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6 November 2003
Where is Mount Sinai?

The idea that Har Karkom might be identified with the biblical Mount Sinai came after four years of surveying of this mountain and thirty years after discovery of rock art there by Emmanuel Anati and his team. Since 1980, the plateau-shaped mountain Har Karkom in the Negev Desert (Israel) and the surrounding valleys have been under study. 23 years of archeological expeditions have allowed a thorough archaeological survey of 200 sq.km. Each expedition has provided fresh evidence; now nearly 1300 archaeological sites are known in the surveyed area. Many of them belong to the Late Chalcolithic, the Early Bronze Age and the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age. Remains of numerous villages of this period are found in the valleys surrounding the mountain, while the high plateau is covered by sites of cult and worship.
     The archaeological investigation in this area has produced an immense documentation. It was clear that Har Karkom was a paramount cult center in the fourth and third millennia BCE where large groups of  people came and built their camps at the foothills. Then, a few of them climbed  to the plateau to perform worship activities. Pillars, stone circles, geoglyphs or large pebble drawings on the ground, tumuli, altar-like structures, peculiar round platforms with 'altars' on top of them, are clear indications of religious activities. The enormous amount of religious rock art (over 40,000 figures), alignments of pillars, the remains on the plateau of a small temple display the paramount importance of this mountain for the Bronze Age inhabitants of the desert. Har Karkom presents a unique aggregation of evidence of religious activities.
     Although Har Karkom's religious character was quite evident, no connection was made at first between that mountain and Mt. Sinai. There is no evidence of any human occupation at Har Karkom in the 13th century BCE, or for centuries before and after. Indeed, the usual date for the Exodus occurred right in the middle of a long archaeological gap at Har Karkom, a gap that concerns most of the Sinai peninsula if military and trading stations aside are left. In fact, the description of daily life of ancient tribes appearing in the Bible, if not pure mythology, must refer to either before or after the 2nd millennium BCE.
     The idea that Har Karkom might be identified with the biblical Mount Sinai came after four years of surveying of this mountain and thirty years after the discovery of rock art there. On the basis of topographic and archaeological evidence, it was then proposed that Har Karkom may be identified with the holy mountain referred to by biblical narrations as Mount Sinai. Several scholars had previously considered that Mount Sinai should be located in  the north rather than in the south of the Sinai Peninsula. But the identification of a specific site that relied on pertinent archaeological  findings was a new fact which scandalized some, was accepted by others, and stimulated wide debates with theologians, biblical scholars and archaeologists. Nevertheless, the immense wealth of cult sites at Har Karkom proves that it was a paramount holy mountain in the Bronze Age. No such evidence has been found at any other Mount Sinai 'candidate.'
    At the edge of a living site at the foot of the mountain (Site HK/52), Anati and his team found a group of 12 pillars or standing stones facing a platform. It reminded them of a passage in Exodus (24:4): "And Moses ... built an altar under the hill (or  mountain) and 12 pillars, according to the 12 tribes of Israel." Obviously, the archaeologists are not in the position to prove that this monument was built by Moses, but the monument is there and was probably seen and interpreted by travelers. Also, a Bronze Age shrine with a stone platform or altar oriented to the east is present on the Har Karkom plateau. Around it, there are footprints carved on stones in the direction of the mountaintop. In the book of Exodus, there are several references to a temple that is said to have been seen by Moses (Exodus  25:40; 26:7; 26:30; 27:8). Early travelers in Biblical times may have recognized a sanctuary in this structure with an altar.
     Many other such parallels between the biblical accounts and the archaeological findings were at first seen as intriguing coincidences, but, as the survey went on, such coincidences became too many. These archaeological finds reflect a story very similar to that described in the Bible and reveal a site which mirrors the biblical narrations on Mount Sinai.

Source: The Bible and Interpretation (October 2003)

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