Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Saint Catherine Monastery

When we came back from the mountain, we gathered for a short break by the Saint Catherine’s Monastery, still closed for visitors at that early hours of the morning, and we went to a local restaurant for a not so tasty breakfast. We then returned to the Monastery.

Saint Catherine’s Monastery lies at the foot of Mount Sinai and, according to the all-wise Wikipedia, is one of the oldest continuously functioning Christian monasteries in the world. Its patronal feast is the Transfiguration.

The monastery is Greek Orthodox and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, along with several dependencies in the area, it constitute the entire Orthodox Church of Mount Sinai - headed by an archbishop, who is also the abbot of the monastery. The monastery was built by order of Emperor Justinian I between 527 and 565, enclosing the Chapel of the Burning Bush ordered to be built by Helena, the mother of Constantine I, at the site where Moses saw the burning bush; the living bush on the grounds is purportedly the original (being, therefore, at least 5000 years old).

The site is sacred to Christianity and Islam. Catherine of Alexandria was a Christian martyr initially sentenced to death on the wheel. However, when this failed to kill her, she was beheaded. According to tradition, angels took her remains to Mount Sinai. Around the year 800, monks from the Sinai Monastery found her remains. According to the Charter of Privileges, a document purportedly signed by Muhammad himself, Muhammad gave his protection to the monastery. A Fatimid mosque was built within its walls, but has never been used since it is not correctly oriented towards Mecca.

During the seventh century, the isolated Christian anchorites of the Sinai were eliminated: only the fortified monastery remained. The site is still surrounded by the massive fortifications that have preserved it. Until the twentieth century, access was through a door high in the outer walls.

The monastery library preserves the second largest collection of early codices and manuscripts in the world, outnumbered only by the Vatican Library; this library cannot be visited by ordinary tourists and pilgrims, hence we had to limit ourselves to visiting the Church (completed in 551), Moses’ Well (where he first met his wife), the Burning Bush, and the Ossuary (containing the skulls of 1400 years' worth of monks who have lived and died here) – a stern reminder of our mortality.

As any monastery (Christian or Buddhist alike), Saint Cathrine is populated by a colony of cats.

I lit a couple of candles in the church and prayed by the burning bush; what I prayed for, stays between God and I.

We then headed for the bus, and I was back in my hotel room at 2:30 PM – as promised by the guide.

Climbing Mount Sinai

Before I came to Egypt, I did some research as to the local trips available while in Sharm el Sheikh. I chose the excursion to Mount Sinai, to be followed by a day trip to Jerusalem.
The bus picked me at 9:45 PM, then it went on to collect the other pilgrims: a Polish man, several Russian youngsters, two Coptic Egyptian couples (Egypt being home to a large number of indigenous Christians), and an American couple. The young American lady, married to a Microsoft accountant, has Romanian roots (her maternal grandparents being from Marghita and Alibunar, in the Serbian Banat) and understands Romanian – despite being born in the USA. After more than three hours of driving and security stops (we even had our passports checked twice at road blocks, and we stopped for five minutes at … Café Buddha), we arrived at the foot of the mountain. That Bedouin café, in the middle of the desert, has a very odd name for its location – Mount Sinai is sacred to Christianity, Islam and Judaism, yet I do not know about it being sacred to Buddhism.

Should this very mountain (and not another one) be sacred at all? Many scholars, cited by Wikipedia, do not think so: “According to Bedouin tradition, this is the mountain where God gave laws to the Israelites. However, the earliest Christian traditions place this event at the nearby Mount Serbal, and a monastery was founded at its base in the 4th century; it was only in the 6th century that the monastery moved to the foot of Mount Catherine, following the guidance of Josephus's earlier claim that Sinai was the highest mountain in the area. Jebel Musa, which is adjacent to Mount Catherine, was only equated with Sinai, by Christians, after the 15th century. Also, for Muslims, there is a chapter named after this mountain in the Quran, entitled, Surah-Tin; surah/chapter 95 in which God promises by the fig, the olive, by the Mount Sinai and the city of Makkah”.
When we arrived, it was quite late, due to the roadblocks, so we had to climb in haste. The foot of the mountain lies at 1200 meters above sea level, and the summit at 2285 meters – higher than the highest peak in Romania – that is, one kilometer straight up. When we got down from the bus, we felt the temperature difference between Sharm el Sheikh and the desert – it will get even colder on the peak – so we put some warm clothes on, and I swapped my sandals for closed hoes – a wise idea. The guide gave us flashlights, named our group “Zizu”, and off we went into the night.
As somebody working in the space research field, I have to confess – I have NEVER seen such a wonderful night sky. We were literally in the middle of the desert, with no light pollution around – so the sky we saw cannot be described – it has to be experienced first hand.
On the road up, there were plenty of Bedouins offering us to take us up on camel – for 10 euros. At first, I was brave and I passed; then, I decided it may be a good idea, as I never rode a camel. While in Giza a week ago, I did not think that riding a camel for a 10-minutes photo-op was a good idea, at 12 euros. Now, I would use a camel for actual transportation, for a longer time and at a lower price. Climbing the mountain on camel back, looking up to the star-pointed sky and listening to the silence proved to be an amazing experience.

At 4:30 am, we arrived at a place where one would have to go up on foot, as the road was too steep and narrow for camels. So I paid the Bedouin the 10 euros (one hundredth of the price of an actual camel) and off I went on foot for the reminder of the distance. I arrived at the summit half an hour later. The sun was preparing to rise.

The sun rose at 5:30, and, as promised, it proved to be the most beautiful sunrise I ever saw.

The summit of the mountain has a Greek Orthodox chapel (which was constructed in 1934 on the ruins of a 16th century church) and a mosque neither of which are open to the public. The chapel supposedly encloses the rock from which God made the Tablets of the Law. At the summit also is "Moses' cave" where Moses is supposed to have waited to receive the Ten Commandments.

The summit was swarming with pilgrims – including Romanians from other groups, Russians, Poles and many others. A Pole priest administered the Holy Communion to his flock.

Speaking of Romanians, many have arrived here before. I knew this in an unfortunate way – they left their mark.

At 6 we headed down, and for a moment I though I was in Machu Pichu, as I bumped into two Inca girls.

On the road back, I felt once again on planet Mars – though there are no camels there (yet).

We finally arrived at the foot of the mountain at 7:50 AM – the hike down lasted for almost two hours.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

World’s best office

I may be in Egypt for holidays, but with the World Space Week knocking on the door, I still have work duties to attend. Working during a vacation has its advantages too: I get to use the best office in the world. You may ask whether the pool is tempting me; well, not really – I spent enough time on its bottom during my first two PADI Open Water days!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Diving in Coral Bay, Sharm-El-Sheikh

PADI Open Water Day 4: Exam, and an eventful day

Last evening, Mohamed Sammy told me to be at the diving center at 7:30 in the morning, so I had an early breakfast (fortunately, the restaurant opens at 7:00). We then headed for the Sharks Bay –after collecting Bianca and a British diver, Charlotte - where we boarded the Sodfa, a diving boat, after passing security. The corals in the Sharks Bay – a few meters from the shore – were full of life.

We stopped by the wreck of Lullia – a Soviet ship who fell victim to the drunkedness of its crew in 1981, then we snorkeled – a good opportunity for me to practice my frog kick.

We had the first boat dive at 9:30 am – 37 minutes at the depth of 6 meters, where we practiced several skills (mask flooding and clearing, CESA, buddy breathing, etc), then we went back to the boat where I continued my study of the tables. Lacking a mathematical brain, I found the diving tables quite difficult – but not impossible, so eventually I mastered them. At 2 PM we had our final dive for the PADI Open Water course – and what a dive it was! We went down to 18 meters (the maximum depth for an Open Water diver) and we had fun … the sea was teeming with “life aquatic”, as Steve Zissou would say. I managed to snap some photos – my first underwater pics – but as I only have an underwater film camera, they have to be processed and then scanned. Hopefully, I will buy a digital camera with underwater casing. When surfacing, I checked my mobile phone and, alas, I had 9 missed calls and an SMS from a colleague of my dad, urging me to call my dad immediately! Fearing the worst, I called dad on his mobile – with no result – and then I called home – where nobody answered. I was scared, believing something horrible had happened, so I called Tecu, my dad’s colleague, to learn that a Romanian has been kidnapped in Egypt and dad was afraid that I may be him! If I had my sense of humor with me at that time, I would have told Tecu that it is true, and that the kidnappers want Shushu in exchange…

We then headed back to Sharks Bay, then to the diving center, stopping in the desert for a short photo-op. The Sinai desert is amazing as it looks strikingly similar to planet Mars.

When we arrived at the diving center, we went to the classroom for the final section, we did some table calculations, then we had the final exam. In the middle of the exam, we heard a strong noise – and we run in front of the hotel, where two cars knocked into eachothers. Fortunately, the guys were allright. Returning to the classroom for the exam, we continued with the questionnaire and, after submitting it, I got my final mark – 90%. I am a Padi Open Water diver now – or, as I like to call a diver – an aquanaut. I then got my dive logbook for a rather inflated price, and had it stamped. All in all, these four very intensive days were my favorite school ever. We had a lot of fun, but the PADI Open Water course is no joke, the instructor was very serious, and I can recommend him to everybody.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

PADI Open Water Day 3: Water, cats, and pasta

Five-star resorts are luxurious and exclusive, but hotels with a lower rating have their advantages – one of these being that they have pets:
I woke up at 8, then we headed towards Bianca’s hotel, we collected her and off we went to the Sharks Bay, where we had our first shore dive into the sea, not before meeti ng some German divers and another cat. We had an endurance floating test, then we practiced the tired diver’s tow, then off we went at 12 meters under water for 35 minutes, surfacing at 10:35. The second shore dive was at 12:00 for 50 minutes, at the same depth of 12 meters. We practiced a lot of skills until Tito, the instructor, was pleased with our performances. We headed back to the diving center for a classroom session, then I had dinner:

Saturday, September 20, 2008

PADI Open Water 2: Pool dives and barbecue

The second day in the PADI Open Water course would comprise pool dives and a classroom session. Bianca, my classmate, arrived from her hotel, and started her day with a nice rest. When Tito arrived, we headed to the pool, where we had several dives, totaling 150 minutes. The dives were great, but they were not fun dives – we learnt a lot of skills while practicing them. The pool had a sign: no diving – but this did not refer to scuba diving. After a classroom session and an afternoon sleep, I went to the hotel restaurant (I am here on a half-board base: brekfast and dinner) where I had the best mutton barbecue ever.