Editor’s note: what a cool excursion Sam got to take from Israel. Along with visiting Petra in Jordan, I will add Sinai to my list of side-trips next time I’m in Israel – which will hopefully be soon. To read more of Sam’s adventures, click here to visit his index.
To say the least, I was nervous to go. As an observant and devout Jewish person, I was familiar with the commandment, “The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again.’” (Deuteronomy 17:16) This weekend, the Jewish people will celebrate Passover, the story of our exodus from Egypt, escaping our place of bondage. However, at the time, the allure of Egypt was too great to resist. From the mighty Nile River, to the ancient temples, the awe-inspiring pyramids, the great mosques, and the smell of hookah smoke and spices in the bustling bazaar, Egypt is an absolute must on any person’s bucket list. I was living in Jerusalem at the time and had a short break from rabbinical school for Chanukah, and therefore decided to spend my long weekend dipping my toe into Egypt by journeying down to the Sinai Peninsula. Thus, I decided that for Chanukah, I would do a reverse exodus, going from the Promised Land back to Egypt, and it was a trip that I would never regret.
To get there from Jerusalem, the journey is long but not complicated. Frequent buses run from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to Israel’s port city on the Red Sea and Israeli vacation destination, Eilat. The 5-hour bus ride goes through a dry desert section of Israel and the West Bank called the Arava, past the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea. As you descend from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, if you have a partially finished water bottle, it will begin to collapse from the intense pressure of going so far below sea level. Finally, at long last, you will see the bright blue of the Red Sea and the bright lights of Eilat’s many resorts and beachside promenade. On a clear day, one can see from Eilat (and in particular from the nearby Mount Shlomo) four countries while standing in one place; Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. While Saudi Arabia is a short drive south of Israel, Eilat finds itself bordering the other two countries, and is an ideal jumping off point for excursions to the Sinai Peninsula or to Jordan’s Petra ruins, Wadi Rum desert or resort city of Aqaba. Upon arrival in Eilat, take a short bus or taxi ride to the Egyptian border, cross over and pay a fee and you are in the Arab Republic of Egypt in the border city of Taba. Once in Taba, where you go is entirely up to you; some stay in Taba for gambling and casinos, others take the long journey to Cairo across the desert, and yet others head down the coast to one of the Sinai Peninsula’s three main coastal cities: Dahab, Nuweiba, or Sharm El Sheikh. I chose to head down the coast in a taxi to the city of Dahab. Each of the cities has its own appeal; Sharm El Sheikh at the southern tip of the peninsula is the best known, though it is the farthest away and also requires additional fees to travel to from the Israeli border. Sharm El Sheikh is a popular tourist destination among Europeans and has an airport, and its Ras Mohammed National Park is considered one of the premier diving places in the world. Nuweiba is known for being the sleepiest of the three cities, and Dahab is known for being the spot for backpackers.
A cafe in Dahab
Driving south along the coast is simply beautiful. To the east is the Sinai Desert and to the west is the narrow Gulf of Aqaba, part of the Red Sea, making it one of the more scenic drives in the otherwise arid Middle East. After a couple hour journey, you will arrive at Dahab. Dahab itself seems to be primarily one street along the coastline, at least for the tourists. There is a town further back into the desert where young men in traditional garb hurry to the mosque for Friday prayers. Right on the water, there are numerous cafes, many of which do not have chairs, but rather pillows strewn about for travelers to kick off their shoes, lay back, and relax. These cafes serve fresh fish from the Red Sea, juices and smoothies made from local fruits, and traditional Egyptian tobacco in hookahs. Unlike most resort cities whose beach restaurants will charge a fortune, going to Dahab was actually far cheaper than eating dinner back in Jerusalem. Yet, perhaps the best part of the experience was laying back and staring at the Red Sea, where just a couple miles away, the imposing bright red mountains of the Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia stare right back at you. The Hejaz is the home of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities in Islam, which may only be visited by Muslim travelers, whose pillars of faith require them to make pilgrimage there once in their lifetime if able to do so. As Saudi Arabia is also one of the more closed off countries to Western travelers, getting to be so close to the Hejaz Mountains and see clearly across to the Saudi coastline was a treat in itself.
Staring across at Saudi Arabia
Dahab is a great jumping off point for excursions as well. Though Sharm El Sheikh’s coral is the primary attraction of the peninsula, Dahab also has its own coral reefs that are full of tropical fish, including the beautiful, but venomous, lionfish, which I got to see. Whether you snorkel or dive, you will have a great time exploring the reefs. However, Dahab’s claim to fame in the diving world is that it is home to a submarine sinkhole known as a blue hole, which drops dramatically over 100 meters just offshore. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DIVE THE BLUE HOLE if you are not an expert diver with a guide, as Dahab’s Blue Hole is the most dangerous diving location in the world, with approximately 200 fatalities in recent decades, more than anywhere else. Along the beach, camels roam and young Bedouin children happily approach travelers trying to sell their handmade bracelets for a couple dollars.
Yet, the Sinai Peninsula’s primary tourist attraction is located two hours away from Dahab with Mount Sinai, supposedly the mountain where Moses received the revelation of the Ten Commandments and Torah, holy to billions worldwide. There is no way to know for sure, but it is what tradition says. Climbing Mount Sinai is a grueling task; you will have to sleep the day of, because to climb Mount Sinai, which takes several hours up a steep incline to the 7,497 foot summit, will take the breath out of an even experienced climber, and it must be done overnight. Night hiking here is an incredible experience though, due to the seemingly infinite number of stars that are revealed with no light pollution and a near guarantee for a clear sky. Do be careful and bring plenty of water and a flashlight, as the pathways are not well groomed and it is easy to fall from dangerous heights. The best time to make such a hike is in the winter, as during the daytime, the temperature exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit even in December and January, making the hike unsafe in other times of the year. The intense heat is the reason for hiking at night, so bring a jacket and a warm hat, as the overnight temperatures are close to freezing in the desert and on the mountain’s windy summit, but prepare to shed them for the daytime hike down. At its peak, there is a church and a mosque for the devout to pray in, and upon arrival, everyone bundles up and waits for the most spectacular sunrise to be found anywhere. Is this the real Mount Sinai of the Bible? There is no way to know; however, as the sun touches the mountain, and the pilgrims from around the world begin to wail their prayers, just imagining that this could be the place where Moses stood and received the holiest of books is a moving and awe-inspiring moment.
Sunrise from Mt. Sinai
The journey down Mount Sinai is a beautiful, but intense, hike, where you will walk past beautiful rocky terrains and beneath arches. At the base of the mountain is another holy site, St. Catherine’s Monastery, a Greek Orthodox monastery dating back to 565 CE. At over 1400 years, St. Catherine is one of the oldest monasteries in the world and has the oldest continually operating library in the world, home to many sacred, ancient, and rare scriptures. The fortified monastery also contains many frescoes of Christian narratives, but most famously, it is home to a bush that is claimed to be the Burning Bush where Moses received his call to return to Egypt and free his people. Unfortunately for me, I went to the monastery on the Feast of Saint Catherine Day, the one day of the year it is closed, so I did not get the chance to explore it, but that gives me a reason to return, which would be well worth it!
St. Catharine’s Monastery
If you find yourself in Israel, Jordan, or the main part of Egypt, add a few days onto your itinerary to visit Dahab and the Sinai Peninsula. From its natural beauty, to biblical locations, to laid back beach vibe, it will be three days that will stay with you.
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