Look! It's a stairway which the Bedouin have cleverly disguised as a pile of rocks. Heading down the Steps of Repentance is certainly faster than going up, but a bit more harrowing. Enlarge as usual. 2005:04:25 07:33:31
First of all, a correction is in order. Yesterday I went on at some length about my uncertainty over the relative arrangement of Jebel Katarina and Jebel Musa, and which one we were actually on. I've done some additional research on that point. Now, none of the sources I've found has a straightforward map that shows both peaks, so I've been doing as the cartographers of old, trying to piece together geography from scattered fragments of the written accounts of travelers. One of the clearest such accounts is here, although some of the dimensions cited are at variance with the otherwise commonly given values. To compare, the closest thing I've found to a map of the area is this.
The upshot is that I am now fairly certain that we were never on Jebel Katarina at all, and that the entire trail we used, and all the photos I've been displaying, are on Jebel Musa. In fact, you can see Jebel Katarina from Musa, and it appears to be a kilometer or two distant. And partially off-limits due to unexploded ordinance, to boot, from what I've read.
Moving right along, though. After having some breakfast and poking around for a bit on the summit of Jebel Musa, it was time to be moseying on down. The monastery of Santa Katerina is open to tourists starting at 9 am, so we wanted to get down by then. Once again, the Steps of Repentance awaited.
There is a traditional practice by which a Bedouin can leave a message in the desert for another encoded in the arrangement of a seemingly random pile of rocks, or rujum. On the way down, we speculated that the Steps must have been built by someone who had observed this practice, and decided to announce that "This Is the Way Down" encoded into what, to the untrained eye, appears to be a jumble of boulders.
Back down in the valley, we made for the monastery of Santa Katarina. Doesn't look so big from way over there. How come the sky is never this blue in photos I take anywhere else? Enlargeable. 2005:04:25 08:48:10
Since some members of our party were complaining about their knees, we did not descend via the entire Steps route, but took the switchbacky camel path most of the way down. Supposedly this is in large portion the same route by which we had ascended earlier that morning, but I noticed very little of any familiarity. As different as night and day, in fact.
In fact, Santa Katarina is a quite sizeable affair, constructed to double as a Roman frontier fortress in the 4th century AD. Centuries ago, it housed hundreds of monks, but I believe the current number is a couple of dozen. 2005:04:25 08:53:41
While doing some background research, I stumbled across this Robert Wernick essay written after he had spent some time hanging about the monastary. The location has two notable claims to fame. The monastary is named after Saint Katherine, a Roman-era martyr whose body is said to have been divinely transported to the summit of what is now called Jebel Katarina. Thence her fingers made their way to Europe and were credited for numerous miraculous healings, making her a very popular saint in those parts. Among the monastary's most prized posessions are several relics of Saint Katherine, which is saying something given the vast collection of icons and other priceless books and artwork the place has accumulated over the bast 1600 years. I'd have given a lot to have a peek in their library, but sadly that is most firmly closed to casual tourists.
The other -- and probably far more significant to most pilgrims here -- attraction of the monastary is the fact that it encloses the second claimed location of the Burning Bush. Except that theirs is rather more impressive, since the plant in question is still alive and well.
The Burning Bush itself, or so the monks claim. Still thriving after three or four thousand years. In fact, this claim is not completely outlandish. 2005:04:25 10:22:48
According to that Wernick essay:
The monks also maintain that it is an absolutely unique plant specimen, unlike any other on earth. Scientists contradict them on this point, they say it is a very rare plant, Rubus Sanctus, a non-fruit-bearing relative of the blackberry bramble. . Professor Joseph Hobbs, who has written the most readable and up-to-date account of the Sinai and its various forms of life (Mount Sinai, the University of Texas Press), reports that he has found six other specimens in clefts of rock in his years of rambling over the waste spaces of Arabia. But he also points out that rubus sanctus is an extremely hardy growth which can last thousands of years...