Mountains, desert and sea… the Sinai has much more to offer than most people think. The High Mountain Region, with its religious and historical importance, orchard gardening tradition and unique nature, is like no other place in the World. The desert is just as beautiful as any in the Middle East and North Africa and you will find an amazing variety of different landscapes within a small area. The coral reefs of the Gulf of Aqaba are rated internationally as some of the best and a number of coastal protectorates, with their different eco systems, offer quiet getaways from the resort towns.The Sinai is divided into two governorates, the North Sinai Governorate and the South Sinai Governorate. The border is more or less along the route from the Ahmed Hamdy tunnel to Taba, although the Bedouin mark the border along the edge of the Tih Plateau further south. North Sinai is off limits for foreigners, but the bulk of the attractions are in South Sinai anyway, which is a peaceful and laid back region.
The capital of the Governorate of South Sinai is El Tur (1), although the biggest and most developed city is Sharm el Sheikh (2). Another popular destination is Dahab (3), a smaller and more laid back town, attracting mostly the independent traveler. In Nuweiba (4), the gateway to Jordan, and further north along the road until Taba (5), there are many simple camps offering huts right on the beach. The road beyond Taba leads to the only border crossing to Israel. In the center of the mountainous interior is the town of St. Katherine (6), famous for Mt. Sinai and the Monastery of St. Katherine. Wadi Feiran (7) and Serabit el Khadim (8) are smaller settlements with important historical and archeological sites. The coastal town of Abu Zenima (9) is a small place with a few shops and cafeterias from where transport can be organized to Serabit el Khadim. Ras Sudr (10), further to the north, is a sea-side destination popular with people from Cairo. To Suez and Cairo the road connects via the Ahmed Hamdy tunnel (11) under the Suez canal, and from here there is also a road going to North Sinai, and another, the ancient caravan route of pilgrims from Cairo to Mecca, cutting across the peninsula via the interior at Nakhla (12) and connecting to the Gulf of Aqaba.
Cities, towns, settlementsThe coastal resort cities, such as Sharm el Sheikh, are well known, and most people heard of St Katherine – although not all realise it is actually a town, not only the Monastery alone. On this website some other, even smaller, settlements are also included, as they are relevant for different reasons from a visitor’s perspective.
Sheikh Awad: The settlement of Sheikh Awad is mostly known for its ecolodge – Al- Karm was the first such place. It lies where the high mountains and the plains meet. Popular with Caireens on long weekends, it is indeed a beautiful place. With an offroad vehicle it can be approached via Wadi Islaf from Wadi Feiran, or from Tarfa village. A good place to relax, it offers treks to nearby Nabataean ruins or the seasonal waterfall at Sida Nogra. The foot pass, known as Naqb el Hawa, starts at the tomb of Sheikh Awad, connecting the settlement to St. Katherine – in the past this was the main pilgrims’ route.
The BedouinThe traditional inhabitants of the Sinai are Bedouin tribes who settled at different times in the last 1500 years. They are mostly from the Arab peninsula, with the Jabaleya a unique exception, being partly the descendants of people from the Balkan. Traditionally there are seven Bedouin tribes in South Sinai – the Tawara federation – but some other tribes from the north have moved in more recently. The Bedouin are pastoralist nomads, although most are now settled in or around towns. They still maintain a strong link to the desert and mountains, and many families move out to their campgrounds or gardens at certain times of the year. The Bedouin way of life is very simple and slow, with a fine balance of work and leisure time. It is a closed society where a complex system of family ties and traditions play the most important roles, but the people are genuinely welcoming and friendly. Having guests is an important part of the Bedouin culture, and visitors are treated as guests. It is a real experience to walk with a Bedouin guide and learn from their age-old survival skills and about their culture.
The Bedouin tribes of Sinai
Available maps of the Sinai Bedouin tribes
Coutumes des Arabes au pays de Moab“. The map shows most of the Sinai Peninsula, plus the Negev, Palestine (Israel), the Moab region in Jordan and the Hejaz in Saudi Arabia, with some of the ethnic groups marked. In the southern part of the Sinai the population is named as “Arab et-Towarah”, which is actually a historic federation of seven tribes: in my spelling Tuwara, the tribes of el-Tur. Among other Sinai Bedouin groups the Haweitat, Tarabin (Terabin) and Tiyaha (Tiaha) are also marked. Note, the Tarabin tribe is only marked in the north, in the area around Nuweiba where today they also have a land the Ayada (Aiaideh), another North Sinai tribe, is shown. All in all, it’s not a very accurate map, but it gives a general overview of the distribution of the Bedouin tribes at the beginning of the 20th century.
La péninsule du Sinaï”. It is probably the first ever touring guide covering the region, supplemented with many very detailed maps. The map of the Bedouin tribes, based on the work of G. W. Murray, marks the territory of most Sinai Bedouin tribal groups, although there are some inaccuracies: for example one of the oldest South Sinai tribes, the Bani Wasil, is not marked. The territory of the Ulad Said (Aoulad Said) tribe is also not accurate, at least if we consider how it is laid out today – perhaps back in those days it was different. Otherwise the Ulad Said, Qararsha and Suwalha (Sawalha) were one tribe at one point, which, with the addition of the Awarma, is clearly marked on the map of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA). This map is definitely an updated version of Daumas’s work, although wasn’t everything corrected. Note, according to these maps the Tarabin have a land around Nuweiba, but not around Ras Sudr.
A Culture of Desert Survival: Bedouin Proverbs from Sinai and the Negev“, is a wonderful account of Bedouin culture and gives a good overview of the history of the Bedouin tribes in the Sinai Peninsula, as explained on Wilderness Ventures Egypt‘s site.
A Grammar of the Bedouin Dialects of Central and Southern Sinai“. Clearly de Jong’s map was used in the 2012 report “Sinai: A New Front” by Ehud Yaari, with corrections and updates shown over a geographical map. However, in these works too the Jabaleya, Ulad Said and Muzeina territories are not marked as you find them today. The land of the Ulad Said tribe extends further to the south (the boundary is more or less along the line from Nabi Salah and the Blue Desert, through Nasb and Wadi Rahaba to Wadi Islah and then El Tur). It encircles St Catherine and the Jabaleya (Gebelieh) territory from the south, as well as from the northwest (Wadi Hebran, Wasi Islaf). The area to the northeast of St Catherine is a mixed land, as shown on Yaari’s map, although to my knowledge the Muzeina lay claim to it. Otherwise it is fairly easy to define the Jabaleya land, as it largely corresponds to the circular dyke around St Catherine. You have to keep in mind, though, that tribal territories cannot be displayed absolute accurately, as borders are disputed and change over history, territories overlap, little pockets of land can be found on other’s territory. Even what you call a tribe can be subjective: according to some accounts more than 70 tribes exist in the Sinai, but that’s probably with counting the many divisions (clans) within tribes. The Bedouin, from any group, often claim that land outside their current territory is used to be theirs, but nevertheless the unwritten tribal boundaries – remembered by wadi, well, tree and so – are respected.