AFTER our border crossing from Israel into Egypt, we immediately noticed the change of scenery.
The lush vegetation of Israel seemed like a world away. In its place were views of rock mountains, the Red Sea and the desert. The Castle of Saladin on the Island of Pharaoh in Taba city seemed to be the only thing interesting we passed so far, save for the rows and rows of empty or unfinished beach developments by the shore of the Red Sea. After mass at the resort hotel we were billeted in, those who intended to climb Mt. Sinai got themselves ready and bid members of the group goodbye. The climb starts late in the evening and is done by daybreak. It takes about five hours to ascend the mountain and one may opt to ride a camel until the last 750 steps as this can only be accessed by foot.
Early the next day, we journeyed back to the area where the climbers went to visit St. Catherine’s Monastery, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world. It is believed to enshrine the burning bush from which God first revealed himself to Moses. The area surrounding this monastery is almost deserted, that when the bus approached it, we had a hard time believing that somewhere beneath those mountains and rocks was a functioning monastery!
After the military checkpoint, we had to leave the bus and take “taxis” going uphill. These “taxis” were really old, junkyard-level cars, but one really had no choice but to ride them or risk being scorched by the burning sun if one opted to walk.
The holiest part of this complex is the Chapel of the Burning Bush – the actual bush itself is a bramble of the rose family named Rubus sanctus. Native to the Holy Land and known for being long-lived, this monastery’s bush neither blooms nor bears any fruit, but looks very much alive and sprouting.
Also inside the monastery one can find the Well of Moses, or Jethro’s Well, as this was where Moses met his wife Zipporah. It still functions as one of the monastery’s main sources of water.
After a quick lunch, we drove onward to join a convoy – which included a military escort – for the eight- hour drive to Cairo, thru the Egyptian desert. We made a short stop to see the Well of Marah along the way as we were told this was where the Israelites drank upon their exit from Egypt. Upon arriving in Cairo safely, we celebrated mass before calling it a day.
Early the next day, we were on the way to see the famous Giza Pyramids. I was surprised to see it just by the roadside, not cordoned off and buses were allowed to park right beside it. The Great Pyramid of Giza, also known as the Pyramid of Khufu or the Pyramid of Cheops, is the largest and most accessible of the three pyramids in the complex. It is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the only one to remain largely intact. The two smaller pyramids are the Pyramid of Khafre and the Pyramid of Menkaure. A short distance away we also saw the Great Sphinx of Giza – believed to be the likeness of Pharaoh Khafra – that serves as an emblem of Egypt appearing on most stamps, coins and even official documents.
Driving around Cairo, our guide Izzat would always mention that if it were not for the presence of the Nile River, Egypt would not survive. The Nile is the longest river in Africa and has a drainage basin covering 11 countries. It is the primary source of water for Egypt and Sudan.
We stopped at the Museum of Cairo which is home to an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities, the most popular of which is the Gold Mask of Tutankhamun. Almost half of the collection was in the process of being packed, as the museum will soon be transferring to a much bigger location – leaving behind this building built in 1901. This one fact I found quite humorous: the statue of the builder of the Great Pyramid (Cheops) was the smallest statue in the whole collection.
We then went to the Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church – one of the oldest Coptic churches in Egypt. It dates back to the fourth century and is traditionally believed to have been built on the spot where the Holy Family rested at the end of their journey to Egypt. There is a crypt below the church about 10 meters deep that shows one where Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus are said to have rested. As we wove our way back to the main street, our guide insisted on one last stop. He wanted to show us The Hanging Church, which is not actually suspended from anything, but is built instead on top of the gates of an old Roman fortress. It is officially called the Church of the Virgin Mary because this place is known to be the site of several apparitions of Mary.
Thus, we reached the conclusion of our pilgrimage and were soon headed home. If I had to give one piece of advice to people who want to someday visit the Holy Land, it is to do it while you can still savor every experience. The sense of fulfillment you will feel in your soul, spirit and heart is incomparable. I have already decided in fact to go back and embrace the experience all over again, with a deeper understanding of our faith.