Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Moses' Oasis and St. Catherine

May 16th, 2007

After the quick and sudden down pour yesterday, the evening was cool and gentle. This morning, awakening in the Bedouin tent, looking straight out I could make out four camels in the distance, parked near the local sheiks jeep.

This morning, our friend Ead was preparing b'fast, with hot water for tea and coffee! We are surrounded by the beauty of the desert rock formation and sandy bluffs. The sky is blue, with nary a cloud in sight. We wear long sleeve shirts, but will soon shuck them off for t-shirts and shorts. Nice to wear shorts after wearing long trousers in all the churches and monasteries.

Last night, the sheik's wife came and spread out her wares and trinkets for the tourists to purchase. This morning, the daughter of one of the sheik's wives brought a new collection, along with her sister. Henry would just say, "Looks like the mall is open," and over we would go to purchase a gift for home.

While Moussa drove the jeep to meet us at our next destination point, Moussa and Henry took us on a hike. Asking us, "what is a miracle?" we looked out over the mountainous terrain of the Sinai. It was not the Sahara or the Gobi, but the starkly alluring mountains of the Sinai. We caught sight of our first snake, along with lizards. We learned that Moses' trick of sticking the rod into sandstone, releasing water, is an old desert trick as water gets caught in sandstone. We knew better than drinking the water, and learned that if you stamped your feet where camels dare to trod you call up camel ticks!

The hour of silence in the desert was a gift to behold. Sitting against a rock wall, with a rocky overhang, looking out over a small oasis, was sheer wonder.

And to think: Moses, a pilgrim indeed, camped in these very spots.

How do we know? We actually came to Hashmonah, mentioned in Numbers 33: 29: they set out from Mithkah and camped at Hashmonah. Hashmonah had one other tourist group (Europeans) among the Bedouin encampment eateries, and our group. Underneath the overhang of bright colored cloths, with soft cushions, we rested our heads after eating and took a lovely nap.

After Hashmonah, we climbed to the top of a rocky pinnacle, and looking back we were swept up in the beauty of the thousand shades of brown, white, red, pink, black, and greenery of oases.

Before getting into our jeep with Ead behind the wheel, we came upon a large rock formation. Scratched into many of these rocks are ancient scripts mentioning where the oases are with images of camels pointing to the place, along with ancient Byzantine and Coptic scripts, with a jot from a Crusader, mentioning the Hashmonah oasis over the nearest pass. Again, like Kilroy of American fame, we would say, "Egeria the pilgrim was here!"

We drove up to St. Catherine of the Sinai Greek Orthodox Monastery after our desert trek. Egyptian tourist authorities have made this a little city, with many check-points. Checking in at the monastery, we learned that the monastery would be largely closed tomorrow because it is the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus Christ! Eastertide is drawing to a close. However, through Moussa's friendships with the monks, we were given a rare treat: we got into the monastery walls, saw the well where Moses met his wife, as well as the burning bush, and were in the presence of the monks chanting psalms during vespers in a chapel that boasts of being built in the 6th century, during the reign of Justinian! The icons were amazingly beautiful, with gold leaf design and images of the Christ in beautiful repose.

But that wasn't the only amazing part of the journey: we met Father Justin, an American Greek Orthodox monk from Texas! He is the librarian of the monastery, which holds the largest collection of the oldest Greek manuscripts in the world, along with an impressive collection of Arabic writings. This even supersedes the collection in the Vatican. Fr. Justin was a wonderful host, only too eager to show us around.

The beauty of these historic pilgrim places is overwhelming!

Pilgrim peace, Brett