When I first started out as a Mission Partner, someone warned me not to write about holidays, especially just after arriving. However, the senior students (3rd and 4th years) at ETSC had organised a trip to the Sinai, accompanied by families and some staff members, and it was thought that it would be a good opportunity for me to get to know the students and staff better, so I duly went along with them. It was partly relaxation at the end of the session, but there was a study element too, with some lectures on Exodus. And we also made a pilgrimage to Mt Sinai (Jebel Musa in Arabic – the Mountain of Moses) and St Catherine’s Monastery.
35 years ago, as a volunteer at Tiberias, I had tried to go to St Catherine’s with a few friends in a Volkswagen estate, but we didn’t have a clue where we were going, and after a few hours, we gave up. So it was with all these years of anticipation that I approached the mountain. We arrived at night and started the climb at 01.00, and it was hard going. Soon our group was well strung out, but one of the third year students, Kamel, stayed with me, lighting my path with his torch. The night sky was wonderful, but most of the time our eyes were firmly on the uneven ground. We chatted on the way up about things like Christian-Moslem dialogue in Scotland and Egypt, but as time went on, all we could do was to concentrate on each step. Gradually we neared the top, but then there were hundreds of steps cut into the rock (almost like penitential steps), and that was the killer. On two occasions, I would have given up, but others encouraged me to persevere. I am so glad I did, as we finally reached the summit with 10 minutes to spare before the sunrise. It was a real sense of accomplishment. The only problem was the thought of descending. And, indeed, my knees will never be the same again.
We stayed in Sharm el Sheikh for a couple of nights, and I took the opportunity to worship on the Sunday morning at the Heavenly Cathedral (Yes, that is its name), the main Coptic Orthodox Church. The old church was too small, so they built a marvelous cathedral over it, starting in 2002 and finishing in 2010, with the walls, ceiling and windows are covered with stories from both Old and New Testament (So different from Israel/ Palestine where the churches would concentrate on the New). It was also interesting to note that the majority of the congregation were men, mostly younger men, but perhaps that has to do with Sharm being a tourist town. We returned in the evening with the students, and discovered that the cathedral remains open till way past midnight. Around the church there are places to sit and relax, and many families were simply ‘hanging out’ enjoying the atmosphere, and I was impressed by the church being the heart of the Christian community.
The trip coincided with a heatwave, with temperatures rising to the mid 40s, and the journeys by bus were long. However, for me it did accomplish its goal, and I feel as if I know at least some of the students and staff a lot better. Just too bad, some are graduating soon and will leave the College.