The archaeological treasures unearthed by Israel during the last twenty-five years in Sinai are on view for the first time at the Israel Museum (until 28 September) and probably for the last time; by the end of 1994 the entire collection will be returned to Egypt. Exploring what was practically “terra incognita”, the Israelis discovered in Sinai some 1,300 sites, including entire cities, and a wealth of artefacts remarkably well preserved by the sand and dry climate.
The artefacts span 6,000 years and, though unique, their loss to Israel is viewed with equanimity: “For the sake of peace we are happy to return the material to Egypt”, says Sylvia Rosenberg, co-curator of the Sinai exhibition.
Out of thousands of objects, the Israel Museum has selected the most important for each period and set them against a desert-like background. Visitors can step into a recreated “nawamis”, one of several burial structures found in southern Sinai which were built 5,000 years ago by the first nomadic society known to man. In a practice common to nomadic peoples, the dead were given en route a primary burial and later reburied in the “nawamis”. Then as now, jewellery played a prominent role as a moveable form of wealth, and the necklaces of shell, faience, mother-of-pearl and ostrich eggshells of this ancient nomadic tribe are among the most beautiful items on display.
At Serabit el-Khadem (columns of the slave) in Southern Sinai, the Israelis discovered sixteen turquoise mines operated by the ancient Egyptians from 2000 to 1200 BC; on view are the ancient moulds used in the mines for casting bronze tools and a unique sandstone fragment bearing the inscription “EL” (the name for God). Written in Proto-Sinaitic, a script that marks the first use of alphabet characters, the fragment indicates that the people working in the mines were Semitic, while their employers were still using hieroglyphs.
Excavations on the coastal strip revealed the complex network of fortresses and granaries, with silos capable of storing forty tons of grain, erected by the Egyptians to guard the main land route linking Egypt to Canaan and Syria. Illustrating this period are Egyptian wall paintings, seal impressions and storage vessels bearing the names of the Egyptian kings. From the Greek city of Magdolum (500BC) discovered in Northern Sinai, come rare gold-painted burial masks and funeral stele that combine Egyptian burial customs with Greek and Cypriot motifs.
Among the finds from Qasrawet, a Nabatean and late Roman town discovered buried in sand, with pots and pans still standing on the ovens, are oil lamps decorated with Jewish, Christian and pagan symbols. Nothing in the exhibition however illustrated the event the Sinai is most famous for, the Exodus. “Only those people with outside resources such as the Egyptians and Romans left any permanent trace in the Sinai”, explains archaeologist Avner Goren. What has emerged is that, instead of being a sea of land separating two civilisations, the Sinai acted for long periods of time as a commercial and cultural bridge between Egypt and Israel. The return of the Sinai artefacts to Egypt is being seen in line with this tradition.
"Sinai - A Farewell for Peace" is on at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem until September 1994.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Archaeology bows to the peace process'