The Sinai Peninsula, or simply Sinai, is a peninsula in Egypt and the only part of the country located in Asia. It is between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea to the south and is a land bridge between Asia and Africa. Sinai has a land area of about 60,000 km2 (23,000 sq mi) (6 per cent of Egypt’s total area) and approximately 600,000 people.
- Location of Sinai Peninsula
- Name Origins
- Ancient Egypt
- Modern Christian name
- “Sinai”: ancient religious roots
- Arabic name
- Ancient Egypt
- Achaemenid Persian Period
- Roman and Byzantine Periods
- Ayyubid Period
- Mamluk and Ottoman Periods
- British control
- Sinai peacekeeping zones
- Early 21st-century security issues
Location of Sinai Peninsula
Administratively, the vast majority of the area of the Sinai Peninsula is divided into two governorates: the South Sinai Governorate and the North Sinai Governorate. Three other governorates span the Suez Canal, crossing into African Egypt: Suez Governorate on the southern end of the Suez Canal, Ismailia Governorate in the centre, and Port Said Governorate in the north.
In the classical era, the region was known as Arabia Petraea. The peninsula acquired the name Sinai because a mountain near Saint Catherine’s Monastery is the Biblical Mount Sinai. Mount Sinai is one of the most religiously significant places in the Abrahamic faiths.
The Sinai Peninsula has been a part of Egypt since the First Dynasty of ancient Egypt (c. 3100 BC). This contrasts with the region north of it, the Levant (present-day territories of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine). Due mainly to its strategic geopolitical location and cultural convergences, it has historically been the centre of conflict between Egypt and various Mesopotamia and Asia Minor states.
The Sinai was also occupied and controlled by foreign empires like the rest of Egypt during the foreign occupation. In more recent history, the Ottoman Empire (1517–1867) and the United Kingdom (1882–1956). Israel invaded and occupied Sinai during the Suez Crisis (known in Egypt as the Tripartite Aggression due to the simultaneous coordinated attack by the UK, France and Israel) of 1956 and during the Six-Day War of 1967. On 6 October 1973, Egypt launched the Yom Kippur War to retake the peninsula, which was unsuccessful. In 1982, as a result of the Egypt–Israel peace treaty of 1979, Israel withdrew from all of the Sinai Peninsula except the contentious territory of Taba, which was returned after a ruling by an arbitration commission in 1989.
Sinai has become a tourist destination due to its natural setting, rich coral reefs, and biblical history.
Because the Sinai peninsula was the leading region where mining of turquoise was carried out in Ancient Egypt, it was called Biau (the “Mining Country”) and Khetiu Mafkat (“Ladders of Turquoise”) by the ancient Egyptians.
Modern Christian name
“Sinai”: ancient religious roots
The name Sinai (Hebrew: סִינַי, Classical Syriac: ܣܝܢܝ) may have been derived from the ancient Mesopotamian moon-god Sin. This assumption is contested (see Biblical Mount Sinai for a fuller discussion). The moon-deity Sin is associated with the area, and the ancient Egyptian moon-god Thoth is associated with Sin. His worship was widespread throughout the south tip of the Sinai Peninsula.
The Jewish Encyclopedia(1901-0906) quotes a Rabbinic source, the 8th or 9th-century Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer, which derives the name from the biblical Hebrew word seneh (Hebrew: סֶ֫נֶּה), a word only known from two occurrences in the Hebrew Bible, in both cases referring to the burning bush. Rabbi Eliezer opines that Mount Horeb only received the name Sinai after God appeared to Moses in the shape of a burning bush.
Its modern Arabic name is سِينَاء Sīnāʼ (Egyptian Arabic سينا Sīna; IPA: [ˈsiːnæ]). The modern Arabic is an adoption of the biblical name, the 19th-century Arabic designation of Sinai was Jebel el-Tūr, which the name of the mountain is derived from a small town called El-Tor (formerly called “Tur Sinai”), which this name comes from the Arabic term for the mountain where the prophet Moses received the Tablets of the Law from God. Thus this mountain is designated as “Jabal Aṭ-Ṭūr (Arabic: جبل الطّور)”, and the town is also the capital of the South Sinai Governorate of Egypt. Another Arabic word for “mass of very high land going up to a peak – mountain” is “Ṭūr”.
In addition to its formal name, Egyptians also refer to it as Arḍ ul-Fayrūz (أرض الفيروز ‘the land of turquoise’). The ancient Egyptians called it t3 mfk3.t, or ‘land of turquoise’ (see above).
In English, the name is now usually pronounced /ˈsaɪnaɪ/. The traditional pronunciation is /ˈsaɪnɪaɪ/ SY-nih-eye or the US: /ˈsaɪneɪaɪ/ SY-nay-eye.
Sinai is triangular, with its northern shore lying on the southern Mediterranean Sea and its southwest and southeast shores on the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba of the Red Sea. The Isthmus of Suez is linked to the African continent, 125 kilometres (78 mi) wide strip of land containing the Suez Canal. The eastern isthmus, connecting it to the Asian mainland, is around 200 kilometres (120 mi) wide. The peninsula’s eastern shore separates the Arabian plate from the African plate.
The southernmost tip is the Ras Muhammad National Park.
Most of the Sinai Peninsula is divided into the two governorates of Egypt: South Sinai (Ganub Sina) and North Sinai (Shamal Sina). Together, they comprise around 60,000 square kilometres (23,000 sq mi) and have a population (January 2013) of 597,000. Three more governates span the Suez Canal, crossing into African Egypt: Suez (el-Sewais) is on the southern end of the Suez Canal, Ismailia (el-Isma’ileyyah) in the centre, and Port Said in the north.
The largest city of Sinai is Arish, the capital of the North Sinai, with around 160,000 residents. Other larger settlements include Sharm el-Sheikh and El-Tor, on the southern coast. Inland Sinai is arid (effectively a desert), mountainous, and sparsely populated, the largest settlements being Saint Catherine and Nekhel.
Sinai is one of the coldest provinces in Egypt because of its high altitudes and mountainous topographies. In some of Sinai’s cities and towns, winter temperatures reach −16 °C (3 °F).
A cave with paintings of people and animals was discovered about 30 kilometres (19 mi) north of Mount Catherine in January 2020, dating back to the Chalcolithic Period, circa 5th–4th millennium BCE.
From the First Dynasty or before, the Egyptians mined turquoise in Sinai at two locations, now called by their Egyptian Arabic names Wadi Magharah and Serabit El Khadim. These may be the first historically attested mines. The mines were worked intermittently and on a seasonal basis for thousands of years. Modern attempts to exploit the deposits have been unprofitable.
The fortress Tjaru in western Sinai was a place of banishment for Egyptian criminals. The Way of Horus connected it across northern Sinai with ancient Canaan.
The Exodus, according to Islamic sources.
These accounts are according solely to Islamic sources.
Witnessed in the year 1800 BC with the arrival of the father of the prophets, prophet Ibrahīm (the Biblical Abraham) to Egypt during the occupation of the Hyksos, and he married an Egyptian slave-girl named Hajar (biblical Hagar) from Pelusium (modern-day northern Qantara) and gave birth to prophet Isma’īl (the biblical Ishmael). Isma’īl then grew up in Mecca (in today’s Saudi Arabia). His descendants are the Adnanite Arabs (from the Islamic patriarch and ancestor Adnan) – who is then one of the ancestors directly linked to the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
In the year 1213 BC, the children of Isrā‘īl (biblical Jacob) left Egypt during the era of the Pharaoh of Egypt, where prophet Musa (biblical Moses) walked to Madyan (Arabic: مَدْيَن, biblical Midian) – the home of his wife and her family, which is the current southernmost point of the Sinai Peninsula – and some believe that it is located on the western coast of the Gulf of Aqaba in the area between Taba and Dahab.
When Moses walked in this direction, where there is currently between both mountains, later known as Gebel al-Musa (Mount Sinai) and Jabal al-Munājāh (جبل المناجاة, in Arabic “Munājāh”, implies an exclamatory address to an absent person or inanimate object – “confidential talk”), it is said that Moses received the commandments and laws (the Ten Commandments) of the Jewish religion (Judaism).
The people of Moses did not respond to his desire to enter the promised land (Palestine), so Allah’s (God’s) wrath fell upon them, and Allah forbade them to enter it for forty years, letting them wander across Sinai. Musa and his brother, Harun (Aaron), died in Sinai during the wandering period, with Aaron dying first and being buried at a mountain called Jabal Hūd (جبل هود; see biblical Mount Hor); then Moses died and was buried in a red dune, at a place close to the land of Palestine, but it is not known where.
Achaemenid Persian Period
At the end of Darius I the Great (521–486 BCE), Sinai was part of the Persian province of Abar-Nahra, which means ‘beyond the river [Euphrates]’.
Cambyses successfully managed the crossing of the hostile Sinai Desert, traditionally Egypt’s first and most vital line of defence, and brought the Egyptians under Psamtik III, son and successor of Ahmose, to battle at Pelusium. The Egyptians lost and retired to Memphis; the city fell to the Persian control, and the Pharaoh was carried off in captivity to Susa in Persia.
Roman and Byzantine Periods
St. Catherine’s Monastery is the oldest working Christian monastery globally and the most popular tourist attraction on the peninsula.
Rhinocorura (Greek for “Cut-off Noses”) and the eponymous region around it were used by Ptolemaic Egypt as a place of banishment for criminals, today known as Arish.
After the death of the last Nabatean king, Rabbel II Soter, in 106, the Roman emperor Trajan faced practically no resistance and conquered the kingdom on 22 March 106. With this conquest, the Roman Empire controlled all shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The Sinai Peninsula became part of the Roman province of Arabia Petraea.
Saint Catherine’s Monastery on the foot of Mount Sinai was constructed by order of Emperor Justinian between 527 and 565. Most Sinai Peninsula became part of Palaestina Salutaris in the 6th century.
During the Crusades, it was under the control of the Fatimid Caliphate. Later, Sultan Saladin abolished the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt and took this region under his control. It was the military route from Cairo to Damascus during the Crusades. Moreover, to secure this route, he built a citadel on the island of Pharaoh (near present Taba) known by the name ‘Saladin’s Citadel’.
Mamluk and Ottoman Periods
The peninsula was governed as part of Egypt under the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt from 1260 until 1517, when the Ottoman Sultan, Selim the Grim, defeated the Egyptians at the Battles of Marj Dabiq and al-Raydaniyya and incorporated Egypt into the Ottoman Empire. From then until 1906, Sinai was administered by the Ottoman provincial government of the Pashalik of Egypt, even following the establishment of the Muhammad Ali Dynasty’s rule over the rest of Egypt in 1805.
In 1906, the Ottoman Porte formally transferred the administration of Sinai to the Khedive of Egypt, which essentially meant that it fell under the control of the British Empire, which had occupied and largely controlled Egypt since the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War. The border imposed by the British runs in an almost straight line from Rafah on the Mediterranean shore to Taba on the Gulf of Aqaba. This line has served as the eastern border of Egypt ever since.
Israeli invasions and occupation
In 1956, Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal, a waterway marking the boundary between Egyptian territory in Africa and the Sinai Peninsula. After that, Israeli ships were prohibited from using the canal due to the war between the two states. Egypt also prohibited ships from using Egyptian territorial waters on the eastern side of the peninsula to travel to and from Israel, effectively imposing a blockade on the Israeli port of Eilat.
In October 1956, in what is known in Egypt as the Tripartite Aggression, Israel Defense Forces troops, aided by the United Kingdom and France (which sought to reverse the nationalisation and regain control over the Suez Canal), invaded Sinai and occupied much of the peninsula within a few days. In March 1957, Israel withdrew its forces from Sinai, following intense pressure from the United States and the Soviet Union. After that, the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was stationed in Sinai to prevent any further conflict in the Sinai.
On 16 May 1967, Egypt ordered the UNEF out of Sinai and reoccupied it militarily. Secretary-General U Thant eventually complied and ordered the withdrawal without Security Council authorisation. In the Six-Day War that broke out shortly after, Israel occupied the entire Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) from Jordan (which Jordan had controlled since 1949), and the Golan Heights from Syria. The Suez Canal, the east bank now occupied by Israel, was closed. Israel commenced efforts at large scale Israeli settlement in the Sinai Peninsula.
Following the Israeli conquest of Sinai, Egypt launched the War of Attrition (1967–70) to force Israel to withdraw from the Sinai. The war saw protracted conflict in the Suez Canal Zone, ranging from limited to large-scale combat. Israeli shelling of Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez on the west bank of the canal, led to high civilian casualties (including the virtual destruction of Suez) and contributed to the flight of 700,000 internal Egyptian refugees. Ultimately, the war concluded in 1970 with no change on the front line.
On 6 October 1973, Egypt commenced Operation Badr to retake the Sinai, while Syria launched a simultaneous operation to retake the Golan Heights , thereby beginning the Yom Kippur War (known in Egypt and much of Europe as the October War). Egyptian engineering forces built pontoon bridges to cross the Suez Canal and stormed the Bar-Lev Line, Israel’s defensive line along the Suez Canal’s east bank. Though the Egyptians maintained control of most of the east bank of the Suez Canal, in the war’s latter stages, the Israeli military crossed the southern section of the Suez Canal, cutting off the Egyptian 3rd Army, and occupied a branch of the Suez Canal’s west bank. The war ended following a mutually agreed-upon ceasefire. After the war, as part of the subsequent Sinai Disengagement Agreements, Israel withdrew from immediate proximity to the Suez Canal, with Egypt agreeing to permit passage of Israeli ships. The canal was reopened in 1975, with President Anwar Sadat leading the first convoy through the canal aboard an Egyptian Navy destroyer.
1979–1982 Israeli withdrawal
In 1979, Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in which Israel agreed to withdraw from the entirety of the Sinai Peninsula. The Treaty allows monitoring of Sinai by the Multinational Force and Observers and limits the number of Egyptian military forces in the peninsula. Israel subsequently withdrew in several stages, ending in 1982. The Israeli pull-out involved dismantling almost all Israeli settlements, including the settlement of Yamit in north-eastern Sinai. The exception was that the coastal city of Sharm el-Sheikh (which the Israelis had founded as Ofira during their occupation of the Sinai Peninsula) was not dismantled.
Sinai peacekeeping zones
The Sinai Peninsula security zones delineate Egypt, Israel and Multinational Force and Observers’ zone of operations.
- Article 2 of Annex I of the Peace Treaty called for the Sinai Peninsula to be divided into zones. Within these zones, Egypt and Israel were permitted varying degrees of military buildup:
- Zone A: Between the Suez Canal and Line A. Egypt is permitted a mechanised infantry division with 22,000 troops.
- Zone B: Between Line A and Line B. Egypt is permitted four border security battalions to support the civilian police in Zone B.
- Zone C: Between Line B and the Egypt–Israel border. Only the MFO and the Egyptian civilian police are permitted within Zone C.
- Zone D: Between the Egypt–Israel border and Line D. Israel is permitted four infantry battalions in Zone D.
Early 21st-century security issues
Since the early 2000s, Sinai has been the site of several terror attacks against tourists, most Egyptian. Investigations have shown that these were mainly motivated by a resentment of the poverty faced by many Bedouins in the area. Attacking the tourist industry was viewed as damaging the industry so that the government would pay more attention to their situation. Since the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, unrest has become more prevalent, including the 2012 Egyptian-Israeli border attack in which militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers.
Also on the rise are the kidnappings of refugees. According to Meron Estifanos, Bedouins often kidnapped Eritrean refugees in the northern Sinai, tortured, raped, and released them after receiving a hefty ransom.
Under President el-Sisi, Egypt has implemented a rigorous policy of controlling the border to the Gaza Strip, including dismantling tunnels between Gaza and Sinai.
The two governorates of North and South Sinai have a total population of 597,000 (January 2013). This figure rises to 1,400,000 by including Western Sinai, the Port Said, Ismailia and Suez Governorates lying east of the Suez Canal. Port Said alone has roughly 500,000 people (January 2013). Portions of Ismailia and Suez populations live in west Sinai, while the rest live on the western side of the Suez Canal.
The population of Sinai has primarily consisted of desert-dwelling Bedouins with their colourful traditional costumes and influential culture. Many Egyptians from the Nile Valley and Delta moved to the area to work in tourism, but development adversely affected the native Bedouin population. To help alleviate their problems, various NGOs began to operate in the region, including the Makhad Trust, a UK charity that assists the Bedouin in developing a sustainable income while protecting Sinai’s natural environment, heritage and culture.
Since the Israeli–Egyptian peace treaty, Sinai’s scenic spots (including coral reefs offshore) and religious structures have become essential to tourism. The most popular tourist destination in Sinai is Mount Sinai (Jabal Musa) and St Catherine’s Monastery, which is considered the oldest working Christian monastery globally, and the beach resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh Dahab, Nuweiba and Taba. Most tourists arrive at Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport, through Eilat, Israel and the Taba Border Crossing, by road from Cairo or by ferry from Aqaba in Jordan.
Cacti – especially cactus pears – are grown in Sinai. They are a crop of the Columbian Exchange. Cactus hedges – intentionally planted and wild garden escapes – formed an essential part of defensible positions during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign. Some unfamiliar soldiers even tried eating them, with a negative result.
Dromedary herding is essential here. Trypanosoma evansi is a constant concern and is transmitted by several vectors. Although ticks have not been proven to be among them, Mahmoud and Gray 1980 and El-Kady 1998 experimentally demonstrate the survival of T. evansi in camel ticks of the Hyalomma for several hours in the natural bio-climatic conditions of Sinai.