The Sinai has inspired its fair share of stories, but finding good stuff to read about it isn’t always easy. The legends of The Exodus – the Sinai’s most famous stories of all – mean opening a Bible and getting stuck into the Old Testament; a thought that puts most folks off at the start. Bedouin stories – of which there are plenty – require a Bedoin storyteller as they never got put down in writing. As for English stuff it’s all old: most was written by Europeans who came to visit the Sinai during a stint in Egypt. Despite its age though, some of it records real truths about the Sinai and the Bedouin, and I’d recommend it to anybody. Here are my best reads: they’re not all about Sinai, but they relate to the desert, Egypt or the Bedouin in some way. Click on them to read.
PICTURESQUE PALESTINE, Vol IV (CW Wilson & others) – Published in the 1880s, this is a huge, four Vol picture book series about Egypt and the Holy Land. The Sinai stuff is all in volume 4 and – in my opinion – the pictures in it are the best made on the region; capturing a spirit as much as a scene. The stuff in the other volumes shows how Sinai merges into neighbouring lands of Palestine and Egypt.
ARABIAN SANDS (Wilfred Thesiger) – Wilfred Thesiger’s account of his journeys in the ‘Emtpy Quarter’ of Arabia. It’s a fascinating portrait of the region’s Bedouin: the last real Bedouin before the oil boom. Thesiger wrote of explorers who’d follow: ‘They will bring back results far more interesting than mine… But they will never know the spirit of the land nor the greatness of the Arabs’.
A CULTURE OF DESERT SURVIVAL: BEDOUIN PROVERBS FROM SINAI & THE NEGEV (Clinton Bailey) – Compiling over 1000 Bedouin proverbs, this distils hard-won desert wisdom into short, simple sentences, giving a brilliant insight into how the Bedouin think. Also by the same author is Bedouin Poetry from Sinai and the Negev; a further glimpse into the ancient oral culture of the Bedouin.
BLOOD AND SAND (Frank Gardner) – Frank Gardner is a brilliant, no-bullshit BBC journalist; in my experience, one of the few whose every word about the Middle East is worth listening to. Fluent in Arabic, he lived in Egypt for several years and was later shot and paralysed from the waist down by gunmen in Saudi Arabia. This is a book about his time in the region, with plenty on Egypt.
REVOLT IN THE DESERT (TE Lawrence) – TE Lawrence – or ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – is best known for writing Seven Pillars of Wisdom. This book – Revolt in the Desert – is a shorter, abridged version: lighter on the names, dates and detail but generally easier to read. It’s an inside account of the Arab Revolt against the Turks, by someone considered both hero and villain, depending on who you talk to.
THE DESERT OF THE EXODUS (EH Palmer) – EH Palmer was a translator on the 19th century British Ordnance Survey of Sinai. He stayed on after the survey finished and wrote this: the best travel book of its kind. His descriptions give a sense of continuity between the Sinai past and present, plus interesting stuff on legends, poems and culture. Palmer was killed in a dispute in the Sinai in 1882.
DARE ME TO THE DESERT (G.W Murray) – ‘Be alive again. And dare me to the desert, with thy sword…‘ wrote Shakespeare (in Macbeth). This might just be my favourite book about the Sinai. G.W Murray was a highland Scot and born mountain man who devoted huge chapters of his life to mapping the mountains the Sinai and this is his memoir: a brilliant book by one of the unsung legends of exploration and adventure in the Sinai.
TRAVELS IN SYRIA & THE HOLY LAND (J. L Burckhardt) – Jean Louis Burckhardt has a place in the Middle East’s exploration hall of fame, as the first Westerner to see Petra. Going to Petra was part of a bigger expedition in which he walked the Sinai too. He made brilliant notes about the Sinai, its mountains, routes and Bedouin, and this book is a window to the past whose words still ring true today.
BEDOUIN LIFE IN THE EGYPTIAN WILDERNESS (J. Hobbs) – J Hobbs is an American professor who spent long periods in Egypt, this is about the Khushmaan clan of the Maaza tribe, from mainland Egypt; an anthropological study of their life, knowledge and beliefs on everything from plants to mountains, stars, ghosts and ghouls (much of which is like the Sinai). One of my favourite modern books.
WILDLIFE IN SOUTH SINAI (Dina Aly & Rafik Khalil) – A big picture book of the Sinai’s plants, birds and animals. Easily the best, most comprehensive and beautiful available, by two experts. Too big to take on trail, but perfect for a coffee table. I’ve only found it in bookstores like DIWAN in Cairo.