I was in Iraq for a month two years ago when a new terror organisation began to emerge. The locals called it Daesh, but it had other, confusing names. One was al-Qaeda, which didn’t seem right because al-Qaeda was best known for its international aspirations, fighting a global jihad, while this organisation seemed focused on local operations.
Fallujah, a town 40km from Baghdad, which had been the site of hard-fought victories and the loss of many American lives, fell and the group announced its new name: Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) from more or less the same time and then, later, Islamic State.
I checked the map to find that Fallujah was only 400km from where I was in the south of Iraq. Islamic State had struck with such speed and resolve that I wondered how long before it would be in my neighbourhood.
I was not in Iraq to study the formation of extreme terror groups. I was interested in money and its allied institution, writing, two core inventions that are at the base of what we call civilisation.
St Katherine village, near Mount Sinai (All Pictures Kevin Davie)
Both came out of the marshlands of southern Iraq, from the ancient city-states such as Ur and Uruk. I visited Ur twice that month, marvelling at the pyramid-like ziggurat that rose from the flat landscape. Nearby was an associated village where just one house, the largest, had been partially restored to roof height.
The father of monotheism, Abraham, came from Ur, scholars generally agree, even though it is not possible to authenticate anything of his life or even date it. Abraham and his story reside exclusively in the Bible.
It is perhaps because this was the largest house and Abraham’s father, Terah, was a rich man — being in the business of selling idols to worshippers — that the restored house has come to be known as the Abraham house.
Abraham left Ur and wandered extensively with his coterie in the broad region of what we know today as the Middle East, even spending time in Egypt. I wondered if it was possible to retrace some of his route by bicycle, my preferred means of transport, to see what resonances, if any, exist several thousand years after his seminal journey.
Back in South Africa I went online, finding out in a short time that there is a network of trails called the Abraham Path, which seeks to get people walking and talking, to encourage commonality in a region too often characterised by division. The trail is ultimately intended to include Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Israel/Palestine and Saudi Arabia. Given the strife, particularly during the past five years of the Arab Spring, large parts of the trail are no-go areas.
I looked into various possibilities over a number of months, eventually choosing Sinai in Egypt, the land bridge where Africans crossed out of the continent to take their progeny across the globe. Abraham Path put me in contact with Ben Hoffler, the author of Sinai: The Trekking Guide and, with three Bedouin tribes, a co-developer of the Sinai trail. He assured me the Sinai trail was safe.
The Bible as guidebook
I had wondered about starting my ride, Exodus-like, in Cairo. But web research on the experiences of two cyclists told me they had hardly managed to ride this route at all, being made to wait at security checkpoints for transport to the next roadblock. Even the Israelites would not have put up with this.
My plan, broadly, was coming together. I would be following, albeit loosely, the route of Moses, from Mount Sinai, where he received the “ten words” as the Bible calls them, to Mount Nebo in Jordan, overlooking the Dead Sea, where God decided Moses would die because he would not enter the Promised Land for the misdemeanour of striking a rock rather than speaking to it.
As I read up on this story in preparation for my trip, I realised how large a role the central character of my present trip had played in my own life. The story of Moses is the first story of which I have memory. I don’t know how old I would have been then, but him being hidden in a basket in the bulrushes made an indelible impression on me. Here was the wonder and cruelty of the world all in one: why would they — anybody — want to kill all the babies?
View up Wadi El Arbein
This journey in which I was interested was, surely, the most influential ever, producing Mosaic Law or the Law of Moses, the sacred social contract that has had a profound influence on three of the world’s dominant religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
I should add that my interest is secular. The Bible is an extraordinary document in anybody’s language. The journalist in me wanted to use this journey to better understand how it was put together. I would traverse at least some of the 40-year wanderings of the Israelites, even though mine would be weeks, not years.
This route, it should be said, is highly contested, some even arguing that the famous Red Sea parting took the Israelites not into Sinai but rather into present-day Saudi Arabia.
Dating Exodus has its own challenges. Some see the exodus from Egypt occurring about 3 500 years ago, others 3 200 years ago.
But while the Bible has been studied by so many and for so long, it is probably fair to say scholars disagree more than they agree with one another on its contents. How does one navigate through this minefield of competing interpretations?
Fortunately there is Yale University’s six-volume Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, a kind of bible of the Bible, which unpacks the scholarly work, dutifully recording the mainstream and minority interpretations.
I was interested not so much in the exact route, nor where the 10 commandments originated, but in the emergence of the lesser-known second laws or Deuteronomy. They include economic laws, one that prohibits usury, the charging of interest on loans.
We have had economic laws since the earliest settled times in Sumer, but these were secular. The law limited the amount of interest that could be charged, but did not prohibit it. It was written by the king, not God.
Mosaic Law, as embodied in the Torah, Pentateuch or Old Testament — the five law books of the Bible — outlawed the charging of interest by the people of Israel on one another.
Leviticus 25:37 is to the point: “You shall not lend at interest, nor give him your food for profit.”
Ezekiel 18:13 warns the moneylender of dire consequence: “Lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.”
Economic law had been made sacred. What had been a crime, a transgression against man, was now seen as a sin, a crime against God.
Christendom took up this law and it spread rapidly in the West along with this new faith. It was only in the time of Henry VIII in the early 1500s that interest was decreed to be acceptable but excessive interest, usury, was not.
The mountain of Moses
My plans were coming together, but Sinai was in the news. A Russian plane, Metrojet Flight 9268, had apparently exploded in mid-air on October 31 2015, shortly after take-off from the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. All 224 passengers were killed. Sharm el-Sheikh went into lockdown while countries such as the United Kingdom and Russia worked out how to get their holidaying citizens back home safely.
A local branch of Islamic State claimed responsibility, saying it was a reprisal for Russian air strikes in Syria. It posted a photo of a homemade bomb made from a rusty cool drink can.
The Brits appeared to accept quite quickly that terror was involved; the Russians agreed a few weeks later. But the Egyptians only admitted this possibility several months later.
Still, the Middle East has been so turbulent that I reasoned it was better to visit sooner rather than later and, notwithstanding the downed Russian plane, decided to make the trip.
I flew from Johannesburg to Sharm el-Sheikh via Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Amman in Jordan, my boxed bike arriving at customs at the same time as me.
Hoffler had arranged for a taxi driver, Jimmea, to meet me at the airport. Arriving in a foreign country after long flights and two transits, it was a relief to see Jimmea standing there holding a sign with my name on it.
We loaded the box containing my bike on to the back seat and headed towards St Katherine’s, a village at the foot of Mount Sinai, where I checked into Desert Fox, a Bedouin-owned camp just outside the village.
Brother Moses (left) and colleagues from the St Katherine monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai
I had a few days to take in the area before beginning my ride. Give a Bedouin half a chance to be outdoors or in a tent and they will take it, it seems. The key meeting area at Desert Fox Camp, where most people hung out, was a tent. Although it was mid-winter with temperatures close to zero, diners ate outdoors. There was an indoor restaurant area, but I never saw it being used.
Still, the words Abraham and tent are associated so often in the Bible — for instance in Genesis 18:6: “So Abraham hurried into the tent and said to Sarah, ‘Quick! Take three measures of fine flour, knead it, and make bread.’” — that I was pleased to be sitting in one.
There was a small fire in a hearth in the tent, but the shortage of combustible material in the desert means the Bedouin do not use these fires for warmth, but mainly to boil water for tea or Turkish coffee. There was also little attempt made to close up the tent properly to keep it warm.
Sinai is desert; flatlands and mountains. It has deep wells, some of which are not fenced, and lots of camels.
The camp had a few visitors, mainly Egyptians attracted by low-price deals to keep the tourism industry on life support. Sixty hotels in Sharm el-Sheikh had closed since the air disaster, an Egyptian who worked in the hospitality industry told me. With him was an ex-pat diving instructor who had no work. Her name was Marina.
St Katherine’s monastery. There has been a monastery here since 333 AD
In the morning I took a walk of a few kilometres to St Katherine. A young girl was selling fresh bread and the shops were just opening. There is not too much to the village, which is made up mostly of modest homesteads, some with attendant grumpy camels.
I chanced on three bearded and cloaked Greek Orthodox fathers having a meal at a restaurant and asked them how it came about that the monastery, St Katherine’s, was built at the base of Mount Sinai. Why was it thought that this was the mountain where Moses met God?
One of the three, Brother Moses, spoke English. He said Christians arrived in the area in about AD180 and the locals told them this was the mountain of Moses, Jebel Musa in Arabic.
Christians had lived here since then, he said, building a monastery several hundred years later that, from about CE700, had to be increasingly fortified against Islamic invaders.
George Manginis’s recent book, Mount Sinai, puts the fortification earlier: “The erection of a fortress protecting the site of the Burning Bush, of a basilica church within its walls, of several adjacent structures of military, residential and industrial character and, finally, of a second basilica on the summit of Jebel Musa during the rule of Emperor Justinian (527-65) remains to this day the most ambitious and formative human intervention in the Horeb [the Hebrew word for Sinai] landscape.”
While other mountains in Sinai and even Saudi Arabia are said by some to be the biblical Mount Sinai, only one — Sinai, Jebel Musa — has a community living around it, with associated churches and mosques, to manifest the holiness of the place.
I wanted to sleep at the top of Mount Sinai and was told there were places, cafes, up there that offered beds and blankets. It was mid-winter and sleeping out would not have been possible.
The locals advised me to tell the police officer on the way to the mountain that I was going to the monastery. If I said I was going up the mountain, I would have to have a guide. Once at the monastery, I could just go up.
This suited me. I did not want to be encumbered by a guide. At the checkpoint, a guide offered his services, which I declined. Nearby, with the same would-be guide looking on, a police officer asked if I was going to summit the mountain. He was clear: I should not go up without a guide.
Before I got to the monastery, a second police officer told me the same thing. The fort-like monastery, unfortunately, was closed for the afternoon. I was not too fazed by this, but should have been. I had somehow — incorrectly — formed the impression that the monastery was 500 years old, but it is more than 1 700 years old, one of the world’s oldest.
The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary says the Mount Sinai-Jebel Musa link is attested by the Peregrinatio Egeriae, a letter by a woman, Etheria, also called Egeria, reckoned to be a wealthy rural woman from what is now France, to other women on her pilgrimage (peregrinatio) to the holy land between AD381 and AD384.
Etheria’s extraordinary document, which was only discovered in 1884, is missing a beginning and an end, but is the earliest of such accounts.
She writes of Sinai: “We reached the mountain late on the sabbath, and arriving at a certain monastery, the monks who dwelt there received us very kindly, showing us every kindness; there is also a church and a priest there.
“We stayed there that night, and early on the Lord’s Day, together with the priest and the monks who dwelt there, we began the ascent of the mountains one by one. These mountains are ascended with infinite toil, for you cannot go up gently by a spiral.”
Etheria describes Sinai: “Now the whole mountain group looks as if it were a single peak, but, as you enter the group, [you see that] there are more than one; the whole group however is called the mount of God. But that special peak which is crowned by the place where, as it is written, the Glory of God descended, is in the centre of them all.
“And though all the peaks in the group attain such a height as I think I never saw before, yet the central one, on which the Glory of God came down, is so much higher than them all, that when we had ascended it, all those mountains which we had thought to be high, were so much beneath us as if they were quite little hills.”
The dryness of the Sinai has helped preserve the many treasures of the monastery, including the world’s oldest bible. I was to find out later that it even offers accommodation. On another visit, I would definitely stay there.
I headed for a closed door that a monastery worker advised was the route I wanted, opened the door and was through to the path up Mount Sinai.
There are in fact two paths, a camel route and the 3 750 steps of repentance. I headed for the camel route. Camel owners live with their camels at the start of the path and I was offered a ride to the top, which I declined.
Turn right for Mount Sinai, this camel man told me.
The path took a slow easy ascent to the watershed in the distance. On top of a mountain on the left was a chapel I imagined to be the top of Mount Sinai, but a man on a camel at the watershed pointed me in the other direction. The actual Mount Sinai rose steeply above me, to the right.
I began to wonder what story I would tell the police officer on my return, but felt he could not fault me as the monastery was closed and there were no guides there.
The cliff walls above and to my right began juddering, startling me. The judder was caused by a few small birds that are able to set up vibrations against the cliff face through the peculiar way they flap their wings.
I was quite high up when I came across a kid with a donkey. I asked him if I could take a photo.
“One dollar,” he said.
I told him I didn’t have a dollar.
“Okay. One [Egyptian] pound,” he replied.
Baby camel, Desert Fox camp, St Katherine
Further up, where the camels can go no further and the donkeys take over, was an unattended shop. The track cut across the face of the giant massif above it. A cutting, made by a sultan who intended to build a palace for himself on the top, beckoned. Through the cutting was a clearing with a small, dammed river. Moses could have used this for water on his 40-day stay.
I found a couple of local men hanging about and a lone German, who told me I was not at the top. I still had to tackle a rock staircase. I climbed past a set of cafes, mostly shut, and continued up, passing more shops near the top, most of which were closed.
At the top was a small locked church. Remarkably, given how relatively new Christendom was when Etheria visited Sinai more than 1 700 years ago, there was already a church on the summit: “In that place there is now a church, not great in size, for the place itself, that is the summit of the mountain, is not very great; nevertheless, the church itself is great in grace. When, therefore, at God’s bidding, we had arrived at the summit, and had reached the door of the church, lo, the priest who was appointed to the church came from his cell and met us, a hale old man, a monk from early life, and an ascetic as they say here, in short one worthy to be in that place; the other priests also met us, together with all the monks who dwelt on the mountain, that is, not hindered by age or infirmity. No one, however, dwells on the very summit of the central mountain.”
Church on the top of Mt Sinai. There has been a church here 1 700 years
There was an unlocked mosque, with instructions to take off your shoes and not use the mosque as sleeping quarters. There were stunning 360-degree views showing just how mountainous Sinai is.
A circuitous route off the mountain
I was alone at the top but temperatures were falling and I realised I needed to work out where I would sleep. I had some food with me, warm clothes and a light sleeping bag, but was in no way equipped to sleep out. I headed back down to a cafe and was offered a bed with two blankets and a cup of coffee for 100 pounds, which I accepted.
A group of tourists arrived, with the guide who had been with the police officer at the security checkpoint. He remonstrated that I had not listened to the officer’s instruction. I was less than polite, telling him there were no guides when I got to the monastery, and he backed off.
My host, Goemer, reckoned it was about 3°C out, but even though I was wearing several well-insulated layers, I was not well zipped up and I quickly became hypothermic. I went inside, taking several hours to recover. Meanwhile, a group or two took temporary refuge with Goemer, drinking hot drinks to warm up.
In the morning he told me that 20 tourists had ascended and descended during the night.
I discussed my predicament with Goemer. How could I get off the mountain without a guide? He would get me a guide, he said. How he would do this, as we were on the top of a cold mountain, I could only wonder.
When it became warm enough to move though, his solution was clear. He would be the guide. Not only this, he was proposing an alternative route down to the village of St Katherine that meant I would not have to deal with the police officer.
Goemer closed his shop and we headed down. On the way, as we carefully traversed frozen steps hewn from rock, he told me that a Russian tourist had fallen to his death some months previously and that an extensive search had to be mounted by the Russians before his body was found; hence the insistence that tourists be guided.
We hiked near the peaks of Mount Katherine, which is much higher at 2 637m than Mount Sinai at 2 285m.
As the higher of the two, Mount Katherine would have been the obvious to climb and meet God, but I had been struck by the little river near the top of Sinai and reckoned this would be a good place to spend 40 days. Goemer told me there was water on Katherine, but that it was much lower down the mountain.
The sunset was spectacular but the temperature plummeted at the overlook of Sinai Mountains
Near the bottom were olive orchards, which Goemer said the monastery owned.
There was also the Moses rock, one of a couple that he has meant to have struck while in the wilderness to produce water. The rock was extraordinary, self-standing and about 2.5 times the height of a person. Water had come out from the top of the rock and flowed both ways, causing noteworthy erosion of the sandstone.
Exodus 17:5-6 says: “Yahweh then said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, taking some of the elders of Israel with you; in your hand take the staff with which you struck the River, and go.
“I shall be waiting for you there on the rock (at Horeb). Strike the rock, and water will come out for the people to drink.’ This was what Moses did, with the elders of Israel looking on.”
Breathtaking Sinai mountains.
Goemer said the water had not flowed for a long time, but offered no sense of how long this might have been. There were 12 incisions in the rock where there were signs of erosion from the water.
Hoffler says in Sinai: The Trekking Guide that according to legend, each of the 12 incisions had water flow from it when Moses struck it with his staff.
He notes: “Monks add their own footnote, claiming the rock rumbled after the Israelites as a makeshift water barrel on their wanderings, returning after they reached the Promised Land.”
Few tourists see this rock, which has a small church alongside it, because it is on the least favoured route up Mount Sinai. It is also not signposted. But for local advice on how to duck the authorities, I would have not seen it.
Goemer told me it cost 140 pounds to bring a camel-load of supplies to the top; a donkey cost half this and the going guide rate was 120 pounds.
He had a way of back and side-heeling rocks off the path in a single motion as he walked, helping keep the paths clear for man and beast.
Goemer guided for many years, he told me, before setting up shop on the mountain. How long does he stay up at a time, I wanted to know?
“Forty days,” he said.
Goemer’s surname is Musa as is his eldest son. The sheikh, who we also met, was Sheikh Musa.
I could not help but be struck by the deep connection the local Bedouin have to the story of Moses. Moses is an important prophet for Islam, so this is perhaps not surprising, but the tribe who reside here, the Jebeleya, trace their ancestry to Byzantine times.
Hoffler writes: “This small tribe lives in the high mountain region, mostly in the town of St Katherine; the name literally means the mountain people. They’re an anthropological oddity, claiming roots that are European and Egyptian Christian, not Arab and Muslim.”
He says that some Jebeleya trace their ancestry to a group of European soldiers dispatched to guard the monastery in the sixth century.
Many tribesmen work for the monks, the sheikhs and fathers remaining close, says Hoffler. “Even the ancient vow of protection is honoured. When the police force across the Sinai collapsed during the recent revolution in Egypt, the young men of the Jebeleya armed themselves and kept a vigil, guarding the monastery day and night.”
Hoffler was the perfect contact for me. He has been promoting the idea that while the northern part of Sinai has ongoing security operations and so is not tourist friendly, the south is safe. He had suggested that Mussallem Abu Faraj, a Bedouin who, unusually, is a mountain biker, would be an excellent guide.
Mussallem Abu Faraj, Bedouin mountain biker and consummate guide.
While I prefer to ride without a guide, this is not an option in Sinai. The trail traverses Bedouin-controlled land and none of the locals, I was told, would be happy with hikers and bikers passing over their land without a local guide.
Mussallem does not do email, or rather, looks at it rarely, but he had been in touch with me via Hoffler. The plan was that we would ride supported, meeting his Jeep at the end of each day’s ride. There was the possibility of a third rider joining us. Mussallem arrived in the afternoon, in a red Jeep, with his cousin, Fahed.
A slight man, although you wouldn’t easily know it under his cloak and scarves, with a flashing smile, I liked him immediately. He spoke competent English, a huge bonus given that my Arabic extends to just four words.
I asked Mussallem about the mysterious third rider. He confirmed there was such a person who would arrive shortly, but knew nothing of him. He thought his name was Donatello and that he might be Russian.
“Donatello sounds Italian,” I offered.
A taxi arrived, disgorging its contents, which proved to be Ukrainian. This was Konstantine, who struck me as being really organised with bike, backpack and all the right gear.
Mussallem has a keen interest in Bedouin, Islamic and Christian culture and was soon telling the story of Abraham, who he described as a Bedouin. With these stories you need to get the generations correct, much of Genesis being no more than who begat whom.
At one point, one of the people listening to Mussallem’s account asked for clarification about the begatting and he was quick to provide it. But then, if you ask about his own forebears, he can rattle off the 16 first names of his paternal lineage. At 25 years a generation, that’s 400 years of ancestry.
We also spoke about Jebel Musa, the mountain of Moses. Mussallem said that the Wadi el Arbain means forty in Arabic, Valley of the 40.
How did the name come about, I asked.
“This I want to know,” he replied.
On a bike with no puncture kit
Konstantine, along with his wife, organises cycle tours, mostly in Europe and for Ukrainians, for a living. The next morning we had hardly turned off a short section of tar into the desert when he told me that me he had no spares or tools with him. He was going to be riding 200km of remote wilderness without a patch to fix a puncture or a pump to inflate a tyre.
I had heard Mussallem say we would ride in jeep tracks, where we could find them, to avoid getting punctures. But, based on his example, the trick is actually to stay out of these tracks as the weight of the car breaks the crusty service, exposing the soft stuff that grabs your tyres and sucks you to a stop. Rather, you have to look ahead continually to find dry washes that are rideable. On this basis, we did lots of riding and little pushing.
Wadi riding means you are not always going in the direction you want to go. You double back and climb over hills to the next wadi. Nothing is signposted and it is more than a little confusing. I would not want to try this without a consummate guide such as Mussallem, who was born in the desert and has traversed these parts many times, usually with a camel. A GPS would do the job, with the proviso that it remained charged and functioning.
Later we came across a well. There were signs of planting. A man saw us and ran away. It was not possible to see to the bottom of the well but two portable generators were being used to pump water out of it.
We continued a short distance and stopped for a lunch break. A young man came loping along on a camel and dismounted. As is the custom, he helped himself to some of our lunch. He then invited us to tea, which we accepted.
It was not possible to see what the men had planted as the seeds had not sprouted. Other than the two generators, they had practically nothing. No tent, no tarp, no change of clothes. Just a battered teapot and shisha, which rested in an old plastic container. There was little food, the only evidence being a sack partially filled with flour.
Mussallem did the talking, Konstantine and I sitting and not taking any of it in. We posed for photos with the men.
After a while Mussallem went off, leaving us with the two men, one of whom produced a cellphone. I tried to work out if it was a smartphone, perhaps a tool to trade opium futures?
One of the men became quite animated, gesticulating at Konstantine. He looked at him blankly. More gesticulations followed.
“Aha,” said Konstantine. “Bluetooth.”
“Bluetooth,” nodded the horticulturist.
But try as they may, they could not get the phones to connect.
Konstantine, who had spent two winters on the Sinai coast, as many Europeans do, had already told me that drug horticulture is rife in some of the remoter areas. He has an interest in diverse cultures and decided to put the renowned hospitality of the Bedouin to the test, pitching unannounced with his wife at an opium farm. There was no one around but he proceeded to make tea and waited for the growers to arrive.
When they did, they first behaved as though the pair were ghosts, he told me, but they did not chase them and in time they relaxed and held a conversation.
I was to use this story as a guiding principle — expecting to be received hospitably — as I cycled through the region over the next few weeks.
I had come to expect this kind of welcome though, having read the inimitable Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands to prepare myself for the trip. He spent years with the Bedouin in the desert in the 1940s, crossing some of its most inhospitable regions, including several firsts across the Empty Quarter, often described as the largest, hottest and bleakest of deserts.
Biking in the Sinai
Thesiger recounts how, days from having seen anyone and having survived on camel’s milk only for a month, his group shot a rabbit and were preparing to feast that evening, albeit in a seven-way split. The rabbit was no sooner cooked when four strangers arrived. Bedouin custom demanded the rabbit and what little other food they had be offered to the new arrivals.
The men sat hungrily watching the strangers eat their meagre feast, Thesiger describing his mood as murderous.
We rode on, passing other plantings, when the wadi fell abruptly and precipitously down a more or less sheer, dry waterfall. The descent, especially with bicycles, looked too hairy. We opted for a long, savage portage instead.
Later in camp that night, Mussallem told us that the two horticulturists were from a tribe of a different area and that “we don’t give them women to marry”, the result of a transgression by this tribe sometime in the past.
Later still, I asked him for an example of what kind of issue could lead to this sanction. He related the case of a large tribe who live up north. When the Prophet Muhammad had visited now more than 1 300 years ago, they had paid him the ultimate insult by offering him dog to eat. Hence the boycott, to this day.
‘Camels for souls’
If you’re retracing Exodus, however loosely, the question is what resonance do events from probably at least 3 000 years ago have today? In at least one case, that of Bedouin law, this pre-existed here long before Moses came through.
To this day, the Bedouin do not follow Egyptian state law, nor Islamic law, in settling disputes such as those arising from murder. They practice ancient, oral law known as urf or orf, where payment for a life is made in camels, the going rate at present being 80 camels, about R1.6-million.
“Camels for souls,” Mussallem explained.
Alternatively, if a woman of childbearing age is available, she can go and live with the aggrieved tribe, staying there until she bears and weans a male to replace the murdered man. At this point she can elect to stay or return to her tribe.
The practice, deeply rooted in nomadic desert culture, arises from the need to find a way to maintain order when there is no central state to arbitrate and administer justice. This law predates the earliest state law used by the Sumerians as much as 5 000 years ago in city states such as Uruk.
We saw our first acacia tree in the afternoon. “The camels brought them here. From Africa,” said Mussallem.
Acacia. The camels brought the acacias here, said Mussallem.
Konstantine also got the first of numerous punctures.
We were running out of daylight when we arrived at the appointed rendezvous with Fahed. He was nowhere to be seen. Mussallem looked at the track. “He was here about an hour ago,” he said.
We rode off in the direction Mussallem reckoned the Jeep had travelled. With the last rays of sunlight dying and the prospect of an extremely cold, uncomfortable night looming, we saw Fahed in the distance.
Out came mats that were placed around a metal hearth. Tea was boiled.
Mussallem cooked up a large round platter for supper that we ate communally. In the morning he made something I have been keen to try for ages: lebe, bread baked in ashes.
Making lebe, bread baked in the ashes.
He made a bed of ash and put the dough on it, covering the dough with more ash. In about 20 minutes, cooked, it was rigorously clapped, pretty much getting rid of all the ash, leaving a fresh loaf of bread that we ate with a choice of two types of cream cheese and berry jam.
We ate well on the whole trip. Unlike the Israelites.
Quails on the wind
Numbers 10:33 relates how they set out three days from Yahweh’s mountain where they camped. “Now the people began to complain, which was offensive to Yahweh’s ears. When Yahweh heard them, his anger was aroused and the fire of Yahweh broke out among them; it devoured one end of the camp.”
Numbers 11:14: “‘The rabble who had joined the people were feeling the pangs of hunger, and the Israelites began to weep again. Who will give us meat to eat,’ they said.
“Think of the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic!
“But now we are withering away; there is nothing wherever we look except this manna! When the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell with it.”
Manna is described as being like coriander seed and with the appearance of bdellium, a resinous gum. The people gathered it and ground it in a mill or crushed with a pestle; it was then cooked in a pot and made into pancakes and had the taste of cake made with oil.
The grumbling incurred Yahweh’s wrath, Moses unhappily finding himself between his angry God and miserable followers.
Numbers 11:11: “Moses said to Yahweh: ‘Why hast thou dealt ill with thy servant? And why have I not found favour in thy sight, that thy dost lay the burden of all these people on me?
“Did I conceive all these people. Where am I going to get meat to feed all these people. I am not able to carry all these people alone, the burden is too heavy for me.
“If thy wilt deal thus with me, kill me at once, if I find favour in thy sight, that I might see my wretchedness.’”
Yahweh promised meat for Moses’s 600 000 followers, so much “you shall not eat for one day, or two days, or five days or 10 days, or 20 days, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you”.
The querulous Moses replied that they did not have sufficient flocks for this. Yahweh replied: “Is the arm of Yahweh so short? You shall see whether the promise I made to you comes true or not.”
He sent a wind, which blew in so many quails they lay two cubits thick for a day’s march on either side of the camp.
The Israelites gathered the quail but “even while the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of Yahweh was kindled”. He smote those who had the craving — overate — with “a very great plague”.
In the morning we rode more wadis. The previous day we saw just the two horticulturists. Now we saw no one, but came across a group of nine camels, grazing unsupervised. Mussallem explained that they need no supervision as the dominant female, “the boss camel”, is hobbled so she cannot move any real distance. The others hang about her.
We stopped at a well. It was in operation but it supported no homesteads or agriculture. Mussallem said the water would be too brackish for us to drink but not for the camels.
I asked him about Katherine. He had his own addition to the story. Katherine was executed along with the Romans she had converted, cut into three parts, one part buried under the desert, one in the sea and the third at the top of the mountain that has her name to the day.
Hoffler adds in Sinai: The Trekking Guide: “The monks provide a footnote. They say the whereabouts of Katherine’s remains were revealed by God in the ninth century, then retrieved for safekeeping”, hers presumably being one of the many skulls treasured at the monastery.
We came to the Blue Desert, a large expansive open area of bottomless sand and towering cliff faces. We did a lot of pushing in this section.
We rode on to Nawamis, a settlement of a handful of Bedouin families. In former times there was a large shallow lake here and numerous mosquitoes. The place takes its name from this infestation, nawamis being thought to be a corruption of namoos, mosquito in Arabic.
About a kilometre from where the residents live is a collection of round, corbelled houses honed from the soft rock in the area. Bedouin tradition says the houses were built to provide protection from mosquitos, but archaeological work has shown that the structures were tombs built by an ancient people about 6 000 years ago, before the pyramids and long before the exodus, an instance that shows the limits of oral tradition.
Corbelled houses at Nuwamis, said to be 6 000 years old and pre-date the pyramids.
A tar road to the coast crossed our path. We rode down it a short distance and turned off again into the desert. About one kilometre into the desert was Hajar al-Maktub (Arabic for rock of inscriptions). The Sinai Trail website says the site was once an important camping ground on one of the Sinai’s major pilgrimage routes between Jerusalem and Mount Sinai.
“The rock is covered with Armenian, Syriac and Greek writing; most of these inscriptions are records of pilgrims’ names and etchings of a variety of traditional Christian symbols. One of the Armenian language inscriptions from around 1 000 years ago even records the name Abraham.”
Hajar al-Maktub (Arabic for rock of inscriptions), once an important camping ground on one of the Sinai’s major pilgrimage routes between Jerusalem and Mount Sinai.
The website says that Hajar al-Maktub is located in Wadi Hajjaj (Wadi of the pilgrims) and is one of many rocks decorated with graffiti in the area. “The most common inscriptions in the Sinai are Nabatean. The Nabateans traded through the Sinai around 2 000 years ago, and historians believe that their script remained in use in the region until the second or third century.
“Often, Nabatean and pilgrim graffiti are found juxtaposed or written near one another on the very same rocks; this is no coincidence. Most early Christians made their marks by older Nabatean script, mistakenly believing it to be the marks Moses and the Israelites left during their wanderings. The script was only identified as Nabatean in recent centuries.”
Lushness and liquid
We rode on a few kilometres to Ein Hudera. We had to descend another steep climb, this one with walled supports and steps to make things easier.
In the near distance was a condensed area of green, an oasis. The Wadi Hudera runs through a narrow valley with towering rises on either side. The palms in the centre of the wadi and soaring cliffs bathed in the bright afternoon sun made the place magnetically irresistible.
Mussallem stopped to make sure we did not miss the source of the greenery, a single spring in a cave, 8m or so in. It was supplying not much more than a trickle of water, but there were a collection of pipes siphoning it off, enough to sustain the oasis.
Dropping into Ein Hudera with the oasis beckoning in the distance.
The oasis is mostly used to host tourists, with no more than perhaps a solitary resident, and numbers being well down, there was no one there to welcome us. There was a plunge pool with sparkling, inviting water and a basic shower in the form of a hosepipe strung above you. You twisted the nozzle to release the water.
Fahed arrived, looking a little shaken. He had stopped at an intersection on the way, only to have a man point a rifle at him at close quarters. He hit the accelerator and sped off. Inquiries further on, where he felt it safe to stop, told him his assailant was known in the area for his problematic behaviour.
“You should go to the police,” I said to Mussallem.
He responded that this is the kind of issue that is settled tribally. “He will be made to hand over the weapon,” he explained, saying this would be his punishment.
By the end of day two I was ready to ride wadis for the rest of my life, meeting up with the jeep in the evening for a relaxing meal and hot drinks, listening to tales the Bedouin have told here for as long as there have been people sitting around fires.
I told Mussallem about my time with the Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq. This is just a couple of hundred crow kilometres from where we were, but in terms of the present political geography, may as well have been on another planet. The Marsh Arabs have more or less an identical lifestyles to their desert brothers and sisters, but call themselves Madan, or buffalo breeders. Swop the water buffalo and camels though, and these are the same people.
I told him about the Sumerians and one of their gifts to the world, the word freedom. In the coming days we’d periodically call out to one another as we rode through this marvellous place: “Amargi! Freedom!”
We also discussed the prohibition of charging interest on loans, the biblical injunction that came to us via Moses from God at Sinai.
Exodus 22:24 proclaims: “If you lend money to any of my people, to anyone poor among you, you will not play the usurer with him: you will not demand interest from him.”
Exodus 22:25 adds: “If you take someone’s cloak in pledge, you will return it to him at sunset.”
Mussallem couldn’t have been clearer. Anyone who made a loan could only expect the amount of the loan be repaid. “You can’t charge EXTRA,” he intoned.
In the morning we rode the slow downhill that is the Wadi Hudera, endless wilderness kilometres with an easy gradient as the valley flowed downwards in front of us.
Recent rains, Mussallem pointed out, had been kind as the surface had hardened nicely to a crusty finish. Without this we would have had soft sand on this stretch, he said.
We had by now come to know that Mussallem has a lot of cousins. “Hundreds,” he answered, when I asked him for a better idea of how many. He is even married to a cousin, but said that this was okay as they both had at least one parent who had not come from the area and as such, had brought diversity to the gene pool.
We were soon to meet more of his cousins, at the tiny settlement of Ein Furtaga. There is a strong spring flowing here, the water quality and quantity able to support a few homesteads.
We were warmly welcomed. In greeting family, the Bedouin have a version of Eskimo nose-rubbing except their noses do not actually rub. They kiss each other on the mouth during the close face-to-face greeting, but neither do the lips touch. Hoffler told me later that this greeting is unique to the Tarabin tribe.
Mussallem put out the spread, which he carried for mid-morning snacks, on a blanket and our hosts provided some freshly baked bread. The women sort of joined in after organising the fire and tea, sitting on the periphery, close to the main group but not quite part of it.
Konstantine asked the women, who were veiled, if a photograph was possible and was reprimanded by Mussallem for this. Later, Constantine asked how could it be that his request was problematic as he had asked permission to take the photo. Mussallem said the issue was that their husbands were present. In this case you have to ask the permission of the husband, not the women.
“You disrespected the husband.”
A military officer and two soldiers arrived in a pick-up truck. The officer joined the group for tea and had the Sinai Trail explained to him, complete with maps. After tea he returned to the truck, where the soldiers offloaded a pile of cardboard boxes.
“They are dropping off food parcels because tourism is down and the people need help,” said Mussallem.
‘Roar of the torrents’
The main road between the coast at Nuweiba and Suez runs through Ein Fudera. A tarred road was built, but floods in the past year or so treated this road as their plaything, ready to be undermined here, twisted like pliable clay there and generally broken and stomped on anywhere else. The result is a completely unusable road.
Mussallem was dismissive, wanting to know how it was that it was thought possible to build a permanent road in this place?
The power of these floods can be terrifying. Hoffler has this description by FW Holland, from 1869: “The rain fell in torrents and the roar of the thunder echoing from peak to peak and the howling of the wind quite deafening. It soon grew dark and the flashes of lightning that we could see everything around us. In less than quarter of an hour every ravine and gully in the mountains was pouring down a foaming stream.
“Presently I heard a distant roar behind us, which drew nearer and nearer, and in a few minutes a tremendous torrent burst down a little wadi just below our tent, carrying a mass of debris into Wadi Feiran.
“Suddenly a huge wave came rolling down, then another, then another. It seemed impossible to believe that scarcely more than an hour’s rain could turn a dry desert wadi upwards of 300 yards broad into a foaming torrent from eight to 10 feet deep.
“Yet here it was, roaring and tearing down, and carrying with it tangled masses of tamarisks and hundreds of beautiful palm trees.
“The roar of the torrents was tremendous; the boulders ground along beneath the water with the noise of one hundred mills at work. Nearly 30 people perished, but only two bodies were found: the rest were swept away.”
We rode more wadis, in this section of the trail coming across the odd car as we headed towards the Coloured Canyon. This is a major tourist destination, people coming to admire the view of the canyon and to walk in the steep, narrow gorge below.
A large facility has been built for tourists, who are bussed in, fed and watered. But the abrupt end to tourism meant it was closed and we could use it as our camp for the night.
Mussallem had told us the story of Abraham when we met him at Desert Fox Camp at St Katherine. Now, settled on mats around the fire after another shared dinner, I asked him to relate the story of Moses. What surprised me — he assured me his source for the story was the Koran — was the difference in important detail of the two accounts.
One was that while Exodus 12:37-38 speaks of 600 000 Israeli men leaving Egypt with Moses, in Mussallem’s version there were only 70 departees.
Another was that his version of Moses on Mount Sinai had the chief critic, whose name I did not catch, but I assume was Aaron, below in Wadi el Arbain, who sowed the discord that led to the making of the craven idol, the golden calf, through using his own idiosyncratic counting method where he counted days and nights separately.
After Moses had been on the mountain for 20 days, said critic assembled the waiting throng and told them Moses was now beyond the 40 days he had said he would spend on the mountain. The impatient Israelites, notwithstanding the miracles Moses had done on their behalf, including the parting of the Red Sea, made the golden calf as an alternative god to worship.
An oddity, by the way, as you make your way up the road towards the St Katherine’s monastery, is a calf-shaped formation in a rock wall. It is somewhat cartoon-like, but unmistakably a calf.
We asked Mussallem what Daesh means, the Arabic word used to refer to Isis.
He squinted: “People who don’t see straight,” he answered.
Mussallem lives nearby at the coast at Nuweiba and has an interest in a camp on the shore near Ras Shaitan and so knows this section of the trail well and rides it frequently. It was some of our best riding through narrow gorges of just a couple of metres wide in places.
The Red Sea is warm enough to swim in, even in mid-winter, but after the downing of the Russian plane, there is hardly a tourist to be seen.
We also took in the oasis of Moiyet el Melha. Legend has it that a witch inhabits the place, her job being to protect the area. The story is that a long time back a man planted date trees and as such, thought he had a right to the fruit as his bounty. He came and cut down all the fruit from one of his trees, only to be killed (I forget how) for his greed.
The witch is quite happy for pickers to take some of the dates, just not all of them. Take some and she is happy; take all and you are dead.
It may have been downhill from the Coloured Canyon to the coast, but Mussallem managed to include a couple of portage sections. It was nonetheless going to be a short day and at about midday we came to the coast and rode a tarred road a short distance to Ras Shaitan, where Mussallem has his camp on the shore of the Red Sea, with views of Saudi Arabia on the other side.
The camp is Bedouin-style with lots of comfortable areas with mats and cushions to do no more than relax. The water is comfortably warm for swimming, even in midwinter, and the climate warm enough to spend evenings outdoors.
Meal at Ras Shaitan on Red Sea.
The general vibe, given the tensions of the wider area, is relaxed. So pleasant and laid-back was Mussallem’s camp that I decided to spend a day there, but by the next morning the restless nomad in me that had been released by the Sinai was saying, move on.
Hurry up and wait
The route of the Israelites, most scholars agree, did not go north from Sinai into what is now Israel, as this area was populated and well-defended. Rather, Moses reckoned he would get less resistance entering the promised land to the north of the Dead Sea, heading through what is now Jordan. I had two options: take a ferry across the Sea of Aqaba to Jordan or ride north to the border with Israel for a short distance and then cross into Jordan.
Riding the Sinai wilderness.
But these crossings, where Israel shares a border with an Arab country, are notoriously trying, with intense security controls for luggage and people. While the distance to be travelled may be short, the experience can be harrowing. I decided to take the ferry.
I packed my bike, riding now for the first time fully loaded, there being no back-up Jeep for this section of my trip. The bike, with small tent, blow-up mattress, sleeping bag and warm gear, probably weighed close to 30kg.
I rode south along the Sinai coast towards the ferry port of Nuweiba. There was a checkpoint or two to pass, but security is relaxed here and I was waved on with a smile.
I was riding south, even though my destination, Jordan, was north. My muse, Etheria, had headed north from Mount Sinai towards the Red Sea and Cairo. She related: “From Clysma, that is from the Red Sea, there are four desert stations, but though in the desert, yet there are military quarters at the stations with soldiers and officers who always escorted us from fort to fort.”
Likewise, further on: “Epauleum was shown to us from the opposite side, when we were at Migdol where there is now a fort with an officer set over soldiers to maintain Roman discipline. These escorted us thence, according to custom, to another fort.”
Seventeen hundred years later, little seems changed as you ride from security checkpoint to checkpoint.
It was a pleasant ride with the Red Sea on my left and the mountains of the Sinai on my right, but the road had large trucks using it and I got off it as soon as I could, heading into Nuweiba.
Arab men do not do naked legs; they do not show their legs in public. But ahead of me was a man riding a bicycle, sporting shorts and legs. I rode up to him and was not surprised to find that he was not Arab, but German. He told me the port was a further 10km along.
I rode near the coast with a strip of hotels between me and the shoreline. Hotel after hotel was closed. There were several large and sprawling, industrial-scale complexes that had been under construction. You could see that on a day — October 31 2015, no doubt — work had stopped, bringing financial ruin for the developers.
I had imagined the ferry to be a leaky old wooden thing with a man scooping extra water up and throwing it overboard, but it was exactly the opposite: new, sleek and imposing.
I had done web research on my options. There were apparently two ferry services and I had a choice between a fast and a slow ferry, priced differently, of course. But when I got to the office at the port of Nuweiba, there was only one option, slow (three hours), but priced at what my research had told me was the fast (one hour) service.
I was hurried along to buy my ticket, departure seemingly imminent.
At security a man told me to “unpack the machine”. This had taken one and a half hours at Mussallem’s. I stripped the bike with its various bags naked and put everything through the scanner. My sense was that not too many bicycles, probably none, came through here and the novelty meant that a full strip search was required.
A captain came along and apologised for the inconvenience. I said security was understandable. Then he took personal charge of me, taking me through passport control and then me and my bike a kilometre or so to the wharf, where he escorted me to the front of a long queue, showed me where to put my bike and where I could hand in my ticket to board the ferry.
I went to the top, open deck and selected a seat with a good view. The ferry is big and accommodates hundreds of passengers. Only two of us were English-speaking, myself and a young American who was doing a stint as an English teacher in a village somewhat south of Cairo.
If there had been a hurry to get us on board, there was no urgency to leave. I sat and waited. It was Christmas Day, one of my more unusual Christmases. Five hours later, it now being dark, we departed for the other side of the Red Sea.
Kevin Davie is the M&G’s business editor. He teaches economics and long-form journalism at Wits Journalism