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History of Sinai

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Autumn 1990: The broad and sandy wadi with only a few isolated acacias narrows and leads to the right into the mountains. We climb straight ahead up a small path, scarcely wider than a goat track. Between two not-so-high mountain ridges the path reaches a pass, suddenly giving a wonderful view of the precipitous peaks of the Serbal chain.

A moment later, I pick up a stone and discover in my hand a hand ax of flint. A barely visible track in a wild, lonely landscape turns out to be an ancient pass, which was obviously used in the Stone Age. A few meters farther on, primitive pictures of three ibexes, scratched into the rock at the wayside a long time ago confirm the first impression.

This was not the first time we had found traces of history during our Sinai travels. In some places Sinai is strewn with historical relics, which reveal themselves to those who have learned to look more closely: rock paintings, old ruins, flint arrowheads, deserted copper and turquoise mines, pharaonic inscriptions, barrows, stone heaps, 'desert dragons,' granite pillars, and of course St. Catherine's Monastery with its art treasures from many centuries - all bear witness to a history reaching back to the beginnings of humankind. Far less pleasant are the remnants of recent history: Burned-out tanks, cannons shot to pieces, barbed wire, and frequently unmarked minefields are sad relics of Israeli-Egyptian wars.

The profusion of signs of historical happenings in an apparently empty desert landscape is astonishing only at first glance.

The location between the ancient and present powers of Egypt and Palestine, between Africa and Asia is once again a decisive factor. For a long time, historians regarded Sinai only as a stage for biblical Christian events and as a through-route for mercenaries, traders, pilgrims, and nomads. The mining activities of ancient Egyptians have also left plainly visible traces.

The realization that the peninsula was not just the playground of neighboring regions or the territory of a few rapacious nomads was the contribution of Beno Rothenberg.

In 1956 he began archaeological investigations in Sinai, but not until 1967 was a team under his leadership able to begin systematic recording by modern methods. His research work verified for the first time that Sinai not only was populated since primeval times but also twice experienced the development of its own indigenous civilizations.