The interior of the Sinai is a baking wilderness of jagged rocks, drifting sand and wind-scoured gravel pans, awesome in its desolation. Yet life flourishes around its isolated springs and water-holes, or whenever rain falls, renewing the vegetation across vast tracts of semi-desert. Hinterland settlements bestride medieval pilgrimage routes, which the Turks transformed from camel tracks into dirt roads, and the Egyptians and Israelis then improved and fought over. Both sides also built and bombed the airstrips which international peacekeepers now use to monitor the Sinai’s demilitarized zones.
The only readily accessible parts of the interior are St Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai and Feiran Oasis, although some other, smaller oases can be reached by jeep or camel from the coast or St Catherine’s. That said, most buses from Cairo to Nuweiba traverse the Wilderness of the Wanderings via Nekhl and the Mitla Pass, allowing you to see something of the peninsula’s interior. Because of the unexploded ordnance lying around, driving yourself is officially restricted outside the St Catherine’s and Feiran Oasis areas.
Inland safaris range from half-day excursions to two-week treks. Travelling by jeep is obviously faster and makes few or no physical demands, but tends to distance you from the landscape, unlike travel by camel, which feels totally in keeping with the terrain.
For those with more time and stamina, the most rewarding option is trekking. Treks can be arranged at the village of St Catherine’s (where you can also obtain maps for one-day walks in the area) or at certain points along the roads into the interior, and also with many of the Bedouin who run trips from the coastal resorts. The list of destinations below should give an idea of what’s on offer.
Practicalities depend on your destination and mode of travel. Day excursions from the coast can be made on a Sinai-only visa, but to travel for any longer or to explore the High Mountain Region beyond the immediate vicinity of St Catherine’s Monastery and Mount Sinai you must have a full Egyptian visa. To climb mountains you must also have a permit from the police, which can be obtained by your Bedouin guide. It’s illegal – and highly risky because of unexploded ordnance and the likelihood of getting lost – to go trekking without a guide. To help you select destinations and plot routes, buy the 1:250,000 Sinai Map of Attractions. Other things to bring are listed in the “High Mountain Region and Feiran Oasis” section.
The area around St Catherine’s is sometimes termed the High Mountain Region, as it contains numerous peaks over 2000m. Snow frequently covers the ground in winter and flash floods can occur year round. The scenery is fantastic, with phalanxes of serrated peaks looming above wadis full of tumbled boulders and wiry fruit trees. This harsh but beguiling land is the stamping ground of the Jebeliya and Aulad Said tribes, some of whom act as guides for treks on foot or by camel; the terrain is generally too rough for vehicles, even 4WDs. Foreigners are legally forbidden to embark on such expeditions without a Bedouin guide.
Trekking is possible in winter if you are prepared to put up with chilly nights and possible snow flurries; in the summer it’s just a case of being fit enough to stand up to the heat. The main starting point for treks is the El-Milga area of St Catherine’s, where Sheikh Mousa will organize everything. An all-inclusive trek, including guide, food and transport, costs around £E300–350 per day. You’ll need comfortable hiking boots, warm clothes, a sleeping bag, sunglasses, sunscreen, lip salve, bug repellent, toilet paper and water purification tablets (unless you’re willing to drink from springs). A good map of south Sinai and a compass are also useful.
Egypt’s highest peak, Mount Catherine (Jebel Katerina; 2642m), is roughly 6km south of Mount Sinai and can be reached on foot in five to six hours. The path starts behind St Catherine’s village, running up Wadi el-Leja on Mount Sinai’s western flank, past the deserted Convent of the Forty and a Bedouin hamlet. Shortly afterwards the trail forks, the lower path winding off up a rubble-strewn canyon, Shagg Musa, which it eventually quits to ascend Mount Catherine – a straightforward but exhausting climb. On the summit are a chapel with water, two rooms for pilgrims to stay overnight, a meteorological station and panoramic views.
According to tradition, priests found St Catherine’s remains here during the ninth or tenth century. Believers maintain she was born in 294 AD in Alexandria of a noble family, converted to Christianity and subsequently lambasted Emperor Maxentius for idolatry, confounding fifty philosophers who tried to shake her faith. Following an attempt to break her on a spiked wheel (hence Catherine wheels), which shattered at her touch, Maxentius had her beheaded; her remains were transported to Sinai by angels.
If climbing Mount Catherine seems too ambitious, consider visiting the Blue Valley, 5km southeast of the intersection of the roads to St Catherine’s, Nuweiba and Feiran Oasis. This can be done as a day-trip from Dahab or in half a day from St Catherine’s Village by hiring a jeep and a guide. The canyon’s name derives from a Belgian who in 1978 painted its rocks a deep blue in emulation of the Bulgarian artist Christo, who hung drapes across the Grand Canyon.
It’s thought the ancient Israelites reached Mount Sinai by the same route that buses coming from the west use today, via Wadi Feiran and Wadi el-Sheikh. Travelling this road in the other direction, you might glimpse the Tomb of Nabi Salah near the Watiyyah Pass, where Bedouin converge for an annual moulid on the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. Beyond the pass lies El-Tafra, a small and dismal oasis village.
Roughly 60km from St Catherine’s the road passes a huge walled garden marking the start of FEIRAN OASIS. A twisting, granite-walled valley of palms and tamarisks, the oasis belongs to the tribes of the Tawarah, who have houses and wells here. Feiran was the earliest Christian stronghold in the Sinai, with its own bishop and convent, ruined during the seventh century but now rebuilt. Further back in time, this was reputedly the Rephidim of the Amalakites, who denied its wells to the thirsty Israelites, causing them to curse Moses until he smote the Rock of Horeb with his staff, making water gush forth. Refreshed, they joined battle with the Amalakites the next day, inspired by the sight of Moses standing on a hilltop, believed to have been the conical one the Bedouin call Jebel el-Tannuh, with ruined chapels lining the track to its summit (1hr). Other hiking possibilities in the area include Jebel el-Banat (1510m), further north, and the highly challenging ascent of Jebel Serbal (2070m), south of the oasis.
A guide can be arranged through Sheikh Mousa. Feiran Oasis lacks any accommodation, but you could probably camp in the palm groves with local consent.
Separating the granite peaks of south Sinai from the sandy wastes of the north is a huge tableland of gravel plains and fissured limestone, riven by wadis: the Wilderness of the Wanderings (Badiet el-Tih), through which the children of Israel are said to have passed. Life exists in this desert thanks to sporadic rainfall between mid-October and mid-April, which refills the cisterns that irrigate groves of palms and tamarisks. During Byzantine times, these cisterns sustained dozens of villages along the Sinai–Negev border; nowadays, the largest irrigated gardens are in Wadi Feiran and Wadi el-Arish.
Crossing the Wilderness via Nekhl and the Mitla Pass
The shortest route between Nuweiba and Cairo (470km; 6–7hr) crosses the Wilderness via Nekhl and the Mitla Pass. The heat-hazed plateau is stupefyingly monotonous but contains several historic locations (which you can visit by hiring a taxi for the day or getting a travel agency in Sharm or Dahab to organize a trip for you). The road from Nuweiba heads north to El-Thammed before cutting west across Wadi el-Arish. NEKHL, at the heart of the peninsula, has a derelict castle built by Sultan al-Ghuri in 1516. South of one of the wadi’s many tributaries lies Qalaat el-Gundi, a ruined fort built by Saladin; it can also be reached by a track from Ras Sudr on the Gulf of Suez. To the west, the road descends through the 480-metre-high Mitla Pass, one of three cleavages in the central plateau. The outcome of three Arab-Israeli conflicts was arguably determined here in some of the bloodiest tank battles in history.
The two four-day treks outlined here give an idea of local trekking opportunities; other possibilities are mentioned under the “Feiran Oasis” section.
The first trek, starts off in El-Milga and begins by taking the path through the Abu Giffa Pass down into Wadi Tubug, passing walled gardens en route to Wadi Shagg, where you’ll find Byzantine ruins and huge boulders. The next day you follow the trail through Wadi Gibal and climb one of two hills offering magnificent views, before descending to Farash Rummana camping spot. On the third day you strike north through a canyon to the water-holes of Galt al-Azraq, pushing on to camp at Farsh Um Sila or Farsh Tuweita. The final day begins with an easy hike down towards Wadi Tinya, before climbing Jebel Abbas Pasha (2383m), named after the paranoid ruler who built a palace there (now in ruins). You then follow a path down through the Zuweitun and Tubug valleys, back to Abu Giffa and El-Milga. If you want a more detailed account of the trek, track down a copy of Francis Gilbert and Samy Zabat’s A Walk in Sinai: St Catherine’s to Al Galt Al Azraq.
The second trek starts at Abu Sila village, 3km from El-Milga, where there are some rock inscriptions. You’ll probably camp out near Bustan el-Birka’s sweetwater spring. Day two involves descending into Wadi Nugra, below Jebel el-Banat, where you can bathe in pools fed by a twenty-metre-high waterfall. You then press through Wadi Gharba to the tomb of Sheikh Awad, where the Aulad Gundi tribe holds an annual feast in his honour. Having spent the night here, you have a choice of three routes to Farsh Abu Tuweita, the final night’s camping spot. On the fourth day you follow the same route as the final leg of the first hike.
Venerated by Christians, Jews and Muslims as the site of God’s revelation of the Ten Commandments, Mount Sinai overlooks the valley where Moses is said to have heard the Lord speaking from a burning bush.
The bush is now enshrined in St Catherine’s Monastery, nestling in a valley at the foot of the Mount, surrounded by high walls and lush gardens. As tourists have followed pilgrims in ever greater numbers, the sacred mount has witnessed unseemly quarrels between Bedouin over the shrinking amount of sleeping space for the climbers at the peak, and the monastery itself shows signs of strain. Yet for most travellers it remains a compelling visit, while other seldom visited peaks offer equally magnificent views if you’re prepared to make the effort to reach them.
The Greek Orthodox Monastery of St Catherine dates back to 337 AD, when the Byzantine Empress Helena ordered the construction of a chapel around the putative Burning Bush, already a focus for hermits and pilgrimages. Since then, the monastery has had cycles of expansion and decline, on occasion being totally deserted. Most of the monks today have come here from the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece.
Kléber’s Tower and the walls
Entrance is through a small gate in the northern wall near Kléber’s Tower (named after the Napoleonic general who ordered its reconstruction) rather than the main west-facing portal, which has a funnel that was used for pouring boiling oil onto attackers. Built of granite, 10–15m high and 2–3m thick, St Catherine’s walls are essentially unchanged since Stephanos Ailisios designed them in the sixth century.
Moses’ Well and the Burning Bush
As you emerge from the passage, a right turn takes you past Moses’ Well, where the then fugitive from Egypt met Zipporah, one of Jethro’s seven daughters, whom he married at the age of 40. Walking the other way and around the corner, you’ll see a thorny evergreen bush outgrowing an enclosure. This is the transplanted descendant of the Burning Bush whence God spoke to Moses: “Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10). Sceptics may be swayed by the fact that it’s the only bush of its kind in the entire peninsula and that all attempts to grow cuttings from it elsewhere have failed. The bush was moved to its present site when Helena’s chapel was built over its roots, behind the apse of St Catherine’s church.
Nearby is the Monastery Museum (£E50), which has Byzantine icons, crosses and chalices, reams of aged manuscripts, fragments of the world’s oldest bible and other pieces from the library. Exhibits are labelled in English and Arabic.
St Catherine’s Church
A granite basilica, St Catherine’s Church was erected by Justinian between 542 and 551; the walls and pillars and the cedarwood doors between the narthex and nave are all original. Its twelve pillars – representing the months of the year and hung with icons of the saints venerated during each one – have ornately carved capitals, loaded with symbolism.
At the far end, behind the iconostasis is the Chapel of the Burning Bush, only viewable by special dispensation. The narthex displays a selection of the monastery’s vast collection of icons, running the gamut of Byzantine styles and techniques, from encaustic wax to tempera. The church’s bell is rung 33 times to rouse the monks before dawn.
The rest of the monastery
Other parts of the monastery are usually closed to lay people. Among them are an eleventh-century mosque, added to placate Muslim rulers; a library of over three thousand manuscripts and five thousand books; and a refectory with Gothic arches and Byzantine murals. You can usually enter the charnel house, however, which is heaped with monks’ skeletons; the cemetery itself is small, so corpses have to be disinterred after a year and moved into the ossuary. The cadaver in vestments is Stephanos, a sixth-century guardian of one of the routes to the Mount.
While some archeologists question whether Mount Sinai really was the Biblical mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments, it’s hard not to agree with the nineteenth-century American explorer John Lloyd Stephens that “among all the stupendous works of Nature, not a place can be selected more fitting for the exhibition of Almighty power”. Its loftiest peak, a craggy, sheer-faced massif of grey and red granite “like a vengeful dagger that was dipped in blood many ages ago”, rises 2285m above sea level. Strictly speaking, it’s only this that the Bedouin call Jebel Musa (“Mount Moses”), though the name is commonly applied to the whole massif. Some Biblical scholars reckon that Moses proclaimed the Commandments from Ras Safsafa, at the opposite end of the ridge, which overlooks a wide valley where the Israelites could have camped.
Many people ascend by the camel path and descend by the Steps of Repentance. You could start your ascent around 5pm (earlier during winter) to avoid the worst of the heat and arrive in time to watch the spellbinding sunset and then sleep overnight at the summit. With a torch, you could also climb the camel path (but not the steps) by night, though not during winter.
The camel path
You’ll have to hire a Bedouin guide (£E125) to climb the mountain; don’t let them hurry you – do it at your own pace. The longer but easier route is via the switchback camel path, starting 50m behind the monastery. It’s possible to rent a camel for most of the ascent (around £E110), but it’s really worth the effort of walking (2–3hr). You can stock up on water at the shops outside the monastery before setting off, and there are refreshment stalls along the way. Prices rise the higher you go, but restocking on the mountain saves you carrying extra weight right at the start. Bedouin entrepreneurs at the peak rent out blankets and mattresses for the night (£E10–20).
Steps of Repentance
Beyond the cleft below the summit, the path is joined by the second route up the mountain, known as the Sikket Saiyidna Musa (“Path of Our Lord Moses”) or Steps of Repentance. Hewn by a penitent monk, the 3750 steps make a quicker but much steeper ascent from the monastery (1hr 30min), which is hell on the leg muscles; some of the steps are a metre high. Two buildings top the summit, a mosque and a Greek Orthodox church, both usually locked. Next to the mosque is the cave where God sheltered Moses: “I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass over” (Exodus 33:22). A little lower down the slope, a bunch of semi-permanent structures have sprung up, offering weary travellers a place to sleep.
Around 300m below the summit you enter a depression known as the Plain of Cypresses or Elijah’s Hollow, where pilgrims pray and sing; a five hundred year-old cypress tree stands here. This is also where Elijah is believed to have heard God’s voice (I Kings 19:9–18) and hid from Jezebel, being fed by ravens. One of the two chapels is dedicated to him, the other to his successor, Elisha.
The Bedouin community in St Catherine’s – and throughout the Sinai – is severely marginalized to the extent that the Egyptian authorities do not even collate official statistics on them. Few Bedouin work in the region’s hotels, restaurants and travel agencies, and guiding is generally the only legal form of employment available – little surprise that some Bedouin become involved in illegal activities. A few NGOs are working to improve the situation, including the Community Foundation for South Sinai (w southsinaifoundation.org), which is based in St Catherine’s and supports sustainable development, education, employment, health and conservation projects.