The Suez Canal & Mount Sinai — Wars, Religion & The Red Sea

And here I was just a scant few miles from the Suez Canal. As that globe-fingering kid I always wondered about Canals. The Panama and the Suez. It was nearly three years ago when I rode this same motorcycle over the Panama Canal. Now today I’ll ride under the Suez. I didn’t even know there was a tunnel under this fascinating feat of human engineering. The Canal as we know it today, more or less, opened in 1869. The idea of linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean is centuries old. Historians, archeologists and even Napoleon believed there was an ancient Canal that connected the Red Sea with the River Nile and therefore creating a link between the Red and Mediterranean Seas. Some say the great Ramses who’s temples near the Sudan border were erected to intimidate the Nubians so many years ago, possibly honchoed the construction of such an ancient Suez Canal.

Egyptian President Nasser in May 1967 booted the UN peacekeeping forces out of the Sinai Peninsula, including the region around the Suez Canal. Israel through a fit but couldn’t convince the UN to act otherwise so the peacekeepers were withdrawn and the Egyptian army took over and ended up on the Israeli border. They closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, though the canal itself had been closed to Israel since 1949.

It was this that forced Israel to launch a preemptive attack on Egypt in June of that year, which ultimately led to the capture of both the Sinai Peninsula and the Suez Canal.

After the Six Day 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the canal was closed by an Egyptian blockade until early June 1975. As a result, fourteen cargo ships (the Yellow Fleet) remained trapped in the canal for more than eight years. In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, it was over this canal that the Egyptian army marched into Israeli-occupied Sinai and ultimately took back the land they lost some six years earlier.

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Egypt celebrates its 1973 victory in Sinai.

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Getting ready to go under the Suez Canal and to the Sinai Peninsula.

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It’s barren and home to thousands of nomadic Beduins.

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The Red Sea glistens and calls.

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Watch for military practicing maneuvers.

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The canal? It’s complicated. Syria convinced the USSR to veto a UN Security Council Mandate that would allow the UN to regain monitoring authority and maintain peace in the area. So an alternative multinational coalition was formed called the Multinational Force and Observers – MFO. The MFO’ s peacekeeping force supervises implementation of the security provisions of a Peace Treaty between the Governments of Egypt and Israel in the Sinai Desert and the Strait of Tiran and Gulf of Aqaba.

But as I rode by the memorial celebrating Egypt’s Sinai win, I couldn’t help think that this blotch of desert and the intersection of crucial waterways to Europe and the Middle East has long been a battleground of ideas, religion, trade, oil and freedom for nearly as long as man has walked this planet.

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I made my way under the canal and then south along the Red Sea toward Mount Sinai where, according to the Old Testa

ment Moses led the Hebrew escape from Egypt by parting this Red Sea and then as the Egyptian Army crossed allowed the water to fall thereby drowning them. He then rose to the top of Mount Sinai where God inscribed the Ten Commandments.

Glistening and the deepest navy blue with tinges of aqua toward the land’s edge, the Red Sea was calm and calling me seductively. The land to the east was dry, harsh and seemingly in hospitable. Resorts and homes are peppered on the shoreline but at this time of year the places seemed lifeless, like the desert that surrounds. I motored on passing through the ubiquitous Egypt police checkpoints until I came to the base of Mount Sinai and to St. Catherine’s Monastery and the 6th Century Church built on the site of The Burning Bush.

As I rode through the slick pavement and the arid and desolate landscape, I was startled when ahead of me I saw a dozen or more men in camoflage fatigues cross the roads carrying weapons, and high on a ridge above the canyon men on trucks with what looked like heavy artillery guns. Then as I dipped into the left decreasing radius turn, several more men in fatigues wearing berets waved me through as I jerked the bike as I braked wondering what’s going on. I assumed, hoped and since I was on Sinai, prayed that it was just the Egyptian army practicing its military maneuvers on this fine day.

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The bike parked before the walkway up to St. Catherine’s Monastery.

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Local police ensure that Doc is well taken care of as I trace Moses’ steps.

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Monk walking outside the massive walls of the Monastery.

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Back door entrance into The Monastery of St. Catherine. I arrived to late to get into the Monastery — it’s only open three hours a few days of week to visitors. I followed a monk to a through this door and while I was invited, felt like I was intruding. Note lower portion of the painting and that’s the Monastery. , Built by order of the Roman Emperor Justinian sometime between 527 and 565 AD, it is the oldest existing Christian Monastery and belongs today to the Greek Orthodox Church. Named after martyr Saint Katherine from the 3rd Century AD. It was built to protect and provide sanctuary for the monks and hermits living in this area.

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Ages old olive trees flank the gardens of St. Catherine’s at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

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No matter what they tell you. The riding a camel is uncomfortable – for men and for women – ouch. So I gave up after about 20 minutes and walked.

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Today you can use your cell phone on Mount Sinai, maybe even Google the Decalogue if you’ve forgotten them.

As the guards at the church parking lot directed me to safe and secure parking I had to wonder. If my bike weren’t safe at perhaps one of the holiest places on the planet, would it not be safe anywhere? The bike has been safe and never have I lost a thing — other than from my own fault of absent-mindedness — never to the evil hand of a petty thief. But I followed suit and proceeded up the Mountain, using a camel for part of my ascent. For this route is the ultimate pilgrimage for both Christian and Jews and certainly Muslims don’t deny Moses as a prophet, so this site is important for the three greatest monotheistic religions of the world. And yet I still wonder and wish, using the simple words of Rodney King, why we all can’t get along.

My holy land exploration begins to take form as I venture deeper into the Middle East.

The bike is running well, though the chain and sprocket are on their last legs. I only hope that they will hold up until I get to Turkey and Istanbul. We shall see.

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