It’s 6am and I’m sitting on my hotel balcony, drinking my morning ‘Nescafe’, and looking across the Gulf of Aqaba at the mountains of Jordan. But for the Nescafe, this could be a perfect moment. To the north east I can see the shores of Israel; to the south, Saudi Arabia. And I… am still in Egypt. This place is called Taba and we arrived here yesterday afternoon after a long driving day through the Sinai Peninsula.
When the bible tells about the children of Israel wandering about the desert for 40 years, this is the place; roughly 24,000 square miles of rock, sand, scorpions and snakes. Here the sand sweeps up the mountains like the snows do at home and the sun bakes the stones with rarely a cloud to intervene (2 1/2 inches of rain annually.) There is precious little vegetation and the barren desolation is dramatic and powerful.
The Sinai is the strip of land that connects Israel to Egypt and was crossed by Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Elijah and the Holy family. And as you drive through, these stories become immediate, intimate and wonderfully real.
The day started yesterday at 4am when we left Cairo and by the time the sun was coming up we were approaching the Suez Canal. A few facts: the Suez was dug (by hand) between 1859 and 1869 by some 20,000 laborers – mostly forced. It is roughly 200 Kms long, 500 feet across and 75 feet deep. It was initiated by Egypt but as she could not afford the project herself, it became a joint project between several countries. The deal meant there would be shared access between all the players for 99 years. However, Egypt won the canal back to herself 2 years before the lease deal was up. Last year the revenues from the canal brought 4 billion dollars to the Egyptian economy.
We crossed over to the Sinai through a tunnel under the Canal and turned south to travel for an hour or so along the canal to the Red Sea. As ships passed, the visual effect for us is that they were sailing the sands. At one point we turned in to get a closer look and a picture of the canal itself but were turned away by stern, finger wagging Soldiers, “No photos!”
Along the coast the desert was flat and unremarkable for the most part. But as we turned inland it quickly became mountainous. Back home we are accustomed to dense green forests and happy streams to decorate our mountains. Nothing of the sort here. The rugged inhospitality is absolute but for the occasional relief of a tattered oasis. I wondered allowed why the Israelites would turn inland to such rugged landscape. “Probably to avoid chariots,” Rikk replied. Ah, yes.
What I’m getting from this trip so far is a much deeper appreciation for how profoundly the social vision of Moses for Israel was shaped by his experience of Egypt. Egypt was wealthy and powerful, advanced and beautiful, famous and feared. But, as I once read, no empire can exist without it’s slave class. And one has to wonder if God allowed Israel to experience the shadow side of that system so they could begin to imagine a different kind of community under a very different God. This is the beginning of an appreciation of the fundamental dignity of all persons and of power that comes in the form of servanthood and self-donation rather than brute force. This is the beginning of a slow dawning that clearly has not fully risen, but the trajectory of which was crystallized in Christ – the one who absorbs victim-hood into himself so that others can be free. It’s astonishing really. Whenever Christianity aligns herself with power of the Pharonic nature, she diminishes herself. This most recent season of power politics in North America, I believe, has been the result of Christians second-guessing and forgetting their core identity. The results have been devastating. But the story isn’t over.
At mid-morning we came to St. Catherine’s Monastery. I’ll not tell the story of Catherine and her martyrdom, you can read that on the net, but this is the traditional site of the burning bush encountered by Moses after having killed the Egyptian soldier. Inside the monastery is “the” bush – no longer on fire but as you can see – doing just fine ☺.
This is also the traditional site of Mt. Sinai where Moses received the 10 commandments. Mt. Sinai is a three hour trek around this mountain – we didn’t have time so we couldn’t make the journey which was a big disappointment for me.
From here we left the interior and drove through these amazing formations to the east coast.
This final picture is taken from my hotel balcony. Such a bizarre and sudden change of worlds. I spent the rest of the afternoon snoozing under one of these. But for the extremely large naked lady under the next umbrella it could have been a perfect moment 🙂