Sinai Peninsula

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Triangular peninsula between the Mediterranean and Red seas.

The Sinai is the desert area of northeast Egypt that forms the land bridge between Africa and Asia. In the north it is a flat and sandy dune sheet. Rugged mountains, including the al-Tih Plateau and Egma Escarpment as well as Sinai Massif surrounding Gabal Musa, dominate the central and southern regions. The peninsula is bordered on the east by the State of Israel and the Gulf of Aqaba and on the west by the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Suez. To the north it is bordered by the Mediterranean and in the south it comes to a point extending into the Red Sea. The Sinai is hot year round: it has average highs of about 90°F (32°C) and average lows of about 60°F (15°C), but temperatures tend to be lower in the mountains of the south.

The term Sinai is an ancient one, derived possibly from the name of the Semitic moon god Sin. The peninsula has generally come under Egyptian domination since ancient times. According to the Bible, it was the area in which the Israelites wandered for forty years after their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, and the site of Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. During the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527565), the Eastern Orthodox Monastery of Saint Catherine was built at the foot of the legendary Mount Sinai, known as Gabal Musa (Mount Moses), in central Sinai. It remains an important attraction for pilgrims and tourists.

During the Middle Ages, the area was settled primarily by nomadic Bedouin tribes and loosely controlled by successive empires. It fell under the Ottoman Turks from 1517 until 1840. After Muhammad Ali broke with the Ottoman Empire, the Treaty of London gave Muhammad Ali control over Egypt, but the Sinai remained under Ottoman administration. The British Colonial Office exerted its own rule over Egypt from 1882 and clashed with the Ottomans over specific areas of the Sinai. They managed to establish the eastern boundary as a line from al-Arish or Rafah to Aqaba. A line from Rafah to Aqaba became the southern boundary of the British Mandate territory of Palestine from 1922 to 1948. It remained the international border between Egypt and the new state of Israel from 1949 through June 1967, when Israel occupied the Sinai. During Israel's occupation, Jewish settlements were established in the Sinai, two major air force bases were constructed, and the Alma Oil Field was discovered and developed.

Under the 1978 Camp David Accords, phased Israeli withdrawals were undertaken in 1980 and 1982. The territory of Sinai was divided between four demilitarized zones, three in Egypt and one on the Israeli side of the border. Under the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979, the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), headquartered in the area of alGorah in northeast Sinai, has been established to observe and verify force reductions in the eastern zone, and to ensure free navigation through the Strait of Tiran.

The Sinai is now primarily divided between the two Egyptian governorates of North and South Sinai, with portions of the region abutting the Suez Canal attached to the governorates of Bur Saʿid, Ismailiyya, and Suez. The population of the peninsula was estimated at about 38,000 in 1948, mainly Bedouin; it had grown to about 140,000 by 1970, with the development of petroleum and manganese deposits plus the influx of Palestinian refugees. By 1994 the population of the peninsula had grown to approximately 270,000. Aggressive plans for reset-tlement and development of the region, most importantly the Salam Canal project in the north, have contributed to a rapidly increasing population base.

Along the northeastern coast of North Sinai is the city of al-Arish, the largest settlement in the Sinai with a population of well over 75,000. Along the southern coasts, several small resorts have emerged as important local centers, including Taba, Nuwayba, and Dahab on the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba, and the port of Sharm al-Shaykh on the Red Sea coast at the extreme southern end of the peninsula. The latter has played host to several high-level negotiations and Middle East summits since the early 1990s. It is also renowned as a diving resort for its spectacular coral reef and variety of tropical fish. The environmental significance of the area was recognized with the creation of nearby Ras Muhammed National Park in 1983.


Greenwood, Ned H. The Sinai: A Physical Geography. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.

Saad el Din, Mursi; Taher, Ayman; and Romano, Luciano. Sinai: The Site and the History. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Siliotti, Alberto. Guide to Exploration of the Sinai. Shrewsbury, U.K.: Swan Hill, 1994.

elizabeth thompson
updated by paul s. rowe