It was 8:15 on Monday morning, July 8, 1957, that we left our hotel in Cairo with our eleven cars turned toward the Wilderness of Sinai. In just a few miles we were already in a lonely expanse of desert sands, which was to continue without a break until we reached the city of Suez, about eighty miles east. Mrs. E. G. White describes this part of Israel's journey as a "dreary, desert-like expanse."' Somewhere between Cairo and Suez we crossed the trail of Israel's multitude as they went from the land of Goshen in the north toward the more southerly approach to the Red Sea. It was indeed a "dreary, desert-like expanse." The narrow ribbon of highway was practically deserted. Desert travel is not a luxury and is attempted only when necessary. When Isreal left the fruitful land of Goshen to be guided by fire and cloud into the desert, they were indeed meeting an experience fraught with many trials.
One hour and forty-five minutes after leaving Cairo our cars pulled up in front of a hotel in Suez. How happy we were to pause for a cold drink and then a good lunch! How would we have reacted to an experience such as Israel met on their first day out of Goshen?
At 12:15 we headed north for several miles where, after a wait of about one and a half hours, we crossed the famous Suez Canal. While waiting, we watched with interest the large vessels passing through this historic one-hundred-mile strip of water.
As we traveled southward along the east side of the canal and then the Red Sea, our first point of special interest was the probable site of the Red Sea crossing by ancient Israel. It was not our privilege to explore the region on the west side of this body of water. However, we were very fortunate to have with us Neal Wilson, president of the Nile Union Mission, who had made such explorations on more than one occasion. While stopping briefly at Ayun Musa, the well of Moses, an oasis about seven miles south of Suez, Elder Wilson directed our attention to some comments of Mrs. White. She states that the children of Israel had been instructed to "turn aside into a rocky defile, and encamp beside the sea." 2 After two paragraphs the descriptive account continues: "The Hebrews were encamped beside the sea, whose waters presented a seemingly impassable barrier before them, while on the south a rugged mountain obstructed their further progress." Elder Wilson pointed out to us that in the mountains somewhat to the south across from us he had found the mountain formation that in his opinion fitted very accurately into the picture described in this inspired account. Although some would place the site of the miraculous crossing farther to the north, still the opinion of one who more than any other has had opportunity to study the shore line carefully is worthy of consideration.
The sea at this point is about fifteen miles wide. Unfortunately the skyline at 2:30 on this Monday afternoon was thick with haze, making it difficult for us even with the aid of binoculars to distinguish clearly the course of the mountains in the distance.
As we continued our journey southward, our cars sped around and over jagged ridges, sandy mounds, and low-lying windswept mountains. First, we stopped at a well of which the brackish water seems to fit an identification with Marah, and later at Elim, with its palms, but no more pools. Another two miles, and the road emerged into a very large plain bordering on the Red Sea. It was 5:10, and after a brief stop at the checking station in the desert town of Abu Zenima, to which we had come, we turned toward the shore and there spent the night in nineteen white tents prepared for our arrival.
That night special study was again given to the inspired account of Israel's journey. Dr. Horn directed us to Numbers 33:10: "And they removed from Elim, and encamped by the Red sea." Verse 11 continues, "And they removed from the Red sea, and encamped in the wilderness of Sin." In the light of these words we were without question ericamped in the same general area indicated in verse 10. This was the first open area to be found after removing from Elim, and the next day we were to discover that beyond this suitable camping site along the Red Sea there was none other until the Wilderness of Sin was reached. (Sin was the moon-god of Ur and Haran.)
Inland From the Red Sea
The Wilderness of Sin, about ten miles south of Abu Zenima, was reached the following morning just as day was beginning to break. Here the mountains recede quickly to a distance of about twelve miles from the sea. The usual route would have taken us along the course of the mountain and then beyond into the interior through a narrow pass. However, because of recent hostilities, this road was still closed. Therefore we continued southward through the wilderness, and after fifteen more miles, the mountain range again converged upon us near the sea. Another five miles, and we entered the Wadi Feiran, a dry river bed, which was to be our "road" into the interior. As one car after another got stuck in the sand, we could readily understand why one car is never permitted to make this journey alone.
Thirty-two additional treacherous miles of steady ascent and two and a half hours later, we had arrived at Rephidim. It was now 9:10 and already growing warm. Here Israel had found no water. Should we have met the same fate our disappointment would have been intense. To be without water in a dreary, rocky, sun-baked desert is a horrible experience. The little want of it that we suffered as the day wore on and the heat of the sun grew more intense made us wonder just how we might have responded to the plight of ancient Israel. We were given refreshing cold water by the monks at a monastery garden.
It was also here at Rephidim that Israel had their encounter with the Amalekites. Twenty-five minutes of steady climbing took a number of us to the top of the mountain overlooking the valley. Here Moses perhaps sat during the course of the conflict, with Aaron and Hur upholding his hands (see Exodus 17). The valley appeared to be about one-fourth of a mile wide, stretching off into the distance in either direction.
At 10:35 we were headed again into the cruel wilderness, the mountains now becoming more imposing. The steady climb beneath the hot sun necessitated our stopping every few minutes to let the motors cool. About twenty miles beyond Rephidim, according to the route we traveled, brought us to the most imposing mountain range thus far approached. It appeared to be blocking our passage, but then a narrow pass revealed itself. It was a narrow defile only about one hundred feet wide, with imposing cliffs on either side.
About seventeen more miles, according to the speedometer of the car in which I rode, and all eleven cars pulled up to the massive walls of St. Catherine's Monastery. It was 1:30 in the afternoon. We had arrived! This was to be our home for a day and a half.
The accommodations on the second floor of this time-honored Greek Orthodox monastery were far beyond expectation, and the monastery officials were most cordial. Later in the afternoon we were conducted on a tour through the many chambers and chapels, including the world-renowned library.
Our principal interest was, of course, focused upon the mount where Moses had talked with God and received the holy law. It was our great hope that it might be possible for us to establish in our own minds some certainty as to the site.
Climbing Mount Sinai
The ascent of Gebel Musa, the generally accepted site for Mount Sinai, began from directly behind the monastery at 5:45 on Wednesday morning, July 10. We followed the steps prepared by the monks over a period of many years, steps that were to continue until the very summit was reached. After about twenty-five minutes we passed the Chapel of St. Stephen, and a few minutes later the Gate of St. Stephen, known also as the Gate of Heaven, through which only blue sky could be seen from below. Now the path became less steep, and soon we entered a fairly flat plain or meadow. Here a crude rock shelter is identified as the Chapel of Elijah, where Elijah is supposed to have rested during his flight to Horeb.
From certain positions here it was possible to look toward the left and up to the top of Gebel Musa, and to the right and to the top of Ras es-Safsaf, another possible site of the historical Mount Sinai. Taking the left trail, we ascended again around the great granite cliffs, coming at last to the summit, 7,497 feet above sea level, or about 2,000 feet above the monastery. The last of the group reached the top at about 9:30. The moderately cool breeze that met us was refreshing, also the water so graciously provided by our host, a monastery monk who greeted us at the little chapel.
The view from this lofty peak was magnificent, with the rugged mountain peaks and canyons all about us and narrow, winding valleys far beneath. However, we were quick to conclude that the area visible from this point would certainly not have made possible the encampment of the tribes of Israel. Could this be the true site of Mount Sinai? Or would Ras esSafsaf prove to be more probable?
While on the summit we enjoyed a rich spiritual experience as Elder Wilson led us in a devotional service followed by prayers offered by nine persons in seven different languages. Thus was symbolized our united dedication to our great task.
At about 11:00 o'clock some began the descent to the monastery, food, water, and rest, while others of us turned our feet toward Ras esSafsaf, which could be seen beyond an intervening canyon and mountain. It was reached by retracing our steps to the meadow and then following a less obvious course through inclines, over ridges, and finally up a steep and even dangerous granite cliff.
At the summit an amazing and convincing view met our eyes. There it was—the great desert plain on which the children of Israel must have camped in the long ago! It seemed to stretch out before the foot of the mount for some five or six miles.
At vespers the previous evening Elder Wilson had read Mrs. White's account of Israel's approach to the plain of Sinai:
Often as they had traversed the sandy wastes, they had seen before them rugged mountains, like huge bulwarks, piled up directly across their course, and seeming to forbid all further progress. But as they approached, openings here and there appeared in the mountain wall, and beyond, another plain opened to view. Through one of these deep, gravelly passes they were now led. It was a grand and impressive scene. Between the rocky cliffs rising hundreds of feet on either side, flowed a living tide, far as the eye could reach, the hosts of Israel with their flocks and herds. And now before them in solemn majesty Mount Sinai lifted its massive front. The cloudy pillar rested upon its summit, and the people spread their tents upon the plain beneath.4
Now looking out to the mountains at the far end of the plain, I knew that if among those mountains could be found a pass similar to that described in these words, then the likelihood of this being the true Mount Sinai would be even more firmly established. It was now about 1:00 o'clock. By 2:45 I was back at the monastery, and thirty minutes later, after food and drink,
I was on the trail seeking for the evidence.
One mile, and I had passed the foot of Ras es-Safsaf near where we had entered the valley on the previous day. Now leaving the mount behind, I walked directly across the hot desert plain. As I looked back three prominences appeared above the level of the valley. However, soon the two to the right were hid from view by other mountains, leaving Ras es-Safsaf standing alone as a very impressive peak.
The last mile or so took me into more rugged terrain, and for a short time the top of the mountain was lost from view, but then it reappeared as impressive as ever. Now the mountains to both my right and left converged upon me with another formidable mountain ridge directly ahead. It looked as though I had come to a dead end. But then the way opened up to my left. It was one of those "deep, gravelly passes." "It was a grand and impressive scene." Here the cliffs rose "hundreds of feet on either side." The pass, which was less than one hundred feet wide, skirted the far end of the mountain range that had converged upon me from the left and the foot of the range that stood directly ahead. Going into the narrow defile, I followed for a few hundred feet the course that I was now convinced the multitudes of Israel had followed.
Retracing my footsteps, I emerged from the pass. Away in the distance "in solemn majesty Mount Sinai lifted its massive front." I was sure that in the plain before it "the people spread their tents." Returning past the foot of the mount, I noticed how easily a fence might have been built to keep back the people.
It was 7:15 when I returned to the monastery. The Lord had sustained me with more than normal strength, for which I will ever be thankful. At 5:00 the next morning a very tired but grateful group started back through the great desert. At 7:45 that evening we were again at our hotel in Cairo, about 260 miles distant by the route we had traveled. We were tired and weary. Very tired! Very weary! It had been a hot day. But then—it had been hot for Israel. too! They also had become tired and weary! Surely a journey to Mount Sinai helps us to understand more readily the trials of ancient Israel. May we learn the many precious lessons that God designs to teach us through the experiences that came to them.