This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Moses is on my mind as I pass the usual Dahab day of sun, food, and swimming. I’m going to
climb Mount Sinai, in Arabic, Jebel Musa—the Mountain of Moses. He hung out there, boiling
his brain and chiselling laws into stone tablets, while the Israelites would engage in whatever
debauchery they could. The town gears up for the evening, and by the time I leave, the smelting
of golden idols is complete. I forsake the flesh-pots and ride off onto the midnight with a taxi-
load of tourists; they have been enticed by my promise of an unforgettable sunrise, but look
longingly back at the streets.
Only the driver and I seem aware of the desert landscape slipping by, and he but dimly. The
moon is waxing gibbous and sinking into the lower sky. By day, the sun’s vantage is such that
shadows run into the cracks and dry up; but now, the scene is a relief of creamy pastures and
lagoons of night. The Moon curdles, butters the heights, then sets, blackly. The sky sharpens
into whorls and rivers of stars that bleed light into the celestial darkness and defeat it.
Sagittarius, the brightest region of the Milky Way, is incandescent. Gravity loosens its hold on
the imagination and the sky falls away. The galactic centre is three hundred trillion kilometres
below. For thirty three thousand years, its light has floated up to powder our eyes. To the north,
the unknown comet sails past the pole and buries herself into closer distance—this is our last
After a few false turns, our Bedouin driver drops stops in an unlikely-looking place. A little
dubiously, we stumble into the gloom of his indicated direction. The bulky mountains reveal
themselves only by an absence of sky; a wild, wavy line of them roller-coasts around us,
shoring up the night. We have no idea of where to go—and this is humbling in such a place—
but we trip hopefully on between the unseen giants. My nose scents camel just as it flattens into
one. “Camel ride?” comes a voice. We are on the right path. I become excited. An adrenaline
hit surges through me and carries me forward in a rush. My friends fall behind, and I find the
going easier outside of the flickering cones of their flashlights. The path switches back and
forth; but irresponsibly, I cut straight up. Other parties sail through the blackness, tacking
across the broad face of Mount Sinai like boats navigating a three-dimensional sea. Only
underfoot can the mountain be seen at all in the most delicate sprinkling of stardust. Unseen
also, are the camel trains much farther up, but for when they crest a ridge and vignette the
heavens with miniature replicas of the serrated mountains themselves. In place of light: sound.
Camel bellows, cries of caution, and whoops of joy blanket the echoing slopes, and my quiet
footfalls dart off to weave me into the whole. I pass unseen through effusive groups of
pilgrims; they shout, laugh, and fall unhurt from their camels, to shout and laugh again.
One man sees me—a Bedouin. He calls me to his stall by the side of the track and points: “In
sky…there…seven days…” he ventures in halting English. The now very faint comet is visible
only to an indirect glance.
“Mara waheda fee kuli asharati alaf sani,” I reply, hoping that it means: Once in ten thousand
years. We share a look of wonder (to each his own, probably), and he offers a tissue for my
runny nose. He is still in bed, but serves me tea, supine, then tucks himself back in. It is very
cold; the wind tears a vocal shudder from my body.
“Not far,” he encourages, kindly. Mount Sinai is still there, mostly above us—but then, not
far means much the same in Ireland—we have more than comets in common. Not far brings
me to a wide ledge full of people and camels and the buzzing of generators. Beyond is a spire
of unscalable rock. My spirits sink. I stop before the pools of light and feel the sweat chill on
my back. It must be possible to go on. I can’t believe that Moses would foist the Ten
Commandments onto us from so unexalted a place. Unseen again, I hasten through and find, to
my relief, a tapering path leading away and up. A hundred metres on, rocks jut up like dragon’s
teeth and enclose the path in a narrow defile. As it wavers and turns, the little canyon seals off
the whole night, all its sights and sounds, but for a shrill headwind and a trickle of stars above.
I freeze, heart thumping, spirits soaring. Perfectly framed, and isolated from the background of
stars, my comet burns, hair swept back and up in a magnificent gesture of defiance at her
Knowing this for the right path, no matter where it lead, I race on, gripped with excitement,
panting and pawing my way up a flight of cut steps, pack-heavy and knees buckling. The last
of the ascent is enclosed in a gully, and I am lucky enough to have it to myself. The steps find
their clever way to the top, and I mine by their starlit sheen. Two and a half thousand metres
above sea level, I throw down my pack and breathe. I stand in the strong wind cruising over the
mountain and dry off. The adrenaline is gone, so I dress in all my clothes and shiver. The very
summit is selfishly occupied by a little church. I resist an urge to perch on its roof, and set off
to explore instead. I am alone, but soon three Koreans arrive. The first two are well over sixty;
liver spots darken their faces. The third notices me and stops: “Mum and Dad!” he says
nodding ahead. “Are you Christian?”
“No,” I reply.
“You travel alone?”
“Good luck.” He leaves me to ponder his meaning. It is about four o’clock. With one lazy
kick, I sweep a flat rock clean of dried shit, and lie down, wrapping a blanket up to my nose. I
am not aware of sleep, nor even of closing my eyes; but in a flash, the sky transforms. In one
moment, the Milky Way twirls above like a ribbon in the wind. In the next, zodiacal light
swamps the stars and ushers in the dawn. A meteor trails across the sky so slowly that I have
time to turn my head and follow its passing with eyes that I’m not sure are open or shut. The
sky lightens further, and the top fills with many denominations of Moses, and a few don’t
knows. Prayer groups begin. Closer My God to Thee is sung in Korean. An Orthodox priest in
flapping white robes shakes a golden chalice at his following. Head bobbing to his noiseless
reading of the Siddur, a young Jew stands on the brink as the east reddens behind him. Cameras
whirr, chatter, and strafe the emerging landscape. Close by, a stagnant pool of light rising from
the hidden Monastery washes out, and the walls of its steep-sided chasm fall into orange
perspective. From there to here, the valley of our ascent gains texture and form. Beyond, a
thousand hump-back hills spring up between us and the yellowing horizon. Our sister
mountain, Jebel Katerina—a shade higher—broadens, and sinks her roots into the earth. The
unhurried pace of dawn is shattered by the sun’s coming. I struggle to register his rising, but he
mounts the sky in a single bound and glares down on us in sudden day.
Tea-shops, cobbled together from planks, ropes, and tarpaulins, do brisk trade. I poke my
head into one. A few-dozen ruddy faces warm to the steaming cups. One looks up and glowers
at me—I promised him an unforgettable sunrise, he has that at least. Outside, the cameras fire
off a few last volleys, and cease. The summit empties. A queue forms at the head of the gully,
and all but a few of us drop out of sight. I breakfast with my Dahab friends, who warm to the
serene daytime mood of the mountain. After an hour, the pilgrims emerge below the rock ledge
and flow quietly down the ordinary-looking path that resonated so Biblically the night before.
“There’s another way down,” says one of my friends.
“It’s called The Three Thousand Steps of Repentance.”
“It’s called the what?”
“Yea, some mad monk built it as an act of contrition.” Girded by food, warmth, and
anticipation, we set off down the gully. Exhaustion and heat conspire to trip us over into gentle
hallucination as we descend through the cratered mountain. Hiding from a direct glance, but
there in the eye’s corner, pockmarked faces wail and stare at us with toothless mouths and
eyeless sockets. Every emotion, mortal and divine, is carved into stone. At the bottom of the
steps, before the defile, a fainter path turns left into a U-shaped valley graced by a stand of
Cypress trees sheltering behind a dry-stone wall. The long, gentle valley invites exploration;
but the sun reminds our rubbery legs and watery minds of his coming rage. Another day, I
false-promise myself. Luckily, the path continues, as good paths should, in the most desired
direction. Down a shaded, rocky chasm, it trickles like a placid stream, picking its way
stealthily through boulder fields. We join another chasm, its harsh, clashing walls fashioning an
even-unlikelier vessel for this tender way. We stop in admiration and fatigue more frequently
now as the Monastery appears into view in the deep gorge before us. On the knife-edge of
shadow and sun, we pause one final time, suck on a bitter orange, and contemplate the route.
The mountain is unspoiled. Beyond a handful of metres, the path is not visible at all. It shows
itself only when required. It is a masterpiece. We praise the monk that must have toiled like a
demon through a Methuselan life to create this apology to his god.
We launch ourselves into the heat of a mature day, and hasten down to the Monastery, which
is mercifully closed. Our driver awaits, hair plastered about his face, sleep crusting his big
brown eyes, a lavish smile on his mouth. He had just about given up on us. On the long desert
road, I dodge sleep, fighting the impulse to drop my head into my chest, willing myself to add
just one more detail to this perfect day.
We arrive back in Dahab at midday, worn out. When I open my door, hot air rolls out to greet
me. The sun is hammering on the roof, and the room smells like a fart in a sauna. I sleep naked
and without sheets for the first time in years. It is disorientating to eschew the weight that
anchors my native slumber, but stupefaction triumphs.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?