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Across Holy Ground : Cold reality of Egyptian desert trek reveals a world of history and spirituality

September 19, 1993|PATRICIA COHEN | Cohen covers the federal courts for New York Newsday. and

EILAT, Israel — The Jeeps dropped us off at a sandy patch in the valley called Abu Sila on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, about three hours from Israel's Red Sea resort city of Eilat. Meaning "father of the flash flood," Abu Sila has little significance in early December, before the winter's rainy season has set in. Still, a chill edged its way through the sun-soaked Sinai as the Jeeps headed left and we headed right. Into the desert.

Sala, our Bedouin guide, walked in front, silently leading our group toward the nearby mountains. We threaded our way up the side of a rocky incline. Shifting to the left, then right, then back again, the path spiraled upward. A trail of bobbing heads marked our progress. First Sala's slightly rakish turban, then another guide's red-and-white-checked kaffiyeh , followed by a blue baseball cap, a hatless head of hair, a boating cap.

The climb to the top of the ridge took no more than 40 minutes, but at the top we got our first sense of how far we'd traveled since the morning's breakfast at the lodge. In the distance to the left lay the Sinai's highest peak, Mt. Katherina, rising 8,668 feet. Our eyes traveled downward to Wadi Racha, "valley of the rest." There, the doubting Israelites, alarmed by Moses' 40-day absence on Mt. Sinai, had melted their earrings to fashion the monstrous golden calf, their fear apparently amplified by the Sinai's vast expanse.

The Jeeps had long gone, so from our perch there was little evidence that wanderers in centuries past had seen a different vista.

Moses and the Israelites wandered in the Sinai Desert for 40 years before glimpsing the Promised Land. Our group of 10 travelers spent four days trekking across the Sinai, a journey bookended by day trips from a lodge at Mt. Musa, or Moses Mountain, which legend maintains is Mt. Sinai, the spot where God inscribed the Ten Commandments with his finger on two tablets.

Camels carried our bags and gear, rendezvousing with us each evening as we bedded down for the night under a skyful of stars.

Neot Hakikar, a tour company founded by Israeli settlers in 1961, started running trips to the Sinai in 1967, after Israel captured the triangle of terrain between the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea's Gulf of Aqaba during the Six-Day War. When Egypt regained control of the territory in 1982 as a result of the peace treaty with Israel, Neot Hakikar began collaboration with Cairo International Tours to continue operating its Sinai treks.

Friends had warned me that I would be committing an unpardonable sin if I failed to visit the Sinai Desert on my first trip to the Holy Land. Travelers in search of history, spirituality, beauty or a return to nature can, of course, stay in Eilat and take day trips by Jeep into the Sinai. But to me, poetry and the past demanded a certain respect for form when wandering in the wilderness. So, with some allowances (such as Bergalene long underwear, a flashlight and a stash of chocolate), I began my desert journey--on foot.

If our first sweep over the landscape sparked infatuation, our Israeli guide, Yehudah, was already in the midst of a deep and abiding love affair. And he was eager to inspire us with his enthusiasm. As we briefly rested at the top, he grabbed a bag of lemon candies from his knapsack and handed one to everyone, "so you can taste the sweetness of the mountains."

And it was sweet. Conical mountains topped with stacks of flat rocks, like tilted chimneys. White blankets of stone, smooth enough to have been sanded and polished. Unexpected palm-fringed oases, where giggling Bedouin children and straggling goats trailed our steps. A jewelry box of stones--crystalline quartz in purple and pink--scattered across the landscape.

But harsh and forbidding, too. Sharp cuts of rock splattered across the desert floor. Rows of peaks arrayed like jagged shark's teeth biting into the sky. Barren and rusted plains, the color of dried blood. Choking swabs of clouds that could instantly turn winter skies pewter.

*

After the first morning's climb, our trekking leveled off as we followed a long and winding swath of gravely sand. The landscape, bleached gold and beige by the sun, was briefly interrupted by a trio of vivid orange and red specks. But the Bedouin women, who are generally forbidden contact with strangers, quickly swirled out their black capes once they saw us approach, and continued packing thin sticks of firewood on their mule.

By that point, most of us had stripped down to shorts and T-shirts as daytime temperatures rose into the 80s. But by evening, when we reached Bustan El Birka ("garden pool"), the Bedouin garden where we would camp for the night, the mercury had plummeted.

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