Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 July 2005
Issue No. 751
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Save central Sinai

There are few locations in Egypt where evidence of Ancient Egyptian, Semitic and Nabataean culture overlap. Sinai's varied heritage should be given due consideration, says Jill Kamil

Click to view caption
Stelae at Serabit Al-Khadem; Cave of Hathor (1985) ; Cursive writing of Semitic tribes

The Supreme Council of Antiquities has launched an LE10 million project to upgrade the temple of Serabit Al-Khadem and the nearby turquoise mines in Sinai for what is loosely called "safari tourism". The vagueness of the term is disquieting. "Safari" suggests excursions, either by camel caravan or four-wheel drive; "tourism" brings to mind paved roads and a visitors' centre; while upgrading a temple leads one to suspect an attempt at reconstruction -- a difficult and totally unnecessary exercise.

At this early stage, Al-Ahram Weekly appeals to the project planners to give serious consideration to minimum intervention in the Ancient Egyptian temple, limited intrusion on the environment, and to consider taking advantage of this unique opportunity to present the divergent and overlapping cultures of central Sinai.

Few places on earth have played so decisive a role in the history of mighty nations as this triangular peninsula that juts into the northern end of the Red Sea. Before the construction of the Suez Canal it provided a land-bridge to western Asia. As such it saw the passage, along the "Way of Horus", of the Pharaohs' armies to and from the Levant, the Assyrian hordes, the Persian army of Cambyses, Alexander the Great with his mercenaries, Antiochus and the Roman legions, the Arab army of 'Amr, Crusaders, and Ottoman Turks.

To the south of the coast a desiccated gravel and limestone plateau dominated by dome-like peaks, known as Al-Tih, provided the route of the Darb Al-Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca and also a trade route guarded over by Islamic monuments along its length.

As for south central Sinai, this stark and barren area is best known to Jews and throughout the Christian and Muslim worlds for its association with biblical tradition: the Exodus, the "wanderings" and the Mount of the Law of the Old Testament; the New Testament description of the Flight into Egypt and the return of the Holy Family to Palestine; as well as the Monastery of Saint Catherine, for centuries a major site of pilgrimage.

Until the end of the 19th century the Bedouin population of Sinai, more affiliated ethnically to the Bedouin of Palestine and Arabia than those of Egypt, was concentrated in a limited number of places, mostly along the Mediterranean and the coastal belts of the two gulfs, the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba. The rest of the peninsula was largely uninhabited. Today that is no longer the case. Most of Sinai's north, east and west coasts have been lost to industrial and urban development and to recreational tourism.

Only the incredibly beautiful wild and tortured land of central Sinai remains, yet it is here, surprisingly enough, that we find the overlapping of cultures. Semitic and Nabataean inscriptions (more than 7,000 of the latter are known) lead one to suppose that there were more "wanderings" going on in Sinai than is generally supposed; it appears that Ancient Egyptians, Semites and Nabataeans were equally at home in Sinai, and this fact is worth serious consideration before any plan for "upgrading" Serabit Al-Khadem is set in motion.

Fortunately a large part of central southern Sinai -- specifically the area that lies between Mt Sinai and Mt Catherine, within which the Monastery of St Catherine is located -- has already been declared a protected area. Ideally this zone should be extended northwards to include Serabit Al-Khadem.

Serabit Al-Khadem is known not for the Temple of Hathor and the turquoise mines alone, but also because it was here that a mysterious script was found, a script that resembles hieroglyphics and appears to have evolved in Sinai. British archaeologist Flinders Petrie concluded that it was invented by a Semite who worked in the turquoise mines in about 1400 BC, using a linear script on the hieroglyphic model. His compatriot, the linguist Sir Alan Gardiner, noted the remarkable fact that at least six of the signs presented appearances that unmistakably corresponded to the meanings of letter-names belonging to the Hebrew and Greek alphabets. Even more convincing of cultural overlapping, one group of four letters -- repeated several times -- could read as Ba'alat, or 'the mistress', the female Ba'al, the name inevitably given by Semites to the Egyptian goddess Hathor (see insert). This confirmed that the inventor was a Semite who actually worked in the turquoise mines.

Evidence of Semitic tribes working alongside Egyptians in Sinai is important, not only because Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Semitic language combined to produce the remarkable alphabet, but also because the turquoise mines continued to be exploited right through to the 19th Dynasty which, according to most biblical historians, was the time of the biblical Exodus. If we consider the southern, traditional route of the exodus from Ain Musa to Abu Zeneima and through Wadi Feiran to the Mount of the Law, the Semitic tribes of Egypt must have come up against fellow Semites in Sinai. In addition, Egyptians would have taken no more account of them than they would have done of any other travellers carrying their goods, chattels, and trading items across the peninsula.

Take, for instance, the puzzling inscriptions and drawings that were noted by 18th- and 19th- century travellers which proved to be a form of Aramaic as developed by Nabataeans in the second to third centuries AD. The Nabataeans and their gods were clearly at home in Egypt, and nowhere more so than in Sinai. They used long- established routes frequented by nomadic tribes, Christian pilgrims and Ancient Egyptian expeditions, and carved their names on the rocks in places where they halted for food and water supplies. The strange script included drawings of camels, horses, donkeys and ibex.

Many early travellers in Sinai were both enchanted and challenged by the inscriptions, some attributing them to the Hebrews of the Exodus. But it was the German scholar Eduard Beer who in 1840 identified them as the work of Nabataeans. He noted that some of the characters closely resembled Hebrew and Arabic letters and concluded that it was a form of Aramaic, although with "a few Arabisms". Scorn was heaped on Beer by a British clergyman, the Reverend Charles Forster, who claimed that the inscriptions were the work of the people of Moses, but nevertheless Beer's thesis was proved correct. The Sinaitic inscriptions are Aramaic as developed by Nabataeans in the second to third centuries AD, and Beer's identification and decipherment ultimately led to the rediscovery of this remarkable people about whom history had been silent for so long.

Let us now return to the Temple of Hathor at Serabit Al-Khadem on a 755-metre high plateau inland from Abu Zeneima. It was built in an area particularly rich in turquoise, a semi-precious stone much in demand by the Ancient Egyptians but of which there is no trace today. Although the earliest evidence of mining dates to an early period, it was not until the Middle Kingdom, especially between 1790 and 1778 BC, that a permanent Egyptian presence was established there. The Pharaoh Senusert developed the site of an earlier rock-hewn shrine known as the Cave of Hathor in which the miners may have placed a statue of their patron goddess. A portico and open court were constructed in front of it to form a temple, from which position rocky trails lead to several small turquoise mines. Naturally there was a residential area for the priesthood, and some of the inscriptions leave no doubt that miners themselves sometimes served as volunteer priests.

Expeditions set out from Egypt every three or four years -- annually in times of special need for the precious stone -- under the command of important officials, some of whom claimed to be "an acquaintance of the king". The miners mounted rocky trails where they left graffiti of boats and hieroglyphic inscriptions some of which refer to the goddess Hathor as "the lady of the turquoise". They worked each mine rapidly, and when the source was exhausted went in search of new veins, but not before first making offerings to their patron goddess whose temple was successively enlarged and adorned.

During the 18th Dynasty, in about 1580 BC, the barracks were enlarged and the Temple of Hathor received attention from Queen Hatshepsut and Tuthmose III. Its orientation was changed when another shrine, dedicated to Sopd, a god of the Eastern Desert, was added at its southern end. By this time the structure did not resemble a traditional Egyptian temple at all. Courts, pylons and some dozen chambers with roofs supported on pillars can be identified.

This was a period of the greatest mining activity in Sinai, and because the Bedouins, who always resented the Egyptian presence, became more troublesome, a small Egyptian garrison was set up to keep watch over their movements. Why the local community should have attacked the miners is difficult to say; perhaps it was for no more than a meagre booty. Nevertheless armed pursuits were made, and records of Egyptian successes were frequently presented in triumphal reliefs inscribed on the rocks -- possibly exaggerated portrayals of fairly inconsequential incidents.

The mines around Serabit Al-Khadem, along with the now destroyed mines of Wadi Maghera, represented Egypt's main source of this popular stone, and mining was clearly an arduous task. The men had to crawl through narrow horizontal openings at ground level. The larger, grander mines could hold about 50 workers and in the hot months conditions were almost unbearable, as was described in a text dating from the 12th-Dynasty reign of Amenemhet III. One of his officials was almost in despair when he experienced a desert that " ...burned like summer, the mountain was on fire... ", but, he continued, he fortunately survived and recorded that his mission was successful.

When Flinders Petrie studied the temple in 1905 he removed many of the smaller stelae and statues; deciding to leave only the larger stelae in situ. These -- taller and narrower than most Egyptian stelae -- appear to have been erected at random. Some of these were also later removed, others scattered, and many reused and placed in different positions.

The Temple of Hathor leaves one with a somewhat confused impression of its layout. Consequently, the very suggestion of sorting out these various elements and "upgrading" the temple is unrealistic. The site should be left as it is, and it is suggested that a visitors' centre be built at the foot of the plateau and travellers, if physically able, left to make a strenuous 15-minute climb up the stony trail of Rud Al-Ayr over dry, jagged rocks to the Temple of Hathor. This is not a tourist-friendly site, and neither should it be.

Twenty million years ago Egypt, Sinai and Arabia were part of the same land formation. Then thermal currents in the earth's mantle created great tear faults that lifted and stretched the land. South Sinai was torn from Egypt to the east, and Arabia to the west, leaving two gulfs, the northern arms of the Red Sea. So jagged, varied and diversified in composition are the levels and contours of South Sinai that geologists have identified no fewer than seven geological divisions. Within the gaunt pinnacles, in colours that represent ores and igneous rock, Ancient Egyptians, Semites and Nabataeans have left evidence of passage.

It is true that there is a major temple in central South Sinai, as well as mineral-rich mines and important graffiti, but there is more: there are caves and valleys in the isolated and desolate interior where early ascetics found safety and spiritual solace during the terrible Roman persecutions of the third and fourth centuries; and there is evidence that the landscape was traversed by people of diverse cultures who left tangible traces of their movement. We must not let its importance be underestimated or spoiled by what is loosely called "safari tourism".

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