If you were going to organize a trip to one of Christianity’s earliest remaining churches there are a couple of facts you would probably check beforehand; only small facts, but I would say important ones. Facts like how long it will take to get there by minibus and whether or not the place of interest is actually going to be open on the planned day. Upon arrival at St Katherine’s Monastery a notice tells you that it is open between 9 and noon every day except Fridays and Sundays, information one would have thought most tour companies would have at their fingertips.
Off we set on our five hour drive, in two rickety minibuses at 08:30 on Friday morning. Those with the most basic of mental arithmetic skills will have realized that we were doomed to arrive too late and on the wrong day. Thus it ever was, and thus it ever will be I fear as we travel further from the obsessive organized West. Ho hum, we thought, let’s just make the best of it and see what happens. We might be allowed to see the monastery. Inshallah. I for one had never seen the desert so was excited enough just to pass through the strange lunar landscape of sand and rock; the Sinai Desert is unlike anything we have back home.
We drove through the occasional oasis, where the ubiquitous date palm flourishes, and at one point stopped for lunch at an Egyptian Welcome Break (not bad, actually and certainly much more simpatico than our home-grown equivalent).
On the opposite side of the road we saw our first glimpse of turquoise anchorages dotted along the Gulf of Suez and the sea looked very blue and inviting, with lots of white horses dancing in the waves. Unfortunately, the innumerable checkpoints and relentless combing of passports by bored jobsworths manning the booths got us down a little; it drove our drivers more and more crazy, at least that was my take on the increasing shouting, gesticulating and sighing coming from the front seat.
Our eventual arrival in the late afternoon meant we had about five minutes to climb up the side of Gebal Katarina and look down at the monastery, before returning to our doctors-waiting-room seats on board the minibus.
We who would valiant be strode up the path and tried to peer over the monastery walls. Obviously the place was closed to visitors and there were not many people about. It was windy and got cold as the sun rapidly descended. Prepared, as ever, to make the best of things we marvelled at the breath-taking views across the flat-lands at the foot of the mountain and the ruggedness of the valley.
There is no doubt that looking down at St Katherine's (she of the fireworks night wheel, by the way) does inspire one with awe. It's a solid fortress, with beautiful gardens and superbly kept buildings tucked neatly into the V of the valley at the foot of the mountain. A magical place, and not surprisingly a place of pilgrimage for Christians for centuries. A little of the hocus pocus rubbed off and we struck it lucky by being taken up by a local, who showed us the best place to view the whole monastery and then wangled us an entry. It was too late to see inside the church and the museum (most annoying) so Jamie and I bought lots of postcards of all the beautiful objects we missed and had a cup of tea. We did manage a walk round the impressive grounds and buildings, which was an experience. The church looked good from the outside. We also saw what is supposed to be a descendent of the Burning Bush and the Well of Moses. Nice if you like that sort of thing.
To liven up the return trip we had a sweep on our time of arrival, many of us imagining it would be later than it actually turned out to be. We were all thrilled that young Nitheesh, one of Lo’s helpers from India, was the winner. Just before we fell asleep Jamie and I agreed that we were glad we had made the trip; the view of the monastery from the side of the mountain as the sun sets will be indelibly printed in my mind’s eye.
As we drove home through the desert we were amazed to see so many lights glinting along the way, in areas we had thought desolate and uninhabited. I wonder who was living there?