These are two similar but contrasting books. Both deal with areas closely connected to Biblical history but long under the control of Muslims and now inhabited by Arabs. Both deal with geographical spots of note: Ruby tells about the lowest town on earth, Hobbs deals with one of the highest peaks in the Middle East. Both are steeped in history, with Jericho probably the place longest inhabited by humans, and Mt. Sinai a peak with particularly rich history for Christians and Jews. Both authors bring the spectacular sites to life, review their long histories, and give a vivid sense of their contemporary circumstances.
The most striking contrast between the books has to do with their authors. Ruby is a journalist (for The Baltimore Sun), Hobbs an associate professor of geography (at the University of Missouri). This difference profoundly affects the two studies. Ruby brings to his subject the breezy style of the journalist, telling here about arriving first in Jericho with a bouncy five-year-old girl on his lap, and interspersing his narrative with information about the Palestine Exploration Fund's ups and downs in the late nineteenth century. Hobbs applies the discipline of the scholar, proceeding methodically with chapters devoted to such topics as geography, history, the Monastery of Saint Katherine, and tourism. Oddly, while Ruby's personal and impressionistic approach should make the story easier to digest than the straight-laced academic account, it actually does not. This may have to do with the greater difficulty in painting than in photography: not every journalist on the road can pull off a V. S. Naipaul. This reader finds Hobbs's academic account both more informative and far more satisfying to read.
There's another surprising contrast: whereas the journalist lives primarily in his subject's past, the geographer takes an intense interest in the future of his site. Indeed, Mount Sinai's message is that untrammeled tourism is wrecking not just the ancient monastery but even the splendor of Mt. Sinai itself: "The stench of human waste [at the peak] is overwhelming. No one is willing to do anything about the excrement problem." Hobbs's plea is so compelling, even a reader enticed by the Sinai's rugged beauty will feel yet more inspired to stay home and not to add to the madding crowds.