History

The Sinai Peninsula is located between two continents connecting Egypt to Palestine. Since the time of the earliest civilizations, this piece of land has always held strategic importance. It has seen armies on conquest, miners searching riches, merchants trading wares, pilgrims on holy journeys. The Pharaohs, Mesopotamian Empires, Persians, Greeks, Romans, all had a stake in Sinai, and often went to war along its northern coast. In more recent history Sinai was occupied and governed, to varying degrees, by the Mamluks, Ottomans, French and English, Israelis until Sinai was secured as part of modern Egypt in 1981 following the Camp David Peace Accords.

Archeological evidence of human influence on the peninsula dates back 30,000 years. Sinai's first inhabitants were hunters and gatherers living close to water sources, found in much more abundance then. Sites such as Abu Madi uncovered arrow heads, grinding stones and other items attesting to trade networks along the coast. Herding and Farming appeared here 7,000 years ago and early settlers left their mark in the area through well preserved Nawamis, round ceremonial tombs, and Elatian inscriptions. The Timmians appeared in the Early Bronze age. They were skilled smelters, and were the first to mine the rich turquoise and copper deposits in the area. This mineral wealth is what led the Pharaohs to maintain outposts in Sinai. Even though they considered it as an inhospitable wilderness and never fully controlled the area, they left their mark through various temples, some of which are still standing at sites like Sarabit el Khadim. Around 30 BC the Romans conquered and ruled the area, but did not settle here since they were especially interested in the strategic northern route Sinai afforded into Asia

Byzantine rule followed around 320 AD and had a lasting impact on South Sinai. Over their 300 years of control, early Christian monasticism flourished and many Byzantine settlements were established. Holy places, such as St. Catherine's monastery encompassing the burning bush at the foot of Mount Sinai made for an extra stop along traditional pilgrimage routes. Remains of this era - hermit caves, praying cells, churches, monasteries and clusters of stone houses in excellent condition - abound. To protect the monastery and surrounding settlements from the onslaught of nomadic tribes, Emperor Justinian commissioned fortifications and sent 100 families from Alexandria and another 100 families from the Balkan region in Europe to protect and serve the monastery. The Jebeliya, the tribe living in St. Catherine's today, are a remnant of these families. Over the centuries they have intermarried with other Arab tribes, but still find pride in their Romanian, Greek or Macedonian descent.

With the Islamic conquest in 640 AD the Byzantine age in Egypt came to an end, but its main jewel, St. Catherine's monastery remained in operation, as it has uninterruptedly up until today. The prophet Muhammad is believed to have made a few visits to the site himself, which helped save the settlement from destruction on more than one occasion. Today, St. Catherine monks can claim to live in the world's longest surviving monastery. After the Arab conquest many nomadic tribes remained in the area. Gradually, and up until as late as 200 years ago, new nomadic groups arrived from the Arab peninsula. These people are the ancestors of today's Bedouin tribes, and with the exception of the Jebeliya, can trace their roots back to a distant Arab forefather.

In more recent history, the Mamluks, Ottomans, French, English and Israelis have had control over Sinai, but again had little impact on the desert surroundings. Hilmi Abbas Pasha, viceroy of Egypt under the Ottomans, left one of the more significant marks in the area by building the Abu Jeefa pass, a foot and camel path aimed at facilitating the construction of a palace on the mountain Jebel Tinya, eventually renamed Jebel Abbas Pasha after himself. Since Israeli forces left the peninsula in 1981, Sinai is now fast becoming a part of mainstream Egypt.