National Geographic : 2009 Mar
• o -duty re chief, changing into his uniform in his car, and six other re ghters arriving with the town s three trucks. Zaid climbed atop one of the ladder trucks with his chief, and they approached the border without knowing exactly what lay be- yond. Egyptian soldiers, equally unsure what was happening, stood blocking the checkpoint with automatic ri es. Staring at each other across an invisible line, the Egyptians and Israelis encountered a sud- den 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. e Egyp- tians had to decide whether to defend their sov- ereignty against an old enemy. And the Israeli re ghters 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 mov- ing from one continent to another, yes, but also a metaphysical bridge between man and God. e forebears of the three great monothe- istic 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 ed into Sinai to escape a jealous King Herod s wrath. Early Chris- tians hid from Roman persecutors among the peninsula s lonely mountains, establishing some of the rst monastic communities. e 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 Si- nai s spiritual hub. "Sinai is the only place where we have icons from the sixth century to the pres- ent," Father Justin, a monk, told me. He walked in long black robes, his silver beard reached half- way to his thin waist, and his face glowed, all of which recalled Moses himself descending with the stone tablets. e monastery compound is embraced by mountain peaks, all pink-faced, as though ushed 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 relation- ship---contradictory, at rst glance---illustrates something special about this in-between place. "When you look at con icts in the world to- day, 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 con ict, and at the same time there s been this amazing harmony." e key, he said, is simple: "I think there s a common reverence for Sinai as a holy moun- tain." eir common interest, that is, supersedes their di erences. Fourteen centuries ago Muhammad agreed. A er 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." Aradical young man---a dentist, of all things---decided in 2002 to form a terrorist group in Sinai. e details of his early work emerged only a er questionable interrogations by Egyptian authorities, includ- ing 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, For millennia the Sinai Peninsula has served as a land bridge and also a metaphysical bridge between man and God.