The hike up Mt. Sinai, where Moses received the 10 Commandments from God, was pleasant enough. We left Dahab at 11pm to reach the base of the mountain at 1am, and hiked up the switchbacks of the Camel Path for a few hours. The Camel Path is literally a parking lot of camels. In the wee hours of the morning, people were hustling camel rides every few turns, which is like everywhere else in Egypt, the one difference being it’s tough to pass a camel on a mountain path when there is only six feet or so of real estate. (There is another route up, some 3,000 stairs that were built into the side of the mountain by a monk who wanted to do penance.) From Elijah’s Basin, where the Prophet Elijah heard the voice of God, everybody climbs about 800 stone stairs to the top.
The night hike ensured that we, with at least a hundred others, would be at the peak of Mt. Sinai for sunrise. Most people seemed more or like less me and Gabe – shivering, snacking, waiting for the sun with digital cameras on the ready. Nothing about the performance gear or almonds suggested pilgrim.
The sun rose. It was beautiful.
The orange glow of the first morning revealed more of our neighbors on the mountaintop, including a group of about two dozen Koreans. They looked ridiculous in that way that only Asian tourists can look ridiculous – gloves to protect their skin from the sun, a 3:1 ratio of camera to person, and what we have come to call the “beekeeper” look, a wide-brimmed hat swathed in a scarf or netting for maximum sun shield. We giggled.
And then they began to pray.
I was immediately mocking. Call it too many years of feeling left out of the Korean church community, skepticism about the hypocritical and ungenerous behavior of many Koreans in the name of Christ, or just my generally confused and overwrought response to faith. I know it’s unfair. I am working on it.
Against my will, I caught a few snatches of the words, spoken by a young man with a melodic (well, as melodic as Korean gets) voice, with a timbre of what I can only describe as devotion. Something about being thankful for even the hardest burdens, for remembering to find goodness in sacrifice.
And then they began to sing.
God help me, I hate the sound of traditional Korean singing, the high-pitched warbling and thin voices remembering some tragedy, always a tragedy. As a few people around me began to snicker, I was struck by a gut dislike for the sound, mixed with embarrassment that these Koreans were making a scene and so much noise in front of all of these white people, mixed with an overwhelming longing to be a part of their community, to feel what they felt and to believe what they believed, mixed with an intense physical realization that I stood a world apart. It is a familiar sensation.
Somehow, though, the mountains of the Sinai interior deepened the voices, which began echoing out into the pink and orange valley, warming to the newly woken sun. The other tourists, who had been chattering and preparing for the hike down, fell quiet, and with each verse, reverence started to fill the air, thicken it somehow, blanket us. I could hardly understand the hymn, and of course nobody else on the mountain could either, but it didn’t matter. Everything was rich and simple and believable, and something burst in my chest and I found myself stunned, tears streaming down my cheeks. I felt vulnerable to the core, my grimy fist not-so-subtly wiping at tears that would not stop, yet weirdly perfect, too.
The Koreans finished singing, and after a hushed beat, Sinai seemed to exhale. People packed their bags, rejoined their groups, tightened their shoelaces. The Koreans started another, more reflective prayer, and Gabe and I timidly walked around them to start our descent. The valley turned red and brown as sun grew more aggressive overhead. The braying of camels was vaguely in the distance, the grating crunch of sand and pebbles immediately underfoot.
The moment moved, and I did, too. But to where, I don’t know.