Reaching a Spiritual Peak

After ascending Mount Sinai at daybreak with a group of pilgrims, atheist Nina Burleigh tunes into a different kind of faith

by Nina Burleigh
hiking illustration
Photograph: Brian Stauffer

I am standing at the base of Mount Sinai, an atheist among pilgrims, about to climb 7,000 feet to the place where God is said to have met Moses and handed down the Ten Commandments. Camel heads and Bedouin boys appear and disappear around me, floating in the darkness like fish. The stars are so numerous, they form a chain of lighted gas that links the jagged peaks far above the bowl of sand in which we are standing. Coyote howls commingle with the call of a muezzin in a far-off mosque.

I’m with a television personality and crew, retracing the biblical exodus for an American TV special. Having spent the past month interviewing scholars, I am aware that geographers and historians have never even agreed that this particular peak is the biblical Mount Sinai.

It is June 2012. Post revolutionary Egyptian politics are on fire, and our journey across the miles from Luxor was an obstacle course of searing, flyspecked checkpoints. At dusk we finally arrived at the base of the mountain, where the ancient compound of St. Catherine’s Monastery is located. A tall monk with a chest-length gray beard led us through echoing stone alleys and a series of hobbit-size locked doors to the burning bush, a shrub that is said to be the very same bush that alerted Moses to God’s presence lo these many millennia ago.

I think about the improbability of a 3,000-year-old bush as I begin to climb—and climb, and climb—in the dark. Eventually, though, all I can think about are my legs. I consider myself athletic, but after four hours, I am not feeling at all fit. The final half hour of the climb is a steep expanse, broken into steps carved by ancient hands.

I am the end product of a line of skeptics. My paternal great-great-grandfather left Ireland in the 1800s, and that branch of the family never looked back at religion. My maternal grandmother was persecuted for her Christianity in a part of the Ottoman Empire that was being ethnically cleansed; she buried a baby brother on a refugee trek. When my own mother came to America from Iraq, she too left religion behind. In rural Michigan, in fourth grade, I was pulling Freud’s Totem and Taboo off my parents’ shelves, where there was nary a Bible to be found.

As I reach the pinnacle, the black sky is purpling in the east, and I hear song, prayer and laughter. A Russian woman faces the sunrise holding a small red Bible in her hand. Muslims retreat into their aerie of a mosque, and at the tiny stone church next door, Christian Indonesians pose for pictures.

My muscular but aging legs are shaking—a sign of my own mortality that I have never experienced before. I heave my body onto a slab of rock and, quaking like a leaf on top of that storied mountain, I think I might finally understand something about the newly energized religious believers in my generation. No, I am not going to join them. But I realize that for me, what makes this place so profoundly spiritual is not the actual presence of God, nor the glorious spectacle of daybreak from on high, but the enduring chain of human belief itself, transferred down the generations, among people once just like us, returned to dust.   

NINA BURLEIGH is an investigative journalist. Her most recent book is The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Italian Trials of Amanda Knox.

Next: Age of Enlightenment: Putting My Fears on Ice

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First Published Wed, 2013-10-30 12:14

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