Remembering Dahab

by kelly

It’s a damn shame, all those bombs going off everywhere in the middle east.

Earlier this week, Dahab, a resort town in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, was in the news, then the latest site of the carnage.

It made me remember my visit to Dahab in 1996.

I had fun there. I was relaxed. I certainly wasn’t worried about any bombs going off, and it’s sad that noone else will have that luxury there for a long time to come.

In Dahab, I only paid $1.50 per night for lodging, so I felt alright about spending a little more than that for some food, some drink, some local sheesa, and some snorkeling.

From there I also traveled off to a wonderful adventure.

It seems that the thing to do near Dahab is to climb up Mount Sinai (a.k.a. the mountain on which some believe Moses received the 10 commandments) starting around 2:00 a.m.

I went along with the plan. I made myself stay up late, then catch a midnight van in Dahab that drove out into the dessert.

I have a vivid memory of walking in the dark, shortly after climbing out of the van that took us to the base of the mountain. We didn’t have flashlights, and it was a very dark night. I was walking along on the rocky desert sand, trying not to get separated altogether from my fellow stranger tourists. Suddenly, a sense of quiet panic flushed through me as my vision adjusted to the darkness just enough to finally realize that I was – and had been, for several minutes- walking through a pack of sitting camels. Sitting up against and among the camels were Bedouin men, smoking. Noiselessly. I had suddenly made sense of the small red dots of their cigarette tips. And I recognized that the other noises I’d heard were not only the tourist climbers’ collective footsteps on the earth, but also the camels soft snortings and sighs.

Walking, not knowing where I was going, at night, in the desert, among smoking nomads and their camels. I felt totally disoriented. I felt that I shouldn’t be there.

But it turns out that those Bedouins and camels just played it cool. Turns out they were there for hire – for people who wanted to ride a camel up the mountain, as described in this article. I didn’t know then that the Bedouins were businessmen, and not merely an ancient, anxiety-inducing presence. But I passed them soon enough, and began the ascent up the mount.

Just about as dawn was threatening to break, we reached to top of the mountain. We rested for a while. We took pictures, and had a couple of refreshments (did you know that there’s a concession stand on the top of Mt. Sinai? – there’s also a small church), and we headed down again.

I love the pictures that I took, and that were taken of me that morning. On no sleep, and on hours of hiking, many of those in the dark, I was exhausted, but exhilarated. You can see it in my face. The steep rocky grooves of the landscape there are so unique, so alien; but, at the time, so familiar to me from my grad school studies of Byzantine manuscripts. Until I saw the landscape there with my own eyes, I had assumed that the craggy cliffs depicted in the manuscripts was stylized and invented. Now I saw that they merely attempted to depict this beautiful place.

As we descended down, almost to the valley again, I began to catch sight of a place I had known was nearby – somewhere. I wasn’t sure if I would find it, but from up high, it was hard to miss.

It was St. Catherine’s Monastery – a place I had studied in grad school just around that time. As I got closer and closer, the emotional and physical anticipation of reaching it became almost overwhelming for me. St. Catherine’s is a beautiful Byzantine Monastery built under the authority of Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century. Finally, I made it there. The Byzantine Icons there are breathtaking and among the most beautiful in the world. There are a few moments, or series of moments, in my life that stand out in my memory as nearly perfectly distilled, pure occasions of contentment. Getting to and being in that monastery was one of them. I couldn’t have been any happier, and couldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else for that little section of time.

Photographs weren’t allowed in the monastery. But I do have some other nice photos from that trip.

The bombing this week was terrible. But the mention of Dahab in the news brought to mind for me some pleasant memories. I’ll have to scan some of those photos and add them to my Flickr collection when I have time.

(I never looked for any information on the Mt. Sinai hike on the Internet before, but there are some good summaries out there. I’m storing some of those that I find, like here, here, here, here, and here, so that I can make time to read them, and remember more, in the future.)

(And, yes, I cancelled the first date that Paul and I had ever planned to go on this trip. Before I left, I had told him that I couldn’t turn down riding a camel to St. Catherine’s Monastery. Turns out I never rode a camel. But we worked it all out, later.)

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