Eye of the storm

For all its warlike past, the Sinai peninsula is a quiet success story in a troubled region

The guide, Nasser, appears in the pre-dawn half-light, padding across the square with the horses. It is warm already, at just after five, and the last stars are setting behind the jagged, dental peaks inland. We exchange a few words in vernacular Arabic, and I slip my boot into the stirrup and hoist myself up, sniffing the familiar, sweet reek of horse sweat and the scorched scent of the desert. In the gloaming, the quilted red of the saddlecloth is faded to a monochromatic grey, as though deep underwater.

"Yalla?" Nasser flashes a quick glance at me. I nod back, and squeeze in my heels. As we clip out of the centre of Dahab, past the messy barbed-wire entanglements, I turn my head to glance back out on to the Red Sea. The bright lights of Saudi Arabia are twinkling darkly across the scarlet waters. But we are headed for the interior.

The Sinai, the baking isthmus between Africa and Asia, has been a place of spirituality and warfare for millennia. Entrenched by the Gulf of Aqaba to the east, and bisected from the rest of Egypt by the arterial ditch of the Suez Canal, its rugged deserts and mountains were once dismissed as "24,000 square miles of nothing". Yet there is a savage, sparse beauty to the place where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments, and, more recently, where the Egyptians and the Israelis fought a series of bloody battles. And there is no better way than on horseback to explore this wild country where both the biblical Israelites and the wire-guided anti-tank missile came of age.

Indeed, for all its warlike past, the Sinai and its development for tourism is an example of a quiet success story in a troubled region. The Israelis captured the peninsula from the Egyptians during the Six Day War in 1967. Subsequently, in 1973, the then Egyptian president, Anwar al-Sadat launched a counter-attack across the Suez Canal. His forces were held back, but eventually, after Egypt and Israel signed a historic peace treaty, the Sinai was returned to Egypt in 1982.

Since then, the region has carved a new identity for itself as a destination for travellers. The resorts of the littoral strip, notably Sharm el-Sheikh, which perches at the tip of the peninsula, have boomed as foreigners have flooded in to dive in the remarkably clear waters.

And, despite the traditional conservatism of the Sinai's Bedouin inhabitants, the atmosphere in the resorts is noticeably more liberal than in the rest of Egypt. In Dahab, a coastal town that lies just across the Gulf of Aqaba from Saudi Arabia, women can sunbathe in bikinis in sight of a state where they would be arrested for doing so.

However, beneath the veneer of mass tourism, traces of the region's past remain visible. Travelling through the desert interior in daylight, you catch glimpses of gung-ho emplacements garnished with enormous bales of razor wire. These are the haunts of the the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), whose mandate is to ensure that the taut terms of the Egyptian-Israeli treaty are observed. "Equipment maintenance is essential," the MFO's website states blandly, an oblique reference to the travails of serving in the dust of the sort of country where Toyota Land Cruisers go to die.

Most visitors negotiate the endless checkpoints on the road to Dahab to dive, but I came to ride. Horses are ubiquitous in Egypt, from the miserable, blinkered nags chained to caleches in Cairo to the slick, spoilt creatures that goose-step the springy post-colonial turf at the Gezira Sporting Club, once the nexus of British Egypt and now the playground of a new, native elite. But riding in the Sinai is different, a wilder and harder sport than galloping in the tame sands around the pyramids at Giza.

I had ridden above Dahab before, penetrating a high wadi to watch the sunset before hurtling back to the coast. On that occasion sparks flew off the hooves in the thick, gathering darkness and we made it back to the coast in short time, laughing, to shower the dust off in brackish water. But this time I wanted to ride into the dawn. And so Nasser and I set off. Initially we galloped south, then, as I settled my neck into the comforting checked cotton of my scarf, we turned inland up a funnel-like valley. The wadi narrowed and the light stiffened, until we came across a lush grove of palms. Leaving the horses below, we scrambled up through this vein of incongruous greenery in time to watch the sun creep above the defiladed ridge. The only sound came from below, where a middle-aged European woman lolled and gambolled with her fey Arab guide.

Returning to the horses, Nasser and I rode back down the valley, gasping for water, into a heat that was already unpleasant. Eventually, filmed with sweat after hours in the saddle, we returned to Dahab. At the stables I squatted for a feast of beans and slices of aubergine with the grooms, surrounded by a heady, packed body smell.

After breakfast I returned to my cheap pension to see that a new poster had appeared. In experimental, phonetically spelt English, it announced that due to the recent deaths of civilians in Gaza Israelis were no longer welcome to stay at the hotel. Unwittingly, I thought back to a German phrase I had heard in connection with the North Africa campaign of the Second World War, when Allied forces defeated Erwin Rommel. Krieg ohne Hass was how the Germans had described that war, fought out in the aseptic sand, away from sources of collateral misery: "war without hate". I could not help thinking that, six decades on, in the Sinai, where the Camp David Accords enforce a Pax Americana between Egypt and Israel, the situation has been reversed. There is no longer war without hate. Rather, there is hate without war.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism