The geology of the Sinai betrays an exciting history as the intersection point of the Syrian Arc and the Great African Rift. Both sandstone and granite formations are found in abundance, since the area has been subject both to extreme volcanic building as well as oceanic flooding and sedimentation. At one time, this whole area was an archepelago of volcanic islands in the Cretacious Tethys Ocean, of which Jebel Musa (the Mountain of Moses, or Mount Sinai) is now the second tallest.
But then, Africa ran into Eurasia, lifting up the Syrian Arc. And a while later, the African-Arabian plate decided to begin splitting in two, and the resulting valley nearly swallowed the whole region. The outcome is the abruptly transitioning ecologies of the Levant, and these stark peaks not 50 kilometers from blooming reefs.
The first rays of morning illuminate the peaks of the Sinai Mountains. In the near foreground is the western flank of Mt. Sinai, beyond which nearby mountaintops proceed into the distance. It's still nighttime on the valley floors about a mile below. (Click. Bigger.) 2005:04:25 06:14:56
[Update: I have since resolved the Jebel Musa / Jebel Katarina confusion. See the next post in this series.]
Getting up the steps to the summit is a bit of a bother, especially against the torrent of sightseers that pours down the mountain once they've seen their sunrise. Some of these merely started earlier or climbed faster than I did, but there's apparently a substantial number of people who climb in the evening, spend the night on the summit, and watch the sun rise. Sounds pleasant.
There is a small shrine erected on the summit, roughly where the monks think Moses would have stood to receive the Ten Commandments. Poke around the backside, and that's also where they've hidden a generator, some trash cans, and similar mundanities. 2005:04:25 07:22:05
All bother aside, we did eventually make it up to the summit. The manager back at Habiba had been kind enough to prepare breakfast boxes for us to bring along, which were greatly appreciated at this juncture. While the trail to the peak only comes out to about seven kilometers, it rises over 1500 meters in that space, which left us a bit winded. Technically, there are two summits: Jebel Musa rises to 2286 m (7500 ft.) and Jebel Katarina at 2637 m (8651 ft.). It's actually not entirely clear to me which peak we were on, but the balance of sources I've seen put this shrine on Katarina. Since I haven't found a good trail map it's hard to say, but I think we passed over the summit of Musa on the way down from here.
Some say this shrine marks the spot where Moses spoke with God. Others claim it was built over the location of the Burning Bush -- which strikes me as odd, since the monks claim to have the original bush down in the (rather older) monastary. Both claims are a bit far-fetched. To my knowledge, there's little reason to believe the Hebrews would have passed anywhere near here on their way out of Egypt, and it positively strains credibility to propose that Moses would have been herding anything way out here when he ran across the flaming shrubbery. Nevertheless, Moses and numerous other Biblical incidents have been associated with this mountain since at least the 4th century AD.
Just a self-portrait taken atop (I think) Jebel Katarina, the taller of Mt. Sinai's peaks. 2005:04:25 07:21:06
It takes only the rumour of a Biblical connection, especially if coupled with the promise of a particularly fine sunrise, to draw tourists in droves. And even if those droves wander to the ends of the earth, it's a sure bet that someone will find a way to attend to their more materialistic impulses. I was quite impressed the first time I hiked down to the lowest chamber of the Carlsbad caverns in New Mexico, and found that a snack bar and gift shop had been installed there. Impressive feat of engineering though it may represent (primarily in the form of the elevator that whisks tourists and supplies through thousands of feet of solid rock, connecting chamber to visitors' center), it does not improve the cave. Here I found that the Bedouin have accomplished much the same feat, although with determination and donkeys instead of engineering. No doubt the hot drinks are appreciated by some, as it does get cold up there, and somebody must even buy the trinkets. But the mountain is not improved.