Main Site         

Wind, sand and stars: In the footsteps of Moses

2000 February 19
by Paul Vallely

Venus was not visible any more, but the great black arc of the night sky above our heads was filled with the wordless messages of a million stars. I did not know how long I had been asleep, but the constellations had wheeled through 90 degrees. Everything was beginning to change.

This was just the first night, and we were only half an hour into the desert. A wild wind pulled at my sleeping bag like a demanding child tugging at the coat of his mother. Yet the echoes of civilisation lingered. In the distance I could hear the thin, reedy rattle of a motorbike somewhere down on the coast road. Shooting stars coursed through the heavens, trailing tails far longer than you ever see in the city sky. But even here they competed with the lights of far-off aeroplanes which appeared long before the faint drone of their engines could be heard.

Ahead lay a thousand square kilometres of nothingness. Or so it is judged in the estimation of the world I had left behind. A place of barrenness. A place for which mankind has for millennia found no use. And yet a place which echoes with the footsteps of the travellers of the centuries – the Bedouin (a word which in classical Arabic means “the original”), the spice traders of the Nabataean and other eras, the Israelite refugees from slavery in Egypt and the Christian pilgrims who for centuries have followed in those Exodus steps.

Its silence and emptiness is a palimpsest on which each era writes its own story. And there are those who are determined to do the same for the third millennium too. Next week the Pope will arrive in the Holy Land for a month of travels through Israel, Jordan and Egypt, starting in Sinai – a place, he says, of “exceptional symbolic importance” for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, since it is the scene of the activities of Moses, the last great figure of whom the three Abrahamic faiths retain a common view.

As I lay under the desert sky, one of our party rose from their sleeping mat and moved spectrally across the stony plain. I was with a group of 20 on an eight-day journey following the traditional route of the Exodus. Our number included a bishop and a businessman, a retired ambassador and a theology student, an engineer, a management consultant and three women awaiting ordination as Anglican priests. Which one of them rose was hard to discern. Whoever it was wrapped themselves in their white robe and pulled a white kefir over their head against the chill night air. Swathed in white, the figure might have been any one of the travellers who have crossed this inhospitable space at any time over the past 5000 years.

Sinai, which takes its name from the goddess of the moon, is a timeless place where history and myth are confused. We had set off the day before from the coast by the Red Sea, after gazing at the vast expanse of water, filled with a sense of the impossibility of Moses parting the waters to allow the Israelites to escape the pursuing army of the pharaoh. There are more plausible possibilities. Around the Bedouin camp fire the night before we had heard of at least three possible routes which the fleeing Israelites might have taken. The most northerly passes through an area still known as the Sea of Reeds, a marsh liable to spring-time floods which recede as suddenly as they appear; the pharaoh’s soldiers may well have drowned there after their quarry had passed over in safety. None of which diminishes the power of the story; in this place of apparent desolation, the natural seems miraculous.

For us, the next morning brought something more mundane: the ritual of breaking camp – rolling up our sleeping bags and mats and packing our bags to pile on to the roof of the four-wheel drives. Clumsy-fingered at the outset, we became swifter as the days went by. We cleaned our teeth using as little as possible of our precious supply of water; there was none to spare for luxuries such as washing – we had to keep a minimum of three litres a day to drink, to counter the effects of dehydration in heat made deceptive by the light desert breezes.

Our Bedouin guides – we had one each – were ever watchful for our wellbeing. There were frequent stops to rest, replenish our water bottles or to drink the syrupy mint tea they brewed in ancient black kettles on fires they conjured from just three sticks. Even their children kept an eye open: one small boy pulled me by the sleeve as I was walking beneath some acacias to take advantage of their meagre shade. He pointed to the floor and the thorns the trees shed – two inches long and as sharp as scalpels.

From the sea we had been following a series of wadis – wide valleys with floors of sand or stones and sides cut from the surrounding sandstone. The landscape was contoured by the torrential flows of water which rush down these highly seasonal river-beds. (Drowning, the Bedouin say, is bizarrely the biggest single cause of accidental death in the desert.) The sides of the wadis are a gallery of fantastical pillars, produced by cracking when the dew freezes in the chill night air.

As we moved further inland and the wadi became narrower, the dull yellow sandstone became increasing streaked with colour – thin black stripes of iron in the mineral, bright yellow swathes of copper, and the deep purples of the manganese in these mineral-rich deposits.

By the end of the second day we arrived at Maghara and were thrust again into the interplay between legend and history. This is where the pharaohs had their turquoise mines. High above the mining tunnel

entrances, at the top of a rocky slope, a mysterious bas-relief is carved into the rockface. Perfectly preserved by the dry desert air, it looks as if it might have been chiselled within the last century. In fact it is 4,500 years old. It shows an Egyptian overseer striking a Semitic slave.

We all shape history to our own purposes. Maghara is, biblically, on the wrong side of the Red Sea; this “Route of Exodus” was in fact created by pious Christian pilgrims in the 5th century. That is why there are at least four claimants to the title of Mount Sinai. The victor in the battle of the mountains was Gebel Musa, not far from the monastery of St Catherine built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. The story of how its chief rival, Gebel Sirbal, was defeated in the battle for authenticity was lost in the silence of the vanquished.

But St Catherine’s too has, in more recent years, lost its own way. Half a day’s journey before we reached Mount Sinai, we came across a brand new convent dedicated to St Catherine. The nuns who built it had fled there to escape the hubbub at the ancient monastery which, since the Egyptian tourist authorities put in a tarmac road into the remote mountain four years ago, has lost its tranquillity. It is one of the paradoxes of our age that tourists so often destroy, by their very presence, the thing they have come to seek.

When the first Christians went to the desert in the 5th century, creating the foundations for the entire monastic tradition, they were seeking to escape the wickedness of the world. The Emperor Constantine had made Christianity the religion of the establishment, and these Desert Fathers wanted their faith to revert to being one of distinctiveness and protest. They were seeking a new reality, so that through the banal business of surviving, with its routines and rituals, they could touch the transcendent.

But St Catherine’s Monastery today is a place of unseemly turmoil. Air- conditioned coaches park outside its door. Its basilica has become a hot- spot in Italian holiday brochures. The Egyptian tourist authority has invented the new “tradition” of climbing Mt Sinai in the dark to see the sunrise from the peak.

There is still something hallowed about the 900 final steps to the summit of the holy place where God first revealed his name (Yahweh, which means “I am who I am”) and where the body of the Prophet Mohamed is said to have been carried by angels on its way to heaven. But the route is now littered with tourist detritus. And on the spot where Moses received the Ten Commandments, we encountered a young American bragging of how he had deftly stolen a bottle of water from a Bedouin shop on the way up.

True, the monastery’s bejewelled basilica at the base of the mountain – with its minutely-patterned mother-of-pearl inlay, its hundreds of dark gold icons and its ostrich-egg chandeliers – was a place of quiet. But it was a claustrophobic, cloying silence which enveloped like velvet, which muffled and suppressed.

It was a relief, then, to quit the monastery, to leave behind even the four-wheel drive and to set out for the last three days into the desert by camel with the Bedouin. Even the act of packing a smaller bag to sling over the pommel of the saddle seemed an act of liberation.

Very soon our party settled into a comfortable calm, quietened by the rhythmical lollop of the camel and the steady sound of its padded feet in the pearly sand. For three days we wandered through a desert of vast white sandy dunes with no purpose other than the journey.

The map showed that not far off we would find nawamis – the oldest roofed buildings known to man. We had seen examples of these earlier in the trip. Then, we were exercised by the questions that the archeologists and historians had raised: were these flat iron-stoned cylinders graves, homes or stores for traders? It no longer seemed necessary to know.

The next morning I was awake before dawn. The sky was suffused slowly by light: from black to dark blue, then slate grey to cold pink and finally a warm rosy blush. Earlier in the week we had tried to cultivate solitary stillness as the Desert Fathers had done. Our first attempts had wrestled with a silence that is deafening, which causes the ears to strain – for the the quieter it is, the harder it is to hear. But in these final days the silence fell more easy.

There was dew on the sleeping bags that morning and the faint suggestion of a cool sweet scent from the tiny white flowers on the wispy broom. As the sun rose, across the sand there passed the swift black shadow of an eagle, which soared as effortlessly as that of the psalmist. The wind ruffled my hair and played wild tunes across my ear.

In the world of men and women we seem to know a great deal on the basis of very little. We see parts of things, and from them we intuit whole conceptions. The urge to find proof for our instincts is the motive to philosophy, art and religion – to transform what we cannot understand into something reassuring and familiar. And, as we deconstruct, the transcendent slips through our fingers.

But in the desert, none of that is important. Which is perhaps why, when the Bedouin marry, the couple go off alone into the desert, to the place where they can build a relationship together, and in which no one else can interfere. For this is not a place of testing, nor a place of answers, nor even one of questions. For those who can catch the fleeting sense and savour it, the desert is a place of pure being.

Paul Vallely travelled with Wind, Sand and Stars (2 Arkwright Rd, London NW3 6AD, tel: 020-7433 3684, website:, which runs one-week trips to Sinai from pounds 800, without airfares


Comments are closed.