ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Sinai: A Great and Terrible Wilderness

The peninsula known as the Sinai is a timeless site of Christian history.

Situated between the Holy Land and the Suez Canal, the Sinai is a land that evokes images of wanderings, burning bushes and smoke-shrouded mountains. It is the place where man spoke to God and God replied. It is a land of great beauty and equally great severity.

The name Sinai is believed to have originated with the ancient Mesopotamians who worshipped Sin, the moon god.

The shifting sands of the Sinai have witnessed some of the greatest Bibical journeys ever.

Abraham, patriarch of the Old Testament, travelled through Sinai from Haran and Ur, where he spent most of his life. He was forced to cross the desert to Egypt to escape famine. Years later eleven of his great-grandsons travelled through the Sinai to Egypt to purchase grain.

Perhaps the longest journey was that of Moses and the Israelites who escaped from slavery in Egypt and wandered through the Sinai for 40 years in search of the Promised Land. It was at Mt. Sinai that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and at Mt. Catherine where Yahweh spoke to Moses through a burning bush. The Israelites referred to God as Yahweh. The Book of Exodus recounts Yahweh’s goodness to his people enroute to their land of “milk and honey.”

Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus fled the wrath of King Herod by crossing through the Sinai.

Because of the Sinai’s strategic location, it has been the pawn of many and the home of a few. Since the days of the Pharoahs, armies have crossed its sands in conquest of Syria and Canaan. In the 15th century BC Egypt’s King Thutmose III crossed the northern Sinai to attack Palestine and Syria. Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC after crossing the Sinai.

Geographically a part of Asia, the Sinai has provided a land bridge between continents for merchants and travellers as well as armies. A few of the key routes were The Way of the Shur, the Via Marls and “Darb el-Hajj.” In the 16th century Egyptian Pharoahs built the Way of the Shur across central Sinai to Beersheba and then on to Jerusalem. The Via Marls or Way of the Sea was a historic route of conquest and commerce connecting the Nile Valley with Mesopotamia along the Mediterrean Sea. An east-west path across the desert between the gulfs of Suez and Aqaba was named “Darb el-Hajj” or the Pilgrim’s Way, a route for Muslims going to Mecca.

The Sinai is a 23,000 square mile peninsula that projects into the Red Sea and is bordered on the east by the Gulf of Aqaba and on the west by the Gulf of Suez.

Marshes and dunes line the northern coast. Across the barren middle are limestone plateaus. Along the southern coast are granite mountains that change color with the passing of each hour. Geologists attribute the beautiful hues to impurities of manganese, iron, and chalk. These mountain ranges meet at Ras Muhammad on the Red Sea, a spot of brilliant coral reefs.

The current population of the Sinai totals no more than 200,000 people, most of whom are gathered around the northern town of El Arish, the provincial capital.

The oldest inhabitants of the Sinai are the Bedouins, the nomadic tribesmen of the desert. They are believed to be responsible for the “proto-Sinatic” inscriptions, ancient alphabet inscriptions found carved on the walls of a turquoise mine. These Bedouins are referred to in some hieroglyphic inscriptions as “masters of the sands.”

Today’s Bedouins live in tents made of goat’s hair and exist almost exclusively on the produce of their herds of camels, sheep and goats. A Bedouin’s wealth is measured by the number of camels one has. They roam the desert seeking new grazing quarters for their flocks.

The lifestyle of Bedouin women has not changed much since the days of the Pharoahs. For instance, a staple of the Bedouin meal is unleavened bread, prepared much the same way that the Jewish women did before their flight from Egypt.

Despite the thousands of armies that left tracks in the sands of the Sinai, the landscape bears small testimony to the dreams and conquest of the men who crossed it. The lavender and gold mountains remain as solid as the days when a fugitive slave people wandered across its sands in search of a home, a promise, a faith.

The unparalleled silence of the Sinai speaks of Yahweh’s eternal presence.

Peggy Haymes is studying for her master’s degree in divinity.

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