Egypt: Exploring the Sinai
Climbing the camel path to the summit of Mt Sinai. (Mark Daffey/LPI)
The Sinai Peninsula has been a place of refuge for thousands of years. Prophets, nomads, exiles, conquerors, pilgrims and beachcombers alike have all left their footprints in the shifting desert sands.
During the Pharaonic Era, Sinai fuelled elaborate building campaigns by providing precious quantities of turquoise, gold and copper. Acting as a link between Asia and Africa, it was also of tremendous strategic value to would-be empire builders.
To the Israelites in search of the Promised Land, the Sinai was the "great and terrible wilderness" of the Old Testament. It was here that God first spoke to Moses from a burning bush, and delivered the Ten Commandments from atop Mt Sinai.
Under Roman rule, the Sinai provided shelter to Christians escaping persecution from the Empire. Later on, during the reign of the Islamic Caliphate, the peninsula was traversed by one of the primary pilgrimage routes to the holy city of Mecca.
Land of the Bedouins
Bedouins, who emigrated from the Arabian Peninsula after the Muslim conquest of Egypt, are the traditional inhabitants of the Sinai. Their present numbers are estimated to be between 80,000 and 300,000, with no less than 14 distinct tribal divisions.
Local life centres around the clans and their sheikhs, who live in traditional tents made of woven goat hair and sheep wool. Loyalty and hospitality - essential customs for surviving in the desert - are considered paramount.
The Bedouin maintain a sophisticated understanding of their surrounding environment. Water use is closely regulated, and vegetation carefully conserved, as revealed in the Bedouin adage: "Killing a tree is like killing a soul."
Sinai is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, the Gulfs of Aqaba and Suez to the east and west, and the Red Sea to the South. Sinai's rugged interior is filled with rows of barren mountains, wind-sculpted canyons and parched, dusty plains.
Nevertheless, the deserts of the Sinai are full of life. Dry, gravel riverbeds give rise to the odd acacia tree or clump of gnarled tamarisk, while a surprisingly rich variety of plants tenuously cling to the loose, sandy flanks of coastal dunes.
Offshore, the Red Sea harbours shallow reefs and coral mountains that are swarming with intense concentrations of tropical fish. Sharks, turtles, stingrays, dolphins, sponges, sea cucumbers and molluscs also thrive in these deep-blue waters.
From sea to mountain
Journeys in the Sinai inevitably wind from sea to mountain, taking in the full diversity of the peninsula. Start with an underwater plunge in Ras Mohammed National Park, a marine sanctuary with a profusion of coral species and rare pelagics.
Bedouin-led camel safaris allow you to penetrate the dramatic mountains of the interior. Lying between St Katherine and Nuweiba is Coloured Canyon, which is comprised of steep, narrow walls adorned with bright, multicoloured stones.
Lying at the base of Mt Sinai is St Katherine's Monastery, a fortress of finely hewn rock that protects a clipping of the biblical burning bush. A pre-dawn ascent to the holy peak offers panoramic vistas of pastel light washing across stark expanses.
Sinai's air hub is Sharm el-Sheikh, which receives regular flights and charters from Cairo as well as major European cities. For overland travel across the Sinai, there are frequent inter-city service taxis as well as long-distance buses to Cairo.
Sharm el-Sheikh has one of the greatest concentrations of hotels in Egypt, and there are literally hundreds of restaurants spanning the culinary globe. Diving trips, desert excursions and mountain treks can be easily arranged through local tour operators.