“Sinai owes its imperishable fame to the vicissitudes undergone by these wanderers under the leadership of their great lawgiver; but the scenery is also so varied that it will amply repay the traveller for all the privations of his journey.”
This is how the “Peninsula of Sinai” chapter of Baedeker’s Egypt guide, published in 1885, begins. It is probably the first tourist guide to Sinai, although pilgrims’ accounts describing their journey do exist from much earlier times. The chapter doesn’t cover the whole peninsula, but it describes a big chunk of it, presenting two long routes between Suez and St Catherine, and two shorter ones between El Tur and St Catherine. Many of the main attractions of the north-west and central parts of South Sinai are described in the guide, plus you have four maps. Considering it is only a chapter in a bigger book, the information is quite extensive and detailed. You can see the full book online or download it as PDF, Epub, Kindle and other formats from archive.org, and below you’ll find some excerpts with notes.
Although written well over 100 years ago, Baedeker’s guide contains a lot of information which is still relevant. Other things are interesting to read about, for example travel tips and how camel safaris were organised those days, and you also get a feel of the attitude of the time. The chapter starts with some practical advice:
“The best Season for the journey is between the middle of February and the end of April, and between the beginning of October and the middle of November. During the months of November, December, and January, the nights are generally very cold, while in summer the glare of the sun, reflected from the granite rocks of the Sinai mountains, is very oppressive.”
“The starting point is Suez, but all the preliminaries must be arranged at Cairo, where alone are to be found the necessary dragomans and the Shekhs of the Tawara Beduins, who act as guides and let camels during the travelling season. The lirst thing is to engage a good dragoman, who provides camels, tents, bedding, blankets, and provisions.”
Dragoman is defined as an “interpreter or guide, especially in countries speaking Arabic, Turkish, or Persian” – it is what we would call a tour operator today, and the southern Bedouin tribes were organising the logistics on the ground very much like these days. The writer of the book, who is probably not Karl Baedeker himself, does not seem to trust locals too much. First he says “the traveller is particularly cautioned against trusting to the promises of Orientals”, then presents a draft contract consisting of 11 points, to be signed with the tour operator. The template stars with “Mr. X. and his travelling companions on the one hand, and the Dragoman Y. on the other, have mutually entered into the following contract…“, then it details everything from the routes to the amount of wine and spirits a traveller is entitled to, from the politeness of servants to changing clean sheets and towels. Information about camels follows, and advice on health, food and other practical topics, including bakshish. “An abundant supply of ordinary tobacco should be taken to give the attendants and Beduins, but the traveller should beware of being too liberal with it at first, lest this attention should be demanded as a right“, the writer advises. But his opinion of locals is not all that bad as it first seems:
“Amid the sterile mountains and valleys of the peninsula, some 4-5000 Beduins manage to obtain a livelihood. They generally have remarkably slight figures, and regular, sharply marked features. The boys, who follow the camels and wait upon travellers, are particularly graceful and engaging ; the men are employed in conveying millstones, charcoal, and other wares to Egypt; they supply travellers (who are chiefly pilgrims of the Greek faith) with camels, hunt the mountain goat, celebrate festivals, and, in the W. part of the peninsula at least, rarely indulge in the sanguinary feuds which the different tribes formerly waged with one another. Those occupying the E. and the N.E. of Arabia Petraea are of a wilder and more warlike character; (…) Those tribes, with whom the traveller chiefly comes in contact, call themselves Tawara (people of Tur), and are generally honest (and) good-natured, noble bearing;”
The writer also points out the Jebeliyeh tribe, who live around St Catherine, are “excellent guides, and will accompany the traveller for a trifling fee.” About the traditions of the Bedouin he writes:
“Each tribe has a Shekh, or chief, a title of honour which is also sometimes applied to the older and most respected members of the community. The dress of these Beduins is very simple. They wear a tarbush or a turban, and a grey gown fastened with a girdle round the waist. In cold weather they wear a burnous of coarse material; many of them are bare-footed , but the wealthier wear sandals of camel-leather. Their usual weapons consist of sabres and knives; the guns they use for hunting are of great length and simple construction.”
“the boys and girls, and occasionally the men, drive the goats and the speckled sheep, which call to mind the artifice resorted to by Jacob, to the meagre pastures in summer, while the women remain in the tents to look after their children and household work. In the best watered parts of the peninsula, the Beduins have built themselves huts, and cultivate plantations of dates, the most productive of which are in the Wadi Firan, and in the neighbourhood of Tur on the Red Sea. In all other districts the inhabitants live in tents.”
Taken around the time of the writing of this Baedeker’s guide, the following photos well demonstrate what is being described above. The photos are believed to have been made by the American Colony in Jerusalem on a trip very similar to those recounted in the guidebook.
Principal routes from Suez to St Catherine
The Baedeker guide first introduces the two main options before getting into detailing the actual routes. Please note, geographical names in the book might differ somewhat from my spelling – see them compared at the bottom of the page.
“(a) Land Route. This route leads by Wadi Maghara, Wadi Mokatteb, Wadi Firan, and Nakb el-Hawi, to the Monastery of Sinai, and returns by Wadi esh-Shekh, Sarbut el-Khadem, and Wadi el-Homr near the sea, and to the road leading to Suez. In this way the traveller does not retrace his steps, except on a portion of the route.
(b) Sea Voyage. A boat conveys the traveller down the Red Sea to Tur, whence he rides to Sinai in 2 ½ days (…) The advantages of the sea-voyage consist in the saving of time and money effected by avoiding the fatiguing and monotonous journey between Suez and Wadi Shebekeh, while we make the acquaintance of Tur and the picturesque route through the Wadi es-Sleh, and have an opportunity of ascending the Umm Shomar without making any digression. On the other hand we miss the route by Sarbut el-Kkadem; but this is of no consequence provided we return the whole way by land, for the sake of seeing the majestic Serbal, the oasis of Firan, the Wadi Mokatteb with its inscriptions, and the mines of Wadi Maghara, all of which are points of much interest.”
Following the introduction of the main routes, the guide offers information on geology, people, history and biblical events. Next the routes are described in detail, interwoven with further informative notes, starting with the long overland trip from Suez. Parts of this route are still used today by visitors, although usually by 4×4 vehicles, stopping at the turquoise mines at Wadi Maghara, the inscriptions in Wadi Mukattab and the attractions in Wadi Feiran. The climb to Jebel Serbal is described in a paragraph, which the book also calls one of the most impressive mountains in the Sinai. The route finally reaches St. Catherine via Wadi Islaf and the Naqb el Hawa pass. The Monastery of St Katherine and its surroundings, Mt Sinai, Ras Safsafa, Jebel Katherina and Jebel Umm Shaumar are explained on the following pages, before starting with the route from El Tur. Note, the book claims to have only three routes, but the ‘one’ from El Tur actually mentions two very different ways. One is via Wadi Isla, this is the shorter and more scenic route, used by the Bedouin and monks of St Catherine in the past for transporting their produce and bringing back supplies. Although Jebel Umm Shaumar is only mentioned earlier, this route goes next to the impressive mountain – it is still a popular hiking trail today. The other route is a detour via Wadi Hebran, which reaches St Catherine just as the first route via Wadi Islaf and the Naqb el Hawa pass. The first part of this route is never used these days by tourists, although the second part sometimes by those who might be coming from or going to Jebel Serbal. Before the route from St Catherine back to Suez is described, there is a short section on the route to Aqaba to the east, mentioning Wadi Saal, the oasis of Ein Khudra, Wadi Ghazala and Wadi Samqi found along the way. The route back to Suez starts in the main wadi of St Katherine, Wadi Sheikh, then it turns off to north to Wadi Barah and Wadi Baraq. This route is still used by visitors today, as it is the most direct way between the eco-lodge of Sheikh Awad and the Forest of Pillars. However, the route described in the Baedeker guide turns west a bit earlier, heading for the pharaonic site of Serabit el Khadim via Wadi Sieh and Wadi Khamila. This route finishes near Abu Zenima and Ras Sudr on the coast of the Gulf od Suez, and with this Baedeker’s Sinai chapter also ends.
Maps in the Baedeker’s Sinai chapter
Handbook For Travellers
edited by K. Baedeker
Part First: Lower Egypt With The Fayum And The Peninsula of Sinai
1885 – Second Edition, Revised and Augmented
See full book online or download file (PDF, Epub, Kindle, etc):
Note: names in the book might differ from my usage, and as usually the case is with Arabic words, there are further spellings. Here is a short list of the names mentioned on this page, first how it is written in the book then my version. If you click on the links, photos of the particular place will open in a new window.
Wadi Mokatteb – Wadi Mukattab; Wadi Firan – Wadi Feiran; Nakb el-Hawi – Naqb el Hawa; Monastery of Sinai – Monastery of St Katherine; Wadi esh-Shekh – Wadi Sheikh; Sarbut el-Khadem – Serabit el Khadim; Wadi es-Sleh – Wadi Isla; Jebel Umm Shomar – Jebel Umm Shaumar; Wadi Selaf – Wadi Islaf; Ras es-Safsaf – Ras Safsafa; Jebel Katherin – Mt Katharina; Wadi Sa’l – Wadi Saal; ‘Ain el-Khadra – Ein Khudra; Wadi Ghazal – Wadi Ghazala; Wadi Samghi – Wadi Samqi; Wadi Sik – Wadi Sieh; Wadi Khamileh – Wadi Khamila.