Searching for Biblical Mt. Sinai

The case for Har Karkom in the Negev and the case for Saudi Arabia

Emmanuel Anati stands before Har Karkom, a ridge in the Negev that he believes inspired the Biblical Mt. Sinai. Photo: Hershel Shanks.

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.
 


 
Watch Emmanuel Anati’s lecture “Har Karkom: Archaeological Discoveries on a Holy Mountain in the Desert of Exodus,” delivered at the Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination hosted by Calit2’s Qualcomm Institute at UC San Diego.


 

An abundance of rock art can be found at Har Karkom, including some that Emmanuel Anati interprets as Biblical motifs. A rectangular grid divided into ten spaces suggests the Ten Commandments Moses received on Mt. Sinai. In other rock art pictured in BAR, vertical and curvy lines may represent a staff and snake, recalling the story of Moses’ brother Aaron turning a staff into a snake as he stood before Pharaoh. Photo: Emmanuel Anati.

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.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Sign up today.
 


 
Watch 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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  1. John says

    It is not really a mystery that Mt. Sinai is in Arabia. Paul told us that in Galatians 4:25 — “Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children.” (NIV)

    Plus, as mentioned in the article above, Moses fled to Midian. Every Bible map I’ve ever seen places Midian in Arabia.

  2. Rikki says

    In the book of Exodus it says that Moses fled to Midian ( which is in Arabia ) .The Israelites crossed the Red sea and went into Midiam . Moses new the land for he spent allot of time there before he returned to Egypt . (Exodus 2:11 ) .

  3. Jonathan says

    Saudi Arabia location has already been explored by Ron Wyatt, Bob Cornuke, and Jim & Penny Caldwell through the past 50 years. Why are the bigger organizations just now getting to it?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1VKIyNSbUk&feature=share&list=PLjSdjA_31Wszi2MTlhW-MMqVmCIfY9a6u&index=1

  4. William says

    Read up on Ron Wyatt’s web site, wyattarchaeologicalresearch.com. He was there in 1984 and claims that in Saudi Arabia at Jabel el Lawz (the mountain of God) that all the things described in Exodus are found there. I have read both accounts ,the one in Negrev desert and I think Ron Wyatt was correct.

  5. Alicia says

    The description of Mt Sinai in Exodus is similar to ancient descriptions of erupting volcanos. We should be looking for an ancient volcano.

  6. Mervyn says

    Har Karkom is NOT a volcano as the Bible expressly indicates. Neither is it in Midian where Moses began his journey and ended it with the Israelites. Just because a Roman women thought it might be in Sinai “scholars” have simply accepted her choice as fact.
    The north-western arm of the Red Sea is a – if not THE – Reed Sea.
    Why scholars should ever have thought (if they troubled to do that at all) that the Israelites in flight would have stayed in Sinai within Egyptian territory rather than go to a country – Midian – OUTSIDE Egyptian control. It was here that Moses worked and lived, had his family and connections and more importantly, knew the territory.

  7. Kurt says

    The Wilderness of Sinai
    The harsh conditions found in the Sinai Peninsula are vividly portrayed in the Bible account of Israel’s wanderings. (Deuteronomy 8:15) So, could a whole nation assemble at the base of Mount Sinai to receive God’s Law and later withdraw to stand “at a distance”? (Exodus 19:1, 2; 20:18) Is there a place large enough to allow for such movement of a crowd estimated to have numbered three million?
    A 19th-century traveler and Bible scholar, Arthur Stanley, visited the area of Mount Sinai and described the sight that confronted his party on climbing Ras Safsafa: “The effect on us, as on every one who has seen and described it, was instantaneous. . . . Here was the deep wide yellow plain sweeping down to the very base of the cliffs . . . Considering the almost total absence of such conjunctions of plain and mountain in this region, it is a really important evidence to the truth of the narrative, that one such conjunction can be found, and that within the neighbourhood of the traditional Sinai.”
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/mp/r1/lp-e/Rbi8/1984/0
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1001061223?q=Mt.+Sinai&p=par
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200275350

  8. John says

    An appeal to Ron Wyatt is counter-productive and this fellow claimed to have discovered, not only Mount Sinai, but also Noah’s ark, the ark of the covenant, the blood of Jesus, and Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet he never had a single shred of proof for any of his claims. What he did do is to sell a bunch of DVD’s to gullible Christians.

    As to the Saudi Arabian proposals for a location to Mount Sinai, none of them explain why the Israelites subsequently attempted to enter the Promised Land via Kadesh Barnea and only then had to circumnavigate around the land of the Edomites in order to approach the land of Moab.

  9. BRYAN says

    A not-so-gullible Christian responds: Wyatt should not be considered an archaeologist. He’s a showman, and a rather poor one at that. To bring the discussion back to archaeology, we need to understand there are two approaches. One is a traditional approach that will allow for the miraculous provision of many Israelites living and traveling through a place with very few sources of water or food. This would put Jebel Musa back on the map. The other approach insists the myth of Mt. Sinai is either complete fabrication or at least something heavily exaggerated. This idea demands a naturalistic approach: the Israelites could have survived in NW Arabia easily enough, if they could get there. But before settling on one approach or the other, let’s stop pretending the argument can be settled by dismissing miraculous accounts as poo, just because we think we’ve seen it all. What lies at the heart of locating Mt. Sinai isn’t just scientific curiosity, after all.

  10. G B ELDRED says

    I received newsletters from Ron Wyatt from when he first started looking for Biblical things.
    He found chariot wheels with rims of gold and they can be found in a museum in Egypt.. He always told the Archeology people from each country what he found. Noahs Ark was found in Turkey and the Turkish Govt . was going to make it a tourist place but because of wars could not do it..Archeologists in Turkey know where it is and they tested the place..

  11. ralph says

    .
    There is only one mountain that conforms to all the descriptions of Mt Sinai.

    Mt Sinai was said to be:
    A sacred mountain of god. The tallest mountain, but small enough to be cordoned off, sharp and difficult to climb, on the edge of a desert, and with a cavern inside it. Finally, it had a black pavement at the base, that looked like the night sky. So what mountain conforms to all these points? Easy.

    The Great Pyramid. And the black pavement is the black basalt pavement at the base of the GP.

    See Tempest & Exodus.
    Ralph.

  12. ralph says

    .
    The final proof that Mt Sinai is the Great Pyramid, is the story of the wanderings for 40 years. This is not possible in reality, because 2 million people cannot live in the Sinai for 40 years. So what does this reference to 40 mean?

    Actually, it is a reference to the Great Pyramid, because the GP is a 40 times copy if Pi.

    If you had been initiated into the mysteries of the GP, you attached the number 40 to your story – 40 days in the wilderness, 40 years in the wilderness, or 40 years reign length. etc: etc:

    The Torah account is all true, but not in the manner you expect.
    Ralph

  13. ralph says

    .
    As to Noah’s Ark, that too is at the Great Pyramid.

    Beside the Great Pyramid are the two great Solar Boats that rode the celestial waters of Nu (ie, Nuah). There were two boats, one for the day, one for the night (in pairs, you see). In Egyptian mythology, these boats searched for the Primaeval Mound that appeared in the chaotic waters of Nu. And the mound broke open to reveal the Phoenix, the flying Sun-disk, just as Christian iconography portrays the dove as being an image of the Sun.

    Ralph.

  14. ralph says

    .

    The solar boar of Nuah (ie: Nu) at Mt Sinai (ie: the Great Pyramid).
    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_jzOLtCnfZ2w/SwXUxUr0xPI/AAAAAAAAA9c/mtlMag_c-Is/s1600/Giza%2B-%2BSolar%2BBoat.jpg

    The dove as an image of the flying Sun-disk. The Phoenix. St Peter’s Rome.
    http://puzzles-games.eu/data/media/30/Alabaster-Window-with-Dove-in-Cathedra-Petri-Basilica-Saint-Peter-Vatican-Rome-Italy-Close-up.jpg

  15. Robert says

    For Jonathan,
    The Old Midianite Hypothesis is not new, and such scholars as George Mendenhall, Larry Stager, P. Kyle McCarter Jr., and the late Frank Moore Cross Jr., have long argued for it being the most reasonable view.

    See H. St. John Philby, The Land of Midian (London: Ernst Benn, 1957).
    M. C. A. MacDonald, “Along the Red Sea,” in Jack Sasson, et al., eds., Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 vols. (N.Y.: Scribner’s Sons, 1995), 2:1350.

  16. ralph says

    P.S. That image of rock art is actually a Judaic horned altar. It is blocks of stone making a cubic shape, surmounted by the standard ‘horns’ that appear on the corner of all Judaic altars.

    Ralph

  17. William says

    The Exodus of the Children of Israel is my favorite Bible story. The story is so wonderful and I truly want to believe it occurred just as it is described in the scriptures. Yet no matter how much we search for its certain archaeological evidence it alludes us. What then are we left to conclude?
    Does no archaeological evidence exist? If so, then why? Was it simply because the footsteps of a pastoral people quickly disappeared in the harsh environment? Or perhaps evidence still exists that is yet to be discovered. And if evidence does still exist what could it be to substantiate such a great story to everyone’s satisfaction?
    My take is that after all this time if we cannot even agree on where Mt. Sinai is then we may never be able to prove that the Exodus as described even occurred at all. But I’m hoping for the miracle discovery because I want to believe. Personally I still believe in the traditional location at Jebel Musa.

  18. Fodor says

    I heard that God was killed in tribal warfare.

  19. Mark says

    Like my own, reports of God’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

  20. E. says

    The Israelites crossed the Red sea and went into Midiam .

    -No, they did not.

    It is not really a mystery that Mt. Sinai is in Arabia.

    -’Cause borders never change, right, John?
    @ralph
    -You may be right about the horned altar. You are incorrect about Sinai.

    Har Karkom is NOT a volcano as the Bible expressly indicates.

    -Nobody in all Iron Age Judah ever saw a volcanic eruption. Sometimes, a thunderstorm is just a thunderstorm.

    -E. Harding, author of the Against Jebel al-Lawz site.

  21. G B ELDRED says

    In 1985 Ron Wyatt and Dave Fasold were searching for Mt Sinai in Arabia. They thought Jabel el Lawz was the biblical Mt Sniai because the high peak of the mountain range was distinctly black. It looked as if it was solid coal . The very top portion of the entire range had been evenly scorched.. EX 19:18 And Mt Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire..
    At the foot of the mountain Ron Wyatt found columns similar to the large Egyptian columns in Egypt. These were markers for a fence or border. Each was 18 ft. diameter . In Ex 19 ti tells of how a border should be put to be sure no one crossed to step on the mountain or they would die. The columns were buried only the tops showed . The Saudis do not want tourists nosing around so they could only dig around one to see what it was..
    They told a Soudi Archeologist about some rock drawings of Egyption cattle.. Right after that the Saudis built a guard station and put a fence all around so no one would explore. The Saudi Bedowins call it the mountain of Moses.

  22. ernest says

    If we read the Bible, that is if we read the Bible, then Mt. Sinai has to be in the Land of Midian. Where is the land of Midian? Check your map, it is in Arabia. As for Mt. Karkom, yes! I believe the Hebrews were there 100% and that it is the true Kadesh Barnea.

    Thanks for listening!
    vom

  23. ari says

    You are all wrong. Ex 15. Now the lord led them not by way of the philistines although it was closer. If they were coming from egypt to sinai or even saudi arabia neither way is closer if they passed the philistines who dwelt in by the western sea. Therefore mount sinai must be north of philistines. In otherwords in canaan. This is the riddle nobody can figure out. Mount meron is the real mount sinai. Arizukertorah.wordpress.com

  24. Rikki says

    When Moses ran out of Egypt after killing the guard he fled into Midian .For the land of Egypt included the Sinai .So when the Israelite came out of Egypt they crossed the red sea into Midian were Moses got married and worked the land ,as he knew the land well there.

  25. ari says

    Mount sinai has to be in israel. Since it is written that “the israelites didnt travel to the way of the philistines although it was closer.” Therefore it has to be past the philistines north. Perhaps the biggest miss understanding is the location of egypt. In hebrew it is written that mitzraim (egypt) had several sons. So when we are talking about the nation of egypy this includes the philistines. They israelites dwelt in egypt 430 years. Isaac was born in grar of the philistines since his time the israelittes dwell in egypt. So i beleive egypt is one of the other brothers of the philistines who dwelt near by. In jerusalem. 3 days journey from philistines grar to mount moriah. Moses says that he will travel 3 days journey to worship god. I beleive moriAh and sinai are the same.. another obvious point is the name sinai corrresponds to one of the sons of canaan. I beleive sinai and moriah and bet el are all the same mountain in israel. The garden of eden where gos choose to establish his name. Mount meron northern israel is the only mountain that can claim two of jacobs pillars that he built in bet el. Rachel was burried after they left bet el. Nahal amud is the pillar of rachel. The gilead happens to also be called gilgal rephaim or rujm el hiri and matches the description of being west of the gilgal in deuteronomy 11.

  26. Veli says

    The Jabal Haylan volcano http://www.volcanodiscovery.com/haylan.html is the only volcano in that area known to have been active around 1200…800 BC. The only problem is that it is literally far fetched: The distance is about 1850 km (1200 miles) from Eilat. There are some interesting aspects: According to Exodus 19:1 it took 60 days for Israel from Egypt to Sinai: that might be possible for the front group of that caravan. (I assume that the exodus population was far less than 600,000 men + others – probably they did not use our 10-based numerical system for census. Maybe total max 30,000 people as they camped near Jabal Haylan?) And for Elijah it took 40 days to get there in 1 Kings 19:8, but he was a man in a good shape (1 Kings 18:42-46). Jabal Haylan is near Sana’a (=Sinai??). The town of Maʾrib is near, it was capital of the Sabaean kingdom from the early iron age onwards and has some Jewish and Ethiopian connections.The Maʾrib dam is near it and the first dam was built in the Middle Bronze age. Wadi Ḥarīb is near, and it sounds like Horeb. This area might be worth of some preliminary surface survey. I just wonder could archaeologists find remains of an encampment or settlement there that existed around 1200 BC and had more than average of Egyptian items? Also the eruption time of that Volcano should be double-checked with the modern methods.

Continuing the Discussion

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    [...] Searching for Biblical Mt Sinai: Where is Mt. Sinai? At a recent colloquium in Israel, an international group of scholars debated [...]

  2. Where is Biblical Mt. Sinai? | MakePhoto.org linked to this post on February 18, 2014

    [...] Searching for Biblical Mt. Sinai: The case for Har Karkom in the Negev and the case for Saudi Arabia… [...]

  3. Video: Har Karkom–Archaeological Discoveries on a Holy Mountain in the Desert of Exodus | Joshua and the Colourful Judges of Israel linked to this post on February 26, 2014

    [...] is Mt. Sinai? The investigation and study of Har Karkom has been the life work of Emmanuel Anati, an 83-year-old Italian archaeologist who has been documenting finds at the site for more than 30 [...]


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