After two decades of dreaming about climbing Mount Sinai, I finally had the chance to do so during my trip to Egypt this past summer. Embark on a once-in-a-lifetime journey, discovering the breathtaking beauty, self-reflection, and unexpected surprises along the way.
Earlier this spring (as I mentioned in my last post), I had a one-week trip to Malta expand with the addition of a month-and-a-half adventure in Italy...only to grow by another nine days by starting strong in Egypt. Here, I would meet my cousin Vittoria and three of her close friends.
The planning began almost instantly after I told her that I was all in, and I was excitedly looped into a group chat on WhatsApp, slowly making my way through the bits of Italian and dialect I could understand as they spoke and sent voice notes, then responding in broken itanglese (or, more accurately, leaning into my nonna's inglese farlocco).
As we planned for the trip, one of the excursions that came up was climbing Mount Sinai and, without hesitation, I said, "YES! YES! YES! Let's do it!"
Why Climb Mount Sinai?
For me, the thought to climb Mount Sinai was first planted in my head at the age of 9, when my fourth-grade teacher described a big adventure she had had over the summer break with her closest friends. They went through the Middle East, visiting some of the most beautiful places in the world. Along the way, they had stopped in Sinai to climb the mountain, and she told our class about how she took a donkey to the very top, ascending the mount in a zig-zagging path until they reached the summit.
You know how children take a couple of facts, combined with their own assumptions, and make an entire story from there? That's exactly what I did, picturing a grassy green oversized hill that began with a side base until it reached (much like a pyramid) a single peak. In my head, the donkey took her across a dirt path that wound through this grassy hill, then rested its four little legs on the tip-top, in the exact same spot Moses got the Ten Commandments.
I mean, if Moses was 80 when he climbed it, and then walked all the way back with two giant stone tablets like the Bible stories I was taught, then it couldn't have been that big, right?
Wrong. Everything I thought about Mount Sinai before actually arriving was wrong (and no, in the most unlikely Emily thing to do, I researched nothing, despite normally researching every tiny detail of everything).
You Should Definitely Train for the Climb
As it turns out, the mountain is an actual, proper mountain. They weren't lying when they called it Mount Sinai—go figure. As we had planned for the trip, my cousin raised the fact that the hike was about five kilometres (three miles) each way, and I obliviously insisted, "I go for eight-kilometre walks almost every evening, so I'll be fine!"
As it turns out, there is a huge difference between a stroll through the suburbs to walk your dog and climbing a mountain. Who would have thought (*insert sarcasm here*).
During the climb, you will hike just under four kilometres (about 2.5 miles) up the "Camel Trail," beginning at the monastery; the path is broad and clearly has had a lot of foot traffic. Because it's wide and level enough to ride a camel, the trail is known as the Camel Trail.
When you go on group tours like we did, you start in the middle of the night. Our group began the climb at 2 AM, intending to reach the summit by 5 AM to watch the sunrise. Having gone on August 10th, it also coincided with the Perseid meteor shower!
I made it about one kilometre (according to my Apple Watch) before I started to lose my breath. I made it another half-kilometre before I was on the verge of tears. But I refused to take a camel, because firstly, I'm strongly against animal abuse (these camels had scars from lash marks on their legs and hips), and secondly, because it would be unfair to make a camel drag my body and its weight up the rest of the mountain when I couldn't even drag my body up on my own. By the 2.3-kilometre mark, I found myself wanting to die and be left on the side of the path forever. Turning back was not an option, and going up with my own two legs was impossible... so I called out for a 25€ camel the same way you'd hail a taxi in New York City, guiltily got on his back, and continued my ascent with help.
"The Big Emily Epiphany"
As I sat on the back of the camel (still feeling extremely guilty about the situation), I found myself lost in many thoughts, in particular, those about my life. The fact is that, for decades, I've felt that certain aspects need to unfold in a very specific way.
Now, if you're not into reading about my cheesy journey of self-discovery, maybe scroll down to the next section. If you're feeling it though, carry on.
I never imagined my trip to Mount Sinai would look like this. My nine-year-old brain had cemented the image of a big, grassy hill with donkeys, not a rocky mountain range with tons of camels. I didn't picture the hike happening in the middle of the night or me being physically exhausted and running on two hours of sleep.
But remember how this was coinciding with the Perseids? In these moments of feeling physically exhausted, sleep-deprived, and mentally up to the brim in my thoughts, I let out a loud breath and looked up. I looked up, and I saw a blanket of darkness scattered with millions of stars. Among these stars, there were meteors, racing each other across the expanse and disappearing into the abyss. It was so beautiful that I cried.
And then I thought about the last time I saw the Perseids in the first year of the pandemic, and everything surrounding that time, and felt sad. I sat in this for a while, my body swaying back and forth as the camel took me on my uphill journey, eyes continuously turned upward. There's something really beautiful about being left to my own thoughts, essentially in solitude in the middle of the desert—and sitting in that sadness and melancholy. Feeling the discomfort of it, acknowledging it, and then allowing myself to look beyond it.
Which led me to think about the time I had seen the Perseids before COVID. I didn't imagine the next time would "look" like it did, and I didn't imagine that time that I would see them next on the back of a camel while traveling across Egypt with my cousin and three new, amazing friends I didn't know existed at the beginning of 2023. Yet, on that very early morning, there I was.
This was better than I had ever imagined in so many ways. I was in Egypt. I made it to this place I had dreamed about travelling to for two whole decades. I was almost at the top.
And...what if...life in general was similar to this analogy? We think of things happening in a certain way, early in our lives, and sometimes, even when these things don't make sense, and we have no rationale for how we have built something up in our minds, we hold onto it. Even when life shows us a different path. Even when you're looking up at a literal mountain, not a grassy hill, you want to push back and say, "Nope, no, not at all. I'm not ready for this."
It might feel wrong or scary, but feel the feelings. Maybe it's not so scary, after all. Keep climbing to the summit.
The Views From the Top are Breathtaking
To reach the summit of the mountain, there's still more to go beyond the Camel Trail—where the camel stops, you get off, and have to continue on foot. From here, at this little rest stop, you climb another 750 stone steps over the final 0.8 kilometres (half mile).
My legs were still tired, but my cousin and her friends were absolute fitness machines and made it the entire way on foot. I was so impressed, and I told them the whole rest of the trip how much I believed that.
Nonetheless, I made my way up those final 750 stairs very slowly. But, eventually, we made it to the top.
The sunrise was beyond anything that I imagined. The air was crisp and chilly, and I ended up renting a camel wool blanket to ward off the cold while the glowing golden-pink sun followed our own ascent just beyond the mountains in the distance. It was pure magic, and despite all the complaining I did and the strain I experienced, and the emotions I worked through over those few hours, I was absolutely awe-struck.
Saint Catherine's Monastery
The way down the mountain was much easier; the path leading back takes you via the Steps of Repentance. These are 3,750 stone steps that bring you directly to Saint Catherine's Monastery; as you walk down and the sun settles into her place in the bright blue skies, it becomes sweltering. It makes sense to dress in layers, so you can remove them slowly as the temperature rises and avoid feeling uncomfortable in the heat.
When you reach the Monastery, celebrate! Yay!
This was built between 548 and 565, and is—quite incredibly—the world's oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery. There is so much history to be admired within.
Enter and explore the beautiful buildings, see the remnants of the burned bush, the Well of Moses, and the lovely little chapel there. When you're done, you can walk back to your tour bus and sleep the whole way back to your hotel (speaking from personal experience, this is a really good idea).
All in All
Was the climb nothing at all like I expected? Yes.
Was I disappointed that I didn't make it to the very top entirely on my own two feet? Sure.
Did I somehow envision a totally different landscape than what Mount Sinai truly looked like? Yup, I sure did!
But guess what? It was better. It was magical. It was more incredible than I ever imagined the experience could ever be, in every single way, and I could not be more grateful that it unfolded the exact way that it did.