EPIC Group Travel Writers: Into the Sinai

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This is the 10th in a series of monthly stories by travel writers from EPIC Group Writers, an Edmonds non-profit organization whose mission is to support those who create, communicate and connect through cultural and artistic endeavors, especially the literary arts.

The sun had not yet risen when our tour bus drove the short distance from Eliat, Israel to the Egyptian border. Relations between the two countries were temporarily good in the early 1990s so we didn’t expect any problems. Glenn and I filed off the bus with the others and were inspected, screened, stamped and transferred to an Egyptian bus. There we sat waiting for the last of our group of 30 tourists ranging from those merely curious about the Holy Land to the religious. Forty-five minutes later the last passenger climbed on. It was the man we all called “our cowboy.” He had told us he was an ex-con who planned on founding his own religion, and who bought stacks of rams’ horns for those he hoped would be his followers. He was looking a bit paler than usual. Silently he headed for the back of the bus, his usual position. A guide and another man took the front seats across from the driver and we headed out.

Our first stop was the Hilton Hotel at Taba for coffee. Off the coast was a tiny island crowned with Salah El-Din castle built in 1170. While some guidebooks say it marks the most southerly outpost of the short-lived Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem before Salah El-Din and his Moslem armies pushed them out, the Egyptians determined it was Muslim. Whoever built it provided us with a dramatic sight of golden stone soon to be lit by the rising sun.

The unidentified man from the front of the bus joined us at our table while we sipped cardamom-flavored coffee. We chatted about our previous trip to Egypt. He allowed that he was our official minder for the day trip, working for the Egyptian security services. Friendly and talkative, he told us about the cowboy. The border guards didn’t like his looks, no surprise. Every time he went through the scanner, he set it off. Piece by piece they made him strip until they reluctantly relented after recognizing that it was only the steel-shanks in his cowboy boots setting off the alarm.

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Back on the bus, we crossed the barren Sinai desert to our goal, the ancient monastery of St. Catherine, founded in 325 by Emperor Constantine’s mother, St. Helena (who also found the True Cross in the church of the Holy Sepulcher). The monastery was rebuilt in 548 by Emperor Justinian as a fortified monastery. An oasis set in the rocks at the foot of Mount of Moses, Jebel Musa, it was a place of peace, with Muslims and Greek Orthodox co-existing.

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One writer called the area “God-trodden,” and it seemed an apt description of the isolated area. The carved entrance doors made of Cedar of Lebanon have been used by uncounted pilgrims since the sixth century. Inside the grounds is a mosque for the Bedouins along with the famous flourishing green bush. It is said to be a cutting of the original taken from the site where Moses received the Ten Commandments, now the Chapel of the Burning Bush. It isn’t clear what species the bush is. Some say it is a wild raspberry, others a rose or broom. When there is disagreement about a bush or a castle it is easy to picture all the other intractable disputes over other holy sites.

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The basilica’s interior is hung with enormous silver chandeliers laden with yellow beeswax candles, votive lamps surmounted with ostrich eggs suspended from the ceiling and ancient icons of incalculable value, some from the time of the monastery’s founding.

We were sorry to leave and hoped that someday we could return to hike the steep 750 Stairs of Repentance to the top of Jebel Musa to watch a sunrise and repent our sins. But our minder herded us back on the bus for the next big event, “tea with the Bedouins,” a faked tourist attraction but thought-provoking nevertheless when we saw little girls with unkempt hair peeking out from behind rocks to watch us while women stayed out of sight.

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The girls eventually crept out and joined the boys, some of whom were playing on the rocks. After handing out our pens and candies we carried to give to them, we sat in the sand around a small fire, hoping to avoid some disease from dirty water or hands of the men who prepared tea and poured it in smudged glasses while the flat bread baked in the ashes.

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When their cooking duties were finished, the men lay on the ground propped up on one elbow smoking in front of a cave stocked with provisions including plastic crates for soft drinks, jerry cans and Adidas carry-alls. Rubber sandals were carelessly discarded in the sand. Camels rested some distance away near battered Toyota pickups.

A beautiful young girl dressed in a blue robe with yellow flowers like someone out of the Arabian Nights came out to sell some trinkets.

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She sat in front of the community grocery store – a little turquoise painted cupboard stocked with a few cans of fish, biscuits and other odds and ends. Camel bags hung on one side of the shop and a dish towel on the other.

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We wondered what these nomadic people thought of us staring at them and taking pictures. Outwardly they didn’t seem to care, but inwardly?

As we left the bus at the border, our “minder” kindly gave Glenn a paper cornucopia of cardamom-flavored coffee as a memento. “Shokran,” I said, using my small store of Arabic words. Cardamom: always to be used in small amounts, always reminding me of this trip, where if the dose is too large the taste is bitter.

— By Judith Works

As an offshoot of EPIC’s Monday morning writing sessions held at the Edmonds library, the EPIC Group Travel Writers meet at Savvy Traveler once a month. Participants of this fluid group love to travel and write stories about their journeys. You are invited to attend on the second Wednesday of the month from 3:30-5 p.m. Free to members and non-members of EPIC Group Writers. 

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