The sky was inky black, the stars glittering in the perfectly clear, cold morning. At four in the morning, the sun had yet to warm the barren wastes of the Sinai Peninsula. Instead of safely tucked into my bed at the small hotel at the foothills of the mountain, I was bundled into my warmest hiking gear, riding on the back of a camel to the summit of Mt. Sinai. Like the thousands of visitors before me, I decided to make the climb of pilgrims and prophets, of saints and sinners. History held the mountain a sacred religious site to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and I was determined to understand the significance of this place.
The ascent to Sinai begins in a fairly flat, rocky path, which quickly becomes increasingly steeper, uneven and treacherous as the climber must navigate the rough path which winds its way around and up the mountain. In the dark, the top is not visible, and the bottom of the hike is covered in dense fog. Once the climber rises above the fog, the air could not be cleaner, colder, or clearer. It is at this point the path becomes steps, hewn from the rock and cut into the mountainside.
Islamic tradition calls this the Walk of Penitence, where sinners find a cleansing of their sins in each strenuous step. I, however, did not make it to the famed steps. As my desire was to make the climb to the summit in the early morning to see the sun rise over the mountains, I began the climb in the dark and tripped on the rocky path only an hour into the climb. My ankle was sprained, and I was devastated, thinking I’d have to turn back- until a miracle appeared in the form of a small Bedouin boy and his hulking, stinking camel.
“Cheap camel! Cheap ride! We know the way!” he called to my friends and I. Agreeing to meet my group at the top, I found myself precariously balanced on top of a camel, making our way up a path so steep and narrow I felt sure we would fall. I pitched forward onto the beasts’ neck, and held on for my life. But each step the camel took was sure, and as we ascended the mountain, I fell into the rhythm of the its rocking gait. As we moved upwards, I marveled at my surroundings- rocky ridges and natural chasms, all against the stunning backdrop of a moonless sky, stars twinkling. We passed a Bedouin camp where men, women and children gathered around a fire, waiting for the sun to rise to begin a day of selling trinkets to climbers.
We passed other boys with their camels, on their way to the base of the mountain to offer rides to tourists (or accident prone climbers like myself!). The boy sung softly to the camel, guiding us up pathways I thought impossible to ascend. And finally, as hues of soft yellow and orange touched the horizon, I was at the top. I parted with my friend and his camel, and met with my friends, watching the bright rays of sun burst across the clouds, illuminating the jagged rocks around us. I was on an island, surrounded by an endless sea of floating clouds and jutting peaks. The air was frigid, and I couldn’t tell if I was breathless from the thin air, or the view. I then realized though the bright sunlight was magnificent, my true moment of clarity and peace was in the dark, on top of that camel, journeying upward into the unknown. My pilgrimage was more about the journey than the destination- and what a journey it was!
About the Author: Shamra Smith is 25, and lives in Washington. She just earned her Master’s degree from University College Dublin, in Ireland, and enjoys running, swimming, hiking, reading and writing.
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