Mount Sinai has been found: 20 years of Biblical Archaeology in the desert of Exodus. The real Mount Sinai has been found by Prof. Emmanuel Anati at Har Karkom.
Articles
Emmanuel Anati:
Gordon Franz:

Har Karkom was a major cult site of the past, a sacred mountain for the people of the desert


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Fig. 126. Fan scraper of the early Bronze Age found near the white, crescent-shaped stone within the tumulus. (Site HK 203b; drawing by Ida Mailland. HK Archive; WARA W05981).

 

Fig. 127. Synchronic table of the archaeological sequence at Har Karkom compared to the periods in Syro-Palestine and Egypt. (HK Archive).

 

Fig. 128. Altar stone with traces of burn marks on the upper surface and small stones inserted vertically in a fissure of the rock. Two small walls were built on the sides of the altar stone. Around it stones with rock engravings were placed. (Site HK 32; photo ISR 82-EA 11; WARA W05982).

 

Fig. 129. Rock engraving of two worshipping figures, one of which seems to have a dagger at his belt. This rock is found at a BAC courtyard site. (Site HK 122b; photo EA95: XVII-21; WARA W05983).

 

Fig. 130a/b. Tracing and photograph of rock surface at site HK 79b with a large animal figure of the RA Period-I. (Period of Archaic Hunters, Pre-Neolithic) superimposed by a hunting scene of RA Period-III (Chalcolithic). Figures of the older period may be alone or in association, but rarely in scenes. Beginning at the Neolithic, scenes of hunting and of other activities are common. (Site HK 79b; photo EA92: CIV-25; E.A. 1994, fig. 66-67; drawing: HK Archive; WARA W05984, W05985).

 

Fig. 131. Deteriorated and eroded traces of a large animal engraving of RA Period-II. (Neolithic). (Site HK 64; photo AA96: XXVI-18; WARA W05986).

 

Fig. 132. Superimposed engravings from different periods, which can be recognised from their different shades of patina. At the centre of the photograph is a hunting scene from Period-III (Chalcolithic), that includes two ibexes and a domesticated dog. (Site HK 237; photo EA85: XXII-8 E.A. 1994, fig. 75; WARA W05987).

 

Fig. 133. Scene of hunting with bow and arrow, from Period-III. The hunter is assisted by domesticated dogs. This style, called realistic-dynamic, is characteristic of the fourth millennium BC but is likely to have persisted into later periods. It reflects a lifestyle in which hunting was the main activity. Human beings use the bow and arrow and are dressed with short skirts of animal skins. (Site HK 33. HK Archive; WARA W00339).

 

Fig. 134. Small, private sanctuary with a standing stone with deeply engraved eyes and stones arranged around it. (Site HK 7b; photo EA96: XVIII-31; WARA W05988).

 

Fig. 135. Close-up of the standing stone in the private sanctuary. (Site HK 7b; photo EA96: XVIII-33; WARA W05989).

 

Fig. 136. Large boulder fallen from the mountain. Several small standing stones have been erected at its foot. Some of them have fallen. A straight trail, over one hundred metres long, leads to this boulder and stops there. (Site BK 513; EA90: XIV-33; WARA W06068).

 

Fig. 137. Deeply eroded rock which shows traces of a monstrous face, with eyes, nose, and a large mouth. This anthropomorphic stone is near the BAC sanctuary of site HK 1b. (Site HK 1b; photo EA 96: I-24; WARA W05992).

 

Fig. 138. The top of a hill north of Beer Karkom has a group of standing stones, in the middle of which a few black stones may indicate an ancient fireplace. (Site BK 570; EA90: XX-29; WARA W06069).

 

Fig. 139. A stone circle north of Beer Harkom. Several monoliths have fallen down but are still in situ and may be restored to their original positions. (Site BK 609, EA90: XX-13; WARA W06067).

 

Fig. 140. Group of image-covered rocks, near an area intentionally cleared of rubble. (Site HK 39; photo AA92: XIII-10; WARA W05994).

 

Fig. 141. Rock with engraving of different periods. The form of the rock has been modified by flaking at the bottom and at the top with the probable intention of giving the rock an animal face, perhaps that of a ram. The engraving's patina shows at least four phases of art more recent than the flaking. (Site HK 3; photo ISR 82: EA 8; E.A. 1994, fig. 76; WARA W05995).

 

Fig. 142. A site of rock art on the plateau with a large circle of engraved black stones. (Site HK 78; photo EA92: CIV-7; WARA W05996).

 

Fig. 143. The difference in patina on the same rock shows the relative age of engraved figures. On this small stone, figures of a camel and an ibex are recognisable. The camel shows a lighter patina and is of a style typical of Period-V (Byzantine or Ancient Islamic period). The ibex, from Period-III (Chalcolithic), was engraved on the same rock three thousand years earlier. (Site HK 2; photo ISR 84 XXXIV-8; WARA W05997).

 

Fig. 144. Peculiar abstract engraving with a central area divided into sectors, and a series of dots around it. It has been suggested that this may be a map of the mountain, whose form is very similar to the engraved shape. (Site HK 38; photo EA97 B2: LII-6; WARA W05998).

 

Fig. 145. Enigmatic rock engravings with different patinas. In the upper left is a representation of an axe of Bronze Age type; below there is a large foot print, crossed by a snake, with an anthropomorphic figure within. A series of ideograms are from an earlier period. On the right, three figures have three different patinas. The most ancient one is an ideogram that represents the head of an ox; the second represents an antelope, and finally, between them, a vertical line shows an even lighter patina, indicating the most recent engraving. (Site HK 45; photo EA97 B2: LII-21; WARA W05999).

 

Fig. 146. Rock engraving representing daily life, of an adult with a child. (Site HK 37b; photo ISR 86 XXVIII-34; WARA W06000).

 

Fig. 147. Rock engraving representing a group of poisonous creatures: scorpions, serpents, and a venomous lizard. (Site HK 39; photo EA96: XXII-01: ISR 85 XIII-27; EA96: XXII-3 E.A. 1994, fig. 73-74; drawing: HK Archive; WARA W06001).

 

Fig. 148. Rock engraving representing a group of poisonous creatures: The rock is located at the side of a path and seems to indicate a water source below in the wadi. (Site HK 39; photo EA96: XXII-01: ISR 85 XIII-27; EA96: XXII-3 E.A. 1994, fig. 73-74; drawing: HK Archive; WARA W06002).

 

Figs. 149a/b. Rock engraving representing a group of poisonous creatures: scorpions, serpents, and a venomous lizard. It may be a graphic reproduction of a concept similar to that of water-giving in the desert in Deuteronomy, 8: 14-15. (Site HK 39; photo EA96: XXII-01: ISR 85 XIII-27; EA96: XXII-3 E.A. 1994, fig. 73-74; drawing: HK Archive; WARA W06003, W06004).

 

Fig. 150. A standing stone, engraved with a worshipping figure, is now fallen along the trail which climbs up to the mountain. (Site HK 2; photo ISR84 XXXIII-31; drawing: HK Archive; WARA W06005).

 

Fig. 151a/b. Tracing and photograph of an engraving of a worshipping figure, probably with a dagger at his belt. In the upper left is an ideogram which could represent a bird. (Site HK 56c; photo EA93: XX-1; drawing: HK Archive; WARA W06006, W06007).

 

Fig. 152a/b. Standing stone with a rock engraving called 'the staff and the serpent.' The staff has horns which indicate energy or power, and the ideograms on the left include a 'u' sign and a parallel line with dots above and below. The 'u' sign in the ideographic conceptuality may signify transformation or change, while the dots indicate an action, or 'to do.' This standing stone probably commemorates the story of a powerful staff which became a serpent. (Site HK 32; photo ISR84: XLVII-27, drawing: HK Archive; WARA W06008, W00077).

 

Fig. 153a/b. Rock engraving called the 'Tablets of the Law.' The form has a dual rounded top and ten partitions: two at the top, two at the base, and six at the centre. (Site HK 126b; photo EA98: LVI-3; drawing: HK Archive; WARA W06009, W06011).

 

Fig. 154. Flint knife of the early Bronze Age found next to the rock engraving called the 'Tablets of the Law.' (Site HK 126b, drawing by Ida Mailland: HK Archive; WARA W06010).

 

Fig. 155. Cult image in which two figures worship in front of an ibex. On the left side of the photograph are some ideograms. (Site HK 37; photo RP: XXVIII-21; WARA W06012).

 

Fig. 156a/b. Footsteps, signs of veneration, facing the ibex. (Site HK 38; photo ISR 84 XXX-37; E.A. 1994, fig. 69; drawing: HK Archive; WARA W06013, W06014).

 

Fig. 157. Ibex in front of which nine dots have been added. These have been executed with a different implement and probably by a different hand. (Site HK 36b-II-3; photo RB92: XXXIII-20; WARA W06015).

 

Fig. 158a/b. Rock engraving called 'the eye that watches from the rock.' A large eye has seven lines arrayed from the bottom and seven from the top. (Site HK 36b; photo EA98: LVIII-5; drawing: HK Archive; WARA W06016, W06017).

Mount Sinai has been found.
 


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 the fires.

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 orthostats.

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 administered.

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 entity.

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 traditions.

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 stories.

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." [1] 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 hands.

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?

[1] The word saraf is often wrongly translated as "burning," obliging the translators to deform the original Hebrew text. The saraf is one of three animals mentioned one after the other, with serpents and scorpions, and it is not an adjective as sometimes translated.



Fig. 158a/b. Rock engraving called 'the eye that watches from the rock.' A large eye has seven lines arrayed from the bottom and seven from the top. (Site HK 36b; photo EA98: LVIII-5; drawing: HK Archive; WARA W06016, W06017).


Cover | Mount Sinai | Sanctuaries | Hypothesis | Exegesis | Testimony | Landscape | Discoveries | Rock Art | History | Conclusions | HK Survey | HK Periods | HK Rock Art | HK Corpus 1-99 | 100-199 | 200-299 | 300-399 | BK Corpus 100-399 | 400-499 | 500-599 | 600-699 | 700-799 | 800-899 | Glossary | Acknowledgements | Emmanuel Anati | Bibliography | Edizioni | CCSP | Images | Links


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