The Sinai has figured prominently in Egyptian history.
During the Pharaonic Dynasties, Egyptians from the Nile Valley mined its valuable minerals at sites such as Sarabit el Khadim west of Mount Sinai where today one can wander around the dramatic remains of a temple dedicated to the goddess Hathor. Sinai is the “great and terrible wilderness” of the Bible, where water and food were sparse. The Israelites journeyed across the barren hills and inhospitable desert in search of the Promised Land, narrowly escaping Pharaoh’s army through the celebrated parting of the Red Sea. It is in Sinai that God is said to have first spoken to Moses from a burning bush and then delivered his Ten Commandments from the summit of Gebel Musa (Mt. Sinai).
Later, during the Roman occupation of Egypt, Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus crossed the Sinai while fleeing Herod. During the following three hundred years, it was a refuge for Egyptian Christians fleeing Roman persecution and was populated by large numbers of hermits and ascetics. It was during this time that the monastic order of St. Katherine’s was established on the site of the burning bush in the shadow of Gebel Musa.
In 640 AD, the nomadic and tribal Bedouins, Sinai’s indigenous population, were converted to Islam by the invading Arab armies of Amr Ibn al As. They acted as guides and protectors to Christians making pilgrimages to the monasteries in South Sinai and the Holy Land and they escorted Muslims making their pilgrimage to Mecca. Trade flourished in the Sinai as huge amounts of grain and other types of tribute poured into Arabia from Egypt and North Africa. During the 200 years of the Crusades Sinai was used as a buffer to protect Egypt and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina from invasion.
The next crucial moment in Sinai’s history came with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. This considerably increased its importance as a strategic location. The British occupied Sinai and the remainder of mainland Egypt in 1882, the Turks captured it during World War I, and the British regained control of Sinai in 1916. In 1956, after the nationalization of the Canal it was closed to Israeli shipping. The Israelis, in an effort to retake the canal, invaded, and with the assistance of France and Britain, captured all of Sinai. However, Egypt was able to garner support from the world community and international pressure forced a complete Israeli withdrawal with the United Nations establishing a buffer zone on Egypt’s side of the to monitor the cease-fire.
In 1967, Egypt re-established its blockade in the Gulf of Aqaba and expelled the UN buffer forces. In response, Israel launched a pre-emptive attack against its Arab neighbors, thus beginning the Six Day War. Within two days, Nasser’s army was destroyed and the Sinai was occupied. During the next seven years, Egypt suffered Israeli strikes, discharged from the strategically placed Sinai, upon military, industrial and civilian targets.
The October War of 1973 was a turning point for Egypt as its armies successfully crossed the Suez Canal and broke through the Israeli defenses of the Bar Lev Line. While the Israelis launched a massive counterattack, it marked the beginning of an arduous peace process that culminated in the Camp David Agreements of 1978 and the 1979, the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Under the terms of the treaty, which established peace and gave Israel normalized relations with Egypt, Israel was to withdraw from Sinai by 1982 with the exception of Taba, which was returned in 1989. A Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) was created and stationed in the Sinai to ensure adherence to the treaty.