Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

Where Is Mount Sinai?

   The idea that Har Karkom might be identified with the biblical Mount Sinai came after four years of surveying of this mountain and thirty years after our discovery of rock art there.

By Emmanuel Anati
Head, Har Karkom Archaeological Survey
Director, Centro Camuno di Studi Preistorici
October 2003

    Since 1980, the plateau-shaped mountain Har Karkom in the Negev Desert and the surrounding valleys have been under study. Twenty-three years of archeological expeditions have allowed a thorough archaeological survey of 200 sq.km. The research led by the writer is sponsored by the CCSP (Centro Camuno di Studi Preistorici, Italy) in cooperation with the Antiquities Authority and the Archaeological Survey of Israel and supported by the Cultural Relations Department of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Each expedition has provided fresh evidence; now nearly 1300 archaeological sites are known in the surveyed area. Many of them belong to the Late Chalcolithic, the Early Bronze Age and the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age, a period dating back to the fourth and the third millennia BC referred to as BAC, or Bronze Age Complex. Remains of numerous villages of this period are found in the valleys surrounding the mountain, while the high plateau is covered by sites of cult and worship.

    The archaeological investigation in this area has produced an immense documentation on the way of life, the social structure, the economy, the habits, and the beliefs of ancient desert people. It was clear from the beginning of the survey that Har Karkom was a paramount cult center in the fourth and third millennia BC where large groups of people came and built their camps at the foothills. Then, a few of them climbed to the plateau to perform worship activities. Pillars, stone circles, geoglyphs or large pebble drawings on the ground, tumuli, altar-like structures, peculiar round platforms with "altars" on top of them, are clear indications of religious activities. The enormous amount of religious rock art (over 40,000 figures), alignments of pillars, the remains on the plateau of a small temple (a structure with a rectangular altar-like platform facing east) and at least five more at the foot of the mountain display the paramount importance of this mountain for the Bronze Age inhabitants of the desert. Har Karkom presents a unique aggregation of evidence of religious activities.

    Although Har Karkom's religious character was quite evident, no connection was made at first between that mountain and Mt. Sinai. The team had never before questioned the traditional belief that the Exodus had occurred in about the 13th century BC and had assumed this to be an established "fact." There is no evidence of any human occupation at Har Karkom in the 13th century BC, or for centuries before and after. Indeed, the usual date for the Exodus occurred right in the middle of a long archaeological gap at Har Karkom, a gap that concerns most of the Sinai peninsula if military and trading stations aside are left. In fact, the description of daily life of Midianites, Amalekites, Amorites, Horites, and other tribes appearing in the Bible, if not pure mythology, must refer to either before or after the 2nd millennium BC.

    Another factor that at first excluded any consideration of a relationship between Har Karkom and the Exodus was the location of this mountain on the edge of the "Promised Land" along a desert route from Egypt to Palestine, facing the area which is named Paran desert, but far from any previously proposed itinerary of Exodus. Since Byzantine times the Biblical Mount Sinai was believed to be in the south of the Peninsula, although such view is not corroborated by biblical accounts.

    Some scholars viewed the wanderings of the Children of Israel in the desert as random movements from one well to another. Others saw it as consisting of a route from Egypt to the Byzantine St. Catharine and from there to Ain Kudeirat which is believed to be Kadesh-Barnea in the north of the peninsula, not far from Har Karkom. There were several other hypotheses, but none had considered the Har Karkom area. And, of course, there are a number of authors who claim that the account of Exodus is just a mythical story with no historical basis. In any case, the itinerary described must have been topographically meaningful to people from the first millennium BC who were acquainted with the region in 1989, and again in 1992, we surveyed various hypotheses of the itinerary of Exodus in Egyptian Sinai. We could verify that several names and descriptions of the Exodus stations can be identified and reconstructed the itinerary in the book Esodo tra mito e storia (Capo di Ponte, Edizioni del Centro, 1997).

    The idea that Har Karkom might be identified with the biblical Mount Sinai came after four years of surveying of this mountain and thirty years after our discovery of rock art there. On the basis of topographic and archaeological evidence, it was then proposed that Har Karkom may be identified with the holy mountain referred to by biblical narrations as Mount Sinai (The Mountain of God, New York, Rizzoli, 1986; The Riddle of Mount Sinai, Capo di Ponte, Edizioni del Centro, 2001).

    Several scholars had previously considered that Mount Sinai should be located in the north rather than in the south of the Sinai Peninsula. But the identification of a specific site that relied on pertinent archaeological findings was a new fact which scandalized some, was accepted by others, and stimulated wide debates.

    The new proposal immediately found itself under fire from two directions. On one side were those who simply accepted a well-established catechism on the location of Mt. Sinai. Comments were non factual: "Everybody knows that Jebel Musa is Mount Sinai, there is no reason for discussing the matter," or "Mount Sinai must be the highest mountain in the Peninsula," or "Since the site of the Burning Bush is at St. Catharine, the mountain cannot be far away." Others claimed that "A bunch of nomads in the desert do not leave traces." This statement is simply wrong. At Har Karkom and in other areas of the Negev and Sinai, we found traces of numerous camping sites belonging to nomads from Palaeolithic times to Islamic times, but none from the Late Bronze Age.

    On the other side were those who could not agree with our chronology: "Since the Exodus took place in the 13th century BC, Mt. Sinai should have at its foot remains of 13th century camping sites." Should the date be as certain as some believe, this rule should apply to any site candidate for Mt. Sinai, not just to Har Karkom. It is probable that not a single mountain in the Sinai Peninsula would fit because the 13th century BC is part of a hiatus in settlement. But we found other kinds of hostile reaction. Some scholars simply did not like to admit that they may have been wrong. An eminent biblicist said, "I have been teaching for thirty years that Mt. Sinai is Jebel Musa. How would one expect me to change my position at my age?"

    To the best of our knowledge, besides the Greek Orthodox Church, no other denomination so far has taken an official position about the location of Mt. Sinai. The debate with theologians, biblical scholars and archaeologists remains open. Nevertheless, the immense wealth of cult sites at Har Karkom proves that it was a paramount holy mountain in the Bronze Age. No such evidence has been found at any other Mount Sinai "candidate."

    In the books of Exodus and Numbers, Mount Sinai appears to be located between the desert of Sin and the desert Paran, between the land of Amalek and the land of Midian, between Eilim and the "Hill Road of the Amorites." Other passages in the Bible provide information about the location of the above-mentioned deserts and about the territories of the Amalekites, the Midianites, and the Amorites. In the story of Moses in Midian, Mount Sinai is described as being on the edge of the pasture land of Midian and on the way between Jethro's residence and Egypt.

    At the beginning of Deuteronomy, it is written: "It takes eleven days from Horeb, by the way of Mount Seir, to Kadesh-Barnea" (Deut I,2) For many scholars, even among those who do not agree with the identification of Har Karkom, Kadesh-Barnea is identified with Ain Kudeirat (or with the nearby Ain Kadis) and Mount Seir with Jebel Arif el-Naqa. In fact there is a good trail between Har Karkom and Ain Kudeirat by the way of Jebel Arif el-Naqa; along it, there are ten groups of wells at distances of 7 to 14 miles from each other. Therefore, if Har Karkom is Mt. Sinai, it takes a person who walks on foot exactly eleven days from Horeb by the way of Mt. Seir to reach Kadesh-Barnea.

    The Bible describes deserts and tribal areas around Mt. Sinai. One of the main emerging points is that Mt. Sinai, according to the narration, must be located on or near the border between the land of Midian and the land of Amalek. The Bible indicates that the Amalekites occupied the highlands of the Central Negev and the area of Kadesh Barnea, and the Midianites were on both sides of the Araba Valley. Mt. Sinai, according to the biblical narration, should be located between these two regions, meaning in the Har Karkom area.

    At the edge of a living site at the foot of the mountain (Site HK/52), we found a group of 12 pillars or standing stones facing a platform. It reminded us of a passage in Exodus (24:4): "And Moses ... built an altar under the hill (or mountain) and 12 pillars, according to the 12 tribes of Israel." Obviously, we are not in the position to prove that this monument was built by Moses, but the monument is there and was probably seen and interpreted by travelers.

    The cleft on one of the two tops at Har Karkom forms a small rock-shelter. A shelter right on the summit of a mountain is not a common feature in the Sinai Peninsula. In Exodus 33:21-22, Mt. Sinai is described as having such a characteristic: "And the Lord said, behold, there is a place by me, and thou should stand upon a rock; and it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in the cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by ...." Again this is a topographic feature which the Bible attributes to Mt. Sinai. The story behind it is beyond our present concern.

    A Bronze Age shrine with a stone platform or altar oriented to the east is present on the Har Karkom plateau. Around it, there are footprints carved on stones in the direction of the mountaintop. In the book of Exodus, there are several references to a temple that is said to have been seen by Moses (Exodus 25:40; 26:7; 26:30; 27:8). Some biblical scholars believe that Moses may have had a vision of a "celestial" temple while on the mountain, but the Bible says that there was a temple and this again is a topographic feature. Early travelers in Biblical times may have recognized a sanctuary in this structure with an altar.

    Many other such parallels between the biblical accounts and the archaeological findings were at first seen as intriguing coincidences, but, as the survey went on, such coincidences became too many. Its archaeological finds reflect a story very similar to that described in the Bible and reveal a site which mirrors the biblical narrations on Mount Sinai. The compilers of the book of Exodus, when describing Mount Sinai, provide a wealth of topographic details which coincide with those of Har Karkom. When the book The Mountain of God came out in 1986, about 500 archaeological sites were on record. Since then, the expeditions conducted there have more than doubled the number of sites. The mountain is likely to have served as a paramount site of worship and pilgrimage again and again in the course of millennia. All we can say at the moment is that if the Israelites indeed stopped at the foot of this holy mountain, they have not been the only ones to do so. Also the Bible seems to give us an indication in this sense (Exodus 3:1). Moses led the flock of Jethro to the Mountain of God. The text seems to imply that the site was known already as the "Mountain of God" before Moses arrived there.

    After the first shocked refusal of evidence in 1984, several scholars now tend to agree that Har Karkom may well be identified with Mount Sinai. However, some questions remain open. The most puzzling one is that of chronology. Our discoveries indicate that Har Karkom was a paramount holy mountain in the fourth and the third millennia BC. Recent archaeological investigation established the same dates for Kadesh Barnea, Arad, Jericho, Ai, and other sites mentioned by the biblical accounts of Exodus and of the book of Joshua. According to the archaeological findings, all those localities flourished in the third millennium BC and suffered devastation and destruction towards its end. Despite the numerous efforts made by scholars to make their findings fit the currently held dates for Exodus, if the identification of the excavated archaeological sites is correct, none of those sites existed in the 13th century BC. When archaeologists found no trace of the Late Bronze Age at Jericho, some biblical scholars claimed that biblical Jericho was not there. When the archaeological survey failed to find traces of the Late Bronze at Ai, Arad, or at Kadesh Barnea, the same was claimed. But could all the identifications be wrong?

    In the last 100 years, many efforts have been invested in finding some hints of the Israelites and their Exodus in the Egyptian ancient literature. From the Egyptian texts that date to the New Kingdom, there is no mention whatsoever of the flight from Egypt or the crossing of the "Red Sea." Not even the general historical and social background correspond. The biblical episodes in Egypt refer to the presence of significant groups of Asians in the area of the Delta. Political changes upset their social standing. If all of this tradition has a minimal basis in historical fact, then it cannot have been totally ignored by the Egyptians. And in fact, it was not ignored. The relevant texts do not date to the New Kingdom at all, but to the Old Kingdom. It is our opinion that the archaeological evidence at the above mentioned sites, the tribal social structures described in the Bible, the climatic changes described by the episodes of drought, and the ancient Egyptian literature seem to indicate that the events and situations which may have inspired the biblical narrations do not date to the thirteenth century BC but rather to the late third millennium BC.

    As already stressed by several authors, the Egyptian literature of the late Old Kingdom and of the First Intermediate period between 2300 and 2000 BC shows many points of contact with the biblical narrations. This aspect has been discussed in detail in the book The Mountain of God. Another Egyptian text related, in the known versions to the 20th century BC, the Sinuhe narrative, clearly has much in common with the biblical story of Moses, who escaped to Midian where he "married" into the family of Jethro. It is difficult to believe that these parallels can be a series of pure coincidences. It seems, in fact, that there was a common matrix to these two accounts which cannot be later than the oldest text known of the story.

    Above all, the archaeological evidence in all of the Sinai peninsula specifically excludes the possibility of the presence in the area of tribal ethnic groups such as the Midianites, Amalekites, Amorites, Horites, and Israelites, From the twentieth century to the 12th century BC, palaeo-climatologists indicate a period of severe draught and archaeologists have shown that the desert areas of the Near East have been practically abandoned by man between the 20th and the 12th century BC. This evidence is further supported by finds in Jordan where the presence of large human communities and vast activity in the Early Bronze Age and the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age in third millennium BC bear patterns similar to those recorded at Har Karkom. As in the Negev and Sinai, also in Edom and Moab, this archaeological episode is followed by a hiatus until the Iron Age in the 12th century BC. The archaeological evidence shows that by then the Israelites were already agriculturalists and villagers in the Holy Land. If there has been an Exodus, it must have taken place well before the age of Judges. Inevitably, this means, before the arid period when the Sinai peninsula had no tribal life. The Biblical account of Exodus describes a context in which the area had an intense tribal life.

    Considering these various factors together, it seems that the biblical narratives reflect what archaeological research has discovered at Har Karkom, Beer Karkom and Kadesh-Barnea, as well as at Jericho, Ai, Arad, Edom and Moab, and elsewhere. If the epic described in the books of Exodus and Numbers relies on even a minimal historical matrix, and if indeed there was an Exodus with stops at the foot of Mount Sinai and at Kadesh-Barnea, then its chronological context can only refer to the BAC period during which Har Karkom was a holy mountain of exceptional importance. The documentation gathered through archaeological research at Jericho and Ai, the comparisons with Egyptian literature, and the actual finds at Har Karkom, all seem to imply that the biblical narratives have some historical background referring to the era of Exodus. Thus the age of Joshua beginning at Gilgal, marked the twilight of the Early Bronze Age. This is when the epoch of Moses ends, an epoch which both culturally and historically belongs to the Early Bronze Age, about one millennium before the dates given to such episodes by what had been so far the conventional chronology.

 

    Note: For further details, see: Anati, E., 2001, The Riddle of Mount Sinai, (Capo di Ponte, Edizioni del Centro), or look into the website: www.harkarkom.com.