Travel: Where heaven meets hell

Sally Ramsden followed Moses's footsteps up Mount Sinai - and issued a few commandments of her own
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The Independent Travel
A terrible and waste howling wilderness, a land of fiery snakes, scorpions, thirst,' said the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. My own trusty travel bible added that a visit to St Catherine's Monastery, in the heart of Egypt's Sinai desert, followed by a freezing night on the sacred mount where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, was a spiritual experiences not to be missed. It didn't sound like my idea of paradise at all.

How wrong can a doubting traveller be? As soon as the road started to climb away from the crowded coast I was already converted. Here suddenly was the Old Testament wilderness with jagged-tooth mountains, hidden wadis and desert springs.

A rocky maze unfolded itself in layer upon layer of red granite and black volcanic rock. An occasional thorn bush windswept in a gully. A lone camel on a sandy plain. No wonder Moses and the Children of Israel got so lost. Not a soul in sight.

Yet tucked away in this inhospitable landscape is a heavenly oasis of Mediterranean cypress trees and honey-coloured walls sheltering at the foot of a craggy massif. Ascattering of Bedouin houses and modern hotels dot the plain where the Children of Israel once camped while Moses disappeared up Mount Sinai. Verily, a scene worth beholding.

In the first of many surprises, it turned out that entrance to the sixth- century monastery, unlike almost everything else in Egypt, is still free. The monks continue an eternal tradition of welcoming dusty travellers into their retreat. Duck through a tiny portal in the outer wall and you're in a world of cool shadows offering sanctuary from the midday heat bleaching the mountains outside.

Tour groups babbling in many tongues queue up to stare at walls crammed with one of the best icon collections in Christendom. Bodies from the four corners of the earth crush forward to peer at a clump of green - identified as the burning bush of the Bible - the ornate basilica and the tiny chapel beyond. Necks crane to see St Catherine holding the wheel on which she was tortured (hence Catherine- wheels and the monastery's renaming after her holy relics were found on Mount Sinai).

Somehow the monastery, with its pockets of sunny courtyard and dark rooms flanked by nine-foot-thick exterior walls, seems to absorb all this worldly irreverence. The Greek Orthodox monks in black robes stroke their long beards with a faint air of bemusement, and keep a watchful eye on these earthly proceedings with the help of the local Bedouin tribe.

The Jabaliya ("people of the mountain") are descended from east European tribes sent to help build and protect the monastery. They settled and soon converted to Islam, but to this day maintain a symbiotic relationship with the Christian monks and their visitors.

The mid-afternoon shadows were lengthening and a distinct chill had enveloped the valley - the perfect time to climb Mount Sinai on foot. Spurning earthly temptations such as a friendly Jabaliya guide, a well- groomed camel and a winding camel path I chose instead the Stairs of Repentance. A devilishly steep 3,750 steps later I crawled on to the summit where God is supposed to have given Moses the Ten Commandments. On my way up I'd been forced to contemplate my own sins and had a few more to add: thou shalt not become so unfit; thou shalt not smoke again; and thou shalt not spurn camels on mountains.

It's all a bit of a crush at the top what with the chapel, the mosque, the refreshment stall and the sardine rows of sleeping bags. If it's not cloudy, the views are spectacular. But why spend a cold, sleepless night fighting for a patch of ground on one particular mountain when so many others stretch out before you? I made the sensible decision and descended.

It must have been divine intervention for there, just outside the monastery base camp, was a small building I hadn't noticed on my way up. I'd stumbled (quite literally after that climb) on a visitor centre crammed with maps and photographs. The centre's park ranger wanted to tell me all about the wider vista I'd already caught a glimpse of.

Did I know that St Catherine's was now a protectorate, Dr Hekkel asked. Did I know that with a guide for my own safety and better enjoyment there were lots of other mountains and trails to explore? Here indeed was a prophet sent to guide me.

For the past three years, I learnt, the monastery and mountain have been part of the St Catherine's Natural Protectorate, a new conservation park covering the southern triangle of high mountains in the Sinai Peninsula. The Egyptian park rangers work alongside Bedouin community guards helping to promote eco-sensitive tourism while protecting the fragile desert envir- onment and rare wildlife.

When not staffing the visitor centre in rotation with the other park rangers, Dr Hekkel treats Bedouin patients in outlying settlements, and rescues the occasional tourist. "Every year people injure themselves up in the mountains, especially on Mount Sinai when it gets crowded. If you fall or get ill, we'll help bring you down. It's all part of the job."

Still regretting the spurned camel, I gladly accepted the offer of a lift to meet one of the community guards on duty. After an hour's bone- rattling, four-wheel drive through earth-red rock we caught up with Mahmoud, who was about to set off on his weekly round of inspection.

He immediately made us the customary cup of tea, using dead twigs for firewood, an old tin can for a kettle and a sack full of sugar. Soon he was explaining how the community guards use age-old Bedouin practices for conserving scarce resources.

"In our tribe we are forbidden from cutting green wood. If I see someone cutting a live tree I explain that it's better to find dead wood and let this one grow," he said. If the perpetrators continue to cause damage they can be fined or risk prison. Dumping rubbish and illegal hunting are two of the most common offences.

Mahmoud also took pains to point out that a leisurely hike is the best way to observe the wildlife of this high altitude environment. As he put it: "If you're always in a rush to get to the top of one of the steepest peaks, you're going to miss all sorts of wonders along the way."

On a trek in the mountains, the only people you're likely to meet are Bedouin shepherdesses herding goats and playing flutes in brightly coloured robes, black cloaks and veils. You might also chance upon ibex or rock hyrax, a rabbit-sized mammal related to the elephant and sea cow. But a sighting of the now probably extinct Sinai mountain leopard would amount to a miracle.

One of the biggest surprises in this desert highland are the gardens lovingly cultivated by the Jabaliya. Apricots, almonds, pears, pomegranates, peaches, figs and a host other delicacies tumble from the trees. The scent of wild herbs and splashing water fills the air. Birds are flitting everywhere: a case of paradise found, perhaps.

If, after such rapture, you are still longing for a peak with a view, then you can do no better than climb St Catherine's, which towers well above Mount Sinai. Six hours to the top with its tiny chapel and a panorama running from the Red Sea far to the west to the Gulf of Aqaba glistening in the east.

And down somewhere on the coral-fringed Sinai coast was Dahab, that den of iniquity I thought I'd left behind me. A place of terrible temptation where semi-naked young travellers lounge on cushions under fake

Bedouin canopies listening to loud music and getting stoned. A mind-boggling mix of Middle Eastern bazaar meets Womad world music festival. One local Bedouin hakeem (wise man) I met in Dahab thoroughly disapproved. "They all go off into the desert to have group sex," he told me. Whatever the truth, you're not going to find peace and tranquillity at this mini-Goa unless it's drug- induced.

Today there's an increasingly upmarket holiday resort stretching well beyond Dahab's old hippie haunts. A string of five-star hotels complete with luxury swimming pools and expensive watersports offer a new kind of Babylon. There are hundreds of foreigners waving snorkels and flippers or clad top-to- toe in wetsuits and taking their first lessons in how to dive. Truly a vision of heaven and hell.

If you want to recover from a bout of coastal frenzy or simply fancy a soul-cleansing breath of fresh air, then St Catherine's is the place to head for. And, for heaven's sake, where else in the world can you find Christian monks and Bedouin tribes welcoming visitors from all four corners of the earth?

SINAI

GETTING THERE

Charter flights from London to Sharm al-Sheikh cost pounds 209 including tax (Crusader Travel 0181-744 0474). Then take a bus to St Catherine's, or go via Dahab and the beach. Or you can fly to Cairo (approx pounds 250 return) and on to Sharm (Air Egypt $150 return).

WHERE TO STAY

The monastery hostel offers basic dormitories or shared rooms with meals. Hotels in St Catherine's village cost around $50 a night. In Dahab you pay from a few dollars a night to sleep in a "camping", to five-star international prices.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Day trips can be had through the year, though spring and autumn are the best times to trek and go climbing. The protectorate visitor centre sells guides to walks and wildlife, with useful maps, do's and don'ts. Ask rangers for advice on arranging Bedouin guides and camel treks. Joseph Hobbs' book Mount Sinai (University of Texas, pounds 19.95) is worth reading.

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