THE MOUNTAIN OF SANCTUARIES
The Har Karkom mesa, surrounded by its precipices, appears from a distant vantage as a sharp, rectangular rise of desert. It is only 847 meters above sea level and 1246 meters above the present level of the Dead Sea, the depression of which can be seen on the horizon. Har Karkom dominates the surrounding Paran Desert; it is visible from the chains of Edom and Moab in Jordan, more than seventy kilometres away, and from Jebel Arif el-Naqe, thirty kilometres to the north-west. Located beyond the present-day Egyptian border, the latter is likely to be the biblical Mount Seir.
Over fifty flint workshops from the Palaeolithic period are known on Har Karkom's plateau, which is a source of excellent quality flint. When The Mountain of God (1986) was published, before the recent study of the Palaeolithic sanctuary, it was suggested that the mountain had become a cult place in the Chalcolithic period. Flint at that time was being replaced by metal as a primary raw material for daily use. As a major source of flint, the mountain acquired a new dimension of centrality when flint's purpose was transformed from the production of tools of daily utility to knives for sacred rituals such as circumcision and sacrifices.
The abundance of high quality flint may well have had a role in elevating the sanctity of the mountain before or after this change took place. We now know, however, of the existence of a Palaeolithic "sanctuary," and therefore may speak of the Chalcolithic cult sites as the renewal of sanctity rather than the beginning. A query that emerges from the archaeological finds is whether a cult tradition on the mountain continued directly between the Palaeolithic and later periods, or not.
In fact, special topographic features, the specific geographic situation, the natural shapes of the mountain's profile, its location at the junction of two main stream systems, and many other factors may have helped in the choice of this mountain as a sacred place, over and over again, in the last 40,000 years. It is possible that between the Palaeolithic sanctuary and the later sanctuaries we know of, there was a long lapse of time.
In the late Chalcolithic period and early Bronze Age, between 4000 and 2000 BC, human activity on this mountain and at its foot truly surged, as evidenced by the large quantity of cult sites on the plateau and living sites in the surrounding valleys. This period is called BAC, Bronze Age Complex, and is followed by a hiatus between 1950 and 1000 BC during which the mountain was completely abandoned. In the BAC period the surrounding valleys hosted over one hundred human settlements and the plateau was cluttered with cult sites, including shrines, standing pillars or menhirs, tumuli, stone circles, altars, geoglyphs, and an exceptional concentration of rock art with over 40,000 engravings. This mountain must have been a very special site for the people who frequented it so intensely at certain periods.
The quantity of refined flint tools of exaggerated dimensions, too large to be easily handled, probably indicates that they were used for ritual purposes. Two of the largest flint scrapers from the BAC period weigh over five kilograms each. They could hardly have been used for daily activities. Both of them were found in notable contexts: one was fixed vertically in the palaeosoil in front of a fireplace; the other was laid at the foot of an anthropomorphic stone. The process of erosion that has taken place in this area over the last few thousands years prevented accumulation of aeolic layers in exposed areas, and Bronze Age palaeosoils are now on the surface in many zones.
In 1992 the discovery of the Palaeolithic "sanctuary" (HK 86B) changed the previous assessment of Har Karkom's cult use. The flint industry in the sanctuary belongs to a phase known in several sites at Har Karkom is "Karkomian," that is the initial phase of the Upper Palaeolithic Age, likely to be about 40,000 years old. This site is located on the eastern edge of the plateau, where its heights dominate the Paran Desert from above. About forty flint monoliths with sinuous and provocative shapes were grouped in the "sanctuary" by Palaeolithic man. Some of them were collected locally and erected, while others derive from two different flint sources, one of which is nearly three kilometres away. Some, more than one meter high, are still standing, like silent ghosts with human forms, while others have fallen from upright positions. On the surface of this area of about four hundred square meters, several flint stones of natural anthropomorphic and zoomorphic shapes have been found, along with numerous flint tools. Some have been retouched by man, modified by an Upper Palaeolithic technique of flaking, pecking, and etching to produce figurative details and more defined facial features. In a corner of this "sanctuary" the palaeosoil is covered by alignments of flint pebbles in non-figurative patterns.
The reconstruction of the surface's evolution has led to the conclusion that in the late Pleistocene, during the early Upper Palaeolithic, the climate was more humid than at present and a level of humus may have covered the area, both conditions favouring a richer vegetation. Towards the end of the Pleistocene the Har Karkom plateau was invaded by deposits of aeolic loess, remains of which are still found in crevices and fissures. Then, during a drier period, the wind removed the loess that was not covered by hammada deposits, bringing the surface of the palaeosoil back to light.
Differences in the patina of several monoliths in erect positions suggest that some of them may not be in their original positions. Some of the monoliths are held in place by small stones at their bases, visible at the surface. At first these appeared to be recent adjustments, but some of the small stones are encrusted and clearly seem to have been in situ for an extended time. They may have emerged at the surface following the process of aeolic erosion; in fact the present surface appears to be a few centimetres lower than it must have been during the Upper Palaeolithic Age, allowing what was then at or slightly below ground level to be visible on the present surface. Some of the flint monoliths were brought there by man from more distant sources. It is unlikely that this was done for simple amusement; certainly serious motivation prompted the relocation of boulders weighing several hundred kilograms, and the placing of them in an erect position.
This site appears to have been a place where humans interacted with anthropomorphic stones. It is hard to determine what kind of ritual activities, if any, took place on the site. If we can refer to this Palaeolithic site as a "sanctuary," it may well be the oldest sanctuary known, in which case Har Karkom may be considered a holy mountain since it was visited by homo sapiens for the first time, a sacred mountain to our species from the very beginning.
Har Karkom was intensely occupied by Palaeolithic hunting clans who collected and worked fine quality flint. So far we have recorded 43 sites of the Lower Palaeolithic, 130 sites of the Middle Palaeolithic, 132 sites of the early phase of the Upper Palaeolithic, and two of the Epi-Palaeolithic. The majority of the Upper Palaeolithic sites belong to an initial phase of the blade industry likely to date from between 40,000 and 35,000 years ago. Then a sharp decrease in human presence is evident as the area was virtually abandoned in the later phases of the Upper Palaeolithic and then from the Epi-Palaeolithic to the Neolithic Age. We know of eight sites with Neolithic and early Chalcolithic flint implements. Pottery is practically non-existent with the exception of a few rare shards. Cult sites on the plateau are primarily from the BAC period, as are the many cult sites, including standing stones, shrines, platforms, and altars, at the foot of the mountain, among the inhabited sites.
The BAC period, from 4000 BC to 2000 BC, was witness to an intense occupation over the entire area of Har Karkom and its surroundings. Three hundred and nine BAC sites are known within the concession, out of which 187 are on the mountain or at its immediate base. The majority of sites found at the foot of the mountain include living structures with stone walls; likely to represent semi-permanent villages. The village sites have provided remains of 583 habitations of which a plan can be reconstructed without excavation, while many others appear as heaps of stones that should be excavated in order to be reconstructed. When taking these settlements into consideration, it is evident that many people reached the foot of the mountain and remained there for a period of time.
Numerous tumuli found on the mountain and the surrounding hills seem to have had various functions. Some of them were funerary, while others may have been testimonial heaps to commemorate agreements and events, as described in the Pentateuch (Genesis 31:45-48). Two such tumuli have been excavated at two different localities on the mountain. Both contained at their centre an altar stone and traces of fire. With one of them a half-moon shaped white stone was laid upon the altar stone along with a flint scraper. Three more tumuli were also excavated. In one nothing but irregular filling of stones could be identified. The other two were funerary tumuli containing secondary burials. The long bones were usually found in a grouping rather than in an anatomic position, meaning that they were collected and deposited there after the body decomposed. All the tumuli excavated so far had flint implements from the early Bronze Age. One of the funerary tumuli also had pottery from the transition phase between the early and the middle Bronze Age.
Secondary burials are reported in the Bible at the time of the Patriarchs and of Moses. According to the narrative, the bones of Jacob were transported from Egypt: "And the time drew near for Jacob to die: and he called his son Joseph, and said to him, 'If now I have found favour in thy sight, put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly with me; bury me not, I pray thee, in Egypt: but I will lie with my fathers, and thou shalt carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their burying place'" (Genesis 47:29-30). "'I am to be gathered by my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron, the Etite , in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Etite for the possession of a burying place. There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebecca his wife; and there I buried Leah'" (Genesis 49:29-31). "His sons carried him into the land of Canaan, and buried him in the cave of the field of Machpelah, which Abraham bought with the field for a possession of a burying place from, Ephron the Etite, before Mamre. And Joseph returned to Egypt, he, and his brethren, and all that went up with him to bury his father" (Genesis 50:12-14). The practice of secondary burials is also indicated for Joseph: "Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, because Joseph had exacted an oath from the Israelites: 'Some day,' he said, 'God will show his care for you, and then, as you go, you must take my bones with you'" (Exodus 13:19). This habit of secondary burials is evidenced by archaeology in the third millennium BC, the early Bronze Age and the beginning of the middle Bronze Age, throughout the Syro-Palestinian region. Such secondary burials in tumuli apparently ceased to be used thereafter. This may indicate a very old tradition behind the biblical narrative above. All this may well indicate that such traditions were orally transmitted for centuries before they were put into writing.
Archaeological excavations have shown us that at the end of the third millennium BC many fortified cities in the Syro-Palestinian area were destroyed, and finds of a different material culture indicate the arrival of new populations in the fertile zones. This seems to have been a very active period for people originating in desert areas penetrating into the fertile land. The discoveries at Har Karkom as well as in other parts of the Negev desert, northern Sinai, and southern Jordan indicate a highly active period on the fringes of the fertile land. This moment of intense activity, with the presence of nomadic and semi-nomadic populations, was followed by an age of silence and abandonment that covers almost the whole of the second millennium BC. Like other areas of the Negev and Sinai, not a single one of the sites at Har Karkom could be dated between 1950 and 1000 BC. The second part of the middle Bronze Age, the entire late Bronze Age, and the beginning of the Iron Age form an archaeological hiatus in all the desert area south of the Fertile Crescent. Also in the Sahara, a parallel episode of heavy drought characterised the second millennium BC. A few middle Bronze Age sites are present in the central Negev highlands where rainfall is usually higher than elsewhere in the region; otherwise the only exceptions to the hiatus are mining sites under the operation of forced labour, military stations, and other places artificially maintained by a controlling regime.
A new period of human presence in the area starts in the second phase of the Iron Age. Between the year 1000 and the year 587 BC, in the area surrounding Har Karkom, a single site is evidence of this slow repopulation, but just a few kilometres farther north, around Beer Karkom, eight sites are known. At Har Karkom a single site of the Persian period, 587 to 332 BC, has been found, and one of the Hellenistic period, 332 to 307 BC, while at Beer Karkom nine Hellenistic sites are known. In the Roman/Byzantine times a true proliferation of sites is apparent, with over fifty sites around Har Karkom and 218 sites in the two hundred square kilometre area of the archaeological concession. Many of the sites are connected with Nabatean, Safaitic and Thamudic tribes who left rock art and numerous inscriptions in their Aramaic-related languages near their inhabited areas.
The number of sites per period may be found to vary, as further progress with archaeological prospecting is made, but it is unlikely that the general model of the sequence will change greatly. To sum up, three periods are particularly rich in findings: Palaeolithic, Bronze Age Complex, and Roman/Byzantine; with a period of complete hiatus covering the second millennium BC.
From the beginning of our research, this area has provided an immense accumulation of evidence of the way of life, economy, social structure, habits, and beliefs of a desert people. The remains of semi-permanent, semi-nomadic villages, nomadic camping sites, agricultural terraces, and animal enclosures, indicate a diverse range of economic activities, and the large quantity of cult sites suggest that cult activities were a primary motivation for coming to the area. Har Karkom appears to be a sort of prehistoric "Mecca" to which important human groups were drawn, especially during the BAC period.
Some fifteen small "private sanctuaries" on the plateau are material for a series of interesting considerations: each appears to have been built by different hands, according to a certain number of basic criteria, but all are concentrated in the same area on the plateau of Har Karkom. Most of them consist of a main menhir (archaeological term for standing pillar), or a naturally situated boulder, surrounded by a circle of smaller stones. Another element of these sanctuaries is a crater or deep cup mark in the immediate vicinity. Often the standing stones have a naturally anthropomorphic shape. In a few cases the natural shape has been enhanced by the intentional engraving of eyes. Sometimes a flat stone, also called "desk," is located horizontally at the foot of the orthostat. In a different kind of "sanctuary" the ground surface has been cleared of pebbles, smoothed, and defined by small stones all around. In a corner of this area, a smaller stone structure, circular or oval shaped, has a number of standing stones neatly aligned. This type of structure is found at the foot of the mountain while on the plateau itself we find just the structure with the small stones aligned inside, without the cleared surface near it. This may imply that the same kind of monuments were built for use by a larger group of people below the mountain as well as for use by an individual or a few people on the plateau. The small standing stones in the inner circle seem to find parallels in what the Bible calls terafim, or family idols - stone or wooden objects that symbolise family ancestors or spirits (Genesis 31:19-36). For this reason we have called these structures "terafim sanctuaries". A group of terafim was found in 1999 in the excavation of site HK 24, which is known as the "Midianite Sanctuary". The group of terafim was under the ground surface of the sanctuary; most likely the terafim had been hidden in a hole dug beneath the pavement on which they had earlier been standing.
Archaeological findings indicate that cult activities on the plateau were performed by small groups or by single people, while at the foot of the mountain ceremonies were attended by larger groups. A particular detail of archaeological data suggests this peculiar scenario: the plateau's surface is literally covered by remains of Palaeolithic sites, with floors of huts, fireplaces, and flint workshops that are practically intact. In the workshop areas, flint cores and flakes can occasionally be found in the vicinity of each other, allowing the process of flint manufacture to be reconstructed. Fireplaces are still visible at the surface level of the soil. Remains of hut floors show that the structures were interconnected by small paths. In short, the Palaeolithic sites remain in an outstanding state of preservation despite the extensive human activity of later periods. It seems unlikely that the multitudes inhabiting the BAC living sites at the mountain's foot walked on this soil.
In fact, modern visitors to Har Karkom, growing in numbers over the past ten years, have done more damage to the Palaeolithic sites than all the visitors of the last 20,000 years. Considering this evidence, it seems possible to deduce that the BAC populations of the villages below did not have access to the plateau, which was likely to be reserved to a limited number of persons: holy ground with restricted access. This may be a common practice for holy mountains. An analogous situation concerning the prohibition of access to the holy mountain is described in the book of Exodus: "Take heed to yourselves, that you go not up to the mountain, or touch the border of it: whoever touches the mountain shall be surely put to death: no hand shall touch him, but he shall surely be stoned or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live" (Exodus 19: 12-13). Again, the archaeological evidence at Har Karkom seems to confirm a tradition described by the Bible.
Stone circles, menhirs, geoglyphs, tumuli, altar-like structures, and paved platforms of a peculiar kind, which the Bible calls bamoth, indicate a variety of religious activities taking place on the Har Karkom plateau and around it. Alignments of standing stones, remains of one small BAC-period temple on the mountain, with at least five others at the mountain's foot, and an enormous concentration of rock art, all seem to signify that Har Karkom was used as a paramount cult site and holy mountain in the BAC period.
Before going any further, it should be mentioned that these facts alone do not identify Har Karkom with the biblical Mount Sinai. They only show that during the Bronze Age, Har Karkom was a holy mountain of enormous importance in an area that may be identified as the desert of Exodus. Nevertheless, if this is not the mountain called Sinai, it is legitimate to ask ourselves whether it is conceivable that such a site, in the region between Egypt and the "Promised Land," would not be mentioned by the Bible. The Pentateuch defines and describes numerous sites; a sacred mountain with so many cult sites not far from the borders of the "Promised Land" could hardly have been ignored by biblical texts.