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Sinai

›› History
›› Present
›› Archaeological Sites
›› Gabel Musa
›› The Holy Monastery
›› Sinai diving
›› RAS MOHAMMED
›› SHARM EL-SHEIKH
›› DAHAB

The Sinai Peninsula or Sinai (Egyptian Arabic: سينا sina; Arabic: سيناء‎ sīnā'a; Hebrew סיני) is a triangular peninsula in Egypt which is about 60,000 km2 (23,000 sq mi). It lies between the Mediterranean Sea to the north, and the Red Sea to the south, and is the only part of Egyptian territory located in Asia as opposed to Africa, effectively serving as a land bridge between the two continents. In addition to its formal name, Egyptians also refer to it affectionately as the "Land of Fayrouz", based on the Ancient Egyptian "Dumafkat", which has the same meaning. The peninsula is divided into two Egyptian governorates, and has a population of approximately 1.3 million peopel.

For many visitors to Egypt, their experience of Sinai may be limited to the tourist towns of Sharm el-Sheikh and Dahab with their luxury hotels, clubs and beach parties much frequented by tourists from both Egypt and beyond. This part of the Red Sea Coast however, is also a vertitable paradise for divers and naturalists. On the southernmost point of Sinai about 20 kilometres from Sharm is the promontory of Ras Mohammed, an area of remarkably unspoilt beauty now designated as a National Park. The area itself is teaming with nature and wildlife, and extends out into the translucent blue waters of the Red Sea with its vast terraces of fossil coral reefs, home to a wide variety of amphibious creatures – over a thousand species which are common only to the Red Sea area. Ras Mohammed is also on the migratory path of a wide variety of birds who may stop for a few weeks each year to mingle with the gazelles, foxes, goats and other animals who live on the promontory.

The more intrepid traveller may take a trip up the coast to Taba on the border with Israel and Jordan, or into the desert to St Catherine's Monastery. Sinai is not a place which is easily explored. Some say Sinai is named after a Lunar deity called Sin, though the true origins and history of the land are buried as deep as the canyons and wadis of its inaccessible interior. The northern region is mostly part of a military zone and travelling here requires special permits, so most visitors will wish to explore the southern half of the peninsula where the antiquity of the land can be felt all around. Those who have experienced the allure of the desert can never be free of its attraction. Vast harsh empty spaces bounded on all sides by huge formations of rock offer an ever-changing vista of colour. The black, ochre and crimson-streaked walls of rock are relieved by great areas of soft golden and apricot sands, home to the Bedouin tribes who still wander the desert with their herds of camels. Anyone who has experienced the silence of the Sinai desert can never forget its unearthly beauty.

History
Millions of years ago the Sinai Peninsula was attached to Egypt and Saudi Arabia as part of the land mass known as the Great Rift Valley. Thermal currents, the movement of the continental plates, glacial and volcanic activity eventually threw up this triangular area of remote mountains and desert, bordered on one side by the Gulf of Suez and on the other by the Gulf of Aqaba. Its geology can be divided into three main areas. The northern part runs parallel with the Mediterranean coast and consists of dried up river beds or wadis leading to sand dunes and fossil beaches. Rocky islets of limestone punctuate the flat landscape extending south towards the mountainous limestone and sandstone region of Gebel Maghara. The central part of the peninsula is mostly comprised of the el-Tih Plateau, a high area of limestone formed during the Tertiary Period. The southern geology of Sinai was formed by volcanic action on the sea bed producing large areas of granite and basalt and bounded in the coastal region by ancient coral formations. Sinai is a geologist's paradise, but no casual visitor to the peninsula could fail to be captivated by the textures and colours seen in the vast array of mountainous landscapes.

Despite its remoteness, Sinai has always attracted travellers and explorers who wrote its history on the land itself. It is a region rich in precious minerals such as copper, malachite and turquoise found at Wadi Maghara and Serabit el-Khadim, as well as the more recently discovered oil in the Gulf of Suez. Archaeological investigations have shown that migrating peoples crossed the harsh passageways of Sinai between Africa and Asia during many of the prehistoric periods. Military expeditions during Pharaonic times left their mark in the rock-art which can be seen in many areas of the peninsula and the Biblical story of the Exodus has bequeathed a rich source of tradition in which Sinai is a holy place.

From the beginning of Egyptian history mining and smelting of copper led to an increased population in Sinai as colonisers began to move south and several sites have been found which were exploited from very early times. Systematic mining and quarrying began when the Pharaohs sent expeditions to investigate the area during the Early Dynastic Period. One of the earliest indications of Pharaonic interest is an inscription on the east face of Gebel Maghara depicting Dynasty III King Sekhemkhet in the traditional smiting pose, first discovered by the English explorer E H Palmer in 1868. There are also inscriptions naming Kings Djoser, Sanakht and Pepy II of the Old Kingdom as well as Middle and New Kingdom rulers.

The region has historically been the center of conflict between various political factions, based largely on its strategic geopolitical location. In addition to periods of direct rule by Egyptian governments (including the Ayyubids, the Mamluks, the Muhammad Ali Dynasty, and the modern Egyptian republic), it was like the rest of Egypt also occupied and controlled by the Ottoman and British empires. Israel invaded and occupied Sinai twice during the 20th Century, first during the Suez War of 1956, and secondly during and after the Six Day War of 1967. In the October War of 1973, it was the site of fierce fighting between Egyptian and occupying Israeli forces.

Sinai was inhabited by the Monitu and was called Mafkat or Country of Turquoise. From the time of the First dynasty or before, the Egyptians mined turquoise in Sinai at two locations, now called by their Arabic names Wadi Maghareh and Serabit el-Khadim. The mines were worked intermittently and on a seasonal basis for thousands of years. Modern attempts to exploit the deposits have been unprofitable. These may be the first known mines.

The peninsula was governed as part of Egypt under the Mamluk Sultanate from 1260 until 1517, when the Ottoman Sultan, Selim the Grim, destroyed the Mamluks at the Battles of Marj Dabiq and al-Raydaniyya. From then until 1906, Sinai was administered by 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 administration of Sinai to the Egyptian Government, which essentially meant that it fell under the control of the United Kingdom, who had occupied and largely controlled Egypt since 1882. 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.

At the beginning of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Egyptian forces entered the former British Mandate of Palestine from Sinai to support Palestinian and other Arab forces against the newly declared State of Israel. For a period during the war, Israeli forces entered the north-eastern corner of Sinai. With the exception of the Palestinian Gaza Strip, which came under the administration of the All-Palestine Government, the western frontier of the former Mandate of Palestine became the Egyptian-Israeli frontier under the 1949 Armistice Agreement.

In 1956, Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal on the western side of the Sinai Peninsula and also used its control of the eastern side to impose a blockade on the Israeli port of Eilat. Following this, Israeli forces, aided by Britain, and France (which sought to reverse the nationalization and regain control over the Suez Canal), invaded Sinai and took control of much of the peninsula within a few days (see Suez Crisis). Several months later Israel withdrew its forces from Sinai, following strong pressure from the United States and the Soviet Union. Following this the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was stationed in Sinai to prevent any military occupation of the Sinai.

In 1967, Egypt reinforced its military presence in Sinai, renewed the blockade on Eilat, and on May 16 ordered the UNEF out of Sinai with immediate effect. Secretary-General U Thant eventually complied and ordered the withdrawal without Security Council authorization. Subsequent to Egyptian actions, Israel invaded Sinai, commencing the Six-Day War in which the Egyptian army was defeated, and Israel captured and occupied the entire peninsula. The Suez Canal, the east bank of which was now controlled by Israel, was closed.

In the October War of 1973, Egyptian engineering forces built pontoon bridges to cross the Suez Canal, and stormed the supposedly impregnable Bar-Lev Line while many Israeli soldiers were observing the holiday Yom Kippur. Though the Egyptians maintained control of most of the east bank of the Canal, in the later stages of the war, the Israeli military crossed the southern section of Canal, cutting off the Egyptian 3rd Army, and occupied a section of the west bank. After the war, as part of the subsequent Sinai Disengagement Agreements, Israel withdrew from the Canal, with Egypt's agreeing to permit passage of Israeli ships.

In 1979, Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in which Israel agreed to withdraw from the entirety of Sinai. Israel subsequently withdrew in several stages, ending in 1982. The Israeli pull-out involved dismantling almost all Israeli settlements, including the town of Yamit in north-eastern Sinai. The exception was Ofira, which became the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. The Treaty allows monitoring of the Sinai by the Multinational Force and Observers and limits the number of Egyptian military forces in the Peninsula.

Present
Image from Gemini 11 spacecraft, featuring part of Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula in the foreground and the Levant in the background The Sinai Peninsula is currently divided among two Egyptian governorates, or provinces. The southern portion of the Sinai is called Ganub Sina in Arabic, literally "South of Sinai"; the northern portion is named Shamal Sina', or "North of Sinai". The other three governates converge on the Suez Canal, including el-Sewais, literally "the Suez"; on its southern end and crosses into African Egypt. In the center is el-Isma'ileyyah, and Port Said lies in the north with its capital at Port Said.

Approximately 66,500 people live in Ganub Sina and 314,000 live in Shamal Sina'. Port Said itself has a population of roughly 500,000 people. Portions of the populations of el-Isma'ileyyah and el-Suweis live in Sinai, while the rest live on the western side of the Suez Canal in Egypt-proper. The combined population of these two governorates is roughly 1.3 million (only a part of that population live in the Sinai, while the rest live on the western side of the Suez Canal). Sinai is one of the coldest provinces in Egypt because of its high altitudes and mountainous topographies. Winter temperatures in some of Sinai's cities and towns reach −16 °C (3.2 °F).

Over the past 30 years the Sinai has become a tourist destination due to its natural setting, rich coral reefs, and biblical history. Large numbers of Egyptians from the Nile Valley and Delta have moved to the area to work in tourism, while at the same time development has robbed native Bedouin of their grazing land and fishing grounds. This clash of cultures has resulted in the Sinai becoming the site of several terrorist attacks targeting not only Westerners, and Israelis, but also Egyptians on holiday and working in tourism.

Ar Perhaps one of the best known and most important archaeological sites in Sinai is Serabit el-Khadim, on a highland east of the modern town of Abu Zenima. Turquoise, much prized by the Egyptians, was mined here at least from 3500 BC but most intensively during the Middle Kingdom as attested by inscriptions dating to the reign of Amenemhet II and III. A rock-cut temple dedicated to the Goddess Hathor begun here in early Dynasty XII, is known as the 'Cave of Hathor', the goddess who is often named as 'Lady of the Turquoise'. The earlier shrine was enlarged during the New Kingdom, mainly during the reigns of Hatshepsut and Tuthmose III and thousands of votive offerings and artefacts have been since recovered, including the famous head of a statuette of Queen Tiye, now in the Cairo Egyptian Museum. Other deities worshipped locally were Thoth and Sopd 'God of the Eastern Desert', as well as several deified kings. The site of Serabit el-Khadim was excavated by W M Flinders Petrie, who published his work in 'Researches in Sinai' in 1906.

Another important Pharaonic site in Sinai in Wadi Kharit was also an area of turquoise mining attested by a rock inscription of Sahure of Dynasty V and a large stela of Senwosret I of Dynasty XII. Found in the Wadi Nasb nearby, was a rock-stela of Amenemhet III and Middle Kingdom and Ramessid texts.

Archaeological Sites
Perhaps one of the best known and most important archaeological sites in Sinai is Serabit el-Khadim, on a highland east of the modern town of Abu Zenima. Turquoise, much prized by the Egyptians, was mined here at least from 3500 BC but most intensively during the Middle Kingdom as attested by inscriptions dating to the reign of Amenemhet II and III.

A rock-cut temple dedicated to the Goddess Hathor begun here in early Dynasty XII, is known as the 'Cave of Hathor', the goddess who is often named as 'Lady of the Turquoise'. The earlier shrine was enlarged during the New Kingdom, mainly during the reigns of Hatshepsut and Tuthmose III and thousands of votive offerings and artefacts have been since recovered, including the famous head of a statuette of Queen Tiye, now in the Cairo Egyptian Museum. Other deities worshipped locally were Thoth and Sopd 'God of the Eastern Desert', as well as several deified kings.

The site of Serabit el-Khadim was excavated by W M Flinders Petrie, who published his work in 'Researches in Sinai' in 1906. Another important Pharaonic site in Sinai in Wadi Kharit was also an area of turquoise mining attested by a rock inscription of Sahure of Dynasty V and a large stela of Senwosret I of Dynasty XII. Found in the Wadi Nasb nearby, was a rock-stela of Amenemhet III and Middle Kingdom and Ramessid text.

Gabel Musa
One of the most popular tourist excursions is to Gebel Musa, commonly believed to be Mount Horeb where Biblical tradition claims that Moses received the Ten Commandments. Visitors often make the three-hour climb up the mountain (2286m) before sunrise and on reaching the summit they wait for the dawn to reveal the spectacular view across the surrounding mountains. Below Gebel Musa, fifteen centuries of history are contained within the walls of the Monastery of St Catherine.

Founded by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD and later dedicated to St Katherina, a young martyr from Alexandria, the monastery is still home to many of the Eastern Orthodox monks who live and work there. The Prophet Mohammed himself is said to have issued a decree of protection for the monastery and it subsequently survived the conquest of Sinai by Muslim Arabs and was undisturbed by the Crusader wars and the Napoleonic Expedition. Today as it has always done, the monastery's heritage, rich in architecture and art, draws pilgrims from all over the world.

The Holy Monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai,
Saint Catherineʼs Monastery

The Greek Orthodox monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai is located at the very place where God appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush, beneath the Mount of the Decalogue. In the providence of God, it is at this site also that the holy relics of Saint Catherine are enshrined. This is the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery, with a history that can be traced back over seventeen centuries. The monastery predates the divisions of the Christian world, its origins extending to late antiquity.

The monastery has never been destroyed in all its history, and thus it can be said to have preserved intact the distinctive qualities of its Greek and Roman heritage. Members of other Christian confessions have honoured the monastery, coming as pilgrims to this holy place. But from its beginnings, the Christian inhabitants of Sinai belonged to the Greek speaking world, and it has remained so to this day.

The earliest description refers to the Monastery of the Holy Virgin, for the revelation of God at the Burning Bush was seen as a type of the Virgin Mary and the Incarnation. The monastery is also especially dedicated to the holy prophets Moses and Elias, who both came to this mountain, and who both spoke with Christ at the Transfiguration. More recently, it has been known as Saint Catherine's Monastery. This remains its name today, though the monastery has not lost its earlier dedications.

More than one hundred and seventy Sinai saints are honoured by the Church. In addition to Saint Catherine, these include Saint John Climacus, abbot of Sinai and author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent. They also include the ascetic fathers Hesychios and Philotheus, two saints with the name of Anastasius, Gregory of Sinai (who transplanted the Hesychast traditions to the Slavic peoples), and Symeon Pentaglossos (who translated relics of Saint Catherine to Rouen, and thereby helped establish the veneration of Saint Catherine in the West).

The monastery can be thought of as a veritable Ark for its spiritual treasures. These include the manuscripts and early printed books preserved in the Sinai library, which is celebrated throughout the world for the antiquity and importance of its volumes. It also includes the monastery icons, which include the most important collection of pre-iconoclastic panel icons, and icons of the greatest beauty and significance dating from the time of the Comnene dynasty.

The monastery has been honoured by rulers throughout its history. These include the Empress Helena, the Emperor Justinian, Mohammed the Founder of Islam, Sultan Selim I, the Empress Catherine of Russia, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Contemporary heads of state have continued to show their interest in the monastery. The Holy Monastery of Sinai has been celebrated throughout the world for its spiritual and cultural radiance. It has been revered not only by Christians, but also by Moslems and Jews. It has recently been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, both for its cultural and for its scenic significance.

The monks of Sinai, from earliest times until the present day, maintain a dedication both to prayer and to the support of pilgrims and visitors. They live at peace with the native Bedouin. They maintain the ancient spiritual heritage of Sinai, a heritage that extends from the giving of the Law, through the whole of the Old and New Testaments, to the multitude of saints whose memory has been enshrined at Sinai – above all, to the All-holy Theotokos, to the holy prophets Moses and Elias, and to Saint Catherine.

Sinai diving
Ever since Jacques Cousteau explored its waters four decades ago, the Red Sea has attracted and amazed divers from all around the world. Nowhere are there coral walls and gardens more brilliantly abundant, waters more crystalline, or underwater life more varied and plentiful.

Along the southern and eastern shores of the Sinai astounding sites are scattered like pearls for hundred of miles, from the celebrated walls and holes north of Dahab to the truly unmatched splendour of Ras Mohammed's lush underwater beds.

RAS MOHAMMED
Shark Reef & Yolanda Reef Shark Observatory Anemone City Eel Garden Fisherman's Bank

SHARK REEF & YOLANDA REEF
Two emerging reefs which rise from a sandy seabed some 20-30 meters deep are the most distinctive features of this splendid dive site, set a few hundred meters from the coast, right in line with the easternmost tip of the Hidden Bay, where it is possible to admire a great many species of p elagic fish. Powerful currents, a chance of encountering sharks here.

ANEMONE CITY
Across from f, an interesting reef, about 120m from shore, first slopes gently, then drops away with a wall from which huge corals extend, waving with the currents. The corals are Dendronephtya sp. The site owes its name to the rich and remarkable abundance of sea anemones of the species Radianthus. There are plenty of gorgonians as well. Typical reef fish also found in considerable numbers.

SHARK OBSERVATORY
Directly beneath the observation platform known as Shark Observatory, and accessible by land. Magnificent coral reef that plunges down to depths of up to ninety meters, with a great many species of pelagic fish. A chance of encountering sharks.

EAST OF RAS MOHAMMED
The Thistlegorm Carnatic The Dunraven The Small Passage Shag Rock

THISTLEGORM
Sinai's most prized wreck (may be the finest wreck dive in the entire Red Sea). A British warship which sank with a full consignment of war supplies, including tanks, jeeps, and guns, after being bombed during WWII (1941). Discovered in 1956 by Jacques Costeau; Rediscovered in 1993, lying (on a sandy floor) at a depth of 17 to 35 m to the northwest of Ras Mohammed, it is currently THE wreck to explore in the Red Sea (though it has already been stripped of much of its wartime memorabilia). It's best dived on an overnight trip, as it often takes 3 1/2 hours each way from Sharm el-Sheik.

CARNATIC
This boat went down in 1879 and, with its rotting wooden beams, it's now almost a reef in itself. It's a popular site, along with the nearby wrecks of two Greek cargo ships, the Giannus D and the Chrisoula K, which both sank in the early 1980s. The three are about 1 hour and 30 minutes by boat from the point of Ras Mohammed. kh by boat. It is often too rough to dive here.

THE DUNRAVEN
The Dunraven is a British steamer that sank in 1876 on its way home from India. It lies upside-down at a depth of about 60 ft, broken in two and completely encrusted with brilliant coral. The broken hull provides good access to the wide open spaces of the ship's interior, though only wreck-certified divers should enter the narrow bow section. Of particular note are the large schools of glassfish, the large intact propeller, and the marvelous nearby reef which proved fatal to the ship.

THE SMALL PASSAGE
The Small Passage is actually an opening in the large Shaab Mahmud reef, which follows the coast here and creates a protected lagoon where live-aboard dive boats often anchor for the night. It's proximity to a good anchorage is not the only reason Small Passage is a dive site: the shallow passage (maximum depth is 20ft) is tremendously rich in coral and fish species, a good place to get an overview of what Red Sea reefs have to offer.

SHAG ROCK
This off-shore dive in the Strait of Gubal can be accessed by boat from Sharm El-Sheikh. It's a shallow, circular reef that tapers to a total depth of 80 ft, and best known for its brilliant and soft corals. The diving (the best of which is on the reef's eastern side) can be heavily dependent on conditions. On a calm day, divers are rewarded with large schools of fish, many of them pelagics, and snorkelers can check out the nea rby wreck of the Sarah H, which rests in the nearby shallows.

SHARM EL-SHEIKH
Shark Bay Amphoras Ras Um Sid The Strait of Tiran

SHARK BAY
Also known as Shark's Bay or Beit al-Irsh, this low-key resort camp is about 5 km north of Na'ama Bay. Located on a pebbly beach from which you can walk in to some quite good snorkelling, it is particularly popular with Germans and Israelis, most of whom dive a nearby 15 to 20m deep canyon with the Embark dive club there. Unfortunately, the solitary bliss of this place has been spoilt a bit thanks to the new Pyramiza Hotel being built right on the doorstep.

AMPHORAS
Also known as the Mercury site. A 16th-century Turkish galleon that was transporting amporas of mercury lies on the bottom here. Evidence of its cargo of mercury can be seen in among the coral. Other dives between here and Ras Um Sid include Turtle Bay, Paradise and Fiasco.

RAS UM SID
A prime diving site to a deep, sloping wall, easily accessible near the lighthouse, a 30 min. walk from Sharm el-Sheikh, The beautiful coral garden has lots of colorful fan coral and a great variety of fish (forest of gorgonians, amidst glassfish and small Anthias). Divers generally use the access path to the left of the lighthouse (of Ras Um Sid); snorkellers can follow the path to the right of the lighthouse which leads to a large beach.

THE STRAIT OF TIRAN
Four reefs occupy the center of the Strait. Gordon, Thomas, Woodhouse, Jackson. All are among the loveliest and best-preserved in the entire Sharm region. Fauna is extremely abundant and tends to be pelagic.

DAHAB
Blue Hole The Canyon The Lighthouse Southern Oasis

BLUE HOLE
There are few dive sites in Sinai more spectacular - or more dangerous - than Blue Hole. This circular, 203-foot drop off lies a few miles north of Dahab, and it looks exactly like its name. The dark hole rests in the shallows of a bright blue reef shelf, and the life clinging the hole's rim is unusually dense - even for the Red Sea. Corals, fans, eels and dozens of fish species flourish here, and the space-like depths of the hole provides a magnificent backdrop. It is best, however, not to let the Blue Hole's dark beauty lure you too far down: more than a few people have gone in and never come back, due to nitrogen narcosis.

THE LIGHTHOUSE
Dahab's lighthouse provides the terrestrial marker for this outstanding wall dive. Enter the water south of the lighthouse, and you won't have to fight the current. Proceeding East, the wall reveals an extraordinary diversity of fish and coral species.

SOUTHERN OASIS
Southern Oasis gets its name from a small that ends with a dramatic slope that bottoms out at nearly 150 ft. Following the slope outwards, coral "islands" and pinnacles pop up from the sandy floor.
patch of palms lying on shore near the site. Hugging the shore here is a thin reef shelf

TABA
Coral Island Sun Pool Marsa El Muqabila Ras Burka

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