(an excerpt from Egeria’s Travels to the Holy Land, pages 91–95)

We were walking along between the mountains, and came to a spot where they opened out to form an endless valley—a huge plain, and very beautiful—across which we could see Sinai, the holy Mount of God. Next to the spot where the mountains open out is the place of the “Graves of Craving.”c When we arrived there our guides, the holy men who were with us, said, “It is usual for the people who come here to say a prayer when first they catch sight of the Mount of God,” and we did as they suggested. The Mount of God is perhaps four milesd away from where we were, right across the huge valley I have mentioned.

The valley lies under the flank of the Mount of God, and it really is huge. From looking at it we guessed—and they told us—that it was maybe sixteen miles long and, they said, four miles wide, and we had to pass through this valley before we reached the mountain. This is the huge flat valley in which the children of Israel were waiting while holy Moses went up into the Mount of God and was there “forty days and forty nights.” It is the valley where the [golden] calf was made, and the place is pointed out to this day, for a large stone stands there on the spot. Thus it was at the head of this very valley that holy Moses pastured the cattle of his father-in-law and God spoke to him twice from the burning bush. From here we were looking at the Mount of God; our way first took us up it, since the best ascent is from the direction by which we were approaching, and then we would descend again to the head of the valley (where the Bush was), since that is the better way down.

So this was our plan. When we had seen everything we wanted and come down from the Mount of God, we would come to the place of the Bush. Then from there we would return through the middle of the valley now ahead of us and so return to the road with the men of God, who would show us each one of the places mentioned in the Bible. And that is what we did.

So, coming in from Paran, we said the prayer. Then, going on, we made our way across the head of the valley and approached the Mount of God. It looks like a single mountain as you are going round it, but when you actually go into it there are really several peaks, all of them known as “the Mount of God,” and the principal one, the summit on which the Bible tells us that “God’s glory came down,” is in the middle of them. I never thought I had seen mountains as high as those which stood around it, but the one in the middle where God’s glory came down was the highest of all, so much so that, when we were on top, all the other peaks we had seen and thought so high looked like little hillocks far below us. Another remarkable thing—it must have been planned by God—is that even though the central mountain, Sinai proper on which God’s glory came down, is higher than all the others, you cannot see it until you arrive at the very foot of it to begin your ascent. After you have seen everything and come down, it can be seen facing you, but this cannot be done till you start your climb …

Late on Saturday, we arrived at the mountain and came to some cells. The monks who lived in them received us most hospitably, showing us every kindness. There is a church there with a presbyter; that is where we spent the night, and, pretty early on Sunday, we set off with the presbyter and monks who lived there to climb each of the mountains.

They are hard to climb. You do not go round and round them, spiralling up gently, but straight at each one as if you were going up a wall, and then straight down to the foot, till you reach the foot of the central mountain, Sinai itself. Here then, impelled by Christ our God and assisted by the prayers of the holy men who accompanied us, we made the great effort of the climb. It was quite impossible to ride up, but though I had to go on foot I was not conscious of the effort—in fact I hardly noticed it because, by God’s will, I was seeing my hopes coming true.

So at ten o’clock we arrived on the summit of Sinai, the Mount of God where the Law was given, and the place where God’s glory came down on the day when the mountain was smoking. The church which is now there is not impressive for its size (there is too little room on the summit), but it has a grace all its own. And when with God’s help we had climbed right to the top and reached the door of this church, there was the presbyter, the one who is appointed to the church, coming to meet us from his cell. He was a healthy old man, a monk from his boyhood and an “ascetic” as they call it here—in fact just the man for the place. Several other presbyters met us too, and all the monks who lived near the mountain, or at least all who were not prevented from coming by their age or their health.

All there is on the actual summit of the central mountain is the church and the cave of holy Moses.e No one lives there. So when the whole passage had been read to us from the Book of Moses (on the very spot!) we made the Offering in the usual way and received Communion. As we were coming out of the church the presbyters of the place gave us “blessings,” some fruits which grow on the mountain itself. For although Sinai, the holy Mount, is too stony even for bushes to grow on it, there is a little soil round the foot of the mountains, the central one and those around it, and in this the holy monks are always busy planting shrubs, and setting out orchards or vegetable-beds round their cells. It may look as if they gather fruit which is growing in the mountain soil, but in fact everything is the result of their own hard work.

Now we were outside the church door, and at once I asked them if they would point our to us all the different places. The holy men willingly agreed. They showed us the cave where holy Moses was when for the second time he went up into the Mount of God and a second time received the tables of stone after breaking the first ones when the people sinned. They showed us all the other places we wanted to see, and also the ones they knew about themselves. I want you to be quite clear about these mountains, reverend ladies my sisters, which surrounded us as we stood beside the church looking down from the summit of the mountain in the middle. They had been almost too much for us to climb, and I really do not think I have ever seen any that were higher (apart from the central one which is higher still) even though they only looked like little hillocks to us as we stood on the central mountain. From there we were able to see Egypt and Palestine, the Red Sea and the Parthenian Seaf (the part that takes you to Alexandria), as well as the vast lands of the Saracens—all unbelievably far below us. All this was pointed out to us by the holy men.