The Exodus Industry

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It was clear from the outset that this climb would be a little different.

If Mount Sinai is not the only world-famous peak with a walk-through metal detector at the base, then it certainly flaunts  its exceptionalism in a number of other ways.

The hike began, like many on this Biblical mountain, very early in the morning.

At around 2am, with a crisp chill in the Sinai Desert air, we set off behind our Bedouin guide Mohammed in a bid to catch sunrise from the summit.

Wrapped-up in his ankle-length jalabiya and a tightly wound headscarf, Mohammed began the steady trudge along our scree-scattered path with a disarming degree of insouciance.

Both hands behind his back and planting one foot in front of the other like a clockwork soldier, he picked his way through the rocks and pebbles with the carefree manner of a man who had shepherded tourists along this route countless times.

This being Sinai, the way ahead was already lit-up with a luminescent ribbon from a thousand different torchlights. It tapered-out hundreds of feet above our heads as the first of the climbers rounded the eastern face of the mountain to make their final ascent in the pitch black.

It may have been early in the morning, but Sinai is a tickbox mountain; climbers rarely have it to themselves.

The procession wound ever onwards, a motley collection of  summit-fever dawn junkies, Sinai sun-hoppers, earnest pilgrims and Gore-tex teeth-gritters.

Looming, faceless crags were silhouetted against the glow of a full-moon, while the star-filled sky shimmered like a diamond mine. Every now and then a camel appeared out of the darkness, snorting insolently as its Bedouin master towed him down the mountain.

And in case anyone clambering up this barren peak needed a bite to eat, ramshackle huts along the way provided everything from Mars bars to instant coffee with powder milk.

If Moses did not have the luxury of these refreshments when, according to the Book of Exodus, he made his own ascent to receive the Ten Commandments, then his 21st Century followers would suffer no such hardship.

The final stretch took the walkers up a steep section of 750 stone steps called the Stairway of Repentance, actually the closing leg of an alternative route consisting of 3,750 steps which leads down to St Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of the mountain, the ancient 6th Century building erected on the site where the Bible says God spoke to Moses from a burning bush.

The first light of dawn was beginning to creep up over the jagged peaks in the eastern Sinai, and some of the more exhausted climbers had fallen by the wayside – repenting, perhaps, for their ill-advised decision to climb up a mountain in the dead of night.

After the final leg came the summit, a prize rendered a little less beguiling given the scramble to find a spot on the floor among the scores of other ashen-faced walkers. Nestled in among them at around 5am, next to a mosque and Greek Orthodox chapel erected in 1934, it was a little difficult to imagine the scene when God supposedly handed Moses the stone tablets which have shaped the course of Western civilisation.

Yet at 2,285 metres above sea level, nothing can detract from the experience of watching the rising sun breathe fire into the Sinai peninsula as it begins its relentless climb into the early morning sky.

Perhaps this is what Moses saw when he spent his 40 nights on top of the mountain. Perhaps, if you subscribe to the iconoclasm that Sinai could just as well be in Saudi Arabia as Egypt, it is not.

Either way, with dawns like these there is little chance the sun will ever set on Mount Sinai’s Exodus Industry.