In Pharaonic times Sinai's quarries provided great quantities of turquoise, gold and copper. The importance of this ‘Land of Turquoise’ also made Sinai the goal of empire builders, as well as the setting for countless wars. Acting as a link between Asia and Africa, it was of strategic value – many military forces marched along its northern coastline as they travelled to or from what is now known as Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
For many people, Sinai is first and foremost the ‘great and terrible wilderness’ of the Bible, across which the Israelites are said to have journeyed in search of the Promised Land, having been delivered from the Egyptian army by the celebrated parting of the Red Sea that allowed the ‘Children of Israel’ to safely gain access to the dry land of Sinai. It was here that God is said to have first spoken to Moses from a burning bush and it was at the summit of Mt Sinai (Gebel Musa) that the monotheistic faiths believe that God delivered his Ten Commandments to Moses.
Early in the Christian era Sinai was a place for Christian Egyptians to escape Roman persecution. Monasticism is thought to have begun here as early as the 3rd century AD, and for centuries thereafter the peninsula became a place of pilgrimage. It later became one of the routes taken to Mecca by Muslim pilgrims.
Until recently the majority of Sinai's inhabitants were Bedouin, the only people who are capable of surviving in the harsh environment of the peninsula. In the 1990s, however, Sinai became the focus of development and ‘reconstruction’, with inhabitants from the overcrowded Nile Valley encouraged to resettle here in large numbers. Tourism, too, has brought great changes. Surveys estimate that Sharm El Sheikh has seen a tenfold population increase in the past 20 years, while the small village of Dahab has grown into a sprawling beachfront tourist town, with business in both towns dominated by tour operators from Cairo and the Nile Valley.
For years Sinai’s Bedouin have complained of marginalisation and ill-treatment by the police as they become a minority in their native land. Although tentative steps towards more inclusion were made following the 2011 revolution, the upsurge in militant activity in north Sinai has since then pushed the two sides further apart. It remains to be seen if any future government can manage to mend the bridge of mutual mistrust that has, up to now, dominated dialogue between Cairo and Sinai’s traditional inhabitants.