The Sinai peninsula has been the gateway between Africa and Asia since time immemorial, and a battleground for millennia. Prized for its strategic position and mineral wealth, Sinai is also revered by disparate cultures as the site of God’s revelation to Moses, the wanderings of Exodus and the flight of the Holy Family. As Burton Bernstein wrote, “It has been touched, in one way or another, by most of Western and Near Eastern history, both actual and mythic,” being the supposed route by which the Israelites reached the Promised Land and Islam entered North Africa, then a theatre for Crusader–Muslim and Arab–Israeli conflicts, and finally transformed into an internationally monitored demilitarized zone.
Though mostly wilderness, Sinai is both dramatic and beautiful. The interior of southern Sinai is an arid moonscape of jagged ranges harbouring Mount Sinai and St Catherine’s Monastery – pilgrims climb from the site of the Burning Bush to the summit where God delivered the Ten Commandments. Further north, the vast Wilderness of the Wanderings resembles a Jackson Pollock canvas streaked with colour. The Sinai is also home to a remarkably high number of plants and wildlife; over sixty percent of Egypt’s plant life thrives in this area, and 33 species are unique to it, including the world’s smallest butterfly, the Sinai Baton Blue. Hyenas, ibex and the rabbit-like hyrax also inhabit the region. Venture into this “desert” on a jeep or camel safari and you will also find remote springs and lush oases, providing insights into Bedouin culture.
Above all, the south has the lure of exquisite coral reefs and tropical fish in the Gulf of Aqaba, one of the finest diving and snorkelling grounds in the world. The beach resorts at Sharm el-Sheikh (which includes Na’ama Bay), Dahab and Nuweiba cater to every taste and budget. From Sharm el-Sheikh you can make expeditions to Egypt’s deepest reefs and most diverse aquatic life at Ras Mohammed, a mini-peninsula at the southern tip of Sinai, and the Tiran Strait, scattered with the wrecks of ships that have floundered on the reefs of this narrow passageway connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. Northwest of here, the Gulf of Suez pales by comparison with its eastern counterpart, with no reefs and few sites to interest the general visitor – although it’s great for windsurfers and kiteboarders.
The differences between Sinai and mainland Egypt can induce culture shock. For those accustomed to the rest of the country, Sinai will seem amazingly uncrowded, laidback and hassle-free – especially for women. Even the customary salutation is different: “kif halak?” (“How is your health/situation?”) instead of “izzayak?”.
Fifty million years ago the Arabian Plate began shearing away from the African landmass, tearing the Sinai peninsula from the mainland while the Red Sea inundated the gap. Bronze Age Semites from Mesopotamia were the first to exploit Sinai’s lodes of copper ore and turquoise, foreshadowing the peninsula’s colonization by the III Dynasty pharaohs, who enslaved its Semitic population. Pharaonic rule continued until the invasion of the Hyksos “Shepherd Kings”, whose occupation of northern Egypt lasted well over a century, till Ahmosis I finally destroyed their last bastion in Gaza. This was subsequently the route by which Tuthmosis III and Ramses II invaded Palestine and Syria.
Enshrined in the Old Testament and by centuries of tradition, the Exodus of the Israelites is a historical conundrum, as no archeological evidence of their journey through Sinai has been found – though excavations at Avaris in the Delta suggest this was the “City of Bondage” from which they fled. Though this is generally agreed to have happened c.1447 BC, scholarly opinion is divided as to the identity of “pharaoh”, with most fingering Tuthmosis III or another ruler of the XVIII Dynasty, while David Rohl argues that it was actually the XIII Dynasty king Dudimose (according to his New Chronology).
Scholars have compared Biblical descriptions with physical features and tried to reconcile myths with realities. The “Red Sea” is a mistranslation of the Hebrew yam-suf, or Sea of Reeds, which fits the salt lakes and marshes to the north of Suez, known today as the Bitter Lakes. From there, the Israelites proceeded to Ain Musa and followed Wadi Feiran inland towards Mount Sinai, although an alternative theory has them trekking across northern Sinai and receiving the Ten Commandments at Jebel Halal. Either way, the subsequent forty years in the wilderness are only explicable in terms of a lengthy stay at “Kadesh Barnea”, identified as the oasis of Ain Kedirat, where there are extensive ruins.
Christianity and Islam
Over the next millennium or so, Sinai was invaded by Assyrians, Hittites and Babylonians, recaptured by Egypt, and conquered in turn by the Persians, Greeks and Romans. Whether or not the Holy Family had previously crossed Sinai to escape Herod’s massacre, the region had begun to attract hermits even before Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. In 639–40 the Arabs swept into Sinai, fired with the zeal of Islam. Northern Sinai eventually became a pawn in the Crusades, the area between Aqaba and Rafah belonging to the Frankish Kingdom until its collapse at Acre. After the Crusades, the victorious Mamlukes reopened Sinai’s trade routes but the peninsula remained Egypt’s Achilles heel, as the Ottoman Turks and Mohammed Ali demonstrated with their conquests of 1517 and 1831.
Sinai’s strategic importance increased with the completion of the Suez Canal, and in 1892 Britain compelled Turkey to cede it as a buffer zone. Backed by Germany, the Turks retook it in 1914. Anglo-Egyptian forces only dislodged them after a prolonged campaign.
During World War II Sinai saw little fighting, but the creation of Israel brought it back into the front line. In 1948 the Israelis repulsed Arab attacks from all sides and took the Gaza Strip and El-Arish before an armistice was signed, only withdrawing under British pressure. Nasser brought together British and Israeli interests by closing the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping and nationalizing the Suez Canal. Israel’s advance into Sinai in October 1956 was the agreed pretext for Anglo-French intervention in the Suez Crisis; the three states, though militarily successful, were compelled to quit by international opposition, and UN peacekeeping forces established a buffer zone in Gaza and guaranteed free passage through the Gulf of Aqaba.
However, when Egypt ordered the UN to leave and resumed its blockade in 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike and captured the entire peninsula, which it retained after the Six Day War. In the October War of 1973, Egypt broke into Sinai but then suffered a devastating counterattack across the Suez Canal.
The Camp David Accords and after
US-sponsored peace negotiations culminated in President Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem, the Camp David Accords and a peace treaty signed in 1979. Under its terms Israel evacuated all settlements founded during the occupation of Sinai and the territory reverted to Egypt. The phased transition was completed in 1982, except for the disputed enclave of Taba, finally resolved in 1989. The Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) based at Na’ama Bay monitors Sinai’s demilitarized zones.
Tourism, introduced to Sinai by the Israelis, initially suffered from the handover, as the Camp David Accords forbade any development for five years. Since 1988, however, its recovery has shifted into overdrive. While the areas of Ras Mohammed, Abu Galum and Nabeq are protected as nature reserves, the entire coastline north of Nuweiba, and from Sharm el-Sheikh to Nabeq, is highly developed, with new resorts springing up all the time and innumerable charter flights from Europe into Sharm el-Sheikh airport.
The mercurial nature of Middle Eastern politics, however, means tourism along the Sinai coast is a fickle business. Unrest in the West Bank and Gaza has greatly slowed tourist traffic from Israel, while the 2004 terrorist attacks in Taba, with more attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh and Dahab in 2005 and 2006 respectively, have worsened the situation further. While tourists have flocked back to Sharm el-Sheikh and Dahab, the coast around Nuweiba and Taba is very quiet. The global recession and the unrest caused by the ongoing Egyptian revolution are unlikely to improve matters.