Since Greek Orthodox Easter is fast approaching, I think that the best traveling topic I could share with you is my (of religious interest) trip to Mt. Sinai and Israel. It is so difficult to describe all that the eyes see on such a unique trip; besides, it would take a series of articles for that, since every place you come upon has a long history by itself. I will merely try to give you a taste, restricting myself to the highlights of the journey.
It was by pure chance that I partook in this journey when a group of friends decided to embark on it; one of them cancelled his participation early enough, so that the names on the tickets could be changed, yet also rather late, since he had already paid his fee to the Church group organizing the trip. And so I found myself filling his shoes despite the fact that I had never in the past felt the inner need to go to these places – or let’s just say that, as a genuine lover of travel, I had set other destinations as priorities. I am merely mentioning my psychological and mental frame of mind before the journey so that you can better comprehend, upon reading about my experience there, what this journey came to mean in the end and how it can change a person’s psyche in just ten days.
Crossing the desert
The travelogue does not begin on Easter but on June 2008, with a flight to beloved Cairo from Athens International Airport. Once there, we got on a bus and crossed the desert; our first stop was St. Catherine’s Monastery, at the foot of Mt. Sinai. The desert went on forever and it took more than 24 hours to cross it; this happened on an ancient Egyptian bus, with as many holes as a piece of Swiss cheese, which provided us with constant sound effects of creaking at the peak of the decibel scale! It sounds extremely tiresome, yet, truth be told, none of us complained or felt tired; because equally extreme was the imposing beauty of the desert landscape we drove through. As the hours of day and night passed, it enclosed everything in itself and rewarded us with a variety of images and colors!
St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai
Upon arrival at St. Catherine’s Monastery, the landscape changes drastically. As I mentioned before, the trip was organized by a certain parish, so the monks granted us the hospitality of the monastery’s dormitories; something that does not de facto happen with the endless row of tourist groups that visit the place from all around the world. It is worth noting that, until the time of my visit, the monastery had not once been desecrated by the Islamist Bedouins of the area – in fact, quite the opposite. Bedouins were very affectionate towards the Greek Orthodox monastery; they lived in harmony with the monks and rose to its defense whenever necessary. In the last 60 years, the monks were forced to bar its gates on just three occasions for safety reasons. In 1977, when former president Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem; in 1982, when the Egyptian army re-acquired a small part of the Sinai peninsula from Israel; and, more recently, in October 2014, after an attack by an Islamist rebel group.
The following days included a tour of the unique library and the museum of the monastery, a lot of church attending, focus on the predetermined time schedule in the very special dining room and beautiful long discussions with the monks that transported us to another sphere. The most sensational incidents of the visit:
- Obviously, the worship of the holy relics on display: the Head and Hand of St. Catherine.
- A visit to a monk’s hut, which was situated outside the monastery, well into the desert. An ascetic, in the middle of nowhere, without food or water, who prays daily to his god for the good of humankind. A saint of our days who, when discussing with us, revealed that, before turning to asceticism, he was a businessman in Athens; and that, after his first visit to the Holy Land, he decided to radically alter his life!
The Holy Summit
The summit of Mt. Sinai is at 2,400 meters and this is where, according to the Bible, God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. We began our ascend at 11pm, along with hundreds of other tourists from various parts of the world. Our intention was to reach the Holy Summit in time to see the sunrise and to have adequate time for our descend to the monastery before the heat of the day had set in. It took six hours of climbing, aided by walking sticks and lanterns, on the paths of the mountain. Each one was climbing for their own reason: some were on a pilgrimage; others were led by the healthy interest of the mere tourist; others were challenging themselves and checking the strength of their own will power. The mountain paths are difficult and rough; some turned around and went back because fear and exhaustion got the better of them! To complete such an ascend certainly requires both physical condition and courage because, as you climb higher, the landscape becomes even more steep and rough. And you have to climb at night because the heat of the day is intolerable. Moreover, you cannot ride a camel; you have to be on foot. The only help appears in the form of hospitable Bedouin tents, where tea and blankets are offered to travelers; because, as much as the heat is during the day, such is the cold during the night!
Yet no words can possible describe the unique feeling of being on the Holy Summit and watching the sun rise, sitting in the cave where Moses stayed for 40 days in order to receive the Ten Commandments , looking at the one and only chapel in existence. There are simply no words: it is simply too magnificent!
The Dead Sea
Right after our descend from the Holy Summit, on that very same day, we said goodbye to Egypt and drove to Israel. Time was scarce because there were so many things we had to see that rest was essentially a luxury we could not afford.
On this journey, the stop at the coast of the Dead Sea makes a lasting impression; obviously not because of the coffee – but because, there are luxury hotels of exceptional architecture built in the area. The hotels are famous for the rendering of services in the form of spa with Dead Sea salts to wealthy visitors from all around the world. Another name for the Dead Sea is the Salt Sea. It owes both its names to the fact that it contains a tremendous amount of various salts, which do not favor the development of life. In fact, its water has 24% sodium chloride (common salt), which is ten times the salt found in any other sea. Therefore, those who enter the water for healing purposes cannot swim; they merely float since the water’s buoyancy is so great – and this, in itself, is quite a funny spectacle.
It took several hours of patience and discomfort for us to pass the extremely thorough Authority Control and enter Israel. Yet, it is worth the trouble though because the places we were about to visit would reward us in every aspect – and more. Along the way, there are many Greek Orthodox monasteries and they are all particularly hospitable. It is practically impossible to mention all of them, no matter how much I feel that I should. However, there was something that really impressed me and I have to share with you: regardless of the saint they honor, above their gates, all these monasteries have an icon of St. George mounted on his horse, killing the dragon. When I asked one of the monks, he told me that St. George’s icon has a protective force, as this particular saint is the only one recognized by Muslims and Israelis alike; therefore, neither of them would desecrate the monastery, either out of respect or fear!
The old capital of Israel is beautiful, picturesque and, in short, hospitable. Upon arrival, either driven by piety or mere curiosity, the heart leads all visitors to the famous Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The temple is built on Mt. Golgotha and includes all the Great Pilgrimages any Christian would want to see in their lives:
- The Cavalry (Golgotha).
- The Relics of the Cross.
- The Stone of Anointing (the spot where Christ’s body was prepared for burial).
- The Angel’s Stone (a fragment of the large stone that sealed Christ’s tomb).
The entire Church of the Holy Sepulchre consists of many religious pilgrimages. But the most impressive fact is that the most essential ones, like the four I mentioned above, belong to the Greek Orthodox Church. Only the Greek Orthodox Patriarch is admitted to the sanctum and to him alone is given the Holy Fire of the Resurrection by unknown “magical” means. In fact, before entering, he undergoes body search in order to make sure he has no lighter or matches about his person. The reception of the Holy Light is considered a modern miracle. No matter how many rationalistic attempts and scientific experiments have been made, to this day no one can explain how the candle is lit and the light is passed; nor why it is passed to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch alone. There are numerous stories about the scientific trials made in order to explain this phenomenon; yet none has been able to provide some rational explanation or proof. Moreover, if the light is not passed, it means that the Patriarch is unworthy. According to certain testimonies, a few years ago, the Patriarch of another Christian dogma attempted to receive the Holy Light, bypassing Protocol, which dictates that the honor belongs to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. Yet the attempt was unsuccessful and he exited the sanctum empty-handed – no light. So the Greek Orthodox faith is the prime mover in the area; and as everyone admits, regardless of the Christian dogma they follow: this is the will of the Christian God, whether we like it or not.
Another place worth visiting is the place where Jesus Christ was imprisoned; the rock where he was tied; and the place of his martyrdom. These places are also difficult to describe in writing. I will allow the photos to speak in my place, to the extent they can imprint reality.
Once again we went through the most exhaustively thorough control of the Israeli authorities in order to enter the occupied lands of Palestine; our destination was Bethlehem with two intermittent stops, the Holy Lavra of St. Sabbas the Sanctified (Mar Saba) and the Monastery of St. Theodosius. I was particularly impressed by the St. Sabbas Monastery since it is one of the most “hardcore” monasteries, in the middle of the desert. The monks live there without installation for water supply and scarce food, under the shadow of the ever tense relations between Israel and Palestine. Both in theory and in practice, they are in danger from everything. But they characteristically told us that their faith keeps them alive and unharmed. Unfortunately, the monastery maintains a restriction on women entering the main compound; so our female companions waited patiently outside and could not live this unique experience.
In Bethlehem, we visited the Church of the Nativity, allegedly built at the place where the Nativity Cave stood. There, the spot where the Divine Infant was placed has been marked on the ground with an elaborate star; below the church there is also an ossuary containing the bones of the infants slaughtered by King Herod. And an extra piece of information: traditionally, this is a pilgrimage for those of the Roman Catholic faith.
And something more about the occupied lands of Palestine: as we were boarding the bus to enter the state, our driver, Gemal, took out a little Greek flag and placed it on the dashboard; he told us that Palestinians love Greeks and we wouldn’t be in any danger. I will never forget the smiling little children who welcomed us everywhere we stopped, calling “Yunan” (Greek) and asking for food. Likewise, I will never forget my friend Gemal and his family. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again but, every time I get a letter from him, I cannot contain my joy – for it means he is alive…
Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, Mount Tabor and Jordan River
All of these places are worth visiting – each one for a different reason. Moreover, they are the most relaxing walks on a journey such as this.
Nazareth is an old picturesque city, providing a plethora of knowledge about where and how Jesus grew up. It is of extreme interest; and a walk through its streets is really pleasant as it transports visitors to another era, to the quiet childhood years of Jesus.
The Sea of Galilee is also called the Lake of Gennesaret; but a sea it is, nonetheless. It lies between Israel and Syria and this is where Jesus performed his miracle involving the boatload of fish, thus convincing St. Peter to follow him. Like all visitors, we had the opportunity to take a little pleasant cruise around the lake/sea. I found that the element of water put my mind at rest and relieved me of the emotional tension I was bound to amass from my visits to the places and pilgrimages I have mentioned. After the cruise, we grabbed the chance to taste “Peter’s fish”, as they call it; it is cooked in every restaurant of the area and constitutes a touristic attraction.
Mount Tabor means a visit to the Church of the Transfiguration. Apart from the religious character of the visit, which each one experiences on a personal and internal level, the landscape that greets the eye is simply unique. After so many days in the desert, suddenly we found ourselves looking at fragrant gardens filled with beautiful flowers, an amazing panoramic view and a cool breeze that even the Aegean Sea would be jealous of! Literally, an actual oasis!
The visit to Jordan River serves primarily one purpose: to witness the Great Blessing of the Water, which is essentially the same religious ceremony conducted on the day of Epiphany/Theophany (January 6) in Greece. However, many Christians choose to swim in the river, either for the mere experience or in a symbolic manner, thinking that the process rids the soul of sin.
You might have noticed that I systematically avoided mentioning how our lives were endangered by various causes at certain instances of the journey. The reason is that it would be a great pity if, by reading this article, you got scared and dissuaded by embarking on a similar trip; a trip that forms a unique experience and marks you for life. Obviously, such journeys are extreme and you don’t set off with the same ease as if traveling to Rome or Paris.
What is worth mentioning, regarding safety issues, is how to handle the health and diet aspect – should you find yourselves in similar places.
We were very lucky in that respect because one of the fellow travelers was our own editor, Christina. Before setting off, she explained to us that it would be safer if we didn’t eat raw vegetables and stuck to drinking bottled water and drinks. Our diet should be restricted to the meals of the hotels we stayed, with cooking of European standards, including well-cooked food – even standard-packed items. She also told us that, in these regions, water contains 3.5% more bacteria than the European water we are used to. However, the actual danger of contracting gastroenteritis or any other infection comes through eye or ear contact with water. Therefore, she advised us to wash our faces with bottled (instead of tap) water, despite the fact that we would be staying in European-type hotels; also, to avoid as much as possible water getting in our ears when showering. That sort of information saved a great deal of people from unnecessary discomfort; and this is why I’m mentioning it. But even the few of our group, who didn’t follow Christina’s advice and got sick, were in no danger at all. Like any certified pharmacist, trained by the Red Cross and with great experience in this kind of travel, our editor had rid her suitcase of anything redundant and made sure she had enough medicine for everyone.
I’ve written extensively about this journey; yet I feel like I haven’t said enough. It is simply impossible to put into words all that I saw, sensed and lived. Naturally, the intention of this article was not to discuss – let alone insult – anyone’s religious beliefs; nor to comment on the political situation in the countries I visited; nor to debate the customs of the people who live there. My purpose was to merely share my experience with you; an experience that, I believe, is one of the greatest and most intense one can acquire. I have traveled a lot and for that I feel very lucky. And if I had to chose just one place in this world to visit again, I would answer truthfully and without thinking twice: the Holy Summit. Because that’s where your soul is bewitched and you believe in your god with yet more strength – whoever that god is, no matter the name…