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The Sinai

The sharp, fang-shaped peninsula of desert wilderness between Africa and Asia, the Sinai covers an area of 61,000 square kilometres and stands at the northernmost end of the Red Sea. Africa and Asia were once joined firmly together as a single supercontinent but powerful tectonic forces in the earth's crust split them apart 20 million years ago, with the Red Sea forming in between. The Red Sea was once connected to the Mediterranean - from whose waters its deep basin was filled by cascading waterfalls over many millennia - but falling sea levels around 200 million years ago uncovered a neck of land between them, opening the overland passage between Africa and Asia via the Sinai. Whilst the Sinai does not have the geographical diversity of Africa or Asia it counts as one of the great wildernesses of the world; a realm of vast, sweeping deserts, deep, shadowy gorges, high tablelands and jagged mountains whose summits rise over 2500m. The Sinai stood between the great settled powers of Egypt and Mesopotamia but without rivers and rich soils for settled cultivation it came to be populated almost entirely by nomads. The Pharaohs saw the Sinai as a wild desert frontier, valuable mostly for its mineral riches, which they launched successive military expeditions to extract. The Sinai came under Nabataean influence in the third century BC and would later be absorbed into the Roman and Byzantine Empires. Faraway powers of the settled world have long claimed the Sinai as their own but few if any have ever been able to exert full control over the region; the Sinai grew as a remote, isolated wilderness realm between continents. It developed on its own lines, growing into one of the world's great homelands for nomadic peoples and both a fabled and historic refuge for exiles, prophets and kings. 

Our first human journey

The Sinai is the most ancient travelling corridor on earth; the age old passage land through which humanity made its earliest journeys out of Africa. Homo Sapiens were not the first species of our human family to make this voyage; around 1.8 million years ago - over a million years before Homo Sapiens had even evolved - a species called Homo Erectus moved from Africa to Asia through the Sinai, reaching China and Java within 200,000 years. Some scientists claim Homo Erectus was even preceded on its journey out of Africa by earlier species, although this is debated. Homo Sapien remains in the Levant show our own species had walked outside Africa as long as 180,000 years ago but attempts to go further or establish any permanent presence were unsuccessful. In the most literal sense our earliest journeys out of Africa were dead ends. Nevertheless, 60-70,000 years ago something changed and a group of humans perhaps numbering as little as 1000 walked out of Africa and continued beyond, with successive waves following. Some suggest the first group reached Asia over the southern waters of the Red Sea but a DNA analysis published in 2015 presents strong evidence to indicate they exited through the Sinai. We know little about why this group took the bold move of venturing out of Africa into lands that had only been a graveyard for Homo Sapiens before. Some speculate climate change may have brought us near to extinction in Africa, necessitating a venture to new frontiers; others that improvements in tools, nutrition or language equipped us better to survive. Whatever the reasons, the passage of our forebears through the Sinai represents perhaps the most important journey in our human past; one that shaped the entire world as we know it today. 

The wilderness refuge

Around 30AD the Roman Empire crucified Jesus Christ on a hill outside Jerusalem. A carpenter who became a wandering preacher and healer, Jesus gathered a wide following in his lifetime and his teachings became the core of the Christian faith, which grew widely after his death. The growth of this new faith was a concern for the Romans, who viewed it as subversive and opposed to its own religion. The practice of Christianity was soon proclaimed a capital offence; pardonable only by conversion to paganism. Christians were blamed for everything from bad harvests to disastrous fires and political misfortune and violent waves of persecution were directed against them by Roman Emperors. Many Christians sought to escape, seeking a more solitary, spiritual life in the wilderness, with the Christians of Egypt moving first from the Nile Valley to the Eastern Desert. The first waves lived as hermits, enduring lives of great privation. Over time, more gathered around the same locales, forming communities that met for weekly worship. This movement soon spread to the Sinai, where it saw perhaps its greatest flourishing. Christians lived over its rugged highlands in deep isolation, cultivating mountain orchards and building chapels, churches and bigger monasteries of which the Monastery of St Katherine is still operational today. It was in this great wilderness refuge the monastic traditions and much early thinking in Christianity developed; over the next centuries it would spread to other parts of the world, becoming a major force in shaping the religious beliefs, moral codes and cultural outlook of societies from the Middle East to the West and beyond. What unfolded in the wilderness of the Sinai influenced the wider world.

Sinai: a land of legend

The Sinai is the most fabled wilderness on earth; the setting for legends at the heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is the legends of the Exodus that are most strongly associated with the Sinai, which begin with God commanding Moses - who grew up by the River Nile before fleeing to the Sinai as a fugitive - to return to Egypt and lead his people out of slavery. 10 Biblical Plagues, the Crossing of the Red Sea and an escape to the Sinai follow, with God handing the Ten Commandments down to Moses on the rocky heights of Mount Sinai. A difficult period ensues, with Moses wandering the wilderness of the Sinai for 40 years before his final deliverance to the Promised Land. For nearly 2000 years, scholars have compared Biblical scripture with in-field observations, attempting to map the route taken on The Exodus and pinpoint the location of the true Mount Sinai. Several peaks have been proposed as the holy summit, including some in the Sinai and others as far away as the Hejaz. Examining archaeological evidence, ancient literature and financial records from Pharaonic Egypt - which might be expected to show a downturn with a sudden departure of a large slave workforce - other scholars have questioned whether The Exodus ever really happened at all. Whether fact, fiction or a mix of both, its story of a people rising up against slavery and wandering the wilderness to win their freedom has resonated in cultures around the world from ancient times to modern. The Biblical legends of The Exodus have kept the Sinai in the global consciousness for many ages, pulling pilgrims to the region from ancient times to the present. They remain especially important to the monastic communities of the Sinai today and also shape the way Bedouin tribes see their homeland.

Homeland of the nomads

A wilderness without rivers and fertile soils, isolated between Africa and Asia, the Sinai was perhaps destined by its geography to become one of the great nomadic homelands of the Middle East. Hunter gatherers moved in the Sinai from early times but the first definitive evidence of their presence comes from around 6000BC. By 3000BC they had integrated the herding of domesticated goats and sheep into their survival strategy and developed a small trade economy with settled communities, based on an exchange of valuable desert metals like copper for foodstuffs. Clusters of small, circular tombs built by these early nomads - whose doorways all gaze west towards the setting sun - stand across the Sinai today. At the same time, Egypt's Kingdoms were rising by the River Nile and whilst the Sinai was seen as a wild frontier unsuitable for large-scale settlement by the Pharaohs, they coveted its mineral wealth and sent a succession of military expeditions to retrieve it. It seems certain resistance met these expeditions, at least at the beginning. One early image of Egypt's relationship with the Sinai - dating to around 2650BC - shows one of Egypt's first kings standing over a nomad, preparing for his execution. Egypt's Pharaohs occupied small locales of the Sinai but never controlled it fully like the Nile Valley. Over almost every age from ancient times to the present a similar pattern has emerged; the absence of a powerful central state in the Sinai has left it as an isolated province of faraway empires, most of whom have failed in attempting to bring it under full control. The Sinai grew as a realm governed nomadic peoples; they had their own laws, customs, culture and sources of authority and governance and in many ways the region remains like this today. 

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