The Road Linking Palestine and Egypt along the Sinai Coast

by Pau Figueras

The itinerary of the road linking Egypt and Palestine

Settlements along the Sinai coast, from Pelusium to Gaza


An important feature of the Madaba Map is its use as evidence for the existence of a road connection between the Holy Land and its neighboring countries, in particular Egypt. Indeed, explanations for the very existence of the map will necessarily include its relationship to Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land, not, of course, in the sense of a practical pilgrims' guide, but as a document of sacred geography that pilgrims were expected to learn and enjoy.
Egypt and the Sinai were often included in the itinerary of pilgrims, such as those of Egeria in the late fourth century (Eger. 7) and Theodosius the Pilgrim some two hundred years later (Theod. 3 and 27). Pilgrims could travel to and from Egypt either by sea or by land. Gaza in south Palestine and Pelusium on the eastern extremity of the Nile delta were two main seaports, not only for everyday shipping and trade but also for travelers. Traveling by sea was obviously more expensive, but also much more comfortable and practical. Traveling on land through the road along the Mediterranean coast demanded a physical effort that was not feasible for every individual. In this context, it is worth citing the last sentence from Jerome's story about Paula's return to Palestine from her visit to the monasteries of Egypt: "The heat was excessive, and she therefore took a ship from Pelusium, and arrived at Maiuma as swiftly as a bird." (Jer., Ep. 108, 14). The hardships of a road 240 km long through the desert were no doubt stronger than the readiness of a courageous soul to attempt such a trip whenever money was not a problem. Five hundred years before Paula, those same hardships had thwarted some of the best Roman generals from attempting the conquest of Egypt (Plut. Ant. 3, 2).
I will now briefly comment on two important aspects of the land route alternative for the journey between Palestine and Egypt, namely, 1) the use of the road along the coast in its western part, and 2) the settlements along the entire road and their implication to pilgrims.

The itinerary of the road linking Egypt and Palestine
Curtius' account of Alexander the Great and his troops traveling to the conquest of Pelusium after the fall of Gaza in 332 BC is explicit in its itinerary (Curt. Alex. 7, 2-3), though perhaps not immediately comprehensible in terms of a geographic map of the region. Indeed, for the first time in history, the route of an army traveling from Palestine to Egypt is described as a march along the Mediterranean coast, including the northern limit of Lake Sirbonis or the Bardawil lagoon (a narrow sand-bank extending in an arch-like track for about one hundred kilometers in the sea). This sand-bank had at least one opening, the Ecregma or "breaking", through which the waters of the Mediterranean joined those of the lagoon. At that time the opening was probably situated near its eastern extremity, as it certainly was in the third century BC, when it was finally filled (Strab. 1, 3-4; 16, 2.23). Why that difficult narrow passage was preferred to the old Pharaonic road passing south of Bardawil is understandable only on the basis of Alexander's decision that infantry and fleet would travel side by side towards Pelusium (Arr., Anab. 3,1,1). Necessary provisions, particularly water, could thus be easily supplied from the ships, which were navigating parallel to the infantry troops marching along the seashore. The crossing of the Ecregma was probably done with the help of small boats and making good use of the low-tide in the morning hours.
Upon Alexander's conquest, the coastal itinerary soon became a common route for travelers of all kinds, thus transforming it into an alternative road. Some of the small fishing villages along the coast were used as road-stations and soon developed into flourishing towns and even cities of renown. These settlements, some of which might have come into existence only in the Hellenistic period, were well known in the Byzantine era, and it is not surprising to find them recorded in the Madaba Map, as part of the pilgrims' itinerary. Each of the items on their list deserves a short comment.

Settlements along the Sinai coast, from Pelusium to Gaza

To Pelousin
Pelusium, the harbor-city founded by the Persians near the ancient biblical fortress of Sin (Ez 30:15-16), was situated on the outlet of both the easternmost arm of the Nile (or the Pelusiac arm) and the artificial north-south canal opened by Sesostris. Pelusium provided the pilgrims with all the supplies necessary for the dangerous trip, as it had done for the Ptolemaic and Roman armies marching to Syria. Only part of the depiction of the city on the map has been preserved, but enough remains for us to presume to have there a hint of its sumptuous churches, some of which have been recently identified (Abd El-Samie 1993). Let us remember that the Pelusium region was itself the objective of Christian pilgrimages. Christian tradition held that the Holy Family found shelter at Tamiathin (2 miles from Pelusium) when they fled to Egypt from Herod's anger. The place was still visited by pilgrims to the Holy Land in the eighth century (Epiph. Mon. 5, 20).

[Gerras] This toponym is missing from the Map, which is unfortunately damaged at this spot. But its name and location are found in numerous ancient sources. Gerrhas (or Gerrha) was a small town situated 8 miles to the east of Pelusium (Peut. Map) and defined its administrative borders (Ptol., 4, 5.5: to geron horion). It had a bishop in the fifth century (Soz. 8, 19), and a holy hermit is reported to have lived in that period in a cave in the surrounding area (ibid.). The town was identified by the French archaeologist Jean Cledat with the ruins of El-Mehemdiyeh (Cledat 1913: 79-85). From this point on, the road followed the path of the sandbank around the Sirbonis of Bardawil.

To A[fnaion] Only the neutral article To and the initial A remain from the name of another town in the region. Its name was Aphnaion, as recorded by Hierocles (Synec. 57) and the Acta of the Ephesus council of AD 431, in which the bishop of that town, Hierax, played an important role. Nevertheless, it is incorrectly spelled Afthaion by George of Cyprus (695), and this name was adopted by M. Avi-Yonah (1944: 126) and others to restore the incomplete toponym on the Madaba map. Aphnaeum lay probably somewhat inland, and has tentatively been identified with the medieval and modern town of Qatia in the oasis of the same name. I would suggest rather to identify Aphnaeum with the site of Rumani, which lies nearer to the coast, along a road connecting the ancient Pharaonic highway with the city of Pelusium. The visit of Aphnaeum by private individuals traveling along the Sinai coast road is recorded in a geographical papyrus from the Byzantine period (Noordegraaph 1938).

To Pentaschoinon The very name of this locality indicates its position at five schoinoi, i.e. five walking hours, from a well-known point. This is no other than Mount Casius and the city of Casium, which is also indicated on the map. Other sources, such as the so-called Archive of Theophanes and the records of Hierocles (Synec., 57) and George of Cyprus (Descr. 693) also place Pentaschoinon between Gherra (or Pelusium) and Casium. Theophanes (Pap. Ryl. 628, 5-6; 629, 231-232) situates Pentaschoinon 12 miles from Gherra and 16 miles from Pelusium (Roberts-Turner 1952). Its location has not been identified, but a modern surveyor of the region would place it to be situated at the ruins called El 'Uqsor (Oren 1980: 124). Pentaschoinon was well known by the Aramaic translators of Genesis 10:13-14, who referred to the Pentaschinai as one of the early peoples (Targ. Jonath. and Neof. I).

To Kasin The name alludes to the city of Kasion, which developed around the famous promontory called Mount Casius, at the northernmost point of the sandbank. Since the time of Herodotus it had been a border point between Egyptians and Arabs, the two peoples who were then holding the north Sinai coast. A famous temple seems to have existed there since time immemorial, and in the Hellenistic period this city became famous for its naval and textile industries. In the Byzantine period, it was a bishopric suffragan of Pelusium. Following the Ephesus Council of AD 431, its bishop Lampetius was sent to Rome by Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria together with his neighbor the bishop of Rhinocorura for a mission to the Pope. In the fifth century Romanus, the Monophysite monk, erected a monastery in Casium (Ruphus, Pler.), from which the relics of Bishop James Baradeus were stolen and brought to Syria in AD 622 (Kugener 1922). Jerome is one of the few Church Fathers to refer to Casium, when he includes it among the "five towns of the land of Egypt speaking the language of Canaan," as reported by the Prophet Isaiah (Jer, Isa [19:18]).

Ostrakine Situated near the eastern end of the lagoon, this town was a late Hellenistic or possibly a Roman foundation. Its name could be related to Herodotus' account of the wine-jars imported to Egypt from the Greek islands and returned to that waterless region filled with drinking water (Hdt. 3.6). Ostracine was situated on the northern road, 26 miles from Casium and 24 miles from the next station, Rhinocorura (Itin. Anton.). Flavius Josephus recorded it as one of the stations of the army of Titus when traveling to Judaea in a six-day march from Pelusium to Gaza. Pliny's words "Ostracine Arabia finitur" (Hist. Nat. 5, 14, 68) probably refer to the Arab controlled territory mentioned in Herodotus' statement about Mt. Casius (above). The settlement developed into an important bishopric during the Byzantine period, and the ruins of three basilica churches were discovered in the heaps of ruins called el Flusiat or Felusiye. One of them was excavated by J. Cledat in 1914 near the sea (Cledat 1916), another, more inland, by E. Oren in 1978 (Oren 1993). Christian pilgrims would stop there to venerate the tombs of the Prophet Habakkuk and Simon Judas. Tradition has it that Habakkuk found shelter there while fleeing Nebuchadnezzar's persecution (Chron. Pasch. 369-372), and that Simon Judas was martyred there under Emperor Trajan after evangelizing the region (ibid. 1073).

Rinokoroura This is the name (actually Rinokoloura, "the city of the cut-nosed people") of the city that is known today as El-'Arish. It was situated, as noted earlier, 24 miles from Ostracine, on the outlet of Wadi El-'Arish, which is probably the biblical Nahal Misraim or River of Egypt. This toponym, referring to the southern border of the Land of Israel in the Bible, was indeed once translated by Rhinocorura in the Septuagint (Isa 27:12). It probably also represents the mysterious town of Ienyssos, which Herodotus (3, 5) places on the border between Arabs and Syrians on the north Sinai coast. In the period under discussion here, Rhinocorura did not lie on the border itself, but only 12 miles from it, being thus the easternmost city of Egypt. It was a flourishing city, and in the Byzantine period it soon became a bishopric. Sozomen, the Church historian, records its first bishops, Melas, Solon and Dionysos, as being exemplary local monks. Even the local clergy (in the words of Sozomen) "dwell in one house, sit at the same table, and have everything in common" (Soz. 6, 31). During the Monophysite crisis, the tenants of Rhinocorura's episcopal see for many years remained faithful to orthodoxy. Its bishop Hermogenes was sent to Rome together with Lampetius of Casium in a mission, as mentioned earlier. In AD 451, bishop Zenon, contrary to his Egyptian neighbors, attended the Chalcedonian council, endorsing its decisions.

Horoi Aigypt(ou) k(ai) Palaistines This interesting inscription should not be considered so much as reminiscent of biblical or historical geography, but rather as updated evidence of a border. Naturally, in the late Roman and Byzantine period, that border was only an administrative one that divided the two provinces of Palaestina I and Augustamnica I. Its existence is supported by other epigraphic as well as literary evidence (Figueras 1987/9). Its importance is well evidenced by the story of 'Amr ibn al-'As when he crossed it in AD 639 on his way to the conquest of Egypt. The exact location of that spot, called Esh-Shajaratein ("the two trees") in the Arab sources, is not known. But we know the names of two settlements from the Byzantine period situated right on the border, namely Bitylium and Butaphis. Only the first and more important of the two is indicated on the Map.

B(et)ylion Bitylium, not to be confused with Bethelia (Alt 1926), was a small town lying right on the seashore, as is mentioned in the life of Theognios, one of its bishops in the sixth century (Paul Elus. Theog. 21). It was situated 12 miles from the two road-stations, Rhinocorura to the southwest and Raphia to the northeast. The original site of the latter is today represented most probably by Tel esh-Sheikh, in the region of Sheikh Zuweid, where important ruins from the classical period were discovered and partly excavated by Cledat in 1913 (Cledat 1915; Ant. 1920; Ovadiah 1991). Pilgrims used to visit this place for its supposed connections to the imaginary Bethulia in the book of Judith (Theod. 3). Already Jerome had identified the two places, Bethulia and Bitylium, in his narration of Hilarion's departure from the Gaza region (Jer. Vit. Hil. 30, in the Latin text published by Reland 1714: 639). Travelers and pilgrims could also cross the border between Egypt and Palestine more inland, in the village of Butaphis or Butaphion, that probably lay situated along the road (Figueras 1987-9).

R(afia) The toponym Raphia (now Rafah and Rafiah), the next station in the map, is only preserved by its first letter, as well as by a very small part of a public building in its original graphic representation. This depiction of the city on the map indicates its importance for both the civilian and ecclesiastical administration. Only towards the end of the fourth century and after a real struggle on the part of the Christians, were its pagan temples replaced by Christian churches (Soz. 7, 15). Raphia, whose famous pagan shrines had raised it to the status of shelter-city (iera Rafia, as written on some of its coins), was in the sixth century the see of a flourishing bishopric under the jurisdiction of Jerusalem as well as a hospitable road-station for pilgrims. Visitors coming from Egypt would proceed from here to Gaza and its surroundings, attracted by sites of interest such as Hilarion's tomb near Thauatha and the tomb of Peter the Iberian (Rufus, Pet. Ib.). Further north, the pilgrims would find the shrine of St. Victor, the numerous churches of Maiumas, and the monastery of Seridos with the memorials of its holy recluses Barsanuphius and John. Finally, they would arrive at the city of Gaza, "a lovely and renowned city (as recorded by the Piacenza Pilgrim), with noble people distinguished by every kind of liberal accomplishment," and "welcoming to strangers" (Piac. Pil. 33).

When compared with other evidence on the last century of Byzantine rule in the Middle East, the record of settlements along the Sinaitic coast of Northern Sinai (be it schematic and limited), appears to be an important historic and geographic document. From Pelusium to Gaza, the list is practically complete. Although such sites as Ecregma or Butaphis are not mentioned, they do not show up in many other sources either. Gherras does not appear only because the spot of its location is damaged. For the rest of the settlements, the Map attests the existence of Pentaschoinon and Aphnaion as two different localities, a fact occasionally denied by scholars (Cledat 1920). I also find suggestive the explicit indication of a border point between Egypt and Palestine, although it only marked a difference in administration. In summary, as far as our particular region is concerned, the Madaba Map must be considered an updated record of the stations located along the road normally followed by Christian pilgrims on their way between Egypt and the Holy Land during the last hundred years of the Byzantine period.


Abd el-Samie = M. Abd El-Samie, Tell El-Makhzan, Le Monde de la Bible 82 (1993), 22.

Alt 1926 = A. Alt, Bitolion und Bethelea, ZDPV ? (1926), 236-242.

Ant. 1920 = Antiquities on the Desert Coast Between Egypt and Palestine (s. auct.), Geogr. Journ. 55 (1920), 465-467.

Arr. Anab. = Arrian, Anabasis (ed. E.I. Robson, Arrian, Anabasis Alexandri, vol. I, Cambridge Mass.-London, 1961).

Avi-Yonah = M. Avi-Yonah, ed., The Madaba Map, Jerusalem, 1944.

Clédat 1913 = J. Clédat, Le temple de Zeus Cassios a Peluse, Ann. Serv. Antiq. Eg. 13 (1913), 79-85.

Clédat 1915 = J. Clédat, Fouilles a Cheikh Zouede, Ann. Serv. Antiq. Eg. 15 (1915), 15-48.

Clédat 1916 = J. Clédat, Fouilles a Khirbet el-Flousiyat (janvier-mars 1914), Ann. Serv. Antiq. Eg. 16 (1916), 16-32.

Clédat 1920 = J. Clédat, Notes sur l'Isthme de Suez (XVIII-IX), Bull. Inst. Franc. Arch. Orient. Caire 17 (1920), 103-119.

Chron. Pasch. = Chronicum Paschale (ed. Migne, PG 92).

Curt. Alex. = Curtius, History of Alexander (ed. J. C. Rolfe, Quintus Curtius, vol. II, Cambridge Mass.-London, 1946).

Descr. = H. Gelzer (ed.), Georgii Cyprii Descriptio Orbis Romani, Lipsiae, 1890.

Eger. = Egeria, Travels (transl. J. Wilkinson, Egeria's Travels, London, 1971).

Epiph. Mon. = Epiphanius the Monk, The Holy Places (transl. Wilkinson 1977:117-121).

Figueras 1987/9 = P. Figueras, Bytilion and Boutaphis, Israel - People and Land (Eretz Israel Museum Yearbook) 5-6 [23-24] (1987-89),121-124 (Hebrew).

Itin. Anton. = Itinerarium Antonini, ed. P. Geyer, Itinera Hierosolymitana, Vienna, 1898.

Jer. Ep.108 = Jerome, Epistle 108 to Eustochium (transl. Wilkinson 1977:47-52).

Jer. Isa = Jerome, Commentaries on Isaiah V (transl. W. H. Fremantle, in P. Shaff and H. Wace (eds.), A Select Library of Nicene and and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol. VI, Grand Rapids, 1954, pp. 303-315.

Jer. Vit. Hil. = Jerome, Vita Hilarionis (ed. Migne, PL 23: 30-54).

Kugener 1903 = M.-A. Kugener (ed.), Vie de Sévère par Zacharie le Scholastique (PO II), Paris, 1903 (reprint 1980).

Noordegraaf 1938 = C.A. Noordegraaf, A Geographical Papyrus, Mnemosyne (3. Series) 6 (1938), 237-310, pl. 10.

Oren 1980 = E. Oren, The Survey of North Sinai 1972-1982, in Z. Meshel and I. Finkelstein (eds.), Qadmoniot Sinai, Tel Aviv, 1980, pp. 101-150 (Hebrew).

Oren 1993 = E. Oren, A Christian Settlement at Ostrakine in North Sinai, in Y. Tsafrir, Ancient Churches Revealed, Jerusalem, 1993, pp. 305-314.

Ovadiah 1991 = A. Ovadiah, C. Gomez de Silva, and S. Mochnik, The Mosaic Pavements of Sheikh Zouede in Northern Sinai, in Tesserae, Festschrift für Joseph Engemann (Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum, Erganzungsband 18), Münster, 1991, pp. 181-191, Taf. 22-27.

Paul. Elus. Theog. = Paul of Elusa, Life of Theognius, ed. S. Vailhé, Vita Theognii, Analecta Bollandiana 10 (1891), 73-118.

Peut. Map = Peutinger Map, ed. K. Miller, Itineraria Romana, Stuttgart, 1916.

Piac. Pil. = Piacenza Pilgrim (transl. Wilkinson 1977: 79-89).

Pler. = F. Nau (ed.), Jean Rufus, Plérophories, P.O. VIII/I), Paris, 1911.

Plut. Ant. = Plutarch, Parallel Lives (ed. Perrin, 1950).

Reland 1714 = H. Relandus, Palaestina ex monumentis veteribus illustrata, Trajecti Batavorum, 1714.

Roberts-Turner 1952 = C. H. Roberts and E. C. Turner, Catalogue of the Greek and Latin Papyri in the John Rylands Library, vol. IV, Manchester, 1952, pp. 123-126.

Rufus, Pet. Ib. = John Rufus, Peter the Iberian (ed. R. Raabe, Petrus der Iberer, Leipzig, 1895).

Synec. = G. Parthey (ed.), Hierocles, Synecdemus et Notitia Episcopatuum, Amsterdam, 1967 (reprint).

Soz. = Sozomen, Church History (ed. Migne, PG 67).

Strab. = Strabo, Geography (ed. H. L. Jones, The Geogrphy of Strabo, 8 vols., London-Cambridge Mass., 1917-1932).

Theod. = Theodosius the Pilgrim, De situ Terrae Sanctae (transl. Wilkinson 1977:186-192).

Wilkinson 1977 = J. Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims Before the Crusades, Jerusalem, 1977.

This contribution was first published in: The Madaba Map Centenary, Jerusalem 1999, 121-124.

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