Where is Mt. Sinai? At a recent colloquium in Israel, an international group of scholars debated the question. At the center of the debate was Har Karkom, a mountain ridge in the Negev Desert that archaeologist Emmanuel Anati believes to be the Biblical Mt. Sinai. Or could Mt. Sinai be in Saudia Arabia, where Moses was thought to have fled after escaping Egypt? In “Where Is Mount Sinai? The Case for Har Karkom and the Case for Saudia Arabia” in the March/April 2014 issue of BAR, Hershel Shanks examines these candidates.
Biblical Mt. Sinai has never been identified archaeologically with any scholarly consensus, though several sites have been considered. According to Shanks, none of the scholars who attended the colloquium in Israel discussed the traditional location of Mt. Sinai—the mountain called Jebel Musa looming over St. Catherine’s Monastery in the southern Sinai. Jebel Musa’s identification as Mt. Sinai developed in the early Byzantine period with the spread of monasticism into the Sinai desert. Curiously, no Exodus-related archaeological remains have been recovered in the Sinai Peninsula—through which the Israelites must have traveled out of Egypt—dating to the traditional period of the Exodus, around 1200 B.C.E.
Having conducted more than 30 years of archaeological work on and around Har Karkom—a 2,700-foot ridge in the southern Negev—Emmanuel Anati is convinced that he has found the Biblical Mt. Sinai. At Har Karkom, Anati discovered 1,300 archaeological sites, 40,000 rock engravings and more than 120 rock cult sites. Between 4300 and 2000 B.C.E.—what Anati calls the Bronze Age Complex—Har Karkom was a religious center where the moon-god Sin was apparently worshiped. Rock art depicting ibexes, animals with crescent-shaped horns that may have symbolized the moon, are abundant. Even more intriguing, Anati believes Biblical motifs are represented on some of the rock art. It was Har Karkom, Anati suggests, that the Biblical authors envisioned when they referred to Mt. Sinai. One major obstacle to this conclusion, Shanks notes, is that the religious center at Har Karkom flourished at least 800 years earlier than the traditional date of the Exodus. Emmanuel Anati prososes that the Exodus should be re-dated to the late third or early second millennium—if the Exodus, as described in the Bible, occurred at all. Anati believes the Biblical authors had been inspired by Har Karkom regardless.
Shanks proposes that we reexamine another theory: the “Midianite Hypothesis.” According to this theory, Mt. Sinai was not in the Sinai Peninsula, but in Midian in northwest Saudi Arabia. In the Bible, Moses fled to Midian after escaping Egypt (Exodus 2:15). While tending to the flock of Jethro, the priest of Midian who became Moses’ father-in-law, Moses came to “the Mountain of God” (Mt. Horeb–one of two names for the Mountain of God in the Bible) and there received God’s call to take the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 3:1,17). In contrast to the archaeologically empty Sinai during the traditional date of the Exodus, the region of northwest Saudi Arabia was thriving in the 12th century—as attested by the proliferation of Midianite ware, pottery associated with the Midianites. This distinctive painted ware had even made its way north to an Egyptian temple at Timna in the Negev Desert—but not into the Sinai.
The location of Mt. Sinai continues to be debated in scholarship. BAS Library Members: Read more about the evidence at Har Karkom and in Saudi Arabia in the full article “Where Is Mount Sinai? The Case for Har Karkom and the Case for Saudia Arabia” by Hershel Shanks as it appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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Watch Emmanuel Anati’s lecture “Har Karkom: Archaeological Discoveries on a Holy Mountain in the Desert of Exodus” and other full-length lectures from the Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination conference, which addressed some of the most challenging issues in Exodus scholarship. The international conference was hosted by Calit2’s Qualcomm Institute at UC San Diego in San Diego, CA.
Learn more about Mt. Sinai in the BAS Library:
Israel Finkelstein and Aviram Perevolotsky, “The Southern Sinai Exodus Route in Ecological Perspective,” BAR, July/August 1985.
Emmanuel Anati, “Has Mt. Sinai Been Found?” BAR, July/August 1985.
Israel Finkelstein, “Raider of the Lost Mountain—An Israeli Archaeologist Looks at the Most Recent Attempt to Locate Mt. Sinai,” BAR, July/August 1988.
Allen Kerkeslager, “Mt. Sinai—in Arabia?” Bible Review, April 2000.
Ronald S. Hendel, “Where Is Mount Sinai?” Bible Review, June 2000.
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