Where is Mt. Sinai?

Archeologists still can't say for sure.

moses 88 (photo credit: )
moses 88
(photo credit: )
It is the most important mountain in Jewish history. It is central to our religion and it is the birthplace of one of the founding documents of world civilization. It is our rock and our salvation - but where is it? The Egyptians brought the sun down onto the gilded tip of their pyramids at Giza, the Babylonians married their gods at the top of their ziggurats in Mesopotamia, and the Mayas offered their hearts to the moon on the top of their temple-pyramids in Teotihuacan. We Jews received the Ten Commandments at the top of Mount Sinai, but where was that mountain? The location of Har Sinai is still unknown. It is not in Egypt and it is not in Israel; it should be somewhere in between, and there are three possibilities: It could be in the Sinai Peninsula, it could be in the Arabian Peninsula, or it could be just in the mind. And it is certainly in the Jewish mind at this season of Shavuot (Pentecost). The sages have declared that Shavuot is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah to the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai, seven weeks after they came out of Egypt. THE TORAH tells us of the theophany at Sinai but nothing of the date; and, in fact, the calendar date of Shavuot itself is not specified. The Torah says that Shavuot is the festival of Bikkurim, the giving of the first fruits to the Temple at the date of the wheat harvest - and that is all. The ceremony was to be conducted in connection with the Tabernacle at Shiloh, and later at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Pharisees of the first century BCE did not like the Sadducee administration of the Temple and worked out a date for the giving of the Torah at Sinai, relating it to Shavuot to give that festival a significance outside the confines of the Temple. They went further and claimed that the Oral Law as well as the Written Law was given to Moses at Sinai, and that in essence we were all there at that founding event. They presumably still knew where Mt. Sinai was, but there was no attempt to repeat the journey. The only one to do that was Elijah, when he escaped to Horeb (Horev), from the wrath of Queen Jezebel. For Horeb is considered to be another name for Mt. Sinai. The name is used by the Arabs, in the form Harib, to claim that Mt. Sinai is Jabal Hadi, by the village of Harib in modern Saudi Arabia. This was also the view of some quite sober Bible scholars of the early 20th century, who saw the description of the event "Now Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke.... (which) ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly" (Exodus 19:18), as a description of volcanic activity. They thus rejected a location on the Sinai Peninsula which was not subject to such activity, unlike some mountain ranges on the other side of the Gulf of Eilat. HOWEVER THE volcano idea has now been rejected and the presently preferred locations are all in the Sinai Peninsula, and all relate to one or another of the possible routes of the Exodus - the northern route, the central route and the southern one. The northern route is not the Way of the Sea, later called the Way of the Philistines, as that was specifically rejected by the Torah, but the Way of Shur, about 50 km. south of the Mediterranean coastline. Today it runs from Ismailiya, on the Suez Canal, to Beersheba. The central route follows the Darb el-Haj (as its name implies, the route to Mecca) that today runs from Cairo to Eilat via the Mitla Pass, while the southern route runs south along the Gulf of Suez, turns inland at Wadi Feiran (identified with the biblical Rephidim), crosses the mountain range by the Monastery of Santa Katerina and then turns north toward Eilat and Kadesh Barnea. It is this last route that is the present favourite, passing by Jebel Musa, the presently accepted site for Har Sinai. It was first located by Christian hermits from Egypt and was named after one of their fellows, rather than after Moses himself. The fourth-century female pilgrim Egregia visited Egypt, found her way to Jebel Musa and climbed the mountain to a church at its summit, which was small "but had a grace all of its own." To accommodate the monks and many pilgrims who came to the site, in the sixth century the Emperor Justinian built the fortress-monastery of Santa Katerina at the foot of the mountain, on the site of what was believed to be the Burning Bush, still shown to visitors today. The mountain is impressive. It is one of the highest in the range and looks out over an infinite landscape of rugged and spiky brown and black stone, totally devoid of greenery. To stand on the summit is to feel the power of solitude and infinity that can lead to a strong sense of spirituality. But there is no inscribed potsherd or stone that can indicate that this is indeed Mt. Sinai. ANOTHER CONTENDER for the title, to the west of Jebel Musa, was Mount Serbal, proposed by early Christian writers like Eusebius and Jerome, before the foundation of Santa Katerina. Today it appears to be near the southern route; but the Rev. Arthur Stanley, who visited the area in 1853, claimed it to be the favored location for the mountain on the central route, being the highest and most prominent in the range of mountains along that passage traveled by the Israelites. As for the northern route, there is a strong contender in Har Karkom, a plateau-topped mountain in the Negev, some 35 km. south of today's Mitzpe Ramon and 10 km. east of the border with Egypt. It has been extensively excavated by an Italian team under the direction of Emmanuel Anati, who has found a vast number of cultic structures and rock carvings around the mountain. They would certainly support the theory that the mountain was surrounded by encampments of thousands of nomads, like the Children of Israel. However, the evidence can only be dated to the late third millennium, the years between 2500 and 2200 BCE, the period of the earliest Patriarchs, perhaps 1,000 years before the preferred date for the Exodus. So the meticulous evidence unearthed by Anati is generally rejected as a location for Mt. Sinai. That leaves us with Jebel Musa, whose location rests solely on a Christian tradition going back to the fourth century CE. Should we accept that for the most important and most sacred mountain in our history? Unfortunately there is no evidence of any early Jewish visitors to the site. Benjamin Metudela traveled through Egypt and Israel in the late 12th century, but crossed between them by sea. Three hundred years later, Rabbi Ovadiah from Bartenura traveled from Italy to Palestine and extensively throughout Israel, but he did not visit the Sinai. EXCEPT FOR Anati, modern archeologists do not seem to have had any interest in tackling this question. Two famous archeologists, Leonard Woolley and T.E. Lawrence, were commissioned to explore the Negev-Sinai for the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1913, and although their remit was "to follow the route of the Israelites in the Wilderness of Zin," they failed to find any trace of the wanderings of the Children of Israel. They found nothing that could be dated to that early period and, as Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) later wrote to a friend, "not a sign or a smell of Israelites wandering about here... We are transforming a hillfort of the Amorites into a Byzantine monastery, sounds almost impious doesn't it?" Of course that is not surprising as there were unlikely to be traces of nomadic wanderings across inhospitable country, however large the numbers involved. But it does seem that both the route of the Exodus and the site of Mt. Sinai are elusive. So, for the moment, we have to conclude that Mt. Sinai remains more in the mind than on the ground, and will do so until such time as excavations can prove it to be at Jebel Musa, one way or another. Only if something positive came out of that could we say with confidence to our sages: This is the site of Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Torah, which you insist is central to the festival of Shavuot. Until such time as archeologists can say that, Mt. Sinai must remain in the mind, rather than on the ground. The writer is a fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.