The Sinai (Heb. סִינָי) is a peninsula situated between the two northern gulfs of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Eilat on the east and the Gulf of Suez on the west. It forms a triangle, each side of which measures about 200 mi. (320 km.). The peninsula consists of three main regions, each different in its geographical aspects. In the north is a sandy coastal plateau, partly traversed by dunes 20 mi. (32 km.) deep, which reach a height of 60–90 ft. (c. 18–27 m.), but which are passable in a northeast-southeast direction. A few wells of brackish water and palm groves in oases make the passage of this region easier. The sandy areas are narrow on the east, but expand into the desert of al-Jifār (the desert of Shur) on the west. The second zone is a limestone plateau intersected by valleys and ridges and known as Badivat al-Tīh. Its northern limit is formed by a series of mountains, including, from west to east, Jebel al-Jiddī (2,058 ft.), Jebel Yaʿallaq (3,200 ft.) and Jebel Halāl (or Ḥalāl; 2,714 ft.). South of these mountains, whitish limestone cliffs rise in a line of sheer precipices from the gravel-strewn surface of the ground. The Tīh desert extends eastward into the area around Kadesh, and westward up to the Suez region. Its sandy and rocky ground contains few watering points. The southernmost region of the Sinai Peninsula consists of a group of granite mountains intersected by deep wadis and their tributaries, between which rise rocky massifs with high pinnacles and deep gorges. The outstanding peaks in this area are Jebel Katerina (8,652 ft.), Jebel Mūsā, the traditional Mt. Sinai (7,486 ft.) and Jebel Sirbāl (6,791 ft.). The waters flowing from these snow-clad peaks in the winter have created several oases, the most important one being the central oasis of Fīrān (Paran). The mountain range of the south extends northward along the west coast; this part is rich in copper and turquoise, the greatest concentration of which exists at Sarābīṭ al-Khādim. West of it, the plain of al-Marḥa (Markha; see *Sin, Wilderness of) follows the west coast.
Situated between the Nile Valley and the land of Israel, Sinai was from earliest times traversed by a series of roads running from west to east, of which the three most important are a) the coastal road, known in the Bible as the “way of the land of the Philistines,” which runs from the vicinity of Pelusium to Gaza, passing from one well to another; it is the shortest and most frequented route; b) the road which crosses the Tīh desert from Ismailia on the Suez Canal by way of Biʾr Jafjafa (or Gafgafa) and Biʾr al-Ḥamma to Abu Aweigila and to Niẓẓanah (ʾAwjā al-Ḥafīr); c) the Darb al-Ḥajj (“route of the pilgrimage” to Mecca from Egypt), which crosses the southern part of the Tīh desert by way of Qalʿat al-Nakhl and Biʾr al-Thamad, and by way of al-Kuntilla descends the Raʾs al-Naqb to Eilat. The less important north-south routes are, in the east, the road along the Wadi el-Arish (Brook of Egypt) by way of Kadesh-Barnea (ʿAyn al-Qudayrāt) and al-Qusei’ma to Kuntilla and, in the west, a road which follows the west coast to al-Ṭūr and Sharm el-Sheikh on the southern tip of the peninsula. Side roads lead from the latter road to the copper mines at Ṣarābīṭ al-Khādim and to Jebel Mūsā by way of Wadi Fīrān.
Historically, the importance of the Sinai Peninsula has always been a result of its character as an area of transit from Asia to Africa and vice-versa. Evidence of settlement in this area begins with the Paleolithic Age, at which time Sinai was not yet a desert. In the Chalcolithic period it apparently served as a link between pre-dynastic Egypt and the settlements around Beersheba in Canaan. In the time of the early dynastic period in Egypt, expeditions were sent from the Nile Valley to exploit the copper mines, as Egypt itself had no metals; the presence of a serekh (hieroglyph) of Pharaoh Narmer at Tel Erani and a walled city, perhaps a symbol of Canaan, represented on the Narmer palette (from Hierankonopolis), show that the pharaonic armies were already traversing the peninsula at the beginning of the First Dynasty. In the Middle Bronze Age, the period of the Patriarchs, Sinai was relatively more densely settled than at later stages in its history; it was crossed by Abraham and Jacob on their way to Egypt. Later, it was traversed by the Hyksos invaders of Egypt. In their wake, the desert was occupied by nomadic tribes, related to Ishmael in the Bible (Gen. 25:17–18); the Egyptians referred to them collectively as Shasu. After the expulsion of the Hyksos (16th century B.C.E.), the pharaohs took steps to secure their kingdom by building a wall (shur) across the western end of the peninsula and by establishing a chain of forts along the coastal road to secure the watering points.
It was during the New Kingdom that Sinai acquired its biblical fame. In the Bible, the desert of Sinai is situated between Rephidim and Mt. Sinai, with the wilderness of Sin between it and Elim (Ex. 16:1; 19:1–2). According to Numbers 33:15–16, it lay between Rephidim and Kibroth-Hattaavah and in Numbers 10:12, the wilderness of Paran is situated to the east of it. Mt. Sinai eclipsed the desert of Sinai in later literature as the identification of the place where the Law was given to Israel (Deut. 33:2; Judg. 5:5; Ps. 68:8, 18; Neh. 9:13). The identification of Mt. Sinai, and by implication that of the desert of Sinai, depends on the view taken of the route of the Exodus; the traditional theory places Mt. Sinai at Jebel Mūsā, while others place it at Jebel Halāl (or Ḥalāl), or even in the Arabian Peninsula. The last identification is supported by the assumed connection between Sinai and the moon god, Sin.
During the period of the Exodus, the desert was occupied by the Amalekites, who disputed the passage of the Israelites at Rephidim. The Egyptians left the desert nomads alone, while keeping control of the coastal road and the copper and turquoise mines at Ṣarābīṭ al-Khādim (Dophkah?). The beginnings of an alphabetic Semitic script, the so-called proto-Sinaitic alphabet, are evident in the inscriptions written by slaves who worked in the mines. In the period of the monarchy, Saul and David fought the Amalekites (I Sam. 15:7, 27:8) and controlled northwest Sinai. The nomads of the region helped in Esarhaddon’s campaign against Egypt, although some served as mercenaries in the Egyptian army. Later, they brought water to the army of Cambyses of Persia during his invasion of the Nile Valley; in return, the Persians allowed the kings of Kedar (the predecessors of the Nabateans) to maintain harbors on the coast of Sinai, between the Serbonic Lake and Ienysos, south of Gaza.
See also Mount Sinai.
In Hellenistic and Roman times, the interior of Sinai was left to the Nabateans as part of Arabia Petrea; only the coastal road was controlled by the Ptolemies and later by the Romans. After annexation of Nabatea by the Romans, it was regarded as part of Provincia Arabia, and after Diocletian, as part of Palestina Tertia (Salutaris). In the Byzantine period, the biblical associations with the region led to an increase in trade and pilgrimages across the desert. Justinian built a fortified monastery near Jebel Mūsā (Mount Sinai) and a bishopric was established at Paran. A chapel was constructed on the top of Jebel Mūsā. Ephrem the Syrian in one of his hymns (CSCO 323, 71–73) compares Mount Sinai to the Old Testament and the church on the mountain’s summit to the New Testament, indicating that he viewed the church as a symbol of the ascendancy of Christianity over Judaism. Sinai was largely left to the Bedouin in Islamic and medieval times, until the excavation of the Suez Canal on the west increased its importance.
[Michael Avi-Yonah /
Shimon Gibson (2nd ed.)]
A Zionist plan, in Herzl’s time (1902), to settle the El-Arish area (then under British administration as part of the British protectorate of Egypt), as a prelude to Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel, proved abortive. A border dispute between Britain and Turkey led, in 1906, to the final demarcation of a border line between the British protectorate and the Ottoman Empire running from Rafa to Taba south of Akaba. This line was crossed during World War I by Turkish forces, which attacked the Suez Canal, and then by the British army, which conquered Palestine. The same line became the international boundary of Egypt and Mandatory Palestine. For several years after the war, Sinai formed a separate British administrative unit under Major C.S. Jarvis.
During Israel’s War of Independence (1948–49), the Israeli army, in pursuit of the retreating Egyptian forces, crossed the line and occupied eastern Sinai but was forced to withdraw unconditionally under political pressure from the United States and threats of British military intervention. In the Sinai Campaign in 1956, the Egyptian army was routed by the Israeli army, which occupied the entire peninsula except for a strip along the Suez Canal. In 1957, Israel was again forced, mainly by the United States and the Soviet Union, to withdraw behind the armistice lines of 1949 without achieving a peace treaty with Egypt. The rapid aggressive buildup of huge Egyptian forces in Sinai in May 1967 was a major factor leading to the Six-Day War, when the whole of Sinai, up to the Suez Canal, was occupied by Israel.
At the end of 1967 a census was conducted in northern Sinai and 33,800 Arabs and Bedouin were registered, 30,000 in El-Arish alone. After the Six-Day War the Israel military administration carried out a series of economic development projects, e.g., helping to erect factories in El-Arish; introducing better medical and educational services for the local population, including the Bedouin; and paving a modern highway from Eilat along the western coast of the gulf to Sharm el-Sheikh. Extensive geological and archeological surveys of the entire peninsula were carried out by Israeli scientists and experts. In the wake of the Yom Kippur War, Israel withdrew inland from the Suez Canal following the 1974 disengagement agreement and the 1975 interim agreement, returning the Abu Rudeis oil fields to Egypt and allowing it to reopen the Suez Canal.
In the meanwhile Jewish settlement activity had commenced in the Rafa Salient (Pitḥat Rafi’aḥ) in the northeast corner of Sinai, including the town of Yamit, which had grown to 2,000 inhabitants by 1977, with another 2,000 in the surrounding settlements. These were abandoned in stages in accordance with the peace treaty signed with Egypt in 1979, in which Israel agreed to withdraw from all of Sinai by 1982, including the Yamit Region, whose settlements were razed.
R. Weil, La Presqu’île de Sinaï (1908); W.M.F. Petrie, Researches in Sinai (1906); J. Ball, The Geography and Geology of West-Central Sinai (1916); C.S. Jarvis, Yesterday and Today in Sinai (1933); L. Prévost, Le Sinai (1937); H. Bar-Deroma, Zeh Sinai, (1967); E.H. Palmer, The Desert of the Exodus, 2 vols. (1871); Y. Aharoni and M. Avi-Yonah, in: Antiquity and Survival, 2 (1957), 287ff.; M. Harel; B. Rothenberg, et al., Tagliyyot Sinai (1967). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: H.S. Palmer, Sinai. From the Fourth Egyptian Dynasty to the Present Day (1878); The Sinai Journeys: The Route of the Exodus in the Light of the Historical Geography of the Sinai Peninsula (1973); Z. Meshel and I. Finkelstein (eds.), Sinai in Antiquity: Researches in the History and Archaeology of the Peninsula (1980); U. Dahari, Monastic Settlements in South Sinai in the Byzantine Period: The Archaeological Remains (2000).
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.