a peninsula (including its eastern extension in the Negev) encompassing a triangular desert region, in which the Mediterranean coastal plain forms a land bridge that connects Africa and Western Asia. The peninsula's central continuous plateaus of Al-Tih and Egma and the southern mountainous region of Gebel Musa contain a mineral-bearing area bounded to the west by the Gulf of Suez, the Bitter Lakes, and the Wadi Tumilat, and to the east by the Gulf of Elat and the Rift Valley in southern Arabah (between Elat and the Dead Sea). In ancient times, the Nile River's annual inundation enabled the cultivation of cereal grains and other crops in the Nile Valley and the Nile Delta's flood plains, which supported a large population, in contrast to the neighboring Sahara and Sinai deserts; these became progressively more arid and less populated after the Predynastic period (4000–3050 BCE). The Sinai provided a geographic filter through which materials and sociocultural exchanges passed between Egypt and the Near East, but it also formed a sufficient barrier to allow for the early development of a distinct Nile Valley civilization, one which evolved throughout antiquity.

Despite the Sinai's desert terrain, greater precipitation and open mountain scrub forests occur near its southern end and many springs and oases (e.g., Wadi Feiran) have supported continuous, albeit small and fluctuating, nomadic and sedentary populations. Throughout antiquity, both Egyptians and bedouins mined turquoise and copper in the southern Sinai (including copper in southern Arabah). In contrast, the northern Sinai maintained relatively higher populations, and it became both a strategic region that protected Egypt from invasions and a military and commercial route that connected Egypt with Arabia and Palestine.

Historical Overview.

The Sinai contains many seasonal campsites that have been dated to the Paleolithic (700,000–5500 BCE), the Neolithic (5500–4000 BCE; Egypt's Badarian and Faiyum A cultures), the Chalcolithic (4000–3300 BCE; Egypt's Naqada I and II), the Early Bronze I (3300–3050 BCE; Egypt's Naqada II and III), and the Early Bronze II (3050–2687 BCE; Egypt's first dynasty and second). Nevertheless, Egyptian contact with Western Asia (the Near East) is not well attested until the late Predynastic (Naqada II and III) and the first dynasty. During those periods, Egyptian artifacts (e.g., flint knives, ceramic vessels, stone vessels, and items with royal names in serekh frames) appeared in Palestine and at many of the 30 Chalcolithic and the 250 Early Bronze I and II campsites in the northern Sinai. In the southern Sinai, Egyptian Predynastic potsherds were about 1 percent of the pottery found at two Chalcolithic sites and seven Early Bronze I and II sites. In addition, the presence in Egypt of Syrian-Palestinian and Mesopotamian material culture (e.g., pottery, cylinder seals, and architectural and artistic elements), plus items of turquoise and of copper, confirm that Egypt maintained contact with the Near East (through the northern Sinai) and with the southern Sinai during the Predynastic period and the first dynasty. By the second dynasty, however, Near Eastern artifacts decreased in Egypt, paralleling the decline in Sinai sites of Egyptian pottery.

Old Kingdom.

The nature and extent of early Old Kingdom relations with the northern Sinai await clarification, since few Early Bronze III (2687–2374 BCE) sites are attested in this region; sixth dynasty pottery (e.g., Late Meidum vessels) and First Intermediate Period activity occured at many of the 280 Early Bronze IV to Middle Bronze I (2374–1991 BCE) sites in the northern Sinai. Some Egyptian accounts (e.g., the sixth dynasty Biography of Weni) refer to Old Kingdom raids across the northern Sinai into Palestine, while late First Intermediate Period texts (e.g., the Admonitions of Ipuwer and Instructions for Merikare) mention West Asian incursions into the Nile Delta after the Old Kingdom's collapse.

Old Kingdom activity has been well attested in the southern Sinai. The Wadi Mughara (termed the “terraces of the turquoise”) contains camps, copper-smelting sites, turquoise mines, and rock tablets that were dated to the kings of the third dynasty to the sixth. The Mughara tablets depicted some Egyptian deities that were worshiped in Sinai: a goddess (possibly Hathor), a jackal figure (Wepwawet, “opener of the ways”), and an ibis-headed figure (Thoth, “lord of the foreign countries”). To the northeast, Wadi Kharig yields a mining camp and an inscription of Sahure from the fifth dynasty. Egyptian activity disappeared from the southern Sinai during the First Intermediate Period.

Middle Kingdom.

In the Middle Kingdom and in the Second Intermediate Period, Egyptian pottery and some sherds of Tell el-Yahudiyya ware were found at five settlements in northwestern Sinai and at many of some one hundred campsites in north-central and northeastern Sinai. Egyptian texts, such as the Story of Sinuhe and the Prophecy of Neferti, record Amenemhet I's establishment of fortifications (“The Wall of the Ruler”) in northwestern Sinai, possibly at Tell Heboua and/or at Tell er-Retabeh in the Wadi Tumilat. Later Egyptian texts (e.g., the Kamose Stelae) mention the infiltration and control of the Delta and Middle Egypt by Near Easterners (the fifteenth dynasty Hyksos, called “foreign rulers”). The Hyksos controlled a fortress 350 by 400 metres (some 1,140 by 1,320 feet) at Tell Heboua, which produced two stelae of King Apophis (r. 1605–1565 BCE).

Middle Kingdom activity intensified in the southern Sinai. Mughara was found to contain rock inscriptions of Amenemhet III and IV near the turquoise mines. Wadi Kharig had an inscription of Senwosret I beside a camp and two turquoise mines. Wadi Nasb contained a stela of Amenemhet III and a possible thirteenth dynasty cartouche (of Sobekhotpe II?). Rod el-ʿAir yielded Middle Kingdom graffiti and a nearby campsite. Serabit el-Khadim contained statuary and inscriptions of Amenemhet I through Amenemhet IV from the turquoise mines and a temple to Hathor (“Lady of the turquoise”).

During the Second Intermediate Period and early eighteenth dynasty, West Asian (Hyksos?) activity in the southern Sinai may be attested through the presence of some sherds of Tell el-Yahudiyya ware and some Hyksos-style scarab seals at Serabit el-Khadim. In addition, Mughara, Wadi Nasb, and Serabit el-Khadim have perhaps thirty-five undeciphered Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, including one stela that depicts an Egyptian mummiform deity (Ptah). Proto-Sinaitic is a script used to write a Semitic language (with twenty-seven to twenty-nine consonantal, pictorial signs, of which twenty-three to twenty-six derive from Egyptian hieroglyphs); it resembles the Proto-Canaanite alphabet of 1800–1500 BCE.


Sinai. Remains of the temple of Hathor at Serabit el-khadim in the Sinai. Various stelae are still standing; mining expeditions dedicated them to the goddess Hathor, who was associated with turquoise. (Courtesy Dieter Arnold)

New Kingdom.

Early in the eighteenth dynasty, Ahmose captured the Sinai fortress of Tjaru, defeated the Hyksos at Avaris (Tell ed-Dabʿa), and conducted three campaigns against Sharuhen (Tell el-ʿAjjul?) in southwestern Palestine. Ahmose then initiated the New Kingdom “empire” (albeit in the form of raids rather than occupation forces prior to Thutmose III) in the northern Sinai and in Syria-Palestine, and he renewed Egyptian turquoise mining and copper smelting in the southern Sinai. New Kingdom texts designated the northern Sinai as the “Ways of Hours,” which included a series of forts and reservoirs depicted by Sety I at Karnak Temple. More than one hundred and fifty New Kingdom sites are between el-Qantara and Raphia in northern Sinai and numerous sites in northeastern Sinai form ten clusters, with a central fortress or administrative structure, a reservoir, magazines, and satellite campsites. Three New Kingdom sites at Tell Heboua (I–III) straddle a causeway between the western and eastern lagoons (probably Tʒ dnit: “the dividing waters”), possibly representing Tjaru (erroneously equated with Tell Abu Sefah, the Romans' Sile). The “eastern” canal, found several kilometers to the southeast, may also be dated to this period.

The eastern frontier fortifications included Ramessid forts at Tell er-Retabeh (Wadi Tumilat) and Kom el-Qulzoum (today's Port Suez; Ptolemaic Clysma). The Isthmus of Suez also contained in situ, albeit possibly reused, gateway blocks of Ramesses II at Serapeum; a stone shrine of Sety I and a stela of Ramesses II at Gebel Abu Hassa; a stela of Ramesses II at Gebel Mourr; and New Kingdom (?) or later (Roman) activity at Ain Moussa (e.g., a shawabti funerary figurine). Those sites facilitated maritime and overland expeditions to an eighteenth dynasty anchorage and pharaonic site (numbers 345 and 346) in el-Merkha Bay, from which ancient expeditions accessed Mughara and Serabit el-Khadim. Another route to el-Merkha Bay traversed the Eastern Desert via Wadi Araba to cross the Red Sea.

Later biblical texts recount the Exodus of the Hebrews (Israelites) from Egypt, a crossing of the “Reed-Sea” (the Bitter Lakes [?]), and a sojourn in the Sinai. Egyptian sources however, contain no references to the Exodus, and its date and details remain controversial there. The earliest reference to Israel and its destruction in Palestine (c.1232 BCE) is found on Merenptah's Hymn of Victory stela (“Israel Stela”).

New Kingdom activity concentrated at Wadi Nasb and Serabit el-Khadim, in contrast to Mughara, which yielded one inscription dated to Queen Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, plus a reported, albeit unconfirmed, inscription of Ramesses II. Wadi Nasb contained a copper mine, two furnaces, tuyères, slag heaps with New Kingdom faience, and an inscription of Ramesses II. Rod el-ʿAir produced some graffiti. The plateau at Serabit el-Khadim yielded twenty turquoise mines with two inscriptions of Thutmose IV. Mines G and L contained copper-smelting tools (e.g., two stone foot-bellows and tuyères), forty-seven stone molds (for metal axes, adzes, knives, chisels, mirrors, and ingots), stone tools, stone containers, a faience bowl, and New Kingdom potsherds. The plateau also yielded a small shrine of Ptah (with three stelae dedicated to Hathor), the Hathor Temple, and five sandstone quarries used for this temple's construction.

New Kingdom expeditions repaired and embellished the Middle Kingdom shrines of Hathor (“Lady of the Turquoise”) and Sopdu (“Lord of the East”) and constructed a western series of chambers (with Hathor-headed columns and pairs of stelae) and an enclosure wall, during the reigns of Amenhotpe I, Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, Amenhotpe II, Thutmose IV, Amenhotpe III, Sety I, Ramesses II, Merenptah, Sethnakhte, and Ramesses III, IV, and VI. The temple yielded royal and private stelae and statuary, as well as votive items: beads (from necklaces), bracelets, scarabs, figurines, plaques, sistra, throw-sticks, and containers of alabaster (calcite), faience, glass, and pottery (including Mycenaean and Cypriot potsherds). Many votives bore the cartouches of most New Kingdom rulers from Ahmose through Ramesses VI (including an unpublished votive of Horemheb), but excluded were Amenhotpe IV (Akhenaten), Semkhkare, Tutankhamun, Ay, and Amenmesse.

From the nineteenth dynasty to the twentieth, expeditions initiated copper mining and smelting at Wadi Reqeita (in southeastern Sinai) and in southern Arabah. The Arabah contained a rock inscription at Timna, from the time of Ramesses II, and one from Ramesses III at Site 582, as well as a Hathor shrine at Site 200, which produced votives with the cartouches of Sety I, Ramesses II, Merenptah, Sety II, Queen Tawosret, and Ramesses III, IV, and V.

Late in the twentieth dynasty (in the time of Ramesses VII to XI) and in the twenty-first to twenty-fifth dynasty, evidence of Egyptian activity disappeared from the southern Sinai and declined in the northern Sinai, which retained settlement at Retabeh, at some sites in northwestern Sinai, and at thirty Iron Age sites between Wadi el-ʿArish and Wadi Ghazzeh. The Negev and Gulf of Elat, however, became an important region that linked Syria-Palestine with the Arabian spice trade. Epigraphic evidence indicates that Egypt conducted military activity into Palestine during the reigns of Siamun, Sheshonq I (who also invaded the Negev), Osorkon I (biblical Zerah?), Osorkon II, Shabtaqa, and Taharqa.

Late period.

The Assyrian kings Sargon II (722–705 BCE) and Sennacherib (705–681 BCE) expanded their empire into southern Palestine, subjugating Arab tribes in northeastern Sinai in 720, 716, and 701 BCE. They were succeeded by King Esarhaddon, who failed to invade Egypt in 674 BCE, but who in 671 BCE captured the Nile Delta as far south as Memphis. His successor, Ashurbanipal, invaded Egypt in 667 and 664 BCE, during which he restricted the Kushite kingdom to Nubia and established the vassal ruler Necho I at Sais in the Delta.

The Saite Dynasty rulers Psamtik I and Necho II renewed Egypt's domination of Syria-Palestine between 612 and 601 BCE, while, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, Necho built a trireme shipping base on the Red Sea. Northwestern Sinai contained Saite forts at Tell Defenneh, Tell Qedwa, and Tell el-Maskhuta (Pithom), and occupation continued at thirty sites in northeastern Sinai. The aforementioned eastern canal may have been used in this period, since it connected Defenneh and Qedwa. In 601 and 568 BCE, the Babylonian empire destroyed the forts at Qedwa and Maskhuta but failed to capture the Delta.

King Cambyses crossed the northern Sinai and defeated Egypt in 525 BCE, initiating the First Persian Occupation of Egypt (the twenty-seventh dynasty, 525–405 BCE). The Persians established more than two hundred settlements in northern Sinai and extended a canal from Maskhuta to the Red Sea. Despite a renewal of Egyptian independence from the twenty-eighth to the thirtieth dynasty, the Persian Empire reoccupied Egypt from 343 BCE until Alexander the Great occupied it in 332 BCE.

Greco-Roman times.

During Greco-Roman times (332 BCE–395 CE), settlements in the northern Sinai increased to more than three hundred sites (ports, fortresses, and waystations). The southern Sinai regained its importance as a source of turquoise and it has yielded numerous Nabataean and Aramaean inscriptions at places such as Wadi Mukhattab (near Mughara) and Wadi Hesif es-Seghair (near Serabit el-Khadim). The Hathor temple at Serabit el-Khadim produced some (probably) Late period amulets, a Roman potsherd, an early Roman glass sherd, and an inscribed Meroitic offering table (c.300 BCE–350 CE). By the fourth century CE, the southern Sinai had become a refuge for hermits and a destination for pilgrims visiting settlements in Wadi Feiran, the Monastery of Saint Catherine (Mount Sinai), and other sites ascribed to the Hebrew sojourn in the Sinai.



  • Andelkovic, Branislau. The Relations between Early Bronze Age I: Canaanites and Upper Egyptians. The University of Belgrade, Centre for Archaeological Research, 14. Belgrade, 1995. Examines the presence of imported Early Bronze I Egyptian and Canaanite artifacts in Palestine and Egypt; provides good bibliography, maps, site plans, and line drawings of artifacts. Also includes sites in the Nile Delta, the northern Sinai, and the Negev.
  • Beit-Arieh, Itzhaq. “Serâbît el-Khâdim: New Metallurgical and Chronological Aspects.” Levant 17 (1985), 89–116. Deals with coppersmelting technology and artifacts from Mines G and L at Serabit el-Khadim; discusses the association between the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions and copper-smelting activity.
  • Bowersock, Glen W. Roman Arabia. Cambridge, Mass., 1983. Includes Nabataean and Roman activity in the Sinai and Negev; has maps, site plans, photographs, and a good bibliography.
  • Chartier-Raymond, M., et al. “Les sites miniers pharaoniques du Sud-Sinaï: Quelques notes et observations de terrain.” Cahiers de recherches de l'Institut de papyrologie et d'Égyptologie de Lille 16 (1994), 31–77. Concerns a 1991 survey of ancient Egyptian turquoise and copper-mining sites, with bibliographical entries in the footnotes; also contains a report by D. Valbelle on a 1993 expedition to Serabit el-Khadim. Articles are summarized in English.
  • Fontaine, Alfred L. Monographie cartographique de l'Isthme de Suez, de la Péninsule du Sinaï, du nord de la chaîne arabique suivie d'un catalogue raisonné sur les cartes de ces régions. Mémoires de la société d'Études historiques et géographiques, de l'Isthme de Suez, 2. Cairo, 1955. Useful cataloging of published maps of the Sinai Peninsula; good bibliography, historical background to cartographic work in this region, descriptions of the sites on the maps, and an index to sites and explorers.
  • Gardiner, Alan H., and T. Eric Peet. The Inscriptions of Sinai. Part II: Translations and Commentary. Edited and completed by Jaroslav Černý. Memoir of the Egypt Exploration Society, 45. London, 1955. This publication provides a well-referenced study with ancient Egyptian names for Sinai, routes, the composition of expeditions, mining techniques, and a catalog of translated inscriptions from Magharah, Wadi Nasb, Wadi Kharig (Kharit), Rod el-'Air, and Serabit el-Khadim.
  • Gardiner, Alan H., and T. Eric Peet. The Inscriptions of Sinai. Part I: Introduction and Plates. 2d rev. ed. by Jaroslav Černý. Memoir of the Egypt Exploration Society, 36. London, 1952. Represents the correction of and addition to inscriptions illustrated in the first edition, during the 1930 and 1935 Harvard University expeditions to Serabit el-Khadim.
  • Giveon, Raphael. The Stones of Sinai Speak. Tokyo, 1978. Well-illustrated general treatment of the history of exploration and explorers in Sinai, Egyptian mining at Wadi Maghara and Serabit el-Khadim, Egyptian deities worshiped in Sinai, an overview of Giveon's survey and excavations, some new plans of Egyptian camps, and some new inscriptions.
  • Gophna, Ram. Excavations at ʿEn Besor. Tel Aviv, 1995. Republication of 16 articles written between 1976 and 1993; includes recent summary and some new discussions of the excavations of the Early Bronze I site of ʿEn Besor in southern Palestine on the northeastern edge of the Sinai; Egyptian activity is mentioned at this site. Good bibliographies deal with the First Dynasty in the Sinai and southern Palestine.
  • Pinch, Geraldine. Votive Offerings to Hathor. Oxford, 1993. Examines several categories of artifacts and aspects of the Hathor cult at sites in Egypt and Sinai (Timna and Serabit el-Khadim); incorporates many unpublished items (from Museum collections) excavated at Serabit el-Khadim.
  • Rainey, Anson F. Egypt, Israel, Sinai: Archaeological and Historical Relationships in the Biblical Period. Tel Aviv, 1987. Eight articles deal with Egyptian activity and interrelations with Canaanites, including two treatments of the Hebrew Exodus.
  • Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton, 1992. Provides a recent examination of archaeological and epigraphic evidence on the nature and extent of Egyptian contact with West Asia across the Sinai, from the Palaeolithic to 586 BCE: contains a new study on the Hebrew Exodus.
  • Rothenberg, Beno, et al. The Egyptian Mining Temple at Timna. Researches in the Arabah 1959–1984, 1. London, 1988. Well-illustrated publication of the excavations at an Egyptian New Kingdom shrine at Timna, with historical background, technical articles, special studies, and catalogs of the pottery, objects, textiles, wood, faunal, and floral remains. Extensive bibliography for each section.
  • Sass, Bejamin. The Genesis of the Alphabet and Its Development in the Second Millennium B.C. Ägypten und Altes Testement, 13. Wiesbaden, 1988. Includes an extensive examination of the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions; has a good bibliography.
  • Stern, Ephraim, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. 4 vols. 2d rev. ed. New York, 1993. Extensively revised and many new detailed articles on the Paleolithic to the Arab eras, good bibliographies, maps, plans, and photographs for sites and region in Palestine and the Sinai Peninsula.

Gregory D. Mumford