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Postscript : Pieces of Egypt's Past 'Settle' Peace With Israel : Cairo is elated over antiquities unearthed in the occupied Sinai. The gift is seen as the last chapter in the treaty between the nations.

April 20, 1993|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — The words are barely legible, faded ghost script penned on tiny fragments of parchment from the past: "Shihab sends his regards."

And then, on another page, another cryptic clue. "It is with the Mameluke," it says, "in the Citadel."

These documents, crumbling windows to a storied Arab past, recently became Israel's gift to Egypt to commemorate the last chapter in the historic 1979 peace treaty between the two nations.

Part of a collection of more than 8,000 antiquities unearthed by Israeli archeologists during Israel's 12-year occupation of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, the letters were discovered at the castle of the legendary Arab leader Saleh Eddin, whose Muslim army captured Jerusalem from the Christian Crusaders more than 800 years ago.

Could the letters have been Saleh Eddin's instructions to his army at Taba, penned from the military headquarters of the sultan at the Citadel in Cairo, a feverish Egyptian press speculated? And if they were, should they be in the hands of the Israelis?

"For this reason, the letters are very important from a political point of view," said Dr. Rudolph Cohen, deputy director of the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

"They all belong to the time of Saleh Eddin, and these make them quite unique," Cohen explained. "The writing I have seen on them is very beautiful and clear. I hope that this was a very symbolic and important gift we gave to the Egyptians, a gift which belonged to them, in fact."

Actually, the letters are almost certainly not from Saleh Eddin, but their return as the first installment in thousands of artifacts collected in the Sinai marked the conclusion of years of difficult negotiations between Israel and Egypt, still the only Arab nation at peace with the Jewish state.

"This subject has been dragging on since the peace treaty, and now we have a settlement of this longstanding Egyptian claim. Finally, it has been settled," said David Sultan, Israel's ambassador in Cairo.

For various reasons, not least of which was the archeological wealth throughout the rest of Egypt, local authorities had not given much attention to historical research in the Sinai before Israeli forces captured it in the 1967 Middle East War.

Four years later, Israeli archeologists launched the first of a large number of expeditions on the sandy, rocky peninsula that borders the Red Sea on one side and the Suez Canal on the other, the only land link between Egypt and Israel.

In all, they launched 51 digs into the Sinai soil, looking for historic links between the ancient land of Israel and the neighboring Pharaonic, Greek and Arab dynasties that alternately conquered it and traded with it.

"These lands were connected not for, let's say, a hundred years or 200 years, but tens of thousands of years. So from pre-history to the early Islamic period, we learned a lot about the relationships of Egypt and Israel through the Sinai," Cohen said.

Researchers uncovered ancient trading routes along the Sinai coastline on to Gazaand Ashkelon, and another passing through to the central Negev. They found evidence that ancient Egyptians imported oil and bitumen from Israel's Dead Sea as long ago as the early Bronze Age (about 5,500 years ago) only, during the later Bronze Age, to finally conquer Israel on the path of the pharaohs to Syria.

"Later on, we know from the Bible that King Solomon had good relations with one of the pharaohs of Egypt, and even got one of his daughters in marriage. So we can see that there were very good relations at certain times," said Cohen. "The connections between them--we could write a lot of books about them, and we are preparing the publication of all the scientific work we have done."

The work, for both the Egyptians and the Israelis, clearly has resonance at a time when the peace between the two nations, absent a settlement with the Palestinians, has been chilly at best.

An Egyptian delegation traveled to Jerusalem earlier this year to sign the final agreement for return of all the artifacts by the end of 1994, allowing Israeli scientists enough time to catalogue and publish their work.

They returned from Israel with the Saleh Eddin letters as a first installment, and earlier this month the first major shipment arrived in Cairo, including 40 cases of findings from the north of Sinai and the private collection of Sinai antiquities of the late Moshe Dayan, the former Israeli defense minister.

Eventually to be included are artifacts from nearly every period in Egypt's history, prehistoric, Pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Coptic and Islamic.

"All of the history of the world is in Sinai," said Abdullah Attar, who is in charge of Islamic and Coptic monuments for the Egyptian Antiquities Organization. "For us, it is more important than treasures of gold, because in our work it means that there is evidence of people living in this area for 8,500 years."

Egyptian authorities plan to build a National Peace Museum at El Arish in the Sinai to display the artifacts.

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