Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Land of coral and turquoise

Situated between the Mediterranean Sea to the North, the Red Sea to the West and the Gulf of Aqaba to the East, it is the ancient and eternal “wilderness of Egypt”.  Known as the Sinai Peninsula it is a triangular wedge of 61,000 kilometres, (24,000 sq miles), forming a bridge between Asia and Africa. Vast and awesome, with rugged mountains and endless deserts, it has always been part of the land of the pharaohs, centuries before the time of Abraham. It sits in all its majesty, breathtaking and imposing, the impenetrable gate to this ancient land.

During a surprise Israeli attack on Egypt in 1967, Sinai was seized by enemy forces within six days. It was a shame and a pain buried in the heart of every Egyptian. A deep, solemn gloom weighed on the land. It is peculiar how man never knows the value of anything until he loses it. There it lay for centuries, a thing of beauty, endowed with divine gifts and yet sparsely populated, unexploited and almost forgotten. It is only when it was lost that it was sorely missed.

British novelist Aldous Huxley wrote: ”Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.”  In more contemporary terms, the thought is expressed by the ‘PASSENGERS’ hit song: ”Let Her Go”:  “Only miss the sun when it starts to snow/  Only know you love her when you let her go”.  And we let her go----but not for long!

In October of 1973, a surprise attack, this time by the Egyptian armed forces, led by former president Anwar Al-Sadat, crossed the Bar-Lev line, invading Israeli territory, which ultimately led to the return of the Sinai to the heart of Egypt, in 1982. The price was high! 120,000 Egyptian soldiers are buried beneath the desert sands of Sinai, a mighty tomb and monument to Egypt’s struggle for its liberation.

Festivities continue in every corner of Egypt, celebrating the 32nd anniversary of the return of Sinai, with a pledge never again will it be abandoned. Surely our next president will focus on the development of this enchanted wonderland, thereby allowing 30 million citizens to live and prosper within its bounds, instead of the present 500,000 inhabitants.

Its mountains may be 850 million years old, but history records that humankind’s presence dates back 8 to 10 thousand years, when early bronze-age settlers searched for valuable metals. Known as ‘Maffeat’ or ‘country of turquoise’ now ‘ard al-fairuz’, the peninsula’s rich copper and turquoise mines were developed by Egypt’s earliest pharaohs, the first historically attested mines. The name ‘Sinai’ may have been derived from the ancient moon-god ‘Sin’.

There are moments in Sinai when one feels as if the history of the whole world can be read in its stones. By 3000 BC Egypt maintained official control of the area, which remained primarily a mining region and a route between Egypt and the great civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, from semi and Western Asia to the Nile Valley.

Great chariots clattered back and forth, from Hyksos to Tartars, Greeks to Romans, Christians to Muslims.  Sinai hosted a great number of historic figures, Ramses II, Alexander the Great, Amr Ibn Al-Aass, Salah Al- Din, Napoleon Bonaparte among others, but none could shake its solid ground or rob it of its exalted rapture.

 All three great religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam know Sinai as a holy land, a vast expanse, traversed time and again, by prophets, saints, pilgrims and warriors.  Jews claim the peninsula was crossed during the Exodus from Egypt, in 1313 BC, however the location is much contested by academics since Moses’ Mt Sinai is described as ‘the highest mountain in the region’ which would place it at ‘Madyan’ in Saudi Arabia, east of the gulf of Aqaba. No archaeological evidence has been found of large nomadic wanderings from that period.

One of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world, St Catherine’s Monastery, built between 548 and 565 AD, by order of Emperor Justinian, (527-565) has been receiving pilgrims ever since. It is by far the biggest attraction on the peninsula, guardian of a spiritual presence extending over 17 centuries. It was supposedly built on the site where Moses was to have seen the Burning Bush. The mountains of St Catherine were formed 25 million years ago, about the same time the Red Sea was formed. A small town has grown around the monastery with hotels and swimming pools, called St Catherine’s city.

Throughout history Sinai has held a strategic position, a most important crossroad between East, West, North and South.

Today, it is also a hot tourist destination… and why not? It offers incomparable treasures that can hardly be found elsewhere, combining ancient archaeological sites with its Biblical and Islamic history. Its heavenly setting of rich coral reef, mountains and desert sands, coloured canyons and magical sunsets.

Tourists come to relax on its myriad golden beaches, swim, dive, sail or just gaze at the amazing rock formations and contemplate its rich history.

Islamic terrorists that swept down on the peninsula since 2011 have been totally driven out by Egypt’s armed forces.

Sinai’s spectacular coral reefs, and its many blissful wonders, its unique allure, beckon once again. Its  history seems to be carved on every granite stone, every drop of water, every grain of sand!

Visitors are returning to this paradisiacal Egyptian peninsula --- known as the land of Sinai!         

“Incredibly, inordinately, devastatingly, immortally, calamitously, hearteningly, adorably beautiful”.

 Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)


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