HYDERABAD: After an overdose of “after life” in Cairo and Alexandria, my third stop in Egypt offered the best of luxuries in the “present life” at Sharm el- Sheikh - the most popular resort in South Sinai and a perfect base from which to explore the region’s stunning coastline and rugged interior.
The Red Sea Coast
The Red Sea, dotted with coral reefs, has a rich maritime history which stretches back to the times of the Pharoahs.
Snorkelling in the Red Sea was my most rewarding experience in Egypt. I found the prettiest colours one can ever imagine and some of the most amazing creatures from the underwater!! I stayed long, watching and wondering. I was part of that big, beautiful world, though only as an envious onlooker. In between, periodically, hundreds of jellyfish all around me made a beautiful picture, but some came too close for comfort. Though Ahmad (my life guard) said they don’t bite, still I was scared. But he had to leave after a huge bite on his shoulder. Lesson: never take anyone for granted... especially the deceptive, beautiful jellyfish!
Those who can’t swim or snorkel can simply sit and dangle their feet in one of the many jetties built to protect the coral from human feet. There are over 250 coral reefs here and the estimate of fish species is well over 1000. For the more experienced diver, there is world-class snorkelling and scuba at the underwater national parks and fascinating wreck and natural sites.
This newest and biggest Coptic Church was voted one of the world’s 10 most beautiful churches in 2010. Built in just two years, it features impressive frescos and religious murals of Biblical scenes. I sat in silence for long, admiring the stunning stained glass windows and paintings, when a local lady sitting next to me showed much interest in knowing about India, especially Hindi film stars. We communicated in broken English, Arabic and of course, gestures. While parting she hugged me and said, “ I love India!!”
Al Mustafa Mosque
Its unique style and striking architecture glowed with subdued lighting and looked stunning in the night. With a gorgeous marble facade, an impressive dome and several towering minarets, the feeling was that of an overwhelming peace.
The Old Market
The Old Town, popularly known as the Old Market is a culturally rich and bustling place, full of colour, sounds and scents. Extremely popular with locals, this is a great place to go shopping and soak in the atmosphere. The souks are filled clothes, jewellery, herbs, spices, brass lamps and sportive shopkeepers - I had lots of fun haggling and buying interesting souvenirs.
Mount Sinai and St Catherine Monastery
About three hour drive from Sharm el Sheik, these two attractions, and their surrounding majestic mountains, sum up the magic and diversity of the Sinai region. The traditional Mount Sinai is actually the name of a collection of peaks, sometimes called the Holy Mountains. At its southern end is Mount Musa (the Mountain of Moses), traditionally believed to be the place where Moses communicated with God and received the Ten Commandments: one can reach by climbing a steep stairway (3,750 steps known as the ‘Steps of Penitence’, cut out of rock by the monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery) or by a longer route, either on foot or camel. People normally climb during night, and watch the glorious sunrise from the summit.
The still working monastery (built in 6 th century by order of the Roman Emperor Justinian), the Greek Orthodox Chapel, with the Gregorian chants in the background, transported me to a different and one of my favourite worlds...that of “realising the divine through aural worship or chants”.
Isolated and protected by the surrounding majestic mountains, the monastery of St. Catherine is built around the site believed to be the place where Moses saw the Burning Bush in the famous Biblical passage. The monastery is essentially a fortress; its huge granite walls built to protect the monks and the treasures in more dangerous times.
The works of art contained within the monastery are amazing and priceless. They include Arab mosaics, Greek and Russian icons, European oil paintings, religious artefacts, illuminated manuscripts, etc.
St Catherine’s Monastery also encompasses the Well of Moses, where Moses is said to have met his future wife, Zipporah. A few feet away from the Chapel is the reputed bush itself, a rare species of the rose family called Rubus Sanctus. I saw some people writing their wishes and tucking the chits of paper into the crevices of huge stones. I wrote my long list of wishes on a small paper, and buried it deep into a crevice. Will someday return, when my wishes are fulfilled…