ROCK ART AND THE CULT OF STONES
Har Karkom's plateau and surrounding valleys
include an immense assemblage of rock art: about one thousand engraved rocks
display over 40,000 rock engravings. This vast collection of art has been the
primary motivation to explore and research this area. Several rock art sites on
the mountain appear to have been used for events that prescribed the arranging
of stone circles, the erection of standing stones and the lighting of large
fires. It appears that surfaces cleared of stone rubble were piled with wood or
other fuels and set ablaze; even after the passage of millennia conspicuous
traces remain of the fires that were produced, such as fire chips on hundred of
flints in these areas. The size of the burnt area is sometimes more than twenty
meters in diameter. In some cases such fires remind one of the traditional
funerary pyres of India, but no fragments of bones have been found. It is still
not clear with what occasions or performances these conflagrations were involved.
In several cases such areas of pyres are connected with rock art
concentrations, which offer further clues but no certain answers to the role of
From our current information, the rock art in
the Islamic period, and probably also during Roman-Byzantine times, was often
non-religious in its creation and subject matter, allowing all sorts of
descriptive and anecdotal figures to be represented. In the Bronze Age, on the
other hand, most of the rock art was a matter of cult, and the depictions
related mainly to worship. The connection between the fires and rock art is not
easily explained; one can readily imagine, however, the effect fires of such
proportions and such distant visibility might have.
One gathers the impression
that not one but one thousand burning bushes were burning and consuming
themselves on this mountain. Besides standing stones and the stone circles,
some rock art sites also include stone alignments; some engravings are found on
the arranged stones while other engravings are on immovable rock faces. The
systematic inventory of rock art currently in progress displays recurring
models of association between structure types and rock art themes. Two kinds of
monuments are frequent at the sites of Bronze Age rock art, or in their
immediate vicinity: stone tumuli and small, private "sanctuaries" with
Rock art, with its history of more than ten
thousand years, offers a range of styles, from images of pre-Neolithic hunting
and gathering communities to the vastly different images of the Roman-Byzantine
and Islamic periods. While some styles of rock art found on Har Karkom are
similar to those found in the central Negev on Wadi Hawara and other areas of
Sinai, others are quite different. The early hunters' art (classified as RA
Period-I) is uncommon throughout the Negev, and Sinai, and at Har Karkom only a
few surfaces with this type of engraving have been found. Some of the animal
figures may be quite large in size. They are associated with signs or ideograms
while descriptive scenes are unknown.
In the Neolithic period (RA Period-II) the
earliest depictions of animal domestication is seen in the presence of the
domesticated ox, along with wild animals that continued to be hunted. Nomadic
groups of cattle breeders appear to have moved around the Negev and Sinai,
probably already at a rather early date.
Some of the most important groups of rock art
belong to RA Period-III, which is usually attributed to the Chalcolithic Period
but may have appeared earlier and probably persisted long thereafter.
Period-III primarily represents hunting scenes with the use of bow and arrow,
reflecting a way of life that may have lasted in the desert area well after the
beginning of agriculture in the fertile lands. Beautiful hunting scenes seem to
bring us back to the biblical environment of Genesis, when Ishmael, son of
Hagar and ancestral father of the Arabs, "grew and lived in the wilderness and
became an archer. And he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran." (Genesis 21:20-21).
In rock art scenes of Period-III expert hunters wearing animal skins hunt the
ibex using bows and arrows, assisted by domesticated dogs. In the same period
the first cult scenes connected with the ibex appeared, which show people in a
hieratic posture worshipping in front of its image. Periods IV/A and IV/B
illustrate the spread of a fully pastoral way of life and are attributed to the
Bronze Age. Period IV/A, which is likely to belong mainly to the early Bronze
Age, is abundantly represented in the area of Har Karkom while Period IV/B,
considered to belong to the late Bronze Age, is practically non existent there.
It is known in the Central Negev highlands which had a more humid climate, and
in the mining areas of Timna and Serabit el Khadem which were regime
Later groups of rock art on the mountain and
around it have a familiar character. A group known as RA Period-IV/C is
widespread in the Negev, Sinai and the Jordanian plateau; it is usually
connected with Nabatean and other Semitic inscriptions that may be dated to the
late first millennium BC and the first centuries AD.
During Period-IV/C the camel and the horse
make their first appearances in rock art, and the goat becomes the dominant
domesticated animal, as it has remained ever since. Other engravings are connected
with inscriptions belonging to the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic
periods, in Greek, Latin, and Arabic, as well as in various Semitic languages
such as Thamudic and Safaitic.
The last two millennia are characterised by
three typological groups of rock art. Period V, related to the late Roman and
Byzantine periods, is mainly characterised by fighting scenes on horseback and
by the hunting of lions and wild canids such as wolves and foxes. Feasts and
commemorations are sometimes depicted. Period VI, related to early Islamic
times, is primarily characterised by camel caravans and Period VII, belonging
to the Bedouins of the last millennium, is often rather schematic in style,
displaying rough animal and human figures along with wassum or tribal
emblems or brands.
Among the various groups of rock art, another
category appears to be a local version of what has been classified as RA
Period-IV/A. This period, which reflects a semi-nomadic pastoral way of life,
includes several elements that allow its dating. In many cases the patina makes
it roughly contemporary with Period III, which reflects a way of life of
hunters with bow and arrow. This seems to indicate the coexistence in the same
areas of peoples with two distinct lifestyles, one primarily of hunting, the
other primarily of pastoralism. The human figures of Period IV/A are often
equipped with a metal dagger with a triangular blade and a lunate pommel
comparable to archaeological tools belonging to the third millennium BC;
figures of axes may refer to the same age. This is the first period in which
herding appears as a main economic activity while hunting is still present, and
the last period in which bovines are depicted; thereafter they disappear from
the rock art record. This is likely to indicate a date previous to the main
phase of desertification, which started around 2000 BC.
Two main kinds of worship are represented in
RA Period IV/A, the first by depictions of ibex accompanied by footprints or by
worshippers, and the second by images of worshipers in front of abstract
symbols. For example, a figure of a worshiper with upraised arms stands in
front of a simple line, or people worship under a sort of wavy line, as if it
was in the sky. Such simple symbols seem to represent the cult of an abstract
Other scenes represent mythological episodes,
some of which reflect similarities with biblical stories. One standing stone
bears the representation of a serpent and a staff near each other, accompanied
by ideograms. The staff, represented with horns that symbolise power, seems to
have turned into the serpent, just as in biblical episodes: "The Lord said,
'What have you there in your hand?' 'A staff', Moses answered. The Lord said,
'Throw it on the ground'. Moses threw it down and it turned into a snake"
(Exodus 4:2-3). The idea of a staff becoming a snake may be widespread among
desert people. Analogies however may indicate the presence of common
Another rock engraving represents twin
tablets with ten partitions, showing surprising similarities to traditional
depictions of the Tablets of the Law. The rock art in these cases is a graphic
expression of memories and popular traditions similar to biblical ones, but
according to the studies of superimposition, patina, and degree of wear, such
rock engravings are older than the period in which the biblical narration may
have been written down. If indeed they can be related to the biblical
descriptions, they constitute the oldest testimony available regarding such
Near a trail leading to a natural water hole
hidden between the rocks of a wadi, a rock engraving (site HK 39) represents
snakes, a saraf (poisonous lizard), and scorpions. It seems to be the
pictographic representation of Deuteronomy 8:14-15: ". . .do not become proud
and forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of
slavery; he led you through the vast and terrible wilderness infested with
poisonous snakes and scorpions, and the saraf, where there was no water,
who brought thee water from the hard rock."
Both the rock art description and the
biblical description seem to use the same language and the same metaphor for
indicating a harsh environment. The parallel of the metaphor becomes even
stronger when one considers that the rock engraving was probably meant to
indicate the presence of water in the rock below.
Widespread across Har Karkom are menhirs.
In the Bible such standing stones are known as masseboth (singular, massebah),
frequently translated as "pillar," as in Genesis 28:22 "… and this stone
which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house …". Such standing
stones are sometimes isolated, or in other places grouped in a circle or
aligned, with up to as many as thirty elements in one group. Usually one stone
is larger than the others and has been set in the centre of the group. For such
monuments men apparently preferred to select stones that had naturally
anthropomorphic shapes, and some details, such as eyes or nose, were
occasionally added, engraved by the human hand.
As already mentioned, in the centre of the
Har Karkom plateau is a structure with a courtyard and a platform that has been
called the Midianite Temple (site HK 24). Scattered over the entire plateau are
minor structures likely to be connected with worship and ritual activity.
Around the Midianite Temple and elsewhere are several tumuli, probably either
funerary structures or heaps of testimony. Several such tumuli were excavated
on the mountain and around it and both types were found. Some of them simply
covered a rectangular large stone which may have been some sort of altar.
Remains of fire are recorded near to it. After use, this stone was buried under
a heap of stones.
One of the tumuli, site HK 22, was excavated
and revealed a sheltered cyst grave - a small receptacle defined by flat
stones, and covered by another flat stone. The grave contained the bones of an
individual with all the long bones of legs and arms laid together, which
implies a secondary burial: the bones were collected and relocated after the body
decomposed. The grave included a bone bead and a pottery jar of a type known as
metallic-ware, which dates back to the late third millennium BC.
A peculiar aspect of Har Karkom's anthropic
context, the collections of anthropomorphic stones, was clarified in the last
campaigns. In as many as fifty different sites, stones with natural shapes of
anthropomorphic and zoomorphic heads are heaped or grouped together. They were
collected by human hands, and in some cases they seem to have been arranged in
a sort of display. In twenty four of the fifty cases these collections of
stones are located near BAC structures. In most of the other cases no datable
elements were found. In site HK 173C, three large stones were placed against
each other to form a sort of "altar," and an anthropomorphic stone was placed
upon it. At the foot of the structure a semi-circle of small stones had BAC
flint objects inside: two scrapers and two flint blades. In another case (site
HK 130E) a stone with a natural shape like an animal's head was located at the
centre of an anthropomorphic geoglyph, probably as a sort of offering to the
being drawn in pebbles on the ground. In site HK 146B a zoomorphic stone
representing an ibex, or an antelope, may have been completed or enhanced by human
hands. It has been dressed between some natural rocks. In front it has an area
paved with flat stone slabs.
Structures that can be defined as
non-functional, and sometimes as ritual, are spread across the plateau as
evidence of human manipulation of nature's shapes; ancient man erected standing
stones, drew images with pebbles, engraved rocks, assembled collections of
anthropomorphic stones, and performed many other actions with mysterious
purposes and motivation. The majority of these small monuments were not built
by a crowd; rather they appear to have been created by one or two people as
individual expressions of actions. They are monuments about which nothing is
monumental. Some are hardly visible, and one may pass over them many times
without realising their presence. At last, however, the repetitiveness of their
patterns allows us to recognise that they were intentionally conceived.
The substantial quantity of discoveries is
growing with every new field campaign. Ten years ago we believed that a thorough
archaeological survey of this area was almost accomplished. Now we realise that
returning to seasons of research again and again allows us the advantage of a
new and deeper kind of observation. Desert archaeology may be elusive; it
sometimes takes years to assimilate the meaning of heaps or alignments, and
understand the human action. The stones were not cut by man. Only the way they
are set allows the observer to recognise the intentions of human minds and
Already we can say that Har Karkom has been a
sacred mountain for millennia, and that it reached its peak of "cult" activity
during the BAC period in the third millennium BC. No other known sites of the
Sinai Peninsula show such evident, intense, and rich traces of cult activity.
The remains of numerous villages, hamlets, plaza sites, courtyard sites, and
camping sites at the foot of the mountain indicate the consistent presence in
the area of human groups during the BAC period. In the same period, according
to the lack of living site remains, the plateau was uninhabited and appears to
have been reserved for cult activities.
While Sinai and the Negev had limited
archaeological documentation until fifty years ago, today the territories have
been more extensively explored. When we undertook our first archaeological
exploration of the Negev and Sinai in the 1950s, archaeological research had
just adopted new, more systematic approaches to surveying, which ever since
have supplied a mass of archaeological documentation. Many sites had been
located by Nelson Glueck, Benno Rothenberg and other archaeological surveyors.
But not a single mountain had been located before with clear archaeological
evidence of having been a holy mountain, a high place of worship and of
pilgrimage in the Bronze Age.
The mountain called Jebel-Musa and the other
mountains around the Monastery of Saint Catherine appear to have become holy
places in the Byzantine period; no traces of earlier cult sites have been found
there. The same can be said for Jebel Sin Bisher and the other mountains which
have been indicated by various authors as the biblical Mount Sinai. The lack of
pertinent (Bronze Age) archaeological traces has led several scholars to the
conclusion that the biblical Mount Sinai never existed.
In this widespread search for the holy
mountain, a major candidate was Jebel Halal, in the north of the Sinai
Peninsula, where we carried out a preliminary archaeological survey in 1992. We
found there traces of Palaeolithic sites and many funerary tumuli, some of a
rectangular shape. The mountain also has rock art sites from the Hellenistic,
Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic periods. Besides the funerary tumuli, which have
been attributed to the Bronze Age, but one of which is connected with
Roman-Byzantine pottery, we found no cult structures from the Bronze Age.
If, on one side, some archaeologists deny the
existence of Mount Sinai, of Moses, of the Egyptian captivity and of any
historical relevance of the biblical accounts, on the other side, others
believe that several mountains of God may have existed. Archaeology however is
pragmatic and has to rely on factual evidence. It is not unlikely that other
mountains in the Sinai Peninsula were sacred. The tradition of mountains as
holy places and cult sites is diffused across the entire world, from Fuji Yama
to Uluru (Ayers Rock), from Mount Olympus to Mount Ararat. Limiting the scope
of our view to the Sinai peninsula, however, how many mountains are we aware of
with a testimony of ancient cult activities of the same proportions as Har Karkom?
Thus far no other mountain in the Sinai or in the Negev has shown such a wealth
of archaeological documentation of Bronze Age cult activity. May Har Karkom
have inspired the stories of the holy mountain of Exodus?
What may the identification of Har Karkom as
the biblical site of Mount Sinai signify? Research does not confirm that
miracles were witnessed in its shadow, nor does it prove that divine will was
revealed on its heights, nor does it even show, so far, that the children of
Israel camped at its foot. All we can say is that this seems to be the mountain
referred to in the biblical accounts, to which such stories can be attributed.
Whether the mythical stories took place or did not is a problem of theology or
of faith, not of archaeology.
But perhaps something more can be said. What
stories can we reconstruct from the camping sites that the BAC period people
left at the foot of the mountain?