Egypt Revisited The charm of SHARM and climbing MOSES MOUNTAIN
I did not imagine that I would be making my second trip to Egypt in less than two years and this time I took the opportunity to visit the Sinai region. Unlike my previous trip when I visited Cairo and did the Nile Cruise besides visiting Alexandria and Hurghada along with my wife and two kids, this time it was just me and my wife travelling to the Charming city of Sharm el Sheikh and we checked into the Millennium Oyoun Hotel at Nabq Bay which is 15 kilometres from the newly refurbished Sharm el Sheikh International Airport. Although it was August and in the peak of summer, it was the ideal time to visit the Las Vegas of the Red Sea located in the Sinai Peninsular especially if you plan to take a dip in the pool of your luxury resort or go snorkelling or scuba diving in the Red Sea. Unlike our last visit to Egypt which was in November 2005, this time we had a non-stop direct flight which took us into Cairo in 6 hours and after a 3 hour transit wait we reached Sharm El Sheikh in the afternoon.
Sharm el Sheikh is the first touristic city on the Gulf of Aqaba. Sharm el Sheikh is also known as the City of Peace as it is here that several International Peace Confernces were held in the past. It is the mystical power of this country which was ruled once by the Pharaohs- the oldest civilization followed by deep roots of Islamic and Christianity that makes Egypt a unique country with tourists all year round. From October until March which at times extends to the first week of April is the peak time for Indians to travel as well as for people from Russia and Eastern Europe including Baltic States. From April until September, you will find Europeans and Americans who would like to soak in the sand and the sun. The mystical power of this country happened quite naturally in the midst of a very busy travel season where I had to compromise from refusing a couple of invites to visit a few countries from tourism boards as I had already been to Australia, U.K. and France earlier in the year and I was scheduled to go to Poland later in September.
However, all of a sudden, things fell in place; complimentary air tickets for Cairo, gratis visa and the 60th Indian Independence Day national holiday which was right in the middle of the week falling on a Wednesday. I would be proud to have been here celebrating a Free India although when I compare with some of my personal experiences of countries like Egypt I feel in India we have a long way to go even though the economy seems to be doing exceptionally well out here. The Tourism Ministry seems extremely excited to get 10 million tourists a year by 2010 when we will host the Commonwealth Games whereas Egypt which has a population of 72 million receives 80 million tourists every year and Paris by itself receives over 72 million tourists each year.
Getting back to the country which has the only surviving wonder of the ancient world, on arrival at Sharm el Sheikh after an overnight Mumbai Cairo flight and onward to Sharm, we had a swim at the pool of the Millennium Oyoun Resort which belongs to the Millenium and Copthorne Hotel Chains and is relatively a new property which started its operation in Sharm el Sheikh earlier in February. Not surprisingly the hotel was full with Italians as Sharm el Sheikh has several charter flights that come in from Europe bringing large groups as they get a very good value package of 4 nights/5 days inclusive of flights for less than 600 Euros per person. No wonder, Sharm el Sheikh is a hot favourite for travellers who love sun, sea and plenty of night life as the Namaa’ Bay area comes alive only after 11 pm and you can party all night until the wee hours of the morning. There are plenty of restaurants from Hard Rock Caf to TGIFs and even the Little Buddha, the sister venue of the Buddha Bar, Paris which is undoubtedly one of the popular places to spend the night out in the city of Charm and Peace whether for the sushi or to tap your feet after relaxing in the beach all day long.
In fact on this trip, I did realize that Egypt is the place to be in for night life – Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand is pass compared to the night life that you can enjoy not only in Sharm el Sheikh but also in Cairo where the city never sleeps and the weekends which starts from Thursday evening and goes on until Saturday, all restaurants, clubs and bars are choc-a-bloc.
Here in Sharm el Sheikh, there are certain Spa Resorts and Hotels which offer you loads of activity and fun that at times there are travellers who simply do not leave their resort for the entire duration of their stay. One such 4 star property at Sharks Bay which is in the North of Sharm el Sheikh offers the following as some of its amenities-private coral beach with sandy beach areas, fresh water swimming pool, heated pool, waterfalls and cascades, kids pool, floodlit tennis court, multipurpose playground, daily entertainment with open air amphitheatre, jogging, cycling and golfing in the vicinity, billiards, water centre offering water ski, para sailing, banana boats, canoes, pedal boat, glass bottom boat, diving centre offering snorkelling, scuba diving with rental equipments as well as diving courses, spa centres, kids clubs, shopping arcade and theme parties. Besides, there is wireless internet, bars and restaurants and not forgetting the wide choice of accommodation options. No wonder you have several repeat visitors to Sharm el Sheikh as you can get great value for money holiday options ideal for honeymooners, families with kids or those who want to explore the rich history that Sinai Peninsular is well known for.
Even at the Millennium Oyoun Resort, we had several facilities and as it is in the development phase being a relatively new property, it will only get better. However, we had time to rent a scooter for 30 minutes to ride an electric bike along the beach front for 70 Egyptian Pounds which is less than Rs 600, although there were plenty of other options as well such as renting quad bikes, horse riding, camel riding to name just a few of them.
The next morning we headed to one of the richest areas to see corals and fish and I am referring to Ras Mohamed which is a National Park. Ras Mohamed is around 35 kilometres from Sharm el Sheikh and comprises of 30 kilometres of paved road and 5 kilometres of untarred road. Ras Mohamed is a very thin strip of land at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula and at the northern end of the Red Sea. The peninsula itself is bordered by the Gulf of Suez on its west and the Gulf of Aqaba on its east and you get a spectacular view of the meeting of the two Gulfs from the Sharks Bay Observatory.
On our way to the Sharks Observatory our guide gave us a briefing of how Mount Sinai got its name. It is said that Sinai is derived from the name of the moon goddess Sin. But the Bedouins or the desert dwellers believe that the word Sinai comes from an Arabic word which means tooth which is the shape of the mountains in the area although there are several other interpretations of how Sinai got its name. Sinai is considered the meeting point of continents and dividing line between seas. The Peninsula acts as a gateway from Africa to Asia and a bridge between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea the direct route from Europe to the Indian Ocean and the Far East. In fact from Nuweiba on the Egyptian side you can reach the Gulf of Aqaba in Jordan by boat in about 50 minutes and day trips to Aqaba and Petra, one of the new wonders of the world is common whilst visiting the Sinai region . On our way to Ras Mohamed we saw several Acacia trees which is peculiar of the region and the Acacia trees carry water for a long time as its roots are long and deep to seek water from beneath the ground. In Sinai there are 9 national parks and Ras Mohamed was the first national park in Egypt and was declared a National Park in 1983 for the protection of marine and terrestrial wildlife by the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) after a visit by a German environmentalist in the region who had come here to do research on corals and discovered that the area is rich in fish and corals.
In fact, Ras Mohamed has over 1245 species of fish and corals out of which 354 species can be found only in the Red Sea which makes it a haven for scuba divers and snorkellers as well. Overall in Egypt currently there are 24 National Parks and it is estimated that the number of National Parks in Egypt will go up to 34 by the year 2010. Ras Mohamed has the unique distinction of being amongst the top ten diving sites in the world, especially the area known as the Shark and Yolanda Reef . All kinds of fish congregate around this site, especially in the summer months when the currents bring the richest nutrients. Here you will no doubt see many barracuda, the largest Napoleons, trunk fish, and snappers. On the reef itself there are thousands of different reef fish of which the gigantic moray eels, blue spotted and black spotted sting rays are more significant.At times you may be lucky to see a few species of Sharks which frequent the area as well. Large schools of jackfish and the occasional school of dolphins are also often present here. Corals on the reef and the plateau are abundant which I experienced whilst snorkelling in Ras Mohamed.
On our way to Ras Mohamed we hired the snorkelling gear and spent over 45 minutes amidst the wide range of flora and fauna that lies beneath the Red Sea. The temperature of the water in the Red Sea is generally two degrees warmer than the ocean and thus it is a year round diving destination. The gulf of Aqaba is in fact two degrees higher than the temperature of the Red Sea and this makes the corals and fish of the region different and diverse from other regions across the globe.
For snorkellers the area that is more popular is the Blue Beach whereas the Shark and Yolanda Reef is better for divers. For those who love diving and have time in hand, they can opt for a full day trip of Ras Mohamed and a visit to the Tiran Island by boat. Tiran Island is also one of the 9 National Parks of the area and the full day tour will give you an opportunity to snorkel and enjoy diving around 3 different sites and see some rare species of fish and corals which exists only in the Red Sea.
By afternoon, we headed back to our hotel to take a nap as we had to leave the hotel the same evening at 11 pm to head to the region of St.Catherine which was declared a National Park area in 1996. The St. Catherine Protectorate occupies much of the central part of Southern Sinai and included Egypt’s highest peaks comprising of the St. Catherine Mountain and Moses Mountain amongst other mountains in the area. St. Catherine mountain is the highest peak in Egypt , 2624 m above sea-level. The Sinai massif contains some of the world’s oldest rocks. Around 80% of the rocks are more than 600 million years old. The drive from the hotel took us approximately 3 hours 30 minutes to cover the distance of 230 kilometres from Sharm el Sheikh. After a short break for tea, we headed towards the tip of Mount Moussa or what is known as the Moses Mountain. We had two options to go up the mountain to see the spectacular sunrise, the pilgrim route which means climbing 3750 steps, the route taken by the pious monks, a short but difficult ascent or the route where you have to walk for about 2 hours before ascending 750 steps. In case of the second option, one can also take a camel ride and then climb the Mount. To keep company was a Bedouin from the tribe known as the Jebeleya which means the mountain tribe.
The Jebeleya tribe comprise of 5000 bedouins and live in this area generally in the mountains and they earn their livelihood by escorting groups or individuals up the Mount every night. There are over 1200 to 1500 tourists each day that climb the Mount and it was an adventure that I was looking forward to, climbing the Mount in pitch darkness. We started walking in total darkness and we could just see the sky scattered with twinkling stars and whilst walking it was as if heading to heaven and we were lucky to see a few shooting stars on the way. The terrain was uneven and it was not too easy to walk in total darkness although we had a torch in hand to find our way. There were camels on either side of the narrow route and therefore after a 30 minute walk we decided to cover the rest of the journey on camel back for a further 90 odd minutes until we reached the base of the mountain where we had to get off the camel and climb 750 steps.
As we neared the top of the mountain, we could feel the chill even though it was the peak of the summer & fairly warm at the base of the mountain. From the time we started the ascend it took us a little over 3 hours to reach up the mountain and we were well aware that the climb down would take around the same time as the path was uneven. The summit of the mountain has a mosque and a Greek Orthodox chapel which was constructed in 1934 on the ruins of a 16th century church , neither of which are open to the public. The chapel supposedly encloses the rock from which God made the Tablets of Law the pieces of special stones on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. At the summit, there is also the “Moses’ cave” where Moses is supposed to have waited to receive the Ten Commandments. It was amazing to see people of all age groups who had made it up the mountain waiting eagerly to see the spectacular sunrise which gradually one could see in the horizon and light up the entire area of the Mount Sinai region.
Thereafter we commenced our descent which was more tedious than the climb up the Mount as the uneven path did put pressure on your knees. On the way, we had the opportunity to take a few pictures of the area and it was amazing to see the energy and pace at which the Bedouins went about climbing and decending Mount Moussa. On our descent we headed in the direction of the Monastery of St.Catherine which stands in the heart of the Sinai Desert and has been there for over 14000 years from the time it was constructed way back in the 6th Century. The Monastery which was built during the Justinian era, has never been conquered, damaged or destroyed and has become an image of a sacred Biblical Site where the symbolic meaning of the events of the Old Testament is illuminated and interpreted in the worship of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the Pilgrims Way for those heading from Egypt to Mecca. Our guide had a very interesting story to tell us about the Monastery.
During the first century when the Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire they came to take refuge here and they hid from the barbarian Bedouins who were living in the area. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, the first Roman Emperor who became Christian himself seeing the plight of the poor monks of the area decided to build a chapel for them around the Burning Bush of Moses and a tower was built around it to protect them from the Bedouins. After two centuries Emperor Justinian sent his engineers to build a fortress around as the tower wasn’t good enough to protect the monks. The fortress wasn’t that big and over the years the area around the chapel was enlarged. At that time there were holes in the wall to put hot oil on the Bedouins who came to attack them. As we entered the Monastery we were told how the Monastery got its name. St Catherine was born as Dorothea in Alexandria in 294 AD and she was educated in a pagan school and she was well educated and a beautiful daughter of an aristocratic family. At the age of nine she wanted to find out who God was and it was her curiosity when she was 12 years, she met a Syrian monk who told her about Jesus Christ and later she converted to Christianity and baptized as Catherine.
During the persecution of Christians in the reign of Maximus in the early 4th Century, she confessed her faith in Jesus Christ and publicly accused the Emperor of sacrificing idols. 50 wise men brought from all over the Empire tried in vain to dissuade her. On the contrary she persuaded them to convert and believe in Jesus and she succeeded in converting members of the Emperor’s family and of the Roman aristocracy to Christianity.This led to her execution after which her body vanished and it is believed that angels transported it to the peak of the highest mountain in Sinai which is now known as Mount Catherine. About 3 centuries later, guided by a dream, monks of the Monastery already erected by Justinian found her body, brought it down from the mountain and placed it in a golden casket in the Church. The sweet fragrance of her sacred remains till today, a continuous miracle and the story of her martyrdom was carried to the West by the Crusaders.
Later she was accepted as a major saint and in the 11th Century the Monastery of Transfiguration has been known as the Monastery of St.Catherine. Today when you visit the fortified Monastery complex you will see the St Helena’s Church of the Burning Bush which was contructed within the Monastery in the Church around 542 AD. In the apse of the church is a magnificent mosaic depicting the Transfiguration of Jesus. The Chapel of the Burning Bush is now located behind the Transfiguration Church and is the major highlight of the complex visited by thousands of pilgrims each year. It is believed that many people were cured from various ailments on visiting the Monastery and also the healing they derived from the Burning Bush. The Library of the Monastery is second only in importance to that of the Vatican in both the number and value of manuscripts it contains and is currently closed for public display due to the fragility of the invaluable manuscripts.
The Monastery Garden has a cemetery adjoining a charnel house, a repository of the bones of the monks who died at St.Catherine over the centuries. The dead are first buried in the small cemetery and later their bones are deposited in the skull house. By the time we finished our visit of the Monastery it was around 10 am and we headed back to Sharm el Sheikh. We caught up on our sleep during the remainder of the day and the following day after an early check out took our flight back to Cairo. After visiting a few hotel properties that evening, we bid adieu to Cairo by dining at the Nile Maxim floating restaurant where we got to have the traditional Egyptian cuisine and alongside there was entertainment in the form of belly dancing and Nubian dance which Egypt is well known for. Our short and sweet trip came to an end and I look forward to visiting Egypt the land of mysteries and wonder once again to explore many more of the unexplored regions of this wonderful country.