email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Sinai
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Staring at each other across an invisible line, the Egyptians and Israelis encountered a sudden international dilemma. How they acted that night in 2004 would become emblematic of everything that had come before in Sinai's past and everything that lay ahead. The Egyptians had to decide whether to defend their sovereignty against an old enemy. And the Israeli firefighters faced their own choice: Whether to stage an eight-man incursion onto Arab soil.

For millennia the Sinai Peninsula has served as a bridge. A land bridge for people moving from one continent to another, yes, but also a metaphysical bridge between man and God. The forebears of the three great monotheistic religions are all said to have sought refuge in this triangular desert. According to the Bible, Moses received his assignment in Sinai when God spoke to him from the burning bush, then wandered the desert with his people for 40 years. As a child, Jesus and his family fled into Sinai to escape a jealous King Herod's wrath. Early Christians hid from Roman persecutors among the peninsula's lonely mountains, establishing some of the first monastic communities.

The oldest continuously operating Christian monastery in the world—St. Catherine's—sits at the foot of Mount Sinai, where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments. It is Sinai's spiritual hub. "Sinai is the only place where we have icons from the sixth century to the present," Father Justin, a monk, told me. He walked in long black robes, his silver beard reached halfway to his thin waist, and his face glowed, all of which recalled Moses himself descending with the stone tablets. The monastery compound is embraced by mountain peaks, all pink-faced, as though flushed by the high elevation. Among the basilica, the library, and other structures, Justin pointed out a less expected one with a small crescent on top: a mosque.

According to monastic tradition, Muhammad also took refuge in Sinai, during the seventh century, and stayed at the monastery. Today the monks live alongside Muslim Bedouin who work in the monastery, and Justin said the relationship—contradictory, at first glance—illustrates something special about this in-between place.

"When you look at conflicts in the world today, so many are centered on the Middle East and tensions that have been here for millennia," he said. "And then the Sinai becomes a very important symbol, because you have fervent Christians and very fervent Muslims, and we're divided by language, by religion, by culture, by so many things that make for conflict, and at the same time there's been this amazing harmony."

The key, he said, is simple: "I think there's a common reverence for Sinai as a holy mountain." Their common interest, that is, supersedes their differences.

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