From Cairo to Jerusalem

Many tourists go to Mount Sinai, but few take the road we took.

June 25, 2009, 7:59 AM

MOUNT SINAI, June 24, 2009 — -- Our adventure began in front of the pyramids in Cairo, Egypt. Five of us were trying to figure out how to get to Jerusalem, our next stop on our mini- tour of Egpyt and Israel.

Of course, we could have taken a plane and been there in a couple of hours, but we found out there was a bus route that goes to Israel with a stop at historic Mount Sinai.

I was not sure how this would work out, but we all agreed it would be a fun ride, so off we went.

Many tourists go to Mount Sinai, a holy place for both Jews and Christians, but apparently most don't get there the way we went.

The passengers on board our bus were mostly locals. Some of them worked in Cairo and were going back to their homes in the Sinai desert's towns.

After an hour of rough riding on the busy and bustling roads of Cairo, we reached the desert - it was flat and white during the first miles, and then became hilly with shades of black and brown.

At our first stop, I bumped into what has to be the dirtiest sink in the Middle East. It was covered in so much black grease and dust, that one could barely imagine that it had once been white.

Our driver, non- talkative at first, finally told us that although he drove in the Sinai desert road everyday, he was still moved by the beauty of the long stretches of rocks and sand.

Religious tradition has it that the Hebrews fled Egypt to Israel through the Sinai desert, with their children, animals and all the belongings they could carry along. It is difficult to imagine entire families and tribes walking across the scorching sun of the Sinai desert.

It was hard enough going the 195 miles from Cairo to Mount Sinai in a bus.

But we made it in time for some sleep, and were up at 2:30 a.m. to hike to the summit of Mount Sinai in time for sunrise.

Along the way, people offered to rent us camels, but I was up for the real experience - a three-hour hike in the mountain wearing flip flops! Which by the way, I do not recommend.

According to legend, it was on Mount Sinai, (or one of the nearby mountains) that God revealed the Torah and its ten commandments to the Jewish people through the prophet Moses. Judaism is born.

As we reached the top of Mount Sinai, a congregation of orthodox Christians was singing hymns, making the experience even more moving and unforgettable.

The temperature was chilly because of the height and the early hour. I zipped up my jacket, sat down on the rock and observed in silence the mountains in the haze, imagining that maybe Moses had once seen the same sunrise on the same mountain.

Today, Mount Sinai is a place where faithfuls seek communion with God. Some Christians actually spend several days praying in the monastery next to Mount Sinai.

After our descent and a two-hour ride in the desert stopping for a delightful mint tea break on Beduin mats at a rest stop 30 minutes from the border, we finally made it to the border with Israel.

I was thinking of having my first traditional Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem, but the Israeli authorities quizzed one of our traveling party, a Palestinian- American friend, for three hours, before letting him go.

I stopped thinking about the traditional bread and candles I was missing and grabbed an old travel book "The Wandering Jew Has Arrived," written by French journalist Albert Londres, in the 1920s.

While we waited I read the stories of the late French traveller, on a wooden bench across the Red Sea, somewhere between Egypt, Jordan and Israel.

Finally we arrived in Jerusalem, I only had three days to wander the narrow streets of the city, but it did not take long before I felt that the place was mine.

The problem is - I was not the only one to feel at home - so did the Christian pilgrims who woke us up every morning with their songs and drums, the Jewish students and their chants, and the Muslims with the calls to prayer.

Many people feel the strong lure of Jerusalem, this could be the key to this city's unique beauty... and its troubles.

Additional reporting by Gallagher Fenwick and Muriel Barnier.

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