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Fourteen centuries ago Muhammad agreed. After his encounter with the monks here, he issued an oath of protection for "the Monks of Mount Sinai, and … Christians in general," a handwritten copy of which Justin keeps in the ancient library. Muhammad decreed that "whenever any one of the monks in his travels shall happen to settle upon any mountain, hill, village, or other habitable place, on the sea, or in deserts, or in any convent, church, or house of prayer, I shall be in the midst of them."

And further to the point: "No one shall bear arms against them, but, on the contrary, the Muslims shall wage war for them."

A radical young man—a dentist, of all things—decided in 2002 to form a terrorist group in Sinai. The details of his early work emerged only after questionable interrogations by Egyptian authorities, including alleged torture, but the story is familiar in its broad aspects: Khalid Al Masaid formed Tawhid wa Jihad—Unity and Holy War—to lash out against the United States and Israel, which he felt had humiliated the Arab world. Al Masaid regarded Egypt's 1979 peace deal with Israel as a collusion with the West. The deal led to the creation of the Multinational Force and Observers, an international team of peacekeepers who stifle movement along the Egypt-Israel border. To Al Masaid, the peacekeepers were more than an affront; they cut him off from possible Palestinian help. The dentist needed followers—disaffected young men willing to strike out against authorities, against tourists, against Israel, against Egypt itself. He found them among Sinai's own people.

Sinai's land bridge has offered passage for prophets and pilgrims, traders of goods and ideas. But like any bridge it also holds strategic value in war. Armies have marched across its dunes as long as men have fought: the pharaohs with their chariots, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans. The Islamic conquerors and their nemeses, the European crusaders. The Ottoman Turks and the British. All have carried the sands of Sinai on their soles.

The latest iteration of war, between the Egyptians and Israelis, shaped life on the peninsula today. It shaped the literal topography—bunkers and trenches still cross the horizon—but it shaped the human landscape in more unexpected ways. Although the current truce began 30 years ago, mainland Egyptians still often regard Bedouin, the desert herdsmen who make up more than half of Sinai's 360,000 or so people, as collaborators with the enemy. The Bedouin simply showed no loyalty to any government, Egyptian or otherwise.

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