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December 21, 2010

Get Down Moses

Filed under: Holidays — scotsabroad @ 3:17 pm

Louis Armstrong did a famous version of the Negro spiritual, Go Down Moses. Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros sang, Get Down Moses – but I don’t think it was to do with Mount Sinai or the crystals  displayed for sale along the path leading to St. Catherine’s Monastery. We have just returned from the Sinai having (perhaps) followed in the footsteps of  Moses. We certainly followed in the footsteps of generations of Christians, Jews and Muslims by climbing Mount Sinai, where it is believed God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses.

Once again the car was magnificent. We drove the 800km round trip with no problems. We headed for the village of St. Catherine (about 7 hours driving) and the Bedouin Camp. This was a lodge that Shona had taken students to last year. Owned by Sheik Mousa (surely not) the accommodation was good enough, the toilets were clean and the food reasonable. The boys didn’t care. A bedouin tent, new hot water bottles, a fire to toast marshmallows and a family of cats kept them amused. It did get incredibly cold at night.

Most people who climb Jebel Musa (Mount Moses as the Bedouin call it) arrive in the early hours of the morning for an organised, guided climb up in the dark to catch the sunrise. We overheard a traveller, staying at our camp, that he had done this the previous night and he could hardly move on the summit due to the number of people.  Another couple had walked up during daylight but had been convinced they needed a guide, who just led them up and down the camel path while talking endlessly.

We drove to the car park after a leisurely breakfast. Being a Sunday the monastery was closed to visitors and things looked quiet.  At the checkpoint to the monastery path we were stopped by the police. On hearing that we were going to climb the mountain they insisted we needed a guide. I refused their offer. When they still insisted that we could not get further without a guide I asked to speak to a commander. I was shown in to an office to meet the captain on duty. He insisted that we could not walk up the mountain without a guide. This was now the rule (Egyptians included) since a dead Russian had been found on the mountain. This information was quickly relayed to Shona outside by Lucas. I then asked, if the authorities were so concerned about our welfare on the mountain, were the guides free of charge? No. What if I drove back to the village and approached the mountain from the other side and joined the path there – would I meet a checkpoint who insisted on a guide? No. What if I take full responsibility for my family – can I go without a guide? A wave of his hand (I shake it) and we are off. I think to myself, if you guys had been on duty when Moses came down the track a large chunk of the Old Testament might not have been written.

We ascend the camel track to the summit. The boys are just amazing taking the 7km path to the summit in their stride, climbing 2285m. We reach the top about 1pm to be met by a few dozy bedouin traders and a religious nutter wanting to kiss the boys. No dead Russians. A church and mosque, both locked, top the summit. The mosque is built over the cave where Moses sheltered. Lunch, some Bedouin tea and some chocolate (somehow tastes so much better) prepare us for the descent. The amount of rubbish is the only thing spoiling the experience.


While coming down from the summit we notice the other route, known as Sikket Saiyidna Musa, Path of Our Lord Moses, or Steps of Repentance. We decide on this route down. Hewn by a monk, these 3750 steps offer an alternative, quicker, route back to the monastery.  We continue to be the only people on the mountain as we descend. We came across a structure, probably used in the past for weary pilgrims to rest, and found a beautiful drawing on the window frame using chalk. Lucas was very impressed and has already decided this picture is what he wants to talk about next when he returns to class in January.

We return to the monastery to be met with calls of well done by the Bedouin camel guides and a welcome back from the police captain. Next day we head for the Monastery before driving home. We experience the bus-loads of tourists and pilgrims descending on St. Catherines. This time, on the path there are vendors selling their wares and taxi drivers offering a lift for 4 Euros. Lots of Russian being spoken. Kleber’s gate is closed for renovations so hundreds of us squeeze through the narrow West gate. There has been a monastery at St Catherines for more than 1400 years. It was built to protect the Burning Bush and Moses’s Well and eventually the bones of Saint Catherine. It has had the protection of some heavyweights, from Mohammed himself in 625 through to Napoleon in 1798. We saw a bush – a descendant (clipping) of the original, that has been moved a few times within the Monastery. Whether you believe this shrub to be religiously significant or not, it is interesting to find out that this type of bush is not found growing anywhere else in the Sinai – and cuttings from the bush itself do not take when transplanted elsewhere.

We file through the church. To see the icons there is a charge of 25LE. We resist, thinking they will all be religious paintings, bits of bone and mosaics. However, had I known there were the actual petitions of protection from Mohammed and Napoleon, both showing their signatures and seals, I would have paid more. We miss the Charnel House in the gardens. This skull house displays the bones of all the monks who have stayed at St. Catherine’s Monastery. This custom of preserving human skeletal remains is unique to monasteries in the region. The body is buried for a year then exhumed. Some think this might be because it is difficult to dig a grave in the stony ground, so dig one reusable one – or it is a spiritual reminder to the monks and visitors about their coming death.

A quick visit to the shop – a David Roberts print of the steps, some postcards and a fridge magnet.

December 14, 2010

Flaxen Pants

Filed under: Cairo — scotsabroad @ 7:38 pm

The boys are a bit lost this week without the family matriarch. We have been out and about a bit but have been unsuccessful in exploring  some of the things on our to do list.  Today we headed for Moez Street. We wanted to explore in daylight the complex of Sultan Qalawun and visit the textile museum highlighted in Horus (the in-flight magazine for Egypt Air) last April.

We were amazed to see what must be the earliest example (1500 bc) of a diaper (including liner) found in a family tomb at Deir El Medina in Luxor.  A loin cloth belonging to Tutankhamun. Very personal when you come face to face with other people’s underwear. Just incredible how well the textiles have stood the test of time. We were also interested in the pieces from the Qiswa, the sacred cloth covering the Kaaba (in Mecca) that is changed annually. Up until quite recently, the cloth was a gift annually offered by Egypt. Great wee museum, well worth a visit. Lucas found the face depicted on the ticket while cruising the display cases. The building itself is a wonderful example of a sabil (water fountain)  charitably built by the wealthy to supply water to anyone in Islamic Cairo who was thirsty. This one was commissioned by Mohamad Ali in 1828.

The Qalawun complex was impressive once again but not as magical as coming across it at night. Beautifully restored doors and flooring. Many tourists missing out on this treasure on their way to and from the Khan.

A few days ago we were downtown to see if the Manial Palace was open. It wasn’t. However we noticed that an old building close to the river, that has always intrigued us, has acquired a quite magnificent roof. If this, the Qalawan and the Pasha’s sabil are the shape of things to come in the  restoration,  function and celebration of Cairo’s magnificent architecture, there is hope.

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