Some time during our first year in Egypt, I became aware of a remote, fifteen hundred year old monastery situated at the base of Mount Sinai called St. Catherine’s. Built just six hundred years after the birth of Christ, it was reputed to be the world’s oldest functioning monastery, housing a priceless collection of ancient religious manuscripts and Greek Orthodox icons. When I looked at the map, it was in the middle of the desert, sitting all by itself, like some lonely outpost from the old west. It did not feel like a viable destination. It failed the risk test, the intuition test, and my internal radar whispered to proceed with caution.
Travelling in Egypt is not without risk and yet, in our world, there is almost a fetish with danger. It is very difficult to assess real risk, especially in a culture that is not yours. One of our colleagues was married to a woman who worked at a foreign consulate in Alexandria. Hussein had access to intelligence reports which would portray colour coded degrees of danger on Egyptian maps in the various parts of the country. The Nile Delta was thought to be safe but the North Sinai, where there is ongoing conflict with an Isis offshoot, was definitely not. The South Sinai, home to the monastery, was somewhere in between. It is barren country and in the past was plagued with bandits and in 2016 had become just a bit unpredictable.
But after one year of living in Egypt, my wife and I felt more comfortable with travel and had met several people who had been to St. Catherine’s and Mount Sinai. One of them was the daughter of a Filipino restaurant owner in Alexandria named Suzi. She was back and forth regularly and swore the desert road was safe. Plus we liked Suzi’s food at Bamboo. The funniest things ease your mind.
We left Dahab, a famous diving centre on the Gulf of Aqaba, early in the morning. I sat in the passenger seat beside our driver Mahmoud. He was driving a white Sunfire with off and on air conditioning and a very loud radio. The desert road between Dahab and St. Catherine’s is bleak but well paved which was important as Mahmoud was one of the craziest drivers we had in Egypt. I tried to concentrate on the sparse little bushes and the odd skinny camel as we careened around the curves on two wheels. Too late to revisit our risk assessment. I was thinking, “I must remember to mention this to Suzi if we make it back to Alex alive.”