A Bedouin girl and her noisy flock of sheep living in the remains of a Turkish police compound, an old man enjoying the shade of a lonely acacia tree and Egyptian truckers sitting on blankets in the middle of the empty highway, listening intently to the Arabic news service of Radio Monte Carlo.
A visitor to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula is likely to meet all these types and more on the way to St. Catherine's Monastery, the Sinai's chief archaeological site and one of the most spiritually intense places in the world.
Here, at the foot of the 2,285-meter Mount Sinai, or Jabal Musa as it is known in Arabic, is where monks built the fortress-like monastery nearly 1,500 years ago. Christians and Muslims hold that this is the same mountain where Moses received the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, though Jews do not consider it a holy site, since nowhere here in the Bible is the exact location of the event described.
Because of its isolation and location in such a dry climate, the monastery's artifacts are unusually well preserved: icons from the Byzantine era; rare manuscripts in Persian, Greek and Latin; and a collection of handwriten Christian books rivaled only by the British Museum in London.
A few tourists can usually be found trying to engage the pious monks in convesation, or crowding around the monastery's two main attractions: the Burning Bush and the Skull Room. The chapel built around this bush is dedicated to the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, and according to a guidebook prepared by the monks themselves, "It is the only bush of its kind growing in the entire Sinai Peninsula, and every attempt to transplant a branch of it to another place has been unsuccessful." The Skull Room, where photography is forbidden, is a macabre collection of the skulls of hundreds of monks who have inhatited the monastery throughout the senturies - a not-so-subtle reminder that no one is immortal.
St.Catherine's Monastery also boasts a library, second in importance only to the Vatican in the number and value of Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic and Georgian manuscripts it contains.
On the way from the monastery to the Red Sea port of Sharm-el-Sheikh is the famed Rock of Inscriptions - a limestone rock in the middle of the dry riverbed of Ein Hudra - so named because it contains important writings in Greek and Hebrew. The huge rock lies along a 2,000-year-old caravan route first crossed by Nabatean warriors from the Nile River to the Biblical Etzion-geber and east to Saudi Arabia and Persia.