Capital of the fabled land of Midian?
The so-called Midianite Hypothesis, first popularized in the 19th century, holds that Moses was introduced to the god Yahweh in the land of Midian and the neighboring mountains, where some have located Mt. Sinai. At the outset of the biblical Exodus narrative, Moses happens to kill an Egyptian and then flees to “the land of Midian” to escape punishment (Exodus 2:11–15). It is in this wild, mountainous region that Moses meets his future wife, Zipporah. More consequentially, he also encounters Yahweh, who is to become the national god to the liberated Israelites.
Unfortunately, the Bible provides only a vague idea of the people who lived in Midian, giving us contrasting views that do not allow us to create a coherent historical picture of the Midianites. Some have identified the ancient North Arabian desert site of Qurayyah as the likely capital of the fabled Midianite kingdom. But is there any archaeological evidence for the biblical Midianites to support this identification?
Writing for the Winter 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, archaeologist Marta Luciani of the University of Vienna, Austria, explores these issues and much more in her article “Archaeology in the Land of Midian: Excavating the Qurayyah Oasis.” An expert in Near Eastern archaeology and director of the current excavations at Qurayyah, Luciani provides a sweeping overview of the site’s history and archaeology.
The site is dominated by a massive rock plateau (see image above), where elite graves may belong to the settlement’s earliest occupants. Over the centuries that followed, the site’s inhabitants developed a fortified residential area, an industrial district, and a cemetery. The virtually uninterrupted occupation of the site in this inhospitable region was possible only thanks to an ingenious system of water collection and distribution. Archaeologists mapped and documented a web of channels and dams that collected and managed seasonal rain runoff, bringing water to Qurayyah’s fields and orchards.
Beginning in the third millennium, these technological advances transformed Qurayyah into a large urban oasis, which had no contemporary parallels in Mesopotamia or Egypt. The site’s growing importance and wealth was also due to the local metallurgical activities and long-distance trade. To students of biblical archaeology, Midian is probably best known through the pottery produced in the region and traditionally called Midianite Pottery (now called Qurayyah Painted Ware), which found its way to major sites in the southern Levant, including Gezer in the Judean lowlands, and all the way to Tayma and Dadan in the south. Prior to the excavations at Qurayyah, the earliest examples of Midianite Pottery came from Timna in the southern Negev, where they were dated to the late 14th to 12th centuries BCE. At Qurayyah, however, this pottery was first produced in the 17th century BCE.
The ongoing archaeological exploration of the Qurayyah oasis has revealed much about its ancient inhabitants, even if the site’s connection to the biblical Midianites remains unconfirmed. To explore the site in more detail, read Marta Luciani’s article “Archaeology in the Land of Midian: Excavating the Qurayyah Oasis,” published in the Winter 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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