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The Sinai Peninsula of Ancient Egypt

The Convent of Sinai by Francis Frith Circa 1858
The Convent of Sinai by Francis Frith Circa 1858

Excerpts and Definitions and Addendums:

(6) Sinai Peninsula in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible (2011) -- Article by Gregory Mumford PDF

Overview: The nature of the north Sinai however belies its importance in antiquity and its use as a transit corridor. For here we are not only on the route between the two local regions of Egypt and the Levant but more especially on the land bridge between the two largest continents: Asia and Africa. From remote prehistory migrants, caravans, armies, pilgrims, and fugitives have crossed this threshold in both directions bearing goods, religion and culture. Funneled into its narrow passage things and ideas have flowed to and fro leaving unmistakable traces not only on the routes of transit but also on the peoples inhabiting the threshold itself (5).

Ancient Sinai (6000-600 BC)

The presence of man in Sinai dates back eight thousand years. Early Bronze Age settlers arrived in search of valuable metals. They developed the peninsula's copper and turquoise mines which later drew the attention of Egypt's earliest pharaohs. By 3000 BC Egypt had asserted its control over the region. For the next three millenia Sinai remained sparsely inhabited, serving primarily as a mining region and as a military route between Egypt and the great civilizations of the Fertile Crescent (1).

Biblical Sinai (Circa 1400 BC)

Even as great chariot armies clattered back and forth across its stony expanses, Sinai played host to a quieter but ultimately far more memorable set of events. Around 1400 BC Moses led the Israelites through its "great and terrible wilderness" on the epic journey recounted in Exodus. Three thousand years later the sites and the episodes of that journey continue to stand at the very core of the history of Sinai (ibid).

Classical Sinai (600 BC-600 AD)

As the power of the pharaohs waned and that of the Greeks and Romans waxed the Sinai was drawn into a new era. In the north the ancient Track of Horus became a fortified Roman road with its center at the great city of Pelusium (ibid).

The Ways of Horus was a high road secured by a network of fortresses and provided with water reservoirs as well as supply and custom stations that were established along the route between the Eastern Delta and South Palestine. It was a vital artery through which the military and commercial traffic between Egypt and Asia flowed (2).

And in the south Christian refugees (fleeing persecution in Egypt) began to build isolated settlements. By 500 AD the Roman Empire had split and Sinai fell into the Christian realm of Byzantium. In 565 AD the Byzantine emperor Justinian expressed his devotion by constructing the Monastery of Saint Catherine at the base of Mount Sinai (1).

Mount Horeb in Sinai by Francis Frith (1858)
Mount Horeb in Sinai by Francis Frith (1858)

(4) Egypt : Handbook for Travellers Part First : Lower Egypt with the Fayum and the
Peninsula of Sinai -- Edited by Karl Baedeker Pages 479-80 (1885) PDF 30.9 MB

History of the Peninsula: The history of this region is as old as that of Egypt itself for we find that the first Pharaoh, of whose reign we possess contemporaneous monuments bearing inscriptions (Snefru), signalised himself as the conqueror of these mountain tribes and the discoverer of the mines. The mines in the desolate Wadi Maghara (Page 491) and Sarbut el-Khadem (Page 522) were worked by Egyptians more than 5000 years ago; and copper, malachite and turquoises were brought thence to the treasury of Memphis. Down to the time of the invasion of Egypt by the Hyksos (Pages 88) we learn that the peninsula was dependent on the Pharaohs and was impoverished for their advantage. Whilst the latter, having been supplanted by the new masters of Egypt, maintained themselves in the Southern part of the valley of the Nile, it seems that the working of the mines was suspended and that the mountain tribes succeeded in shaking off the yoke of their oppressors. Immediately after the expulsion of the Hyksos these tribes were subjugated anew by the powerful monarchs of the 18th Dynasty who conquered all the states adjoining Egypt on the East. This is proved by the inscriptions of Sarbut el-Khadem extending down to the 20th Dynasty. The names of the springs, mountains and valleys resemble those of the Book of Exodus; and the Biblical traditions, which the Beduins attach to them, doubtless owe their origin to the Christians who settled at an early period in this wilderness. With regard to the battle with the Amalekites and Mount Sinai as the scene of the promulgation of the law see Page 481 et seq (and what follows). We may however remark here that the Israelites of a later period never made pilgrimages from Palestine to the sacred mount and that throughout the Mosaic writings Elijah (Page 511) alone is mentioned as a visitor to Mount Sinai. Down to the time of the first settlement of the early Christians we rarely have any mention of travellers in the peninsula; but they are mentioned on some Egyptian inscriptions on the occasion of the journeys to Ophir (1 Kings 9:26-28) and lastly in a few notices of the history of the Nabataeans, a people from the N.E. who took possession of the commercial route abandoned by the Phoenicians and from the famous rocky city of Petra [which] commanded the peninsula down to about the period of the birth of Christ. Numerous rocks in the districts we are about to visit bear inscriptions (Page 494) which owe their origin to the heathen Nabataeans. Down to the beginning of the Christian era the population probably led a similar life to that of the present day. Shepherds pastured their flocks here and merchants and pilgrims traversed the wadis in camels or ascended to the summit of the sacred Mount Serbal. The caravans of the merchants however were more richly freighted than at the present day while the natives, instead of praying to Allah and the Prophet, worshipped the brilliant stars in the cloudless sky of this almost rainless country. On the diffusion of Christianity the deserts of the peninsula were peopled by a new race and assumed a new appearance and a more important position.

Arabia Petraea (WikiPedia)

[The Roman Province] Arabia Petraea lay between the two lands which had embraced Christianity most ardently, namely Syria and Egypt, and soon became an asylum for the believers of these two countries who longed for pardon and redemption and who hoped by subjecting themselves to misery and privations in this world to attain salvation in the next. Their great exemplars were Moses and Elijah, both of whom had trodden the sacred soil of the peninsula and this region therefore appeared to them a most appropriate place of retirement from the business and pleasures of a wicked world. The first seeds of Christianity, which bore fruit in Trajan's reign, were perhaps sown here by St. Paul about AD 40. In AD 105 the peninsula was annexed to the Roman empire by Cornelius Palina, prefect of Syria (ibid).

Hazeroth (Huderah) in Sinai by Francis Frith Circa 1850 (Victoria and Albert Museum)
Hazeroth (Huderah) in Sinai by Francis Frith Circa 1850 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

HAZEROTH: Besides the interest of the physical peculiarities of this route is the faint probability that this beautiful valley and its neighbourhood may have been the scene of the first long halt after the departure from Sinai. After Taberah and Kibroth-Hattaavah the people abode for seven days at least in HAZEROTH (Numbers 11:35) [A and B].

(3) Researches in Sinai by William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1906) Pages 1-6 PDF 20.4 MB


The conditions of travelling and of working in Sinai are very different from those of life in a fertile country such as Egypt and are still further from the ways of any European land. In Egypt most long distances can be traversed on the railway and to go a few miles from a station means only an hour or two of donkey ride; whereas in Sinai the tedious camel is the only vehicle and you may well spend six days on a distance which would be crossed in two or three hours in a train. In Egypt there is always water of some quality near at hand and it only needs boiling before use; in Sinai the water sources are a day's journey apart and you may be glad to be within such a distance that a camel can go to the water and back in the day. The beginning is the worst of all, for on the road down is the serious bar of three days without water. In Egypt the rich fertility of the land provides an abundance everywhere; excellent birds, fish, good native bread, eggs, milk and vegetables are almost always to be had. But in Sinai grim nature gives you the stone and the serpent instead of the bread and the fish and the utmost that can be obtained from the desert valleys is an occasional tough sheep or goat.

And if the conditions are thus different, so also are the people. In Egypt the fellah is one of the pleasantest of good fellows where yet uncursed by the tourist: always obliging and friendly and being generally intelligent within the scope of his ideas he is capable of being trained to a high degree of care and skill; moreover his industry is amazing and can always be had by good treatment and pay. But the poor Bedawy of the desert is a very different man: he has been on short commons for untold generations and has parted with every ounce of his anatomy and every thought from his mind that was not essential in his hard struggle. The simplest reckoning puzzles him; he is incapable of foresight or of working for a given end and he is physically unfit for any continuous labour except that of slowly wandering on foot all day with his camel. A few more persevering men are found who drift to the turquoise mines and spend a few hours a day with many rests between in rude blasting and breaking up the rock. One or two important chiefs show more capacity; by far the strongest of these is Sheykh Mudakhel, who has developed a good character and power of business in his dealings at Tor. So different are these people from the Egyptians that our men from Upper Egypt consorted with us far more than with the Bedawyn; and indeed they had benefited by some years of training, so that they were much nearer to us mentally than they were to the men around. The natives were incessantly quarrelling over trying to get the better of one another, while a squabble was unknown among our Egyptians.

Without the Egyptians we could have done nothing in excavation, for it was only on their steady work and skill that we could rely. We wrote to our old friends at Quft in Upper Egypt, selecting about thirty of the strongest among them; and Mr. Currelly headed them across more than three hundred miles of the deserts and the Red Sea up to our camp in Sinai, as he will describe in due course.

Having a camp of thirty-four persons is a serious responsibility in the midst of such a wilderness. The ordinary traveller goes through with perhaps one or two men beside the Bedawyn and those men are generally his providers, who look after him, instead of his having to think about looking after their needs. Very few if any travellers have been through here without having everything arranged for them by a dragoman (interpreter and/or guide); and certainly no such party as thirty men staying for some months has ever been here since the old mining expeditions of the Egyptians, which came to an end three thousand years ago. To read most narratives of visitors to Sinai is only to hear of the inevitable fat Musa or Suleyman, who was so devoted yet so domineering; who cheated over the tents and doled out such versions of the way as he thought would interest the helpless employers who paid him. The negotiations in a grand hotel in Cairo, the days of delay while the retinue was being collected at Suez, the bargains and contracts with official sheykhs; all these form the threshold of most narratives. Here I shall state the steps of a very different way of proceeding, without any of those complications which are useless if you have a small knowledge of Arabic and give some outline of the management which is required when dealing with a large camp in such a life.

Our stores were a vital question and we carefully planned them and had them sent from England to Suez. Such details as may be useful regarding rations for natives and the food needful for good health, have been stated in the preface. The essential facts are that it is cheaper and better to have everything -- even flour -- out from England; and that by properly assorting the boxes and planning their storage until required, everything can be at hand without encumbering the movements of the party to a serious extent.

The dominant factor in every arrangement is the camel -- how much it can carry, how long it will take on the road and how its loads can be arranged. And the camel-driver is the next factor, as his tariff will determine what is worth while in transport and how to plan affairs; and his possibilities of peculation will settle how much you will receive of what he brings. Very few camel-men can resist taking toll from food in sacks -- sometimes a large proportion worth nearly as much as their wages; so it is needful to secure all stores in nailed-up boxes, which they have not the tools or the wits to tamper with.

On December 2nd our party assembled at Suez and preliminary business was settled. At Cairo I had picked up two of my old workmen, one of whom, Erfay, walked with us all the way to Sinai, while the other went down with the store boat. The first lesson to learn was that camels can only be secured through a head man of some sort; the individual camel-man will not (as in Egypt) make agreements with strangers but only works for superiors of his own kin. Had we but known that Abu Ghaneym, the sheykh of Wady Maghareh, was in Suez at the time, we should have done far better to settle affairs with him at once. But all that I could reach from official sources was the chief grain merchant, contractor and middleman of Suez, Abu Qudeyl. At first I had intended taking stores down by camel from Suez; but Abu Qudeyl's terms of 2 pounds a camel made this impossible. He then proposed a boat for the stores, but as he demanded 15 pounds for it down to Burdeys, the nearest landing-place on the Red Sea, I left the Consulate with only an agreement for four camels to take our camping stores and stuff.

The next lesson to learn in Suez was that the shipping agents, Messrs. Beyts & Co., were the indispensable basis for aftairs. To any one in Sinai it may be said that Beyts is Suez and Suez is Beyts. From the first hour that I went to inquire about our stores, to the end of all our work, the constant kindness and courtesy of Mr. H. B. Bush, who was the partner in Suez at the time, was an unfailing help to us. Every week our camel-men went to the office to deposit our antiquities and to get fresh stores; the post office sent all our letters there and the Consulate deputed making contracts to the same friendly care. So soon as I named Abu Qudeyl's demand of 15 pounds for a boat, Mr. Bush set his staff on the matter; and though the astute old middleman had cornered every likely boat, so as to force our hands, another new man was found to do the trip for 4 pounds. This we raised to 5 pounds on condition of the boat waiting any time required, till all our boxes were removed by camel. We could not have succeeded nearly as well without Mr. Bush's help, but not every traveller could hope to find in all these ways so much assistance so readily granted; our work however appealed to his old university interests in history and so our kind friend did everything to make our path easy.

On December 3rd we left Suez (properly Soweys or Sueys) by boat to Esh Shatt on the other side of the Canal. This is some three miles run, doubling the promontory of Port Ibrahim at the mouth of the Canal and turning up the Canal a short way. Here is an elaborate quarantine station with every facility for isolation and disinfection and a good water supply from the Nile which should be taken in here for the three days' journey to Gharandel. We had the offer of quarters in the station as it was unoccupied; but I thought it more prudent to practise pitching our tents and make sure that everything was complete. We had some Egyptian army tents and some English army tents, all bought from disused stores; the former were far more comfortable as the sides were higher and a thin muslin lining made them warmer.

The agent of Abu Qudeyl here brought up the four camels that were allotted to us and they were anything but satisfactory. I had been assured that four kantars (400 pounds) was the recognised load for a camel here; but none of these were fit for more than three kantars and one of them was always breaking down under much less and had to be left after a day and another camel substituted from another party. There was an hour and more wasted in squabbling about the loads and I learned that it is best to make up equal loads oneself and then let the men have the choice of them, for this course at Wady Maghareh saved all disputes.

The camel-men were varied. The best of them was Salah Abu Risq who evidently belonged to some old aboriginal race before the Semites. He was short and very dark brown with a Socratic face and a cheerful, friendly manner. He could not resist joining in a plot to screw us later on and making up a fabulous item in accounts; but he was always reasonable and quiet except when he blazed up if he were being imposed on by the others. His wrath however was good-tempered, though fierce and had none of the wearisome snarl in it of some other men. He was afterwards my wife's camel-man when she came down to join us and was liked for his good-humoured childish ways ...

Wresting a scanty crop of dates from parched soil, Bedouins living near this small oasis continue virtually unchanged a lifestyle begun by their ancestors millennia ago --- Fifteen Years in Sinai (BAR) by Itzhaq Beit-Arieh (1984)

(1) SINIATIC TIMELINE www.geographia.com

(2) The inscriptions of the Ways of Horus by Abdul Rahman Al-Ayedi (2006)

(3) Researches in Sinai by William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1906) PDF 20.4 MB

(4) Egypt : Handbook for Travellers Part First : Lower Egypt with the Fayum and the
Peninsula of Sina -- Edited by Karl Baedeker Pages 470-524 (1885) PDF 30.9 MB

(5) Egypt Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times
Donald Redford -- Princeton University (1992)

(6) Sinai Peninsula in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible (2011) -- Article by Gregory Mumford PDF

The History of the Ancient Near East Electronic Compendium