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Sharm El-Sheikh, Tirān Island, and Tirān Straits


SHARM EL-SHEIKH, TIRĀN ISLAND, AND TIRĀN STRAITS . Sharm el-Sheikh and Sharm al-Mā (Sharm el-Moye) are two small bays on the southeastern coast of the Sinai Peninsula, opening out to the Red Sea. They are situated 10 mi. (16 km.) north of Raʾs Muhammad, the southern tip of Sinai, and 15 mi. (24 km.) southwest of the Tirān Straits and the southern end of the Eilat Gulf. The two bays are separated from each other by a narrow headland. The Arabic name of the first is related to the tomb of a Bedouin sheikh on its shore; in 1956, it was given the Hebrew name Mifraẓ\Shelomo ("Solomon's Bay"). Sharm al-Mā means "Water Bay." The local climate is arid-tropical, with summer temperatures in the 95–104°f (35–40°c) range, and precipitation remaining well below the 1 in. (25 mm.) annual average. The shore beyond the bays is hemmed in by coral reefs and mangrove thickets.

Tirān Island, at the southern issue of the Eilat Gulf, is composed of a northern and southern part, with a bay thrusting deeply into its eastern coast. Measuring 23 sq. mi. (59 sq. km.), it is over 7 mi. (12 km.) long and 6.5 mi. (11 km.) wide. Although mostly flat, a mountain 500 meters high rises at its southern end. The island is today uninhabited and has no fresh water supply. East of it lies the smaller Sināfīr (Senappir) island (surface 9 sq. mi., 24 sq. km.), which belongs to Saudi Arabia. Between Tiran and the Raʾs Nuṣrānī Cape on the Sinai Coast, a 4 mi. (7 km.) wide strait connects the Eilat Gulf with the Red Sea; coral reef isles, however, reduce its width to 2.5 mi. (4 km.), and the width where the water depth permits a secure passage to ocean-going vessels does not exceed 200–300 meters.

In the late Roman and early Byzantine periods, when Jewish centers of Arabia and Ethiopia developed trade with the Red Sea, a community of Jewish merchants was founded on Tiran in the fifth century, which named itself "Yotvat." It was destroyed by Emperor Justinian in 535 c.e. On the Sharm el-Sheikh shore, Bedouin occasionally camped. Paul *Friedmann, who planned to found a Jewish state in Midian to absorb Jewish refugees from czarist Russia, set up a temporary camp in Sharm al-Maʾ. The Turks sent a unit of soldiers to Midian to prevent the group's landing there. The episode contributed to exacerbate the Turko-British quarrel over Sinai, and a decade later proved to have a negative influence on Theodor *Herzl's el-Arish project.

After Israel's War of Independence (1948), the Egyptians built camps and fortifications at Sharm el-Sheikh and Ra's Nuṣrānī, with the intention of blocking the Tirān Straits to Israel shipping. To give them a foothold for the purpose, Saudi Arabia ceded Tirān Island to Egypt in 1949. Egypt thus repudiated the international law requiring that such waterways remain open to the shipping of all nations, even when both their sides are under the same political authority. The blockade was broken in the *Sinai Campaign, when Israel forces reached the Sharm el-Sheikh and Tirān area overland on Nov. 3, 1956, blowing up the huge guns at Raʾs Nuṣrānī which had dominated the straits. On the basis of the maritime powers' undertaking in the United Nations that free shipping through the Tirān Straits would be guaranteed, Israel evacuated all of Sinai. A un force was stationed at Sharm el-Sheikh and Raʾs Nuṣrānī, guarding the straits and thereby permitting the development of Eilat as Israel's Red Sea port. In May 1967, Egypt demanded the withdrawal of the un troops from the Sharm el-Sheikh area, a request immediately complied with. Nasser declared the Tirān Straits closed to Israel shipping. This became a principal factor in triggering the *Six-Day War, in which the Sharm el-Sheikh area once again came under Israel's control on June 7, 1967. Subsequently, it was Israel's declared policy that in any peace agreement Sharm el-Sheikh and the Tiran Straits had to remain under Israel control, together with a strip of land to connect it with Eilat. In 1968 the first bathing facilities were installed at Sharm el-Sheikh, and in 1971 a project was announced to build a town there. Early in 1971, the 150 mi. (250 km.) long highway between Sharm el-Sheikh and Eilat was completed. Following the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, Sharm el-Sheikh was returned to Egypt, but many Israelis (and others) continued to take their vacations there.

[Shlomo Hasson /

Efraim Orni]

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