HAR KARKOM AND MOUNT SINAI: EXEGESIS AND TOPOGRAPHY
The biblical narration of exodus and of Mount Sinai described in detail the location of the mountain of Moses. The archaeological finds and the topography of the territory help us to understand the biblical texts.
The biblical story of exodus and Mount Sinai has a strong ethical message. The crossing of the desert and the revelation near the Mountain of God appear as a prototype of a “rite of passage” of universal value, through which a people becomes adult, free and acquires a new identity. The march towards the “Promised Land” is not an exclusive feature of Hebrew mythology, it follows the trend of archetypal myths of origin of various populations in at least four continents. Indeed, reaching the “Promised Land” is an ambition of almost everybody; every human being on Earth is looking for a promised land. Whether or not based on historical events, in the last 2000 years, a vast literature came into existence on the story of exodus. In our opinion, the vision of Mount Sinai near the monastery of Saint Catherine is a groundless myth. Why the knowledge of the original location of the Mountain of God was lost by the collective memory is not clear. The attempt to localise the Mountain of God near Saint Catherine goes back to the Byzantine period, more than one millennium since the prophet Elia is said to have visited the mountain, and since then the doubts remain. The search for the locality has engaged time and effort on the part of many explorers, archaeologists, geographers and theologians and there are over 20 candidate mountains identified with the biblical Mount Sinai by various writers. Several scholars have gone so far as to conclude that the whole story of exodus was a pure and simple myth. This hypothesis seems to us an easy and superficial solution.
Other scholars have seen the wanderings of the children of Israel as casual moving from one well to another, considering the lists of the stations of exodus as a litany of magic words without meaning. As we shall see later on, it can be demonstrated that this hypothesis is simply wrong. Others saw this wandering as an itinerary from Egypt to the Byzantine “Mountain of Moses”, situated in the south of the peninsula near Saint Catherine, and from there to Ain Kuderat, believed to be the biblical Kadesh-Barnea, in the north of the peninsula. Others again suggested the possibility that the itinerary of exodus described sites along the Mediterranean coast, in the north of Sinai.
In the last 50 years various scholars have advocated that Mount Sinai, on the base of the topographical descriptions of the Pentateuch, had to be located in the north of the peninsula and not in the south. There are several hypotheses of idenfication, but never before had the area of Har Karkom been proposed.
Whoever considers the narration as a fairytale has no need to look for a topography of exodus. Whoever begins the analysis of the topography of exodus with the preconceived idea that Mount Sinai should be in the region of Saint Catherine or in any other area in the south of the Sinai peninsula will find it impossible to give a geographical sense to the sequence of stations of exodus. In any case, in our opinion, the described itinerary was topographically acceptable when it was compiled, in the first millenium BC, for the populations that knew the area, and it is topographically clear still today, for whoever is familiar with the territory. The biblical descriptions of the sites are reliable, essential, and precise.
The present writer has carried on archaeological excavations and explorations in the Sinai peninsula ever since 1954. In 1989, and again in 1992, departing from the Land of Goshen, in the Nile Delta, the writer has followed the various hypotheses of exodus on the territory, in the Egyptian Sinai and the Israeli Negev, visiting wells and sites along ancient trails. After 40 years of “wanderings in the desert” in order to carry on archaeological prospections of other kinds, it was surprising to realise that it was possible to produce new hypotheses examining data which had been examined before, but with a new perspective. We went back to areas where we had been working before. Trails, mountains and valleys, wells, remains of nomadic campsites that had always been there, suddenly acquired new dimensions. In our view the list of stations in the biblical narration has a precise geographical sense as we have shown in our book Esodo, tra mito e storia (1997).
The idea that Har Karkom could be identified with the biblical Mount Sinai came after four years of fieldwork and exploration on the mountain and in the area, and 30 years after the first discovery of rock art in that area by the present writer. We did not look for Mount Sinai. The numerous cult structures had already demonstrated the role of the mountain as a paramount cult high place. On the basis of topographical and archaeological evidence, in 1983 we proposed that Har Karkom should be identified with the sacred mountain of the biblical narrations. Since then, 15 years have elapsed and new research, prospections and discoveries have strengthened our hypothesis.
Looking at the biblical accounts, C.S. Jarvis, B. Mazar and others, had already established in the ‘30s that Mount Sinai should be located in the north of the peninsula, but the identification of a specific site relying on archaeological evidence, was a scandalising new fact. For not one of the other candidates for Mount Sinai had anyone cared to look for archaeological documentation. In the area of Saint Catherine the first cult remains belong to the Byzantine age. As far as we know, besides the Greek-Orthodox church, which maintained until recently that Mount Sinai should be in the area of Saint Catherine, no other religious denomination has so far established a clear position concerning the geographical location of Mount Sinai.
The main biblical texts which help identify the area, where according to the compilers the mountain should be found, are the lists of sites of exodus and the description of the mountain and its topography, in the books of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Having explored the Negev and the Sinai for forty years, the present writer does not share the idea of those that, studying the itinerary at a desk, consider that the biblical stations are not identifiable or that they are canonic litanies without geographical signifiance. On the contrary, we consider that the biblical itinerary of exodus, from the land of Goshen to Mount Sinai, and from there to Kadesh-Barnea, and from there to Jericho, can be reconstructed. The text, when it was compiled, was aimed at a public who knew the territory and knew where Elim, or Alush, or Refidim, were located, as well as the Shur desert, the deserts of Sin, Zin and Paran, and the territory of the Edomites, Midianites, Amalekites, Horites and Amorites.
New elements have recently been added to the itinerary of exodus, proposed in my book The Mountain of God (Anati, 1986). The topography has been enriched by further geographical and archaeological data. They concern, in particular, the two biblical stations of Mara and Elim, respectively at El Murra and in the vicinities of Abu Awgeila, and in the biblical site of Refidim at Beer Karkom (cf. Esodo- tra mito e storia, Anati 1997). If, as we trust, there are sufficient elements for identifying the sites, the area in which Mount Sinai can be located is drastically limited.
Beyond the new data aquired at these stations, a fundamental query emerges. After the long stay at Mount Sinai did the biblical itinerary describe far away sites or sites along the border of the “Promised Land”? One of the factors which at first excluded any relation betwen Har Karkom and exodus was the position of this mountain on the border of the “Promised Land”. Mount Sinai is frequently seen in the literature as a far away site. Har Karkom is located in the perimeter of the biblical narration of exodus, half way between Ezion Gaber and Kadesh Barnea at the north extremity of the area called the Paran desert, but it is far from any itinerary of exodus previously proposed.
In the sea of alternative proposals on the itinerary of exodus, there are some points which are more or less agreed upon by most scholars, such as the location of Kadesh-Barnea in the area of the oasis of Ein Kudeirat and of Ezion-Gaber on the shores of the Gulf of Akaba, near the present-day town of Eilat. Nevertheless, most interpreters of the exodus, since Byzantine times, for over 1500 years, have considered the area of Saint Catherine as that of the mountain of Moses and consequently they see the biblical itinerary after Mount Sinai as a random wandering in the south and centre of the peninsula, in “terra incognita”. However, the name of the stations mentioned in Numbers 10-13 show a very different reality.
Opening the Bible some examples can be examined: in Deut. 1,19 is written “…And we departed from Horeb, we went through all the great and terrible wilderness, which ye saw by the way of the mountain of the Amorites…” this route indicated by the narration after the Paran desert coming from Mount Sinai should be located in the Amorite territory. Various passages of the Pentateuch localise the Amorites to the south of the Dead Sea, not far from the Arava Valley. This is not the south of the Sinai Peninsula. The Paran desert, near Hazerot, is described as the site of the departure of the “explorers” who carried back a huge bunch of grapes. They reached Hebron departing from the desert of Zin (Num. 13,1). The Paran desert is the “great and terrible desert” of the previous citation and from the biblical narration, it is located between Mount Sinai, the Arava Valley and the desert of Zin (which is different from the desert of Sin, which is found further south). Nahal Zin, from the Arava valley to today’s Sde Boker, north of Har Karkom, is identified with the biblical desert of Zin where an important caravan route still passes from the Arava to the Hebron mountains. None of this is located in the south of the Sinai Peninsula
The site of Bene Yaakan has a Horite name (Num. 33, 32), and the Horites, according to biblical descriptions, at that time, were living near the Arava. According to the biblical description, Yotvata and Avrona are localities in the Arava (Num 33,34), and Ezion Gaber is near Eilat at the northern end of the Gulf of Akaba (Num. 33, 36). Following these indications on a geographical map, a biblical vision of the itinerary will become clear. Departing from Mount Sinai, and crossing the Paran desert, it reaches the Arava valley near the desert of Zin, then turns back towards Yotvata, Avrona and Ezion Gaber.
The Biblical chronicler knew how to locate Mount Sinai: “Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock beyond the desert, and came to the Mountain of God, Horeb” (Ex. 3,1). In the story of Moses in Midian, Mount Sinai, which is also called Horeb, is described as a herding territory of the Midianites, beyond the (Paran) desert which separates it from the habitation site of Jethro, the Midianite, not far from the Arava valley.
On the way, between Jethro’s village and Egypt, Aaron went to meet Moses who was coming from the land of Midian, going back to Egypt, and met him near the Mountain of God (Ex. 4,26). That means that, according to the biblical view, the way from Midian to Egypt crosses Mount Sinai. Looking at the geographical map, with the Bible in one hand, Har Karkom is the only locality among those proposed for Mount Sinai, which fits without any effort all these coordinates. It is also the only mountain that has recorded archaeological evidence of the cult role it had in the Bronze Age.
According to the biblical story, the Hebrews went to collect water at Mount Horeb while staying at Refidim,. The Bible describes Refedim as very near to Mount Sinai (Ex. 17., 15). It is also presented as the well that caused dispute. The tribes, of the Amalekites and the Midianites, were present at Refidim, which according to the topographical view of the biblical narrations, is found on the border between the territories of the two tribes. The well of Beer Karkom, 7 km north of Har Karkom, where there are remains of large camping sites from the BAC period, reflects such topographical indications and seems to correspond to the biblical site of Refidim. There, near the well, is the end of a major track coming down from the mountain of the Central Negev; probably it is the same that the biblical chronicler mentions while describing the arrival of the Amalekites at Refidim.
Other biblical descriptions provide meaningful topographical data on the territory. At the beginning of Deutronomy it is written “there are 11 days’ journey from Horeb by the way of mount Seir unto Kadesh Barnea” (Deut. I,2). Also among those that do not agree with the identification of Har Karkom, Kadesh Barnea can be identified with Ain Kudeirat or the near by Ain Kadis. Mount Seir (Seir means hairy) is probably Jebel Arif el-Naqe, which has a valley with water on the northern side, with grazing areas where the wells of Bir Main and Bir el Beidha are located. It really is a hairy mountain, in the sense that it is rich in bushes. There is a good trail between Har Karkom and Ain Kudeirat, by the way of Jebel Arif el-Naqe. Along this way there are 10 groups of wells at a distance that varies from 7 to 15 km from one to another. If Har Karkom is Mount Sinai, for a group that walks on foot, 11 days are indeed needed from Horeb, by the way of Mount Seir, to reach Kadesh Barnea (AA. VV, 1988, p.10). Who can be interested in thinking that such biblical passsages are meaningless nursery rhymes?
The Bible describes deserts and tribal zones around mount Sinai. One of the main pieces of data emerging is that Mount Sinai, according to the narration, must be situated in the Midianite territory, near the borders between Midian and Amalek (Ex. 17, 9-20). The Bible further indicates that the Amalekites occupied the highlands of the Central Negev and the zone of Kadesh-Barnea, while the Midianites were located on both sides of the Aravà Valley (Anati, 1997). Mount Sinai, according to the biblical narration, is located between these two regions. Therefore, following the topographical indications, Mount Sinai is located in the area of Har Karkom. This could have been established even if nothing had been found at Har Karkom.
The archaeological remains seem to give new life to the biblical accounts. No other mountain, among all those proposed for identification with Mount Sinai, and also among all the mountains in the entire Negev and Sinai area, corresponds so precisely to all these characteristics. We can testify to the high degree of reliability of biblical topographic descriptions. What has been considered so far seems to imply that beyond the biblical narration there is history. Archaeological investigation can attempt to understand how much of the story is real and how much the fruit of myths or fantasy. The monuments and the archaeological sites that we find today are on the surface and they have been visible all the time in the course of the last millenia. Perhaps 3000 years ago they were better preserved than today. It is likely that people travelling at that time saw them and attempted to interpret them, to relate them to some historical past, as is still done by the bedouins of today.
We have examined the discovery in its context, we have considered the archaeological and topographical evidence, we have seen the identikit of the mountain of God, according to the biblical text. A large query is still open, that of chronology. If there was an exodus, if there was a Moses and the presence of an Hebrew people at the foot of Mount Sinai, what is the age of this event? This will be the subject of the next article.
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