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The Sinai

The Sinai
A Physical Geography

A physical geography of the Sinai peninsula.

January 1997
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
160 pages | 6 x 9 | 19 halftones, 25 maps, 7 figures, 10 tables |

One of the world's oldest crossroads, the Sinai joins the great continental land masses of Africa and Eurasia. Its physical geography of rugged mountain peaks, desert plains, and sea coasts was formed by the collision of the two continental plates, while the human tides that have swept across the region over millennia have left an intricate web of cultures and ethnicities.

In this book, Ned Greenwood offers a complete, up-to-date physical geography of Sinai. After an introductory chapter that situates Sinai within world history and geography, he focuses in detail on the following areas: plate tectonics and geology, geomorphology and drainage, weather and climate, soils, and biogeography.

In the concluding chapter, Greenwood considers the human geography of Sinai, including the pressures currently posed by population growth, political extremism, and environmental constrictions on development. He offers a fully rounded picture of the physical environment of Sinai that will be vital reading for everyone concerned about the future of this strategic yet fragile land.


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CHOICE (Current Reviews for Academic Libraries

  • List of Illustrations
  • Preface
  • Place Name Types and Derivations for Sinai
  • 1. Sinai: Search for a Geographic Entity
  • 2. Plate Tectonics and the Geology of Sinai
  • 3. Geomorphology and Drainage
  • 4. Weather and Climate
  • 5. Soils of Sinai
  • 6. Biogeography of Sinai
  • 7. May They Eat Lamb in Paradise
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Ned Greenwood is Professor Emeritus of Geography at San Diego State University.


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Sinai has for centuries been a land that has stimulated scholarly endeavor and fostered a widespread lay interest. However, it is the recent decades of concentrated political and military conflict that have eclipsed the age-old need for better knowledge. Yet for all its importance there are few if any convenient sources to which the modern reader in the West can turn for a concise and comprehensive look at this land as a total entity. This work attempts to provide a new focus on Sinai's physical geography.

With paved roads and motor vehicles it is possible to travel from Ras Mohammed, at the southern tip of Sinai, to Qantara, in the northwest on the Suez Canal, then from west to east all the way to Rafah in one very long day. In a week one could travel every road in the peninsula, yet it would take decades to achieve a real familiarity. For a Westerner it may be impossible to ever fully know Sinai, but there is a powerful fascination with its natural environments and peoples—in a word, its geography. As observed by American friends after we had made a camel trek in a snowstorm to the Blue Mountain, where a mad French artist had painted vast areas of brown desert rocks an improbable blue: "Sinai is a land of fascination and frustration." While it is a fascinating land it has also been a greatly disputed land. Over the past half-century it is doubtful that any real estate on earth has been more negotiated and fought over than this small triangle of desert that links the great continental masses of Africa and Eurasia like a short umbilical cord. This juncture of continents is as pivotal politically and culturally as it is tectonically. The inhabitants brag that it is the "crossroads of continents and meeting place of seas." With a bit of juggling one could easily substitute "meeting place of humanity." Through millennia diverse floods of humanity have washed over its arid wastes, pushed and pulled between Pharaonic Egypt and Assyria-Babylon. Between Arab Egypt and Hebrew Israel. Between Christian, Jew, and Muslim. Nor should it be forgotten that Greeks and Romans struggled for imperial control, as did the British and French. Even the United States and the Soviet Union have been tugged upon by Sinai's lodestone. Through the course of history the turmoil of Sinai has been more often than not tied to that of Egypt, whatever its ruling power.

In a Name

In biblical times Paran, not Sinai, was the name for the peninsula. Nineteenth-century Arab Egyptians were apt to call it the Way to Hejaz. This is a reference to the Hejaz province of Arabia, which contains the holy cities of Islam: Mecca and Medina. Such a reference is somewhat disparaging, indicating that it was little more than empty space one had to cross to reach the important goals, the quest of the haj or pilgrimage. Another commonly used term, "Shibh Jazirat Sinai," was more definitive and carried no backwater overtones. It simply means "Peninsula of Sinai."

The word "Sinai" is so old that its derivation is uncertain. Some believe it was derived from "sen," meaning tooth, which describes the shape of many mountains found there. Others claim that it comes from "Sin," the Moon God of Sumeria, who was also the Lord of Wisdom and Father of Gods. The worship of Sin was favored by the Nabataeans in Sinai. Whatever its source, the name Sinai is now unequivocal. It means only one place and its boundaries are relatively fixed.

Even as the name is unequivocal, the physical regionality is concise and easily defined. Except for the northeastern boundary, Sinai would be as easily demarcated as an island. But along that sector the artificiality of man-made boundaries is glaring. The close physical and cultural relationships to Israel's Negev were not erased by the drawing of an artificial line across the sands. Even decades of more-or-less continuous war have not destroyed these cultural and geographic ties. The Bedouin of the Negev still look to their cultural roots in Sinai.

Physical Regionality

The details of physical regionality are mapped in Chapter 3 (Figure 3-1), but this chapter needs to consider a few salient divisions. From north to south the eight main regions are: (1) the Dune Sheet of the Mediterranean Littoral; (2) the insular Massifs, containing gebels (mountains) Maghara, Yelleq, and Halal; (3) the sandy deserts of the Suez Foreshore; (4) the gravelly and rocky Tih Plateau, which includes the main drainage of the Wadi el Arish; (5) the Dividing Valleys, which lie between the Tih Plateau and the Sinai Massif; (6) the Sinai Massif; (7) the Plain of Qa; and (8) the Aqaba Foreshore. These regions are each readily defined in terms of abrupt breaks in the landscape.

It is quite possible that Sinai is as unique tectonically as it is theologically. The events of crustal plate movement, the push and pull of the large African and Eurasian masses combined with lesser adjustments within and between the Levantine and Arabian plate fragments have created an intricate pattern of lands and seas. In the north the land is washed by waters of the temperate Mediterranean. In the south the peninsula is grasped by the arms of the tropical Red Sea. Neither sea does much to alleviate the aridity imparted by the Atlantic Subtropical High Pressure System and enforced by the great land space of Saharan Africa. The Mediterranean fringe of Sinai suffers from the environmental pollution and declining ecosystem complexity that plague the entire basin. Likewise ocean shipping and petroleum extraction in the Suez arm of the Red Sea are problematic, yet there remains a strong contrast between the rich life in the sea margins and the intense deserts of the adjacent coastal plains.

On the land itself the contrast is between flat, nearly featureless plains and rugged, barren mountains. In the north, mountain remnants like Gebel Maghara rise precipitously from alluvial plains. In the south, the Sinai Massif dominates surrounding plains with range after range of exposed crystalline mountains.

On the whole there is less contrast between lifeforms than geologic forms. Nowhere is the vegetative cover really luxuriant. Even the oases tend to be mere strips of life seemingly meant to emphasize the barrenness of surrounding deserts. Subdesert grasses with scattered scrub communities are widespread. These appear lifeless through much of the year, responding briefly to late winter rains and runoff. Then the shrubs take on a lighter color, but most do not show a vivid green, rather a lighter hue of olive drab. To the casual observer there seems to be little contrast, but drab shrubs and annual grasses hold a surprising diversity.

Land wildlife provides less contrast than vegetation, largely because it is seldom seen. Reptiles are not as common as in comparable desert areas of North America. Larger mammals like the ibex and jackal are almost never seen. Mostly it is the domestic animals, the "giants" (camels) and the "small cattle" (sheep and goats), that lend an animal presence to the landscape. Bird life, fortunately, is found in considerable variety, especially during the migratory seasons of spring and fall. In spite of an overall paucity, lifeforms are so important to the culture that they are prominent in folk stories and frequently show up in place names.

Place Names

In 1869 British explorer and Orientalist Edward Henry Palmer, under the auspices of the Palestine Exploration Fund, traveled extensively in Sinai to collect correct place names and develop an accurate geographic nomenclature. This was the first systematic attempt to render Sinai names in English. Palmer, like the rest of us, was confronted with the problem of transliteration-how to render the Arabic phonetic sound in the English alphabet. Unfortunately even now there is no standard system. The rendition of names varies greatly. For example, the town at the center of the Tih Plateau is variously given as "Nakhl," "Nekhel," and "Nukht"

The generic name for mountain is given as "gebel," "jebel," or "jabal," with the Bedouin pronunciation falling somewhere between the English "g" and "j." Pilgrim is rendered as "haj," "hajj," or "hogg." There is no definitive system, only workable systematics. In the following pages there will be an attempt to render terms consistently and as simply as possible. "Place Name Types and Derivations for Sinai," located after the Preface, lists typical names and examines them in more detail.

Political Units

By the time Sinai came back to Egyptian control following the Camp David Accords of 1979, the prewar governorates were already reestablished. Two large governorates controlled most of the area, but three small areas near the canal were attached to existing governorates that have most of their territory and population outside of Sinai proper (Figure 1-2). Sinai has an area estimated at 64,500 km2. Over 94 percent of the area and probably 97 percent of the population are found in the large governorates, leaving less than 6 percent of the area and 3 percent of the population attached to As Suways (Suez), Al Ismailiyah (Ismailia), and Bur Said (Port Said) governorates. Total population for Sinai was 49,769 in 1960, growing to 250,000 by 1990, a startling fivefold increase.

Sina ash-Shamaliyah (North Sinai Governorate) is headquartered at El Arish and covers 27,570 km2. The north contains most of the population, 171,505 in 1989. In 1983 the population of the capital city was 56,200. By 1990 it was probably over 75,000, some 45 percent of the total.

Sina al-Janubiyah (South Sinai Governorate), headquartered at Tor, is larger in area with 33,140 km2. but its 1989 population was only 28,988, 15 percent of that in the north. It is estimated that another 8,000 to 10,000 live in the area just east of the canal in the areas controlled by Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez.


Sinai is a region of few settlements, but many camping spots, at least for the Bedouin. Foreigners are forbidden to leave the main roads. Figure 1-3 shows the thirty-one most important fixed settlements. While the list is not exhaustive, there are few other units that really deserve to be called villages or towns. In the past most settlements were small clusters of humanity around a water source which sometimes served a meager market function. Most did not exceed a few dozen families. El Arish, Rafah, and Tor have broken away from that ancient pattern.

El Arish now shows distinctive urban growth, sprawl and all. It has a large market function and is the developing center for higher education in Sinai. It has two large faculties (colleges) and more to come. Tourism is a growth industry here. It boasts a five-star hotel and numerous high-quality beach houses and condominiums.

Rafah, which spans the border with Israel, and Qantara, with a village on either side of the Suez Canal, both reflect border area economics. A great variety of contraband can be purchased in these towns. Smuggling is among the most important economic activities in both. Border officers recently discovered an elaborate tunnel system at Rafah used to move contraband goods between Egypt and Israel. Foodstuffs, especially canned goods including cheese and butter, are prized commodities.

Qantara is very close to the free port of Port Said, and the smuggling of fabric, electronic gear, and even drugs is big business. People come from as far away as Cairo to shop because citizens cannot bring free port goods in from Port Said. Thus the smugglers perform a middleman service, at a price, but the goods are still cheaper than if a tariff had been paid.

Tor still retains a minor port function for the peninsula, but it is more important as a petroleum center and fishing town. It grows fine grapes and produces wine, but not for consumption by the Muslim citizens. It also has a long history as a spa based on hot mineral waters.

Ras Mohammed, Sharm el Sheikh, Dahab, Nuweiba, Taba, and Na'ama Bay have become important tourist towns. Scuba, wind surfing, shell and coral collecting, and other water-oriented recreation are important to their economic base. Locally, fishing provides an important income. St. Catherine and Feiran are tourist attractions for completely different reasons. They give access to mountain hiking trails and camel treks, but most importantly they have sacred and historic sites that attract a completely different breed of tourists. Higher education is also important. The Suez Canal University maintains research stations at Sharm el Sheikh and St. Catherine. St. Catherine also has a large tourist village and an airport offering access to those who would avoid the desert travel.

At the center of Sinai are settlements like Nakhl, which once served as a camping and watering place on the pilgrim road to Mecca. It now has automotive services and markets for local tribesmen. Bir Tamada, Bir Gifgafa, and Bir Hasana serve similar though lesser roles.

In selecting the thirty-one settlements it became obvious how important roads are to the present units. Places like Ain Yirga, Ain Akhdar, Ain Um Ahmed, and Ain Hudera—all well watered, but with no proper roads, only ancient caravan trails—have tended to stagnate. As a result they are losing permanent residents. To be sure, they remain significant to herdsmen who water their stock there and residents who hold titles to the land, but the importance of wage employment has attracted many of the young and progressive to other areas.

A new factor that is just beginning to affect population distribution is Egypt's policies for resettlement of people, especially those from crowded agricultural lands in the Nile Delta. Population increase and resettlement are changing the existing cultural regionality in a variety of ways.

Cultural Regionality

The broad cultural regionality of Sinai coincides with the existing political division between the north and south. It may well have been the reason for placing the main political boundary in its eastwest alignment, which follows the Darb el Haj (the ancient Pilgrim Road). Northward the tribal lands are largely held by Bedouin groups that appear to have descended from a common stock called Maaza. They claim to be Ashraf, direct descendants of Mohammed through his daughter Fatima. Prior to 1768 elements of the Maaza were found all over Egypt, but policies of extermination by the Mameluke rulers left the main remnants in Sinai and Egypt's Eastern Desert. Today the Sinai remnants pasture the sandy plains of the Mediterranean Littoral and the northern part of the Tih Plateau. They practice horticulture and fruit husbandry around wells and in favorable wadi bottoms (Figure 1-4).

South of the Pilgrim Road, a shifting confederation called the Towara dominates the economic landscape. The core of this group came en masse from eastern Egypt in the seventh century. Another important component originated in the Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula. It is uncertain when they first came to Sinai, but they were already a dominant tribe when Mohammed Ali came to power in 1805. The Towara annihilated or absorbed older Bedouin groups then living in the Sinai Massif, the Qa Plain, and the Aqaba Foreshore. Only small groups exist outside the confederation. Their economic and cultural impact is indeed minor.

On balance the tribes of north Sinai are stronger than those of the south. In both regions internal feuding has been a way of life, but today modern economic realities and urbanization are blurring the distinctions of the past. The Bedouin of Sinai are hillbillies to Egyptian Arabs, but the Fellahin still fear these fierce men of the desert, who are only now succumbing to the enticements of economic consumerism.

On the other side of the coin, Egypt tends to view Sinai as a relatively open land able to sustain more population and geopolitically needing Arab citizens to secure it against Jewish occupation. The success of reclamation projects and new settlements will largely depend upon how Egypt perceives the political needs and how vigorously it pushes economic development. The final chapter will consider some of these problems in view of sustainability as well as political reality. It is far from certain that Sinai can absorb vast numbers of people, whether they come because of migration policies or result from natural increase of native population. It is a great land, but a fragile land.