Mount Sinai is said to be the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God; indeed, the Arabic name Gebel Musa means "Mount of Moses". While there is very little archaeological evidence to support this assertion, the mountain is still a popular pilgrimage site and home to the world heritage listed Monastery of St. Catherine, a Greek Orthodox monastery founded in the 6th century, one of the longest-running monasteries in the world and itself at the supposed location of the Burning Bush. The small town of al-Minya, outside the entrance to the valley, has sprung up to cater to tourists.
The mountain is also a holy site for Muslims, who consider this to be the place from where the prophet Muhammed started his journey to heaven on the winged horse Buraq.
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Daytime temperatures vary from mild to warm around the year. However, nighttime temperatures are considerably lower. Precipitation is negligible through most of the year.
The closest airport with passenger traffic is in Sharm el-Sheikh, and your only choice of transport is by road. Dahab is 2 hours and 133 kilometers away, Nuweiba is 120km and a similar 2 hours away, while the trip from Sharm el-Sheikh (230km) is closer to 3 hours. Most visitors arrive on tours that arrive at approximately 1AM at the foot of the mountain in order to climb Mount Sinai overnight and watch the sunrise. Any guesthouse in Sinai can arrange for you to join a tour. There are also several camps, guesthouses and hotels in St. Catherine that can accommodate tourists and travellers alike.
To get to/from Dahab or Nuweiba, you can use the Bedouin Bus running twice weekly services to each destination for LE 50 (Dec 2011). From Cairo, the East Delta Bus Company leaves the new Cairo Gateway station daily at 11AM and takes about 7 hours. The cost is LE 50 (Dec 2011), and the schedule for this bus is also available at the Bedouin Bus home page.
Public buses arrive at the monastery, at the base of Mount Sinai. From there it's about 2km to the St. Catherine Village, also known as el-Milga.
A taxi to/from Dahab or Nuweiba can cost around EGP 200 (Dec 2011).
You have two choices for getting around and climbing the mountain: on foot, or by camel. See Do for the full scoop.
The Monastery of St. Catherine (دير سانت كاترين, Dair Sānt Kāt(a)rīn) at the foot of the mountain, is the easier of the two destinations here. Looking more like a fortress than a church, access is through a massive iron gate shut for the night and opened in the morning from 9AM to 12AM only (daily except Friday and Sunday). Note that the monastery observes the Greek Orthodox rites and is thus also closed for Christmas and Easter as calculated by the Greek Orthodox calendar. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002.
St. Catherine is one of the oldest monasteries in the world, founded sometime in the early 4th century. According to the 9th century chronicles of patriarch Eutychios of Alexandria, the monastery was founded in 324 by emperor Helena who visited monks living in the mountains. The monastery was also mentioned in the diaries of a nun, Etheria of Galicia, who visited towards the end of the 4th century.
The monastery got its current form between 548 and 564 when the East Roman emperor Justinian I according to the wishes of the monks built the fortification and stationed a force to protect the monastery. Some of the monks still opted to continue living outside the walls. During this period the main church of the site was constructed. A century later, the remains of Catherine of Alexandria was found at the nearby mountain nowadays known as Mount Catherine. She was the daughter of a Cypriot king who refused to abandon her faith and to marry the pagan Roman emperor Maxentius and was therefore tortured and beheaded in 305. The remains were brought to the monastery, which was also renamed after her.
Also the future prophet Muhammed visited the monastery several times, and later on he guaranteed the protection of the monastery. Only in the 11th century the caliph Al-Hakim threatened to destroy the monastery, and between the 15th and 18th centuries the monks were indeed expelled numerous times but the monastery itself was never destroyed.
1575 the monastery was declared independent from Rome, at that time St. Catherine was the site of an archdiocese. Later on, under the guardianship of the Russian czar, a Greek-Orthodox monastery was established. Nowadays the monastery is juridically a part of the patriarchate of Jerusalem.
The monastery complex is located 1570m above sea level at the foot of Mount Sinai in the Monastery Valley — Wadi ed-Deir. It is surrounded by a walls that are 12-15 m tall and 2 m thick. The old entrance is located at the western side and was only built in the early 19th century when Napoleon invaded Egypt; before this people entered and exited the site by the elevators used for goods. This entrance was actually named after the French general Jean-Baptiste Kleber.
However today's visitors will use the newer gate, at the northern side of the complex. When entering, you will see the monks' housing building at the right-hand site. Straight ahead stands the main church — the St. Catherine church.
Built in the mid 6th century, this basilica features inscriptions about emperor Justinian, empress Theodora I, as well as the church's architect Stephanos of Aila. The doors are made of cedar and are decorated with various ornaments. The three main sections of the church are demarcated by twelve granite pillars and have three chapels each, named after saints. The sacristy and the treasure room make up the rest of the church. The tower of the church is comparatively new, constructed only in 1871.
Iconostases and mosaics from several epochs can be seen in the church. The most famous of them is the Mosaic of the Transfiguration. Overall St.Catherine possesses a collection of some 2000 icons. At the right-hand side of the altar there's the marble shrine containing the relics of St. Catherine. The holiest place is the Chapel of the Burning Bush, located behind the choir. It was constructed in the 13th century at the place where, according to the Book of Exodus, Moses was instructed by God to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt.
In the northwest of the complex you'll find the Well of Moses; the spring that supplies water to the monastery and, according to legend, the location where Moses met his wife for the first time. Next to it, the Monastery museum, showing icons, writings, equipment used for services as well as gifts given by pilgrims.
Other parts of St. Catherine is normally not accessible to visitors. Accommodation inside the monastery is located at the west and south. The southeastern part hosts the library; the world's oldest Christian library and with 3500 religious manuscripts and 50000 books the second largest after the one in the Vatican. 4500 of the works are regarded as rare, but perhaps the largest treasure is the Codex Sinaiticus, the world's oldest almost perfectly preserved Bible, discovered in 1844 by the German theologian Konstantin von Tischendorff. No access without special permission (granted only to VIPs and bona fide scholars).
Fees and hours
On Feb 2011, there is only a few parts of the monastery which are accessible to tourists. There is also a small museum mainly about Byzantine icons / tempera on wood. You need to make a EGP 25 donation as entrance fee but it is worth it.
A guide for the monastery could start at EGP 100 but you could/must bargain.
Nowadays about two dozen, mostly Greek, monks live at the monastery. They elect the abbot and archbishop, who mostly lives in Cairo. At the time he isn't present, four caretakers are performing his functions.
The main service takes place from 4:30 to 7:30 in the morning, while the vesper takes place from 14:30-16:00. In order to keep up the normal functions of the monastery, visitors are only allowed in between 9:00 and 12:00. On Friday, Sunday and Greek-Orthodox holidays it is entirely closed. Yearly some 100,000 persons visit the monastery, which means that it can get quite crowded during the opening hours. Entrance is free, but the museum charges you EGP 20.
However to enter the protected area, to which also the monastery belongs there's a fee of EGP 17 for adults and EGP 10 for students.
Climbing Mount Sinai is the main objective for most visitors. Mount Sinai is the second highest mountain in Egypt, only neighboring Mount Catherine is higher. Therefore you will have an undisturbed view in all directions. Many tourists climb the mountain during the night, see the sunrise at the summit and visit the monastery during the day. Therefore, if you want to avoid crowds, climb the mountain in the night before a Friday or Sunday when the monastery is closed to visitors. If you want to see the sunrise, you should start sometime between midnight and 3AM, depending on your level of fitness. Persons of average fitness should be able to get to the summit in no more than three hours. Alternatively, the sunset is also an impressive sight; for this you should start your climb in the early afternoon.
A local guide is required despite the fact the trails are well signposted once you get onto them. Starting price at the entrance EGP 85, feb 2011 but bargain it. In daytime, which is less popular, the fee is lower.
Note that it will be much cooler at the summit than on the coast, and in the winter subzero temperatures at night and even snow are not unknown. Dress warmly in layers, a flashlight is also a must. Blankets and mattresses can be rented at the top for circa 10 Egyptian pounds per piece, however, their state of cleanliness may be objectionable.
There are two routes to choose from, entrances to which are rather poorly signposted, so choose carefully especially if climbing at night. Both paths lead to natural amphitheater known as Elijah's Hollow or the Seven Elders of Israel, where you'll find a teahouse for a break. From there, it's a final 750 steps (30 minutes) to reach the summit.
- Steps of Penitence. This aptly named steep path has been quite literally carved out of the rock by monks, and with 3750 steps to climb is the shorter but more challenging of the two. No mountain-climbing equipment required though, just strong thighs, and the views back down into the valley are superb even in the middle of the night. If the sky is clear the stars above can also be a spellbinding sight, as there are no major cities for miles and miles around. The route can be climbed in as little as 45 minutes, or as long as three hours, depending on your pace.
- Camel Path (Siket El Bashait). A gentler, winding, wide path that snakes its way up to the summit that can be completed by the average traveler in 2.5 hours. As you can guess from the name, you can also climb up this way on the back of camel, and the "sawdust" that appears to coat much of the length of the path is in fact dried camel byproducts from the many trips before you. Be warned that the camel will bite you if it doesn't like you, so be nice, and a 3-hour ride up a mountain — going on foot is actually faster for most people — may not be the easiest introduction to the notoriously swaying gait of these camels. You'll also have to dismount about a kilometer before you reach the top and cover the last 700 steps on foot. Take care at the top also, as the surface is uneven.
At the top you will find a small chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity, constructed in 1934 on the ruins of an older 16th-century church. Better yet, if you timed your ascent right, you can see the sunrise over the parched, rocky expanse of the Sinai.
The intense silence of the mountain as well as its spiritual history makes it a popular spot for yoga and meditation groups. The local 'Gebeliya' Bedouin also run silent retreats for visitors, as well as trekking trips or (also offering individual trips in cooperation with Sheik Mousa, German website).
Climbing Mount Catherine
Mount Catherine (جبل كاترين Ǧabal Kāt(a)rīn) is located a few kilometers southwest of Mount Sinai itself and is with 2637m the highest mountain both at the Sinai as well as in all of Egypt. The relics of Saint Catherine were found at this mountain, and due to this discovery the monastery and the mountain were renamed.
The trek starts at the monastery, crosses the plain of el-Milga past Aaron's chapel, the monastery of the holy apostle and the pavilion of king Fuad. After an hour of walking you'll reach the monastery of the 40 martyrs (دير الاربعين Dair al-Arbaʿīn). From here, there is a four hour climb to the summit, where you'll find the chapel of St. Catherine. Inside the chapel, a rug marks the place where the relics were found.
- Fansina. Selema Galaby, a local Bedouin woman, has set up an exquisite craft shop in the village of St Catherine. Fansina employs more than 350 local tribeswomen to make traditional hand-woven handicrafts.
- Bedouin Craft. Is another, small-scale, local entrepreneur in the traditional handicraft business.
- Awad Hussein. Uses traditional designs with a modern approach to produce unique tin and bead jewellery.
Moreover you can buy souvenirs and necessities in the shops in el-Milga.
Eat & Drink
- You can get food at any of the camps/guesthouses in town and there are some small restaurants opposite the mosque and near the petrol station.
- The monastery's hostel serves breakfast, but charges 10 EGP (approximately $1.75) for an egg, a slice of bread with fig jam and a tea bag if you're not spending the night. There is a café in the garden of the guesthouse, which is open to the public.
- In the village el-Milga there are several restaurants and a bakery.
St. Catherine has quite a few camps, guesthouses and hotels. As mentioned above, it's also possible to rent mattresses and sheets on the mountain.
- El Milga Bedouin Camp (near the Co-op gas station), ☎ +20 100 641 3575. A camp with five double rooms, washing machine.
- Fox Camp (about 1 km from the village), ☎ +20 6 9347 0344, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. The most affordable accommodation in the area. camping and single rooms LE30, doubles LE60.
- Olive Garden Camp, ☎ +20 111 759 8464. Right in the middle of the village lies Olive Garden Camp, a small cosy camp dotted with young olive trees. For more info ask Ramadan at Mohamed Salem restaurant opposite the mosque. Prices from 50LE for a simple double with ensuite..
Hotels and guesthouses
- Sheik Mousa Bedouin Camp & guesthouse (1500 mtr), El Milga, ☎ +20 69 3470 457, e-mail: email@example.com. Traditional Bedouin-style guesthouse, owned and run by Bedouins. Bedouin Camp has room for 64 people; 9 double en-suite rooms, 12 doubles with shared facilities and 3 dorm rooms. There is even space for camping. There is a laundry service, luggage storage, international telephone & fax facilities and the camp has free wifi. from 15 to 150 LE.
- Hotel Daniella Village, ☎ +20 02 7486712, fax: +20 02 7607750, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Two-star hotel with 74 double rooms.
- Hotel Al-Wadi Al-Mouquddus, ☎ +20 69 3470 225. Two-star hotel with 81 double rooms.
- Hotel Catherine Plaza, ☎ +20 69 3470295, fax: +20 69 3470292, e-mail: email@example.com. Three-star hotel with 150 double rooms, 16 triple rooms and two suites.
- Hotel Morgenland Village (5 kilometres before the town), ☎ +20 69 34 70 700, fax: +20 69 34 70 700, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Three-star hotel with 230 double rooms.
- St. Catherine's Monastery Guest House (outside the monastery), ☎ +20 069 3470353, fax: +20 069 3470543. Price includes breakfast and dinner From US$35/person.
- St.Catherine Tourist Village, Wadi El Raha, St. Catherine (500 m from the monastery), ☎ +20 69 347 0325, fax: +20 69 347 0326. Four-star hotel with 118 double rooms.
This being a sacred site, you should dress modestly. Robes are available for rental.
The only way out from Mt. Sinai is to get back to the coast. There are a few options:
By bus to Cairo: East Delta has a daily bus going to Cairo, leaving at 6AM from the bus station just behind the mosque.
By minibus to Dahab: Bedouin Bus runs a twice weekly bus service to Dahab on Tuesday and Friday. Buses leave at 11AM from the parking next to the bakery (opposite the mosque) and cost 50LE one way. The bus stops in Dahab at Hotel Jowhara (Mashraba street) and Marine Garden Camp (Lighthouse area)
By minibus to Nuweiba: Bedouin Bus runs a twice weekly bus service to Nuweiba on Wednesday and Sunday. Buses leave at 8AM from the parking next to the bakery (opposite the mosque) and cost 50LE one way. The bus stops at Nuweiba Port (opposite the East Delta bus station) and at Nuweiba City (at the hospital).
By minibus to El Tor: There are daily mini buses (except Friday) to El Tor, the governorate capital. Buses leave from the parking opposite the mosque in St. Catherine at 7:30AM and 2:30PM and return at 2.30 and 8PM respectively to St. Catherine.