The Sinai and the Burning Bush

 map 11 port suez
Map 11 – Port Suez
at the southern entrance to the Suez Canal


Port Suez was almost destroyed during the 1967 and 1973 war with Israel. Some of the devastation from the bombing can still be seen in places around the city but is slowly, slowly being rebuilt. They don’t do things quickly here. However the main streets particularly at night look vibrant with lots of flashing lights. The shops actually look quite enticing as you drive through the city at night, if you can ignore the constant litter and broken rubble lying around on the footpaths and streets. Much of the waterfront area in the vicinity of the Suez Canal Yacht and Rowing Club actually seems quite depopulated; empty apartment buildings with locked doors, closed shops.

This isn’t a tourist town. It’s basically just a transit point for ships and yachts passing through the Red Sea, as well as a rest stop for Muslims making a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Thurs 19 Nov 09

Morning: Lovely day again. There is no Wi-Fi network detectable from the boat but have found an unsecured Wi-Fi network if I take the laptop to an nearby garden inside the marina grounds. There’s an open covered building complete with tables, and there are power outlets so it’s apparently expected to be able to use the network. Andy has a chat with wife Jenni on Skype while I manage to get some emails sent. We really should see if we can buy an USB Wi-Fi antenna booster so we can access the internet from the boat.

Nothing much else happening. Spend most of the day getting our washing done including waiting for the one machine to become available. In between washing cycles we do odd cleaning jobs about the boat.

Nitheesh and Gipson, the two Indian lads from Lo Brust’s Mistral arrive to collect money for a trip to St. Catherine Monastery in the Sinai Desert. Cost is USD $20. Andy and Roger aren’t going so Lo Brust subsequently comes around to ask them for the $40. When told, “No” Lo complains of being out of pocket because he says people change their minds. I believe we’d told him on at least two occasions that they wouldn’t be taking the trip. The whole thing could have been avoided if he’d simply circulated a clipboard sheet for people to tick yes or no to the various organised trips. Lo is consistently proving his organisational ability isn’t all that good.

map 12 sinai monastery  map 13 monastery
Map 12 – location of St Catherine Monastery Map 13 Mount Sinai and the monastery

1300hrs: Finally manage to get access to the washing machine. Each wash cycle takes forever, lasting as long as it takes for a piddle, a cup of coffee and another piddle. It tends to sit for much of the time doing nothing while it tries to decide what to do next. I have two loads to put through so this is going to be a long afternoon and a good test for the bladder.

Approx 1800hrs: A rally barbeque costing USD $5 per head is being held in the marina grounds. It’s going to be an official function and an area with tables joined together are set up and well lit with brilliant spotlights. A ghetto blaster by default detonates with Egyptian rock music but is turned down on request so that we can talk to each other at the tables. The food is good. A semi spicy dip of hummus, a small bowl of cucumber and tomato, three pita breads, coleslaw and a large selection of barbequed meat consisting of chicken pieces and small clump-like rissoles are given to each person. Lo Brust makes presentations to the Felix Agency representative for Port Suez and to the Manager of the Port Suez Yacht and Rowing Club. In return the Felix Agency guy presents each captain with a small metal figurine featuring an Egyptian god of some sort.

Some yachties will be leaving for Wadi Dome further down the Red Sea in the morning, while others will be going to the St. Catherine Monastery, so the night winds up reasonably early as people begin to filter away.

Fri 20 Nov 09

0830hrs: Waiting at the front gate at the appointed time but nothing much happening. Reminded of my army days and the expression, “Hurry up and wait”. People stand around talking and wondering what the hold up is. Seems we have to wait for the Felix Agent to turn up for some reason. Then it’s explained the delay is due to the Police who will be escorting us for our own safety.

Some discussion starts whether it will be worth going to the monastery when it’s discovered it closes at 1200 hrs every day except for today, Saturday and Sunday when it doesn’t open at all. Collective decision is that we’ll go anyway, even if we have to stand outside the walls and just take photographs. Lo Brust expresses surprise about this information. And this is the fourth rally he’s organised I think?

0905hrs: Two mini buses followed by a Police van manned by two armed Police officers in the back depart the yacht club. We’re on our way. Five minutes later our little convoy arrives at the Red Sea Port Authority where we stop. More waiting. Whatever the reason for this delay it takes 20 minutes to sort out before we can get back on the road again with the Police van following behind.

0935hrs: Reach the outskirts of Port Suez travelling in a northerly direction. Looks to be a relatively narrow strip of vegetated land with date palms, trees, bushes and long grasses between the road and the canal. The other side is pretty much desert with virtually nothing green that is not man made and occasional buildings. A French lady sits just behind me. She must be feeling a bit phlegmy and spends a bit of time hoicking up juicy bits. And the driver apparently only has a collection of three songs which he doesn’t seem to tire of listening to most of the way going out and coming back.

150 night marketLeft: A night time market on the way to the Sinai Peninsula from Port Suez

0945hrs: Come to the first of many checkpoints. Driver stops and gets questioned thoroughly. Some long discussions take place. One bloke is seated and writes stuff into a writing pad as each car goes through. Four or five armed soldiers in camouflage uniforms stand around the 200 litre drums and tyre-sized concrete blocks that are situated to slow drivers down.

On our way again after a short while and heading easterly through a long tunnel which goes under the canal and over to the Sinai Peninsula. Turn right to follow the coast south stopping occasionally at a check post for another chat with the sentry. Most of them just nod, others seem to want to know intricate details of our journey. The driver just hands them a piece of paper. I think our driver must have been prepared for this and had several copies of the same piece of paper sitting up front.

Around midday our little convoy stops at a rest stop for lunch, a scratch and a look around. There isn’t much to look around at – mostly desert, some cars moving on the highway and a bog-standard type rest stop. Not too impressed with the scraggy bread rolls and bits of something in them so settle on a small bag of biscuit snacks, an ice-cream and coffee.

A rather tall and young-ish Egyptian fellow cottons on pretty quick that tourists have arrived ripe for the plucking. Stations himself between the male and female toilets demanding one pound for entry. He wasn’t there when I went in but had positioned himself by the time I came out. Wants payment in arrears. Sorry mate – too late, the deed is done. I think most people just accepted it and paid up. Roger from Storm Dodger returns to his wife looking for small change, but after being advised it was a scam simply goes back and walks inside, ignoring a barrage of objections from our entrepreneurial chap.

Am surprised by the country we travel through. I had thought it would be flat desert, barren and dusty with maybe the occasional oasis and some buildings. There are actually relatively few flat areas except along the coast. Most of it seems to be hills, low ranges or mountains. No vegetation of any kind on any of the hills, ranges or mountains, being confined if it exists at all in any small areas of flat, rocky, dusty land usually where people are living.

151 a resort  152 bedoin hut
A “resort” on the West Coast
of the Sinai Peninsula
Bedoin huts

After we turn easterly into the interior of the Sinai the mountains start to get bigger and bigger and we steadily climb higher. The bare, rocky high mountains and peaks of the Sinai in this area are where the Children of Israel are said to have wandered 33 centuries ago. Very forbidding kind of place. They must have been pretty good at finding water. There are some occasional areas of sorry looking date palms and even sorrier looking stone huts and people. These are apparently what some of the once proud Bedouins have come to, relying on selling dates and some vegetables and living in poverty, having given up their once nomadic lifestyle.

1415hrs: Arrive at St. Catherine airport, a dubious name given that there doesn’t seem to be any airstrip around, or else they just use gyrocopters on a flat piece of land lined by rocks that I can see in the distance. In any case we’re told in no uncertain terms not to take any photographs and charged another unexpected £16.50. This is supposedly a government tax for which a receipt is not required to be issued  (yeah … right) but you do get a ticket … obviously Lo didn’t know about this either.

1430hrs: Stop at another checkpoint. Driver gets out of the car at this one. Sit and wait for a while. Driver comes back and drives 50 metres or so into a car park and we’ve arrived. Climb out. Rather chilly wind blowing. Everyone but me starts pulling out windcheaters or jumpers. I hadn’t given any thought to it thinking the Sinai was flat and hadn’t brought one. I suppose I haven’t been the only tourist to be caught out because a number of little shops are lined up next to the car park that sell various clothing articles, rugs and things. Am able to purchase an American made fleece lined jacket for £150 bargained down from £200, complete with fleece lined hood liner and plenty of pockets. Everyone walks the dusty road up to the monastery.153 monastery

Right: St. Catherine on the Sinai Peninsula on the site of the biblical burning bush. Has operated continuously as a monastery since being built in 565 AD.

The Monastery of St. Catherine is an Orthodox Christian monastery that has existed for almost 1500 years. It consists of a stone wall several metres high arranged in a huge large square. Several monasteries were established around this time in the southern Sinai to escape the pagan Romans. The monks certainly did it really hard back then but they’d bought slaves with them to help out. This monastery was erected 527 to 565 AD and has been under the respective protection of Mohammed the Islam prophet, Arab caliphs, Crusaders, Turkish sultans and Napoleon. They all gave special protection to it. It has never been conquered, damaged or destroyed which is quite remarkable, but probably because it is built on a site that is sacred to both Moslems and Christians in the Old Testament.

 153 monastery road 154 road to monastery
approaching St Catherine monastery with Mt Sinai on the right. Mount Moses is behind Mt Sinai. looking back towards the Catherine township showing mountainous desert country

Moses apparently first found his future wife on a nearby mountain now called Mt. Moses, and is said to have been spoken to by God through a burning bush where the monastery now stands. The exact location of the various early monasteries and the site of the burning bush has been held in the collective memories of native tribes in the area through the centuries. The monks built an alter right over the site where the burning bush allegedly stood. A cutting of the bush was transplanted several yards away near a well and it still flourishes today.

Mt. Sinai towers behind and above the monastery and is where Moses received the 10 Commandments from God on the stone tablets. There are some 3000 odd steps to climb up there. Tourists have an option to go up there and spend the night and return the next day.

155 monastery  156 monastery
 157 monastery  158 monastery
Views around the monastery.
The pathway up to the top of Mount Sinai can be seen in photo at bottom left, just right of top centre.

Near the monastery is a miserable collection of stone huts, and further around the back stand some tribal villagers with a motley collection of camels. These are for rides to a nearby ridge where there is a small chapel, or to take visitors to the top of Mt. Sinai. The villagers are apparently descendants of Anatolian and Alexandrian slaves who were brought here to serve the monks and the monastery. They still serve the monastery and it’s said they think of themselves as Greek. They are Moslem’s but do observe some of the Christian rituals. The monks themselves are all of Greek descent.

159 village  160 villager
village huts for monastery workers villager on camel

We climb a nearby rocky outcrop and get some photographs, check out the extensive walled garden areas, stand around and eventually find a coffee shop. One of the Greek Monks eventually comes out to talk with some of us and although the monastery is closed, arranges for us to go inside to see the burning bush at 1630hrs after prayers.

1700hrs: A side gate is opened and small groups are allowed inside. We weave through a small tunnel and narrow lanes under the guidance of a young Egyptian guide until we reach a covered stone well. He informs us this is Moses’ Well. This is where Moses used to meet up with his future wife when she brought down her sheep or goats for a drink. Some baddies gave her a hard time and Moses drove them off.

160 side gate  161 cat & cross
side entrance into the monastery a bad omen?
black cat sits next to cross above the door
 162 inside monastery  163 moses well
inside the monastery Moses’ well

We are then taken a bit further up the lane to see a large green bush rearing above the narrow lane. It’s said no cutting from this bush has ever been successfully transplanted anywhere else in the Sinai except for this one, and that it’s the only one of its kind in the whole of the Sinai Peninsula. Unfortunately by now it’s quite dark but there is a certain aura, whether psychological or not I cannot tell, to be standing next to this bush.

164 the bushLeft: Descendant of the biblical burning bush. An alter was built over the site of the original.

1800hrs: Back into the buses and commence the trip back. The driver asks a couple of times if any of us want to stop at a rest house on the way back, but each time is met with an emphatic, “No”. It’s been a long day and everybody just wants to get back. A raffle is started at USD$1 a head, the winner being whoever predicts the closest time we arrive back at the main marina gate. A five-hour outbound trip takes four hours to get back. One of the Indian lads off Mistral wins it.

2200hrs: Back onboard I find a dinner placemat and cutlery laid out with dinner on the stove ready to heat up. Andy and Roger are asleep in bed. Some sort of disco is going on next door but the amplified noise stops around 2300hrs.165 souks

Right: Villagers also run souks selling trinkets and clothing to tourists. A chance for some last minute shopping.

Learned next day that while I’d been away gallivanting around the Sinai, Andy and Roger had been having some adventures of their own in town. They’d been walking along the main road towards the city when a driver pulls up and offers them a lift.

Rule #1 broken – they get in without asking a price.
“Do you want to go on a tour”?
“No – we want fruit and vegies”.
“No problem”.

He takes them to a market stall with nothing else around it but rubbish in a dirty, dirty, dirty area with flies by the thousands. The driver buy tomatoes and oranges and then fleeces his clients by putting his own price on top of the real price.

Rule #2 broken – don’t let someone else shop for you.

They then ask to go to a grocery shop. Repeat of the above. One shop. Dirty, dinghy area etc. He takes them to get beer. This turns out to be a bombed out place from the Egyptian war with Israel in 1973-74. One garage door has a Heineken sign on it. It costs £360 (about AUS$70) for a carton of 24 cans … but they can’t pick it up until after prayers. Three hours later prayers are over.

They get him to pull over once they get back into an area where they catch another taxi. Ask this new driver what his fees are going to be to get back to the marina. After extensive haggling the price is dropped to £70 (AUS$14). Now that they have a price they continue to use the taxi for the rest of the day. They also manage to find a booster antenna for the Wi-Fi internet. The driver’s son locates this little gem. The upshot of all this was that the total shopping bill should have been about £500 but ended up costing £900 – a superb piece of fleecing that is taken as a learning experience.



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