Along the way, several kiosks sold snacks and drinks. The ones closest to the top offered hot tea and blankets for rent. Even in the summer, where the heat during the day easily topped 100 degrees, it could be uncomfortably cool at night. I was quite thankful I had tossed a fleece and wool hat into my luggage at the last moment.
Sadly, the camels could not take us all the way. The last portion of the climb was 750 awkward rocky steps heading straight up. Bogged down with our camera gear, we were a bit chagrined as more than one grandmotherly-looking type trotted right past us on their way up.
When we reached the top, I was surprised by how small the area was. A group of sleeping tourists, curled up in sleeping bags, was near the chapel that sits on top of the mountain. Close by, a garbage can overflowed with water bottles and food wrappers.
But on the other side of the chapel, a group of Italian visitors gathered in a circle and were led by two priests in a predawn service. A nun bowed her head in prayer and then raised her small digital camera to capture the lightening sky. A thin chorus of "Hallelujah" floated over the heads of people curled up in their blankets watching the sun come up over the chain of rugged mountain peaks that stretched to the horizon.
And then, as soon as the sun was up, the crowds started making their way back down. I spoke to the few tourists I could find who spoke English. Most did not believe that this was the true location of Mount Sinai, but its history as a possible location for where Moses received the Ten Commandments seemed good enough. As one young traveler from Australia put it, "I like to think it is because then I've climbed Mount Sinai, which is amazing. ... It's such an historical mountain."
A visitor from Paris pointed out the fact that in this location there was a Greek Orthodox monastery, in a Muslim country, celebrating an important moment in the founding story of Judaism. It was that mix of religious experience that drew her to the top of Gebel Moses.
And while some of the visitors didn't think this was the true location of Mount Sinai, they did believe that the Ten Commandments still had a purpose in the 21st Century. As the climber from Australia said, "If we all have some sort of basic moral code it makes things easier."
Father Justin agreed. "They are the cornerstone of the encounter between God and man," he said. "They remain applicable to this day. Technology changes at a bewildering pace, but human nature doesn't change."
Father Justin pointed to 19th century British mountain surveys that supported the centuries-old tradition that Gebel Musa was Mount Sinai, by comparing its geography to biblical description. But modern archaeology has not dug up any proof whatsoever. According to Richard Freund, a professor at the University of Hartford, who has examined seven potential sites of Mount Sinai, "There is no evidence. Not a pottery shard, not a single artifact from the Bronze Age, from the time when the Israelites would have been encamped there."
So my journey would have to continue. And what I found at each place I visited was that while some proof hinted that the location could be Mount Sinai, there were counterarguments that it couldn't be the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments. But the interesting thing was, for almost every person we spoke to along the way, where it happened, even if it happened, didn't seem to matter. The story of the Ten Commandments, and the Ten Commandments themselves, have nonetheless stood the test of time.
"Even though they were written on rock," Freund said, "their meaning was really written on the hearts and souls of the people who came afterwards."