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Camels and the Heavenly Ascent

WORLDWIDE | Monday, 28 March 2011 | Views [336] | Scholarship Entry

The midnight air is clean with a vague scent of concessions and camels as I unload from the microbus with the other travelers. I find myself in a horseshoe shaped, miniature ‘sûq’ filled with vendors selling everything from soda to prayer flags. I begin to feel a sense of hazy chaos that can only come after arriving in a strange desert in the middle of the night. Craggy mountains penetrating into the starlight surround me and the dim light radiating from the ‘sûq’ is not enough to visualize Mount Sinai, a primordial sanctuary holding significance in the three major Abrahamic religions as the supposed summit where Moses received the Ten Commandments. It is the reason why hundreds of people travel daily to the middle of the Sinai Peninsula: to climb the nearly 3,000 meters and watch the sunrise.

As my eyes adjust to the starlit sky, I can see the weathered rocks of mountain chains that encircle me. Smooth and worn, Mount Sinai’s rocks are crumbling and sliding down the biblically aged mountain. The meticulously hand built Saint Catherine’s Monastery towers over the shadowy valley.

Camels and their ‘Jammâlûn’ or camel drivers zealously persuade travelers to take a ride up, but I make my way further from the crowds to ascend ‘Siket El Bashait,’ the longer and more gradual camel trail. Hairpin switchback after switchback, the heavenward climb begins monotonously with an Egyptian convenience store every 500 meters. With the night sky concealing the views of the battered mountains and the crowds of people and camels distracting from the peaceful self-satisfaction that comes from summating a mountain, I began to wonder if I am caught in a monumental tourist trap disguised as a spiritual pilgrimage.

It is early morning when I reach the summit and I am ready to turn in for the night. The last 50 meters of the trek are a nearly vertical flight of rock slab stairs, which leave me winded while ascending to witness the light from the sun peering over the low-laying mountains far off in the east. With the sun, newfound senses of placidity arise. The dull hum of the many people of every generation and ethnicity creates a soft vibration of a hymn providing the sunrise with a soundtrack fitting of a holy place.

I marvel at the cloudless, angelic landscape that surrounds me as the summit is illuminated. The strong desert breeze lingers and for the first time, I feel the religious significance of this mountaintop haven in the faith of those around me. Women, crippled and wrinkled beneath their hijabs hum teary eyed as they raise their arms to the heavens. Bedouins troll the area selling onyx eggs and ‘kufiyas.’ Red rocks basking in the sun, so rounded and level after centuries of residing in the harsh desert sun and turbulent wind. I reach my hands out to feel the smooth surfaces still cold to the touch, as the heat from the sun has not entirely reached the peak yet.

Tags: #2011writing, travel writing scholarship 2011

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