Mohammed's handprint

We went on a wonderful trip to the Sinai a couple of years ago. The Sinai peninsula points into the Red Sea between the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aquaba and is a mountainous desert. It also contains Sharma al Sheik, the Egyptian Benidorm that sucks in millions of tourists each year in search of cheap winter sun.

The interior is very different. This is the wilderness in which Moses and his chosen people wandered for years before coming to the land of milk and honey. This is where, on the top of Mount Sinai, he received the Ten Commandments from God. We saw it, possibly as he did, by camel.  We were accompanied by two Bedouin boys for four days, one of whom was deaf – a common affliction caused by the continuous interbreeding as cousins marry cousins. They were merry and chatty companions – but spoke not a word of English. They bullied their stoical camels whose hardiness has to be experienced to be believed.

During the four days the camels ate and drank nothing – well nothing that you or I would consider edible. After breakfast, the boys would rip apart cardboard boxes  - which disappeared as if they were the most epicurean delicacy. As they walked with their strange gait that is the opposite of that of a horse – a sort of side to side roll – they would reach down to graze on bundles of dry thorn that you would hesitate to handle delicately with  bare hands - and munch on it contentedly. Their mouths and guts must have the constituency of leather.

We wandered through mountains of harsh beauty. Occasionally we would come across the remains of a settlement where the outline of goat corrals and huts could be made out. We looked over what appeared to be a ten mile wide valley with mountains in the distance, to find that it was only mile across: such was the distortion of distance with no frame of reference there being no roads, trees, buildings or animals to lend proportion or perspective. The nights were freezing, despite wearing all the clothes we had, including hats, and being inside two sleeping bags. The reward is the great beauty of the desert - the night sky - with neither moisture nor light pollution in the air to dull the phosphorescence of the stars.

We finished at St Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai where we were to stay the night in the guest cells. During the day it groans under the weight of coaches delivering their shoals of tourists from Sharm al Sheik. The monks retreat inside the private areas of the monastery and no doubt pray for the seclusion that was the reason they came to such a lonely place. By early evening, when the last coach departs, silence descends and one can almost hear a collective sigh of relief.

It is a fascinating place. It enjoyed the protection of Mohammed himself and as a result was the recipient of the treasures of the monasteries of the Levant and eastern Europe as they were threatened by the Muslim armies that were sweeping all before them. The library is filled with the earliest copies of the bible. I was handed a 3rd Century Greek codex by an Orthodox monk who spoke with an unmistakable Devon accent. ‘How did you get here’, I enquired. ‘The grace of God and a jet aeroplane’, he replied. In the courtyard is the Moses”s Burning Bush: next door to it is, I promise, a fire extinguisher. Near to our guest accommodation was an ossuary with the bones of centuries of monks piled from floor to ceiling. Both the summit of Mount Sinai at sunset and the Mass at dawn, with only the monks and four Serbian women wreathed in incense, were  unforgettable.

But he best was in the library. The Devonian monk showed us the piece of parchment that had protected this place for so many centuries. Mohammed was illiterate and instead, on the parchment, was a distinctive handprint – the handprint of Mohammed himself.

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