Mount Sinai, Egypt: The Complete Guide

View of Mount Sinai in the early morning light, Egypt

Joel Carillet/Getty Images 

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Jabal Mousa

Address
Jabal Mousa, Saint Catherine, South Sinai Governorate, Egypt

Located near the city of Saint Catherine on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Mount Sinai is known by many different names; Har Sinai, Mount Horeb, Jabal Musa…these are just a few of the monikers given to the mountain in Christian, Jewish, and Islamic literature. One thing that the three religions agree on, however, is that this is the mountain where God appeared to Moses and gave him the Ten Commandments. Prophet Muhammad also visited the mountain in the sixth century, making it a place of pilgrimage for members of all three faiths. For secular visitors, a hike up Mount Sinai rewards with awe-inspiring views of the surrounding high desert landscape. 

NOTE: The current travel advisory from the U.S. Department of State advises American tourists not to travel to the Sinai Peninsula (with exception of air travel to Sharm El-Sheikh) due to the threat of terrorism. Please check the latest updates before booking your trip.

The Mountain’s History

There is no archaeological evidence that the mountain, which stands 7,497 feet tall, is the mountain that Moses visited over 3,000 years ago. Some scholars debate its identity due to different interpretations of the route the Israelites took on their exodus out of Egypt; and yet, the general consensus in the traditions of all three churches is that this is the holy mountain mentioned in the scriptures. Moses is supposed to have ascended it on several occasions: first when the voice of God spoke to him from the Burning Bush and instructed him to return to Egypt to lead his people out of slavery, and later when he received the Ten Commandments. 

Belief in Mount Sinai’s holy status was established around the 3rd century, when Christian hermits began to take up residence in caves situated upon its flanks. Saint Catherine’s Monastery (see below) was constructed at the northern foot of the mountain in the 6th century. 

Climbing the Mountain

There are two principal routes to the summit of Mount Sinai, both of which have their trailheads in the car park of Saint Catherine’s Monastery. It is compulsory to trek in the company of a local Bedouin guide; you will find them for hire at the start of the trails. Both routes afford spectacular views of the surrounding desert peaks and valleys including Mount Saint Catherine, the highest mountain in Egypt. The original route is known as the Steps of Penitence and has 3,750 steps carved by hand into the ravine behind the monastery during the 6th century. Steep and uneven, this route is only for the very fit, although the views are well worth the extra effort. 

The second route is known as the Camel Trail. Created in the 19th century, it offers a longer and more gradual ascent. It takes approximately two hours to complete on foot, although it is possible to ride a camel from the trailhead to the point where the Camel Trail joins the Steps of Penitence for the final 750 steps to the summit. The mountain is littered with the remains of chapels built to venerate various saints and prophets. One of the most famous is located in a natural basin below the summit and dedicated to the Prophet Elijah. It is built on the site where he is said to have experienced the revelation of God. 

What to Do at the Summit

Once you reach the summit, there are several historic points of interest to explore once you’ve finished admiring the view. The first is a mosque still used by local Muslims; the other is a Greek Orthodox chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity. The latter was built in 1934 on the ruins of a basilica built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. The church is said to enclose the rock from which God created the Tablets of the Law; however, it is no longer open to the public. Other sites include two caves associated with Moses’s visits to the mountain. One of them is the cave in which God hid Moses to shield him from His glory when He gave Moses the Commandments.

Visiting Saint Catherine’s Monastery

A visit to Mount Sinai would not be complete without a tour of Saint Catherine’s Monastery. The fortified complex that exists today was constructed in 530 A.D. by the Emperor Justinian and is a prime example of Byzantine architecture. It was built to protect an earlier chapel, erected by the Roman Empress Helena in 330 A.D. at the site where Moses encountered the Burning Bush. Helena was the mother of Constantine, the emperor who would legalize Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. The Burning Bush is thought to have been a species of rare bramble (Rubus sanctus), which still grows in the monastery’s grounds and is believed by its monks to be the same one from which God spoke to Moses. 

The monastery complex comprises several buildings including the original Church of the Transfiguration, several smaller chapels, a museum, and a library. It also includes living quarters for the monks of the Orthodox Church of Mount Sinai who still worship here, making Saint Catherine’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monasteries in the world. It is home to many priceless treasures, including relics of Saint Catherine. According to Christian tradition, the martyr’s remains were removed by angels to the peak of nearby Mount Saint Catherine after her death, where they were discovered by some of the monastery’s monks in the 9th century. The relics (including the saint’s decapitated head and left hand) are only brought out on special occasions.

The museum houses a world-famous collection of early religious art, including a number of very rare 5th and 6th-century icons. The library is one of the oldest in the world and is surpassed only by the Vatican Library in terms of the number of early Christian codices and manuscripts it houses. Amongst these was the Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest known manuscript of the Bible. The majority of this manuscript was discovered at the monastery by a German biblical scholar in 1859 and later sold to Tsar Alexander II of Russia. The Soviet government sold it in turn to the British Museum, where it has remained on public display since 1933. Fragments of the Codex Sinaiticus can still be seen at Saint Catherine’s Monastery, however. 

The monastery has strong ties with the Muslim community and even includes a mosque. It was visited by the Prophet Muhammad in the late 6th century and granted his formal protection in 623 A.D. 

How to Visit Mount Sinai

In the past, pilgrims wishing to visit Mount Sinai and the monastery would have made a grueling eight-day trek from Cairo by foot and camel. However, modern tourists find the region a lot more accessible thanks to an airstrip and paved roads built during the Israeli occupation of the mid-20th century. Many tour companies offer day trips from the popular Red Sea resort towns of Dahab (a 1.75-hour drive) and Sharm El-Sheikh (a 2.5-hour drive). Check Viator or ask your hotel or travel agent for the best options. 

Typically, visitors ascend the Camel Trail in the darkness in order to arrive at the summit in time for sunrise. You can then ascend the same way, or come back down via the more scenic Steps of Penitence. For a less crowded experience, it is also possible to climb the mountain in time for sunset. However, the Steps of Penitence should not be attempted in the dark, so hikers who choose this option should either ascend and descend via the Camel Trail, or climb up the steps in daylight. For those that want to spend the night on the mountain, there is a campsite with composting toilets at Elijah’s Basin. 

The mountain can be climbed all year round. Hikers should be aware that the weather can be cold and windy even in summer (especially before sunrise), while winter frequently sees sub-zero temperatures and even light snowfall. Make sure to bring plenty of warm clothing and take extra care on the steps in cold or wet weather. Saint Catherine’s Monastery is open from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. every day except Fridays, Sundays, and religious holidays. Since it is still a functioning place of worship, visitors should take care to dress modestly; this means no shorts and covered shoulders.

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Mount Sinai, Egypt: The Complete Guide