Moses Mountain “Jebel Musa”
Called Mt. Horeb in the Bible and locally known as Jebel Musa (Gebel Musa), Mt Sinai is believed to be the place where Prophet Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. It is one of the highest mountains in Egypt with a small Orthodox church and a mosque on its summit at 2285 meters from sea level. Mt Sinai forms one massif with Jebel Safsafa and Jebel Loza, with many small basins atop. In these basins, there are old churches, small gardens and relics of monastic life.
The Beginning of the Camel Path
The most common route to the peak is from the Monastery via the camel path built by Viceroy of Egypt, Abbas Hilmi Pasha I. or via the “Steps of Repentance” built by monks, although there are several other less travelled beautiful treks. Since you have to have a guide anyway, you could consider to pay a little more and see more of the sights while avoiding the crowds. Check Suggested Treks for more details. There is a separate section about Jebel Safsafa, Jebel Loza in Sights around Mt. Sinai.
Saddle Between Wadi El-Deir and Wadi Isbaiyah
To your left at the top of the pass you look south into the wide, sandy valley of Wadi Isbaiyah which formed part of the ancient trade route connecting the Monastery to both Palestine and Cairo. Camel caravans came over the pass below, marked by a pile of stones and colloquially called Nagb’I Deir, bringing food and supplies as well as pilgrims, scholars and other travelers, to the Monastery from the port of El-Tur on the Gulf of Suez. Below you can also see a small Bedouin village and gardens which are stone-walled to keep out animals.
Galaktion And Episteme
On a bend in the camel path, looking across to Jebel El-Deir, you can see a green tree midway up the mountain. To the left of this is the Monastery of Saint Episteme, a nun, and Saint Galaktion, a monk, who lived in the fourth century. To your right, you have a good view of the switch-back path leading to Saint Theodore’s chapel on the green-tinged mountain of Jebel El-Munajah.
Camel Station and Cutting
From the camel terminus, you climb through a narrow pass in the mountain which was cut through to continue to Abbas Pasha’s path to the summit. Evidence of the holes drilled for the explosives to blast open the way can be seen on the sides of the path. On some rock faces a black plant like pattern can be seen. After the pass, the path leads left to the summit of Mount Sinai and right to Elijah’s Basin. Turn left and climb the final 750 steps to the summit – which takes about 25 minutes.
To Tread on Holy Ground – The Summit of Mount Sinai
The final steps of the Stairway of Repentance take to 2,285 metres above sea level and the lofty summit of Mount Sinai; the view from here has been likened to “an ocean of petrified waves”. Sometimes it is possible to see the hazy blues of the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba from this point. The northern and eastern boundaries of the Jebeliya territory are demarcated by the dark volcanic circular dyke and the peaks of Jebel Um Alawi. Use the panoramic sketch to orientate yourself and locate landmarks.
Christians and Muslims have long regarded this summit as the sacred Mount Sinai although Jewish tradition is more guarded in ascribing an earthly location to Mount Sinai. In early Christian times, it was only the pious who walked up the mountain in barefooted reverence who were permitted to visit the summit. Pilgrims rarely slept here and to this day the Bedouin respect the Holy Mountain by leaving with their flocks before sunset. The practice of sleeping on the summit to watch the sunrise is recent and the problems caused by waste and overcrowding disappoint many visitors. If you are camping please sleep at Elijah’s Basin.
The altar of the Church of the Holy Trinity is said to be built over the rock where God created the Tablets of the Law. Adjoining its northern wall, behind an iron fence, is the cleft of rock from where Moses beheld God’s glory. Many people believe that the marks inside the crevice are the imprints of Moses’ back, hands and head where he “shrank back into the rock while the glory of the Lord passed by”.
At the end of the 4th century Etheria, a pilgrim, writes of worshipping in a chapel atop Mount Sinai. In the 6th century, under Emperor Justinian, a new basilica-type chapel, with two aisles, was built of cut granite. It was much larger than the present church, extending to the edge of the present mosque. The basilica was destroyed in the 11th century along with many other Christian shrines by the Fatimid ruler al-Hakim. The Monastery was spared because of the letter of protection in which Prophet Mohammed declared “a secure and positive promise” to defend the Christian establishment and because it also had a mosque inside the walls.
The extent of the 6th-century church can be easily traced on the western slope of the summit. The altar of the basilica is thought to have been incorporated into the existing church of the Holy Trinity (built in 1934). Many of the large pink granite blocks from the 6th-century church were used to construct the existing church, others lie scattered about. It is thought that these granite blocks were quarried from Elijah’s Basin. The circular Christian cross in stone relief found on some of the blocks is indicative of the Justinian era.
Next to the church is a mosque which also incorporates some of the blocks from the earlier church. Beneath the mosque is a small grotto with a prayer niche which was probably a crypt of the original basilica. Neither the church nor mosque are normally open to visitors. A book is available for you to record your visit. About 40 metres below the summit are the remains of a Byzantine water conduit which fed the cistern between the two small rock knolls. Other conduits can be found on the mountain.
Return by the stairs. Approximately 200 metres down from the chapel to the left of the Stairway and marked by a ring of rocks, is an impression which resembles the footprint of a camel in the rock. Some Jebeliya Bedouin claim it is the mark of the She-Camel (El-Boraq) of Prophet Mohammed; others say that this is the footprint of the She-Camel of the angel who brought the Ten Commandments to Moses.
Elijah’s Basin (Farsh Eliyahu)
This is a sandy flat surface which lies between the northern extension of the mountain, Mount Safsafa, and the summit and which breaks the 750 steps to the summit from the 3000 steps which descend to the Monastery.
A larger thousands year old cypress tree, bare-branched at the top, together with six younger cypresses and an olive tree surround an ancient well which is fed by snowmelt and occasional rainfall. Below the well is a Byzantine dam which has been repaired recently. Constructed primarily to prevent flood damage to the Monastery, it also serves to recharge springs below. A lone Sinai hawthorn tree, frequented by small birds like the white-crowned black wheatear and Sinai Rosefinch, stands near the dam wall.
The chalky white Church of Elijah commemorates the place where Elijah fled after killing the prophets of Baal and is mentioned by Etheria in the 4th century. Inside the church is the stone beneath which Elijah sheltered when he spoke with God (see I Kings 19:1-18). Incorporated beneath its roof is the Chapel of Elisha, an acolyte of Elijah. Opposite this is “Daniel’s Room”, the shelter of the guardian of the church and summit in previous centuries. The Church of Saint Stephen is located in the southern neck of the basin approximately 200 metres from the other churches. The church marks the cave where Saint Stephen lived; he was one of the confessors for pilgrims in the 6th century and his cloaked remains are in the ossuary at the Monastery.
The stairway down starts to the right of the dam and the Monastery can be reached in about one hour from this point. The path is spectacular but steep and should not be attempted at night.
The Stairway of Repentance and Elijah’s Gate
Etheria records that in the 4th century the “Stairs of Repentance” only extended part way up the mountain. Monastery records reveal that the stairway was completed by an anonymous monk under the patronage of Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Monks have always believed that the mountain should only be ascended by those with the proper spiritual preparation and endurance for this steep but direct climb up the Stairway of Repentance. Bedouin call this route “the Path of our Lord Moses” (Sikkat Sayyidna Musa).
A hundred metres down the steps is Elijah’s Gate; a faint inscription around the top of the arch reads “John the Abbot” and is believed to date from the 6th century.
Shrive Gate (The Gate of Forgiveness)
In past time pilgrims confessed their sins to a priest at this gate and before ascending to the summit were asked: “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in this holy place?”. The pilgrim’s response was from the succeeding verse in Psalm 24 – “He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive the blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.” Pilgrims were then granted a certificate, a practice which continued until the 1880s.
Through the gate at waist level on the right is an inscription in Greek, possibly the word “Stephanus” and an image of a hand.
Chapel of Our Lady of the Steward (Oikonomissa)
A little further on you overlook the white-washed Byzantine chapel which stands approximately half way down the summit. The chapel is dedicated to a miraculous event which was reported in the 6th century.
The oikonomos, or Monastery steward, unable to obtain sufficient supplies to sustain the Fathers, climbed Mount Sinai to pray for the monks who had decided to leave the Monastery. The Virgin Mary appeared to him and promised that the storeroom would be filled. Descending from the mountain he saw a caravan of camels arriving laden with supplies from Palestine.
Another account explains that at one time the Monastery was so overrun with fleas, flies and ants that the monks could not “keep their corn or comfort there”. All but two of the monks had left the monastery and they also had decided to leave after a final prayer on the summit of Mount Sinai. On their ascent, they encountered at this spot an apparition of the Virgin Mary who promised that they “would not lack what they needed for living” and that the insects would not torment them any longer. Following this, the monastery became free of these pests and until recently, pilgrims attested to this miracle, claiming that “certain unclean creatures like flies, wasps, hornets, fleas and others of that sort, cannot live there, nor come into the monastery from the outside. And it has been observed that if such creatures are introduced into the monastery, they instantly die.”
The remainder of the Stairway is flanked by eroded granite walls and massive boulders. Take time to appreciate the changing colors, the extraordinary rock shapes and different views of the Monastery as you descend.
Spring of Symeon
After 20 minutes you reach the Spring of Symeon, wedged between two large granite boulders and marked by a small poplar tree. A stone bench looks onto the small dripping spring surrounded by delicate mats of moss and maidenhair fern. This spring is reported to be the place where Saint Stephen baptized Jews in order that they pass the Shrive Gate and ascend the Holy Mount. The Jebeliya remember when this spring used to be much deeper and cleaner. The spring is now contaminated; attempts are being made to clean and restore it.
Jebel Loza and Ras Safsafa
Jebel Loza and Jebel Ras Safsafa form one massif with Mt. Sinai (Jebel Musa). From the village and Raha Plain, only Ras Safsafa is visible, Jebel Musa is behind its peak. Some scholars believe the actual Mt. Horeb, where Moses received the Ten Commandments, is Safsafa. On the top, there are a number of basins interconnected by valleys. In these basins, there are several churches, gardens, dams, wells and other structures from Byzantine times. The easiest way to get to these places is from Farsh Eliyahu (Elijah’s Basin), before you start descending the Stairs of Repentance. See the Sights around Mt. Sinai section.