The Stairway to Heaven (via Hell)

Archway on the Stairs leading to the Summit of Mt. SinaiArchway on the 3,750 stairs leading to the Summit of Mt. SinaiI left Cairo on a bus and a prayer to the rural regions of Sinai, to climb the mountain of Moses on my own personal pilgrimage.

Sinai is a shield of land wedged between Egypt and Israel -- an emptiness covered from one coast to the other with mile after mile of nothing but hot dry sand, and then more sand; a strategic piece of real estate won hard and fought over often; its canal the shipping route of war and commerce; a coastline rich in marine life, coral reefs, pristine waters and European tourists; the land of Moses and the Ten Commandments, and the great parting of the sea by the hand of God.

I threw everything I thought I'd need for two days and nights into my leather backpack: a change of underwear, a toothbrush, cigarettes, passport, cash, my journal. I was to climb Mt Sinai, and what I took with me, I would carry up 2,600 vertical feet. And back down. So I was traveling light – without the highly coveted blow-dryer for my hair, without my Lewis N. Clark Model DK2000 Dual Converter with Adapter Plugs, without a jacket, without a change of clothes. I did pack lipstick, though. It weighs almost nothing. And moisturizer, of course. And, according to lifelong instructions from my grandmother: a cotton handkerchief.

Gardens and cypress trees surround the monastery, but hard dusty scrabble covers the rest of the land, rising toward the jutting edifice of Mount Horeb. The centerpiece of St. Catherine's, its reason for existence, the source of its mystery, and the living artifact that has drawn thousands of pilgrims for hundreds of centuries, is the Burning Bush. The Burning Bush, through which God spoke directly to Moses. If such a thing could really happen, could it happen for me, here in this place, at tomorrow's new light? Could I hear the voice of God? Even if it was just a word? Even if it was just a whisper?

From the monastery, we launched our attack on the 2,600 vertical feet still rising between us and the summit. There, the sun would light upon the very same place on earth where Moses received the Ten Commandments of God. And we would be its witnesses.

But first, the Steps of Repentance. Orthodox monks built 3,750 steep steps into the barren mountainside, adorned with arches and chapels of stone. This path has also been called the Stairway to Heaven. The distinction, I believe, depends on whether you are heading up them, or down.

Most tourists who climb Mount Sinai choose another path, a longer path, gently sloped and winding to the top. Still, a four-hour excursion waited them, in the dark, on an unfamiliar path. It is said that the local Bedouins – with camels for rent – just hang around and wait for people to collapse. I chose the steps.

Read more: Download the FREE chapter, “I Remember Sinai,” from the new memoir, Lost & Found in Egypt: A Most Unlikely Journey Through the Shifting Sands of Love and Loss.

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