energy.
Moses climbed Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God, carved in stone from its summit. But I can see salvation for me in only one thing: my iPod and some good music. I reach into my bag, pull it out and thumb through the menus until I find some bright African jazz. I press play and… nothing happens. My brain freezes, my guide Hasim calls out and sets off again into the darkness at his brisk pace. In despair, I force my aching legs into action and stagger after him. Of course, this is the moment my torch also fails.
Exhausted, I consider the iPod problem. Is the message not to rely on material things, not to worship false idols? Or is it to press ‘Menu’ and ‘Play’ together to reset my precious gadget? Miraculously, it works and the energy of Abdullah Ibrahim’s piano drives some bounce into my body as the agonising climb goes on. And on.
Around me, the bitterly cold desert night is filled by shadowy figures: pilgrims making a journey of faith to the summit, tourists enjoying a mini-adventure away from the bars of Sharm el-Sheikh, still clad in flip-flops and glitter. Camels pad silently by, carrying those wiser, or richer, than me. A string of torches bob through the darkness, sketching out the long, long way ahead. Above, stars brighter than any I have seen for years blaze from the night sky. Ramadan starts tomorrow and the moon is at its slightest.
Just as I feel ready to collapse, Hasim calls another stop at a stall selling hot tea and other refreshments. I have already drunk most of a litre of water and we are barely halfway. ‘How long to go?,’ I ask again. ‘Two hours,’ comes the answer. Two hours until the steps. The final 700 steps I had been warned about.
The climb goes on. At some point in the next few hours, I realise I am going to die. Not at some unknown point in the future but in the next few minutes. On this holy mountain, I should perhaps be thinking about meeting my maker, having humble thoughts. Instead, I cling to my pride, the only thing that is keeping me off one of those bloody camels that keep pushing past in the night.
At last, we reach the bottom of the 700 steps. Did I mention there were 700 of them? Rough blocks of stone have been piled up to make a tortuous path disappearing steeply up, an assault course of smooth stone covered in a film of sand, the way blocked everywhere by panting climbers having a rest.
Dawn is starting to lighten the sky and the whole night will have been for nothing unless I can push my exhausted body into one more effort – greater than any that has gone before. Somehow, it responds and I fly up the last few metres in a state of euphoria at having beaten the light and the climb.
Exhausted, I lie around wrapped in a blanket hired out from shops at the foot of the steps. There is no spare inch of rock for latecomers, as the first rays of the new sun break the horizon, setting the sky and landscape alight with fire. As the sun climbs, its heat quickly reaches me, sending warning that it’s time to make for the 3,000 Steps of Penance that mark the way down. No rest, as they say, for the wicked.
The descent is even harder. The sun hammers down, while the endless queue of tourists in inappropriate footwear gingerly picking their way down the smooth rock steps makes progress painfully slow.
At St Catherine’s Monastery I join the queue to see the Burning Bush from whose depth Moses heard the voice of God. The chapel groans with treasures, chief among them perhaps the early Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration over the high altar. I am too tired to care.
The 2,285m Mount Sinai is in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
At 1,000m is St Catherine’s Monastery, the world’s oldest, now a Unesco World Heritage Site.