Although most visitors climb Mt. Sinai from the camel path shortly before sunrise and then descend through the Stairs of Repentance, there are alternative routes worth taking into account. Every night, with the exception of Thursday and Saturday nights – the following day St. Catherine’s Monastery is closed – bus loads of tourists arrive, numbering between 500 – 700, and sometimes up to a thousand! It is hard to find a place to stand on at the top – forget about having a quite, relaxing, spiritual experience.
However, if you decide to see the sunset instead, chances are you will be alone at the top, maybe a few more independent traveler will be present. You can spend the night at one of the cafeterias along the way or in Farsh Eliyas below the summit in a grassy basin, or in a Bedouin garden in Wadi el Arbain. Depending on what time you arrive to St. Katherine, you can see before or after you climb to the summit other important religious sites, ancient churches and monasteries, beautiful mountain top basins, narrow valleys and Bedouin gardens.
Following are the most important sites at the top of the Mt. Sinai-Jebel Loza-Jebel Safsafa massif and the surrounding wadis.
|Elijah’s Basin (Farsh Eliyas)||This is a sandy flat surface which lies between the northern extension of the mountain, Mount Safsafa, and the summit and which breaks the 750 steps to the summit from the 3000 steps which descend to the Monastery.
A large thousand year old cypress tree, bare branched at the top, together with six younger cypresses and an olive tree surround an ancient well which is fed by snow melt and occasional rainfall. Below the well is a Byzantine dam which has been repaired recently. Constructed primarily to prevent flood damage to the Monastery, it also serves to recharge springs below. A lone Sinai hawthorn tree, frequented by small birds like the white crowned black wheatear and Sinai rosefinch, stands near the dam wall.
The chalky white Church of Elijah commemorates the place where Elijah fled after killing the prophets of Baal and is mentioned by Etheria in the 4th century. Inside the church is the stone beneath which Elijah sheltered when he spoke with God (see I Kings 19:1-18). Incorporated beneath its roof is the Chapel of Elisha, an acolyte of Elijah. Opposite this is “Daniel’s Room”, the shelter of the guardian of the church and summit in previous centuries. The Church of Saint Stephen is located in the southern neck of the basin approximately 200 metres from the other churches. The church marks the cave where Saint Stephen lived; he was one of the confessors for pilgrims in the 6th century and his cloaked remains are in the ossuary at the Monastery.
|Chapel of St. Stephen||Two steep valleys, separated by a long granite wall, are leading up from the basin of Farsh Eliyas to the rim of the escarpment. The one on the right leads to Farsh Ghalf, while in the one on the side of Mt. Sinai half way up there is the Chapel of St. Stephen. From the top of the valleys there is a very steep and slippery path that some Bedouin take to reach Mt. Sinai from Wadi el Arbain.|
|Farsh Loza||The first small basin along the path leading to Farsh Safsafa. There are two small Byzantine churches, the ruined Chapel of St. Gregory of Sinai, and the intact Chapel of St. Anne next to an almond tree with a twisted trunk. There is a water well which usually dries up for some months every year.|
|Farsh Arimziya||A wide, flat basin just down from Farsh Loza with some trees in the middle and the Chapel of St. John the Baptist at a small elevation. The basin gets full of water after good rains but is dry most of the time. You can walk across the basin to a look-out point just above the Monastery of St. Katherine. Water overflowing from the basin is stopped in the adjoining wadi by a massive stone dam. There are ruins of a Byzantine building on the edge of the cliff.|
|Farsh Safsafa||The stone path leading from Farsh Eliyas ends in Farsh Safsafa, where the Chapel of the Holy Gridle of the Virgin Mary is set in a small garden and orchard. There is a permanent water well in the garden which Bedouins use, but unfortunately the garden is not looked after. The garden is fenced off and is closed for the public, but you can explore the area. From the top of the steep, narrow wadis running down from the rim to the basin you can look down to different parts of the St. Katherine area, or you can climb on of the granite peaks. You definitely need a guide as climbing can be very dangerous if you loose your way. Wadi Shaby, a steep valley leads down to Nabi Harun from Farsh Safsafa.|
|Wadi Shaby||Wadi Shaby is a steep valley leading down to Nabi Harun from Farsh Safsafa. Along the way you have to climb through chimneys under boulders. About one third down the way there are ruins of a Byzantine building.|
|Kinist el Hmar||The Chapel of St. Panteleimon, locally known as Kinist el Hmar, can be reached from Farsh Safsafa and Farsh Loza, or from below from Wadi Farah and Wadi Shrayj on a steep stone path made by monks, going through a narrow pass. The local name means the Church of the Donkey, as camels cannot reach the place and water was transported by donkeys. There is a small fenced off garden around the church and a seasonal water well. From the basin or the boulders above you have a wonderful view of both Mt. Sinai and Mt. Katherina.|
|Farsh Ghalf||A large, wide, crater shaped basin right above Wadi Farah and Wadi Shrayj, with some Byzantine ruins. Fairly difficult to reach, but it is a very beautiful and peacful place, with views of the peak of Mt. Sinai. It can be reached from the steep valley going up from Farsh Eliyas or a narroy valley from above Farsh Loza.|
|Wadi Farah||Short wadi parallel to Wadi el Arbain and connecting to it at the end of Jebel Farah, righ below the peak of Mt. Sinai (Gebel Musa). There is a very steep and slipery path to Farsh Eliyahu from here, or the stone path to Kinessa el Homar. There is a Bedouin store room built under a boulder and a fenced off area to study the effects of sheep and goats grazing on the vegetation. The top of the valley adjoins Wadi Shrayj.|
|Wadi Shrayj||Wadi Shrayj, connected at the top to Wadi Farah, has has spectacular long open view across Wadi Sheik to the Plain of El-Raha. Neolithic artifacts from between 7000 and 4500 BC have been located in this area. The ruins of several ancient dwellings and structures from the Nabatean (BC 200-AD 100) and Byzantine eras (circa AD 300-700 AD) are located in Wadi Shrayj. Rounded-walls, niches and shelves and tiny doors are typical of Byzantine stone dwellings, the stones are laid without mortar and the absence of a roof. You can find traces of ancient water systems or conduits which were used to direct rain water to the settlement and for irrigation use. Typical of the Byzantine era (3rd to 7th century AD) water conduits or channels directed the mountain rains to cisterns or pools. Water conduits were constructed using natural drainage lines in the granite and by cementing flat stones with a natural mortar. The outdoor courtyards are thought to be an area for meeting guests and for cooking.
There are a number of Bedouin gardens in the lower part of the wadi, a Byzantine church and a rock shelter under a boulder.
|Wadi el Arbain (Wadi Leja)||At the beginning of the walk there is a Bedouin Wishing Rock, where locals throw a pebble on the flat top of a big boulder. If it stays on top the wish will be granted they say.
Halfway in the valley is The Rock of Moses (Hajar Mousa), with the Chapel of the Birth of the Holy Virgin built right next to it. The rock with 12 clefts is believed to be the rock from which Moses fetched water. Locals believe the twelve clefts on it represent the twelve springs mentioned in the Quran (Sura 2:60). It is also mentioned in the Exodus as the rock which sustained the children of Israel (1 Cor. 10:4). According to Swiss orientalist Johann Ludwig Burkhardt the Jebeliya Bedouin believe that by making female camels crouch down before the rock the camels will become fertile and yield more milk. Next to Hajar Mousa is a Bedouin marriage proposal rock. Lovers came here in the past and they marked one foot on the rock surface next to the other’s. If the two footprints are encircled, it means they eventually got married.
At the upper end of the valley is the Monastery of the Forty Martyrs with a big garden, olive groves and cypress trees. The Monastery was constructed in the sixth century in honor of the forty Christian martyrs who died in Sebaste (central Turkey). Monks relate that forty Christian soldiers from the Roman Army in the third century were commanded to worship pagan gods. They refused and were put to death by being exposed at night to the bitterly cold winds off a frozen lake. Those who survived until morning were killed by the sword. In the grounds of the monastery is a chapel dedicated to the hermit Saint Onuphrius. Coming from Upper Egypt, he was said to have lived for seventy years in the rock shelter at the northern end of the garden, until he died in AD 390.2
From Ramadan’s garden there are beautiful views of the valley with the Monastery gardens stretching below and to Mt. Sinai. Ramadan breeds rock hyraxes. The shy and reclusive hyrax typically lives in colonies in rocky valleys and feeds on vegetation. Its closest relatives are the elephant and sea cow. The hyrax produces a highly concentrated urine which forms a crystalline mass in its burrow. Bedouins collect this substance for medicinal use and as a natural wood preservative. Traditionally hyrax meat was eaten by women just before they gave birth. Ramadan plays the famous Bedouin stringed instrument, the Simsimiyya and sings traditional Jebeliya songs. His garden is set up to provide accommodation for trekkers. Be respectful and do not photograph the women!
|El Rasis||Wadi el Arbain connects to the town at the El Rasis area, and there are two churches with small monasteries on either side of the wadi at an elevated point. To the North is the Monastery of the Virgin Mary with a large olive grove, to the South is the Monastery of the Holy Apostles.|
|Jebel el Dier||On the other side of the Monastery of St. Katherine and Wadi el Dier is the round granite massif of Jebel el Dier. Above the Monastery of St. Katherine, accessible via a path, are the Monastery of St. Galaktion and St. Episteme and the Chapel of Theodore of Tyre and St. Theodore the Recruit. It is possible to to climb the peak of Jebel el Dier but you definitely need a guide. You can ascend on the other side to Wadi Isbaiya or to Wadi el Sheikh at Nabi Harun.|
• Mount Sinai, A Walking Trail Guide – National Parks of Egypt Protectorates Development Programmes
• Wadi Arbaein & Wadi Shrayj, A Walking Trail Guide – National Parks of Egypt Protectorates Development Programmes
• Hobbs: Mount Sinai