Moses had 40 days and a burning bush. All I have is 40 minutes and a burning joint. I’m sitting on top of his mountain now… Mount Sinai. Actually, Mohammed came here too and probably Jesus as well. It’s one of those places that inspires deep thoughts. A pointed peak, thrusting towards the sky, surrounded by jagged sandstone cliffs and massive rock outcroppings. It’s not the highest mountain in the region. Mount Saint Catherine’s, just across the valley, has a few hundred more meters of altitude. And really, at only 2285 meters (about 7500 feet) it’s not very high at all compared to the Himalayas, the Andes or the Rockies. But it’s the metaphor that counts, not the geological specifics. Big mountains bring big thoughts. After my three hour hike from the monastery, with the afternoon golden sun lighting up the snow speckled peaks like a miracle, I feel like I’m ready for some divine inspiration. So come on God; give me a message. Is there anything new you want me to tell humanity as the 21st century begins?
My four days in Dahab are like a vacation from traveling. Little did I imagine how easy and comfortable it would be. In case you are unfamiliar with the region, the Red Sea, along the Sinai peninsula, is one of the best places in the world for scuba diving. Sharm el Sheik is the resort town that attracts the tourist big spenders. Dahab, a few hours down the road, has historically been the hippie, low budget alternative to the luxury of Sharm. As things happen though, Dahab threw the hippie vibe out the window a couple decades ago. No longer is it a place to find simple little dirt cheap huts lined up along the beach. It is still relatively inexpensive, but the quality of accommodation and range of services has significantly updated to meet the demands of the modern world. Nice restaurants line the waterfront. Internet and wifi are everywhere available. Coffee shops with real coffee, cappuccino and espresso are quite a treat after a month of Nescafé. There are western style bars serving beer, wine and liquor. And the tour agencies offering a variety of excursions to various inland attractions are almost as infinitely plentiful as the low budget dive schools. In short, Dahab is a full service tourist trap ready to provide westerners with a wonderful, pleasant and affordable vacation. Now, however, when I arrive in late January 2013 there are practically no tourists.
I’m not a scuba diver but I love snorkeling and there are amazing coral reefs and loads of colorful fish just off shore from the various restaurants on the waterfront. I spend two days lounging in restaurant beach chairs eating grilled calamari and fish in between dips in the sea to visit the idyllic under water world. Wow! How good is this life? On the third day, I rent a bicycle and pedal my way along the beach and coast road for 25 or so miles. It’s a wonderful day, but also slightly surreal. I’ve never seen so many empty hotels and resorts in my life. Numerous building developments are stopped halfway completed… dead in their tracks. Like the rest of Egypt, the entire region is suffering a serious post revolution tourism apocalypse. There are a few tourists scattered here and there. But compared to the people and businesses available to serve them, it seems like none at all. I ride past this one massive resort, and the spiffily dressed guy who works there practically begs me to stop and have a cup of coffee. It is so bizarre. There must be a hundred deluxe bungalows with a fancy restaurant and a full bar. But there are only five guests. Under normal circumstances, a place like this would probably not even let a shabby character on a bicycle like me on the grounds. But today, in these strange times, they are ready to roll out the red carpet to serve me a cup of joe.
Of the many excursions offered by the agencies in Dahab, one of the most popular is a sunrise tour of Mount Sinai (or as they like to call it Mount Moses). This involves taking a minibus that leaves Dahab around midnight for the two hour journey to the village of Al Migla and then hiking three hours to the top in the dark in order to arrive at dawn for the spectacle of the day’s beginning. I don’t much like tours and the idea of hiking in the dark with a group doesn’t appeal to me. Instead, I take the local “Bedouin bus” to Al Migla and find a cheap camp to spend the night in. The following morning, I set out to climb Mount Sinai on my own.
The trail begins at Saint Catherine’s Monastery. According to legend, the monastery was built at the very place where Moses saw the burning bush. For the past 1500 years or so, it has been the home for a small group of Greek Orthodox Christian Monks. Nowadays, it is also a tourist trap for Christians, Jews, Muslims and all the Old Testament enthusiasts. No doubt, the monotheists have their differences, but they all seem to agree with Moses and his stone tablet of rules. I make a short visit there and mingle my way among the swarms of tourists. I’m surprised by the crowds. I thought this place too would be suffering the side effects of the revolution. But it’s not. Apparently, Mount Sinai is close enough to Israel, that the various pilgrims can pop over here on a day trip and not worry to much about the unruly Muslims.
It’s against the rules and many people warn me about the dangers of climbing the mountain on my own. In retrospect, I could have gotten away with it. But while wandering around the monastery, I meet about ten different locals who want to be my guide. I try to escape them but eventually accept the inevitable and choose a nice young man named Ahmed to show me the way.
There are two routes to the top. The main camel trail that most people take is long and gradual and lined with tea shops and souvenir stands. The alternative route consists of 3750 rough stone steps that were theoretically put into place by a fourth century guilt-ridden monk who was trying to prove himself to God. The guidebook and literature suggest that the so called “steps of repentance,” should only be attempted by the physically fit and the spiritually determined. I like to think I qualify on both grounds and look forward to a challenging climb. But in reality, it’s not very difficult. It’s a pleasant little trail that climbs somewhat steeply through a beautiful narrow gorge or crack in the mountain wall but its no more arduous than the smallest of the Adirondack peaks. On a scale of one to ten with ten being the most difficult, I’d give it about a three. Seriously, a child could do it.
My guide Ahmed is full of information, very helpful and overly concerned about my well being. If he has a flaw, he talks too much. But that’s sort of what tour guides always do. He points out good photographs and uses my camera to capture me in action. Thus, my “spiritual journey” is properly pixilated by modern technology. We reach the top about 3:00 pm and Ahmed informs me that it’s time for his afternoon prayers. He asks me if I mind being alone for a while so he can go back down to the small mosque on the plateau beneath the peak and perform his Islamic duties. “No worries,” I tell him, “I’ll meet you at the last tea shop on the plateau below in 45 minutes.”
After Ahmed is gone, I have the mountaintop to myself. Considering the number of tourists that visit this place on a daily basis, that is something of a minor miracle. I find a big rock with the best view and I imagine that it must be the place where Moses received the stone tablets of instruction. I sit down on the rock, cross my legs like a Buddha and enjoy the spectacular view. Snow sprinkled peaks sparkling in the golden sunlight. Oh yeah, that’s right, I am living on a beautiful planet. I pull out the single little joint that I scored from one of the Bedouins at the camp where I spent the night. I smile, spark it up, smoke it down and wait for some divine inspiration…
Yeah, I know, it’s highly unlikely that the big man or woman in the sky is going to address me personally. So lets see what I can come up with on my own. Hmmm, let me think. What were those Ten Commandments again? My grade school Catholic education was a good one and one by one, the famous big ten laws of God pop into my head and I write each one down on separate sheets of notebook paper.
(1). I am The Lord your God and you shall not have any other Gods before me.
Yeah right, that’s the whole my religion is better than your religion nonsense. As if different cultures on different parts of the planet should not be allowed to understand God through their own particular cultural metaphors. If there ever was a commandment that caused more problems than it solved, it’s this one. So I take my lighter, put it to the paper and watch commandment number one go up in smoke.
(2). Thou shall not carve or depict human or animal forms and worship them as idols.
This is like the anti-artist commandment. As if God gives humans the power of creativity and then tells them not to use it. How ridiculous! I put my lighter to this one as well and watch it go up in smoke.
(3). Thou shall not use the Lord’s name in vain.
What’s in a word and what is God’s real name? As if the creator of the universe would be offended by what words humans use to express themselves. Is God really opposed to the First Amendment? The third commandment and the first amendment are logically inconsistent. God damn it that’s a silly commandment. “Up in smoke,” I say as I put the third commandment to the flame.
(4). Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.
All days are holy and people should work when they are inspired to work and rest when they are tired. I personally like to work four days a week and rest for three. So I put the flame to the fourth commandment as well.
(5). Honor your father and mother.
Honor is earned through honorable behavior not only by the act of reproduction. Be fair to everyone and appreciate what your parents have done for you. I honor my parents because they provided for my needs and taught me well. But not everyone is so lucky as to have honorable progenitors. Thus I have to put the flame to the fifth commandment as well.
(6). Thou shall not kill.
All life is sacred. Human life, animal life and plant life. The great mysterious quagmire of existence on the planet earth is the simple truth that we have to eat to live and every time we eat, we have to kill. Thus, the sixth commandment is impossible to follow. Appreciate the sacrifice of other beings that makes it possible for you to survive and realize also that you too will one day become food for other beings. “This bread is my body and it shall be given up for you.” I guess it’s time to burn the sixth commandment.
(7). Thou shall not steal.
Where does ownership come from and who decides who owns what? The treasures and gifts of the planet earth should be shared by all, not claimed as the private property of a few corporate aristocratic overlords. I have a smile on my face and joy in my heart when I burn the seventh commandment.
(8). Thou shall not commit adultery.
Sex is sex and love is love and the two different activities are mutually exclusive. In other words, if you are doing it with more than one person, you are not making love with anyone. Nevertheless, sex is not against the rules and legal or institutional approval of a relationship does not constitute love. Have all the sex you want, you won’t go to hell and you certainly shouldn’t be stoned for it. But you will probably never be truly happy or fully satisfied until you find a single partner with whom you can make real love (same sex or opposite sex, doesn’t matter). Good luck with true love, it’s the very best thing that can ever happen to a human. But I’m going to burn the eighth commandment now because it only confuses the real issue.
(9). Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
This is a fancy way of saying “don’t lie.” But what exactly is a lie? What is truth? We live in a subjective universe, not an objective one. Good old Albert Einstein threw the concept of objectivity out the window. Metaphors and stories make the world interesting. I recently wrote an epic novel that is a complete work of fiction. So I either have to burn my book or burn this commandment. Up in smoke goes the ninth commandment.
(10). Thou shall not covet thy neighbors goods.
Do I even have to discuss this one? Our entire economic system is constructed upon breaking this commandment. Of course we like and want some of the stuff that our neighbors have. The only way to learn what is possible in this world is to look around and see what others have and what others are doing. My neighbor has solar panels instead of using dirty natural gas that was hydrofracked from the earth beneath us. Of course, I covet his clean energy. How can that be bad? I’m sorry, but it’s just a ridiculous commandment. It’s against human nature and against practicality. Up in smoke goes the tenth commandment.
So, here I am, sitting on top of Mount Sinai with a pile of ashes and burnt papers where the Ten Commandments used to be. I stare across the valley at the magical glittering snow on top of Mount Saint Catherine’s. Now what? God? Are you out there? Your Ten Commandments are obsolete. They no longer apply. Any new message for the human race? A new rule book perhaps? A different set of guidelines? C’mon God, tell me. I’m waiting to hear. What are we supposed to do?
Of course God doesn’t answer. Because the truth is, we are not supposed to do anything. There are no commandments because we are FREE! Free to live and love on this earthly paradise. Or free to dominate the world and transform it into a civilized hell. The choice is up to us.
The noise comes from behind me. A collection of voices all jumbled together. No, it’s not God. A group of five older European tourists (3 men and two women) and two local guides have arrived on the mountain top. I’m no longer alone. My forty minutes is up.
“So this is it,” says one of the older men with a German accent. “This is the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments?”
“Yes,” I say as I stand up on my rock and turn to face them. “This is the place. And the view is pretty spectacular too.” I move out of the way so they can take my position. “Enjoy your stay, I sure did.” I hop across the rocks to the trail. “See you somewhere,” I add as I head down the mountain to find my guide at the tea shop.