Opinion| Sinai’s sacred geography gets Biblical treatment

Atef Moatamed
11 Min Read

Since the dawn of exploration and travel, numerous voyagers have drawn their passion and inspiration from the Biblical geography associated with the Sinai Peninsula.

Atef Moatamed

Before the development of Egyptology during the 19th and 20th Centuries, most voyagers saw Egypt just as the background to the theatre that was the Exodus and part of the itinerary for the “Children of Israel”.

One of the oldest known voyages to Sinai was the pilgrimage made by the Frenchman Postumien around the year 400 CE. The story of his pilgrimage is known only via the writings of the Christian historian, Sulpice Sévère (363 – 425 CE).

Postumien travelled from Narbonne in modern-day France to Alexandria, from which he visited Sinai and the Thebaïde in Egypt’s Eastern Desert, in search of the famous Christian hermits of that period. He ascended Mount Sinai and gave a general description of its peak.

Around the same period, at the beginning of the 5th Century, Aetheria (or Egeria) accomplished her pilgrimage to Sinai, presenting one of the most amazing descriptions of life on Mount Sinai.

She traced, step-by-step, what the monks revealed to her as the footprints of the Children of Israel who received the law of God through the sacred places of Mount Sinai, Elia and Horeb. They were also said to have travelled on the plains of El-Raha and Riphidem, and other places mentioned in the Biblical books of Exodus and Numbers.

Throughout the centuries after Aetheria, many important pilgrimages to the area occurred. These include the voyage of Felix Fabri, written under the title Fratris Felicis Fabri Evagatorium in Terrae sanctae, Arabiae et Aegypti Peregrinationem, which was published in 1448.

Fabri offered the basics of re-imagining the contemporary geographical scenes based on some books from the Bible, such as Exodus, Judges, Numbers, and the books of the Maccabees. 

In addition, Fabri reiterated the Middle Age’s stereotyping of the Muslims living in the holy lands of Palestine, in which they are often described as “infidels” or “Saracens”.


Fabri was one of the first voyagers who tried to reconstruct the biblical names associated with Sinai and Palestine as Ethan, Mara, Helim, Dephea, Raphadim, Areroth, Rechma, and Cades. He explained fifteen meanings for the word “desert”, as a place of isolation, death, snakes, sand dunes, thirst, devil, and temptation.

Fabri paved some of the ancient roads towards what would later become “orientalism”, by portraying the Bedouin as a savage and miserable people. He also gave them the name of “desert thieves”, as he claimed they arm themselves not for battles to defend their lands, but to steal the others.

In 1547, Pierre Belon du Mans (1518-1564) accomplished his “Voyage en Egypte”. As Belon was more interested in the country’s natural history, he showed little interest for the Sinai Peninsula’s sacred history and geography.

During his visit to Sinai, he occupied himself by describing the natural vegetation and the cultivated crops of the oasis of Phiran, at the foot of Mount Sinai. Despite his good map of the St Catherine Monastery and the sacred sites, there is no mention in his book of Bible citations or stories of Moses and his people. In his itinerary, George Chr. Von Neithzschitz (1636) followed in the footsteps of the Children of Israel in Sinai.

The Voyage en Egypte by Balthasar de Monconys (1646-1647) presented a “neutral” description of Sinai and a detailed itinerary from Suez to Mount Sinai. As part of this, he included some impressive drawings of the St Catherine Monastery and the two peaks of Mount Sinai and Mount St Catherine. The same “neutrality” can be found in Les voyages en Egypte de Jean Coppin, 1638-1640.

Other voyagers, such as Aquilante Rocchetta (1599), Henry Castela (1601) Gabriel Bremond (1645), and Ellis Veryard (1678) adopted a semi-neutral method. They presented their itineraries to Sinai through describing the scenes in a background of “sacred theatre”.

Again the Voyage au Mont Sinai by Père Sicard (1720) looked to the sacred texts of the Bible, and the book of Exodus, in particular, for inspiration.There are many place names associated with the Children of Israel, and this voyage was unique in presenting a map of the Sinai Peninsula according to the Bible.

There were also several voyages by Russians dedicated especially to the pilgrimage to Mount Sinai, including a very impressive one by Basile Posniakoff (1558).

Pierre Belon

Posniakoff was totally oriented by a religious version of the Exodus’ geography, with his voyage enjoined by a political mission and supported by Russia’s Tsar Ivan the Terrible. He also had the blessing of Metropolitan Macaire, who gave it on behalf of all Orthodox Christians in Russian territories.

This voyage was one of the first to give details of what was considered Bedouin violence against the monks at the St Catherine Monastery.

The Russian merchant, Basile Gogara, accomplished his voyage to Sinai in 1634, and also made mention of the Arab hostility towards the St Catherine Monastery. This came despite, he claimed, the monks supplying these “savages” with food and help.

The Russian monk Hippolyte Vichensky (1708) undertook a voyage to Egypt, where he delivered images from real geography rather than the Bible. Here, there were more details about the Springs of Moses (or Ayoun Mousa in Arabic), the multi-coloured landscape, and the lively flora of Mount Araba. He also wrote of the St Catherine Monastery, the religious life of the monks, the richness of the animal life in Sinai, and the road from Mount Sinai to Raithou (El-Tor).

More recent Russian voyages, including those of Abraham Noroff (1835 and 1861) and Porphyre Ouspensky (1845 and 1850), undertook searches for the Arabic meaning of some geographic names relevant to the Exodus.

Noroff claimed, for example, that the mountain of ’Ataqa is the Arabic for “deliverance“ of the Children of Israel from the pursuit of Pharaoh’s army and crossing of the Red Sea near Qolzum (Suez).

According to Noroff, some Arabs around the St Catherine Monastery are descended from slaves sent there by the Roman Emperor Justinian, and are said to have Gypsy origin. Ouspensky gives a good account of the major stops on the pilgrim road across central Sinai, especially Wadi Shelal, Wadi Nasab, Serabit Al-Khadim, and Wadi Wardan.

In his voyage “Travelling Sketches in Egypt and Sinai”, Alexander Dumas (1839) added an expressive subtitle: “Including A Visit to Mount Horeb, and Other Localities of the Exodus”. The same method was adopted in the famous book by EH Palmer (1871) entitled The Desert of Exodus.

Palmer paid a very high price for his trip, when he was killed in 1883 by Bedouin in central Sinai. He was sent there by the English government, most likely to assist the English invasion using his influence over the Arabs of the El-Tih Desert. He managed to prevent the Arab sheikhs from joining the Egyptian nationalist movement, led by Ahmed Orabi, and secured their non-interference with the Suez Canal.

In 1871, William Beamont published an account of his voyage to the Egyptian Peninsula in To Sinai and Syene, and Back in 1860 and 1861. Beamont’s account is  another example of the changing winds history whilst geography remains un-changed. In Chapter 9, entitled The Exodus, Beamont re-imagines the sacred history of the escape to the Promised Land by the “Shemmo” (or “the strangers” as the Egyptians named the Children of Israel).

Throughout these examples of voyages to Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula became the established birthplace of Judaism. With Palestine labelled the birth place of Christianity, the two regions were integrated on one pilgrimage voyage, usually tracing the footsteps of Moses and his people.

Recent photo of convent of St. Catherine

Considerable parts of most of these voyages draw heavily from the writings of the Holy Books or the biased analyses of the anthropological characteristics of the local population, rather than from observation of the actual landscapes. 

After writing their general impressions of desert scenes, camels, tents, Bedouin, heat and burning sun rays, sandy plains and pale rocks, the voyagers usually return to history (mostly to myths and meta-stories rather than actual archaeology) to complete the lengthy pages of their accounts.

With the onset of a critical period of Egyptian history in the late 19th century, the American traveller Henry Field arrived in Egypt. His book On the Desert: With a Brief Review of Recent Events in Egypt  was published in New York in 1883.

While the greater part of Field’s work is dedicated to a detailed description of Sinai and the southern Palestine, the first two chapters deal with the political turmoil in Egypt during the British occupation.

Because of its political, historical, geographical and cultural anthropology, the Field’s 1883 voyage deserves to be reviewed in detail in the next article.

Share This Article