Under a sliver of moon and a blanket of stars, I stood at the base of Mount Sinai.
I peered into the black sky for the merest shadow of the peak I would climb. I saw nothing.
It is an unsettling yet thrilling feeling not to be able to see where you are headed. Mount Sinai has deep significance for Christians, Jews and Muslims, all of whom believe it is the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments after freeing the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Mount Sinai's Arabic name, Gebel Msa, means "Mountain of Moses."
Churches and mosques have been built on or near the mountain over the centuries. The best known is the sixth-century St. Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai. The Greek Orthodox monastery, which looks more like a fortress, is said to be the world's oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery.
There are few things for which I'll wake up in the wee hours of the morning. Hiking Mount Sinai to watch the sunrise is one of them. (Some pilgrims hike the mountain in time to see sunset.)
As part of a trip last winter to Egypt, a friend and I decided to hike the fabled peak. We hired a driver, Mohammed, and guide, Ahmed, to take us from Cairo to Mount Sinai, which is on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula about 200 miles away.
At about 7,500 feet, Mount Sinai is slightly lower than Emory Peak, the highest point in the Chisos Mountain range in Texas' Big Bend National Park. It's a barren, rocky massif that rises from the dusty plain.
The Sinai Peninsula, which separates Africa from the Middle East, has long been a land of conflict. It has been ruled by various Egyptian governments and occupied by the Ottoman Empire, Britain and Israel. Israel withdrew from Sinai in 1982, returning the land to Egypt. Tourism is its key industry, thanks to beach resorts near spectacular coral reefs and its biblical history.
Trek to the summit
The drive from Cairo took about three to four hours. Our small group checked into Morgenland Village, a hotel about three miles from Mount Sinai. Bedtime was early, so hiking could start by 1 a.m.
The next day, tour buses rumbled in the early morning cold, waiting to transport crowds of pilgrims to the hike's start near St. Catherine's Monastery. Before heading up the mountain, I had to walk through a metal detector while soldiers checked my passport and searched my backpack.
There are two paths: a camel trail that snakes up the mountain through a series of switchbacks, and a shorter, steeper route that includes the 3,750 Steps of Repentance carved by monks.
Our small group hiked the camel trail because it was easier in the dark. We would take the other trail down. Either way, the 4.5-mile hike (round trip) would be considered strenuous.
The trek to the summit took about two hours. (A camel ride is about three hours long.) My friend and I acted as our own guides since we had more hiking experience than Ahmed, who didn't have a light or suitable clothing.
The moon gave off enough light to illuminate some of the trail without a flashlight or headlamp. The romantic in me kept my flashlight off as much as possible. The number and brightness of the stars took my breath away.
As I looked back, I could see tiny white dots of light scattered like fireflies as others followed. I imagined what it would have been like for pilgrims traveling the same trail hundreds of years ago. Was I walking in their footsteps?
Several huts along the trail provided benches for resting and sold drinks, snacks and Bedouin trinkets. I could just make out the shadows of camels and their Bedouin owners, who never tired of offering rides. "Long way. Camel?"
At a natural amphitheater called Elijah's Basin, all hikers must climb a final 750 steps to the summit. That was too much for Ahmed, who spent the next hours there.
I reached the summit at about 3 a.m. Sunrise was around 5:50 a.m.
After exploring every nook and cranny, I spent the next hours sitting on a cold, flat stone that was part of a mosque. I didn't sleep a wink. I was too excited. I also was chilled to the bone, despite the warmth of silk underwear, a down coat, a hat, a scarf and gloves. It was about 40 degrees.
At about 5:45 a.m., the sky began to lighten, unveiling layers of mountain ridges in varying shades of gray. The top of a giant orange orb rose in the distance. Dawn also revealed several hundred eager pilgrims, all vying for space to see the sunrise.
As the rising sun bathed the surrounding peaks in light, a woman began to sing a hymn. Her sweet voice floated above the rugged terrain like an angel's.
After taking in the panoramic views from the summit, my friend and I started to make our way down a little before 7 a.m. The descent down the rough-hewn stone Steps of Repentance was slow, given the crowds of people, from the elderly to young children.
Ahmed rejoined us at the first rest house. The path is steep in parts as it winds down through ravines and over rock ledges.
The descent was quiet, perhaps because the pilgrims were tired, because they were intent on their footsteps, or simply because they were awestruck by the beauty surrounding them. Some of the rocks are rough and jagged, but others resemble smooth mounds of chocolate.
About two-thirds of the way down, I spied my first glimpse of St. Catherine's Monastery. It was a sign that the hike's end was near. Our small group reached the bottom by about 8 a.m. It already was quite warm and I had removed all of my extra layers.
We settled in for another wait, this time for the monastery doors to open at 9 a.m.