New archaeological finds add to the debate on the hypothesis that
the Mountain Har Karkom, in the north of the Sinai Peninsula, can be identified with the biblical Mount Sinai.
The area is the north of the Sinai peninsula, between Eilat and Gaza, inside the state of Israel, in the area which still preserves today the biblical name of Negev. We first visited Har Karkom in 1954. The name of the Mountain was then Jebel Ideid, which according to Tarabin Bedouin signifies “The Mountain of Celebrations” and according to a Bedouin from the Azazme tribe, the “Mountain of Multitudes”: strange names for a stony mountain in the middle of the desert. This mesa-like mountain, surrounded by precipices, has two prominent hills at the centre. A major concentration of rock engravings was found there (E. Anati, 1956).
In 1980, we came back to this mountain, and started the archaeological survey which is still in progress. Meanwhile, the mountain had acquired the Israeli name of Har Karkom, which means the Mount of Saffron. In December 1983, after four years of fieldwork, the data collected suggested the identification of Har Karkom with the biblical Mount Sinai. This proposal awakened polemics and debates. In 1986 the English edition of “The Mountain of God” was published and the controversy involved the English speaking audience. Since then new evidence has come to light In 2001 a new book was published “The Riddle of Mount Sinai” which is updating more recent discoveries. Since than research has further progressed.
Year after year, new discoveries are made. In 1992, a “Palaeolithic sanctuary”, likely to be the oldest sanctuary known in the Near East, stimulated new considerations on the history and meaning of this mountain. It became clear that it has been a place of cult for millennia. In 1993, geoglyphs were discovered on the mountain. They are drawings made of alignments of stones on the ground, which may have large dimensions. Some of them are geometric shapes, others represent anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures. Some of them are over 30m long. They are best seen from the air and they are considered to be human offerings to an invisible celestial entity, by the desert people of the Chalcolithic and the Bronze Age.
In 1994, a peculiar discovery concerned a cave, which was inhabited by a solitary human being in the Bronze Age. Hermit Cave, as it was called, had the remains of a fireplace, an area used as a bed like platform with the rock on one side and a row of stones on the other, shreds of a large water jar, two flint blades and a bone spatula. In addition remains of cooking were found, among which were ostrich egg shells (dated by C14 to 4130 +/- 50 BP = 2136 BC). Probably we will never know the name of this “hermit”, but now we have an archaeological testimony of an episode which is similar to that described in the Bible, of Moses who “went to the mountain and remained there by himself for 40 days” (Exodus, 24,18).
After over 20 years of survey, the area of investigation of 200 sq.km counts today over 1,200 archaeological sites. In 1980, nothing was known of the archaeology of this area, except for the 10 rock art sites that we discovered in 1954. Over 20 years of fieldwork in the area of Har Karkom has involved scholars and experts from five continents and from various disciplines: anthropologists, archaeologists, architects, art historians, biblical scholars, geologists, epigraphists, historians, historians of religions, palaeo-botanists, paleclimatologists, prehistorians and theologists. Several excavations have been carried on including living sites, shrines and tumuli.
One of the excavations, co-ordinated by Flavio Barbiero, has uncovered a cistern for the collection of water, on an isolated peak about 5km northwest of the Har Karkom plateau. In the cistern, Early Bronze Age pottery was found. The presence of this cistern, on the peak of a stone mountain, adds another to the many mysteries which still concern the mountain. Nearby there are some standing menhirs (orthostats), so that one can suppose that the cistern served a cult site.
Another excavation, co-ordinated by Valerio Manfredi, was undertaken on a mountain which is approximately 8 km south of Har Karkom. It is a prominent peak, dominating the surrounding Paran Desert. On the peak there are four rounded platforms, between 8 and 10 metres in diameter, over 1m high, with circular walls built with large overlapping stones. It is a sort of monumental complex. The surface finds of this area are all of the Early Bronze Age. An excavation was conducted in one of the platforms, to the bedrock. The structure did not contain a grave, nor anything else: just a totally sterile filling of stones. Two hypotheses challenge each other. One is that the platforms were used to light large fires, which could be seen from the surrounding desert, the other that these platforms are imposing altars for burning sacrifices. It was hypothesised that it may have been the Paran Mountain mentioned in the Bible, one of three sacred mountains in the same area: “God came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them: he shined forth from mount Paran…” (Deut. 33,2).
Another excavation, also co-ordinated by Valerio Manfredi, concerned a tumulus located on the eastern edge of Har Karkom in a prominent place. The tumulus shows its profile from many miles away. It was thought at first that the tumulus would contain a burial of an important person. However, nothing has come out during the removal of several cubic metres of stones. The team of excavators wished to stop the excavation when something strange was noticed. At the centre of the structure, lying on a large rectangular boulder which was lying on the bed rock, early people had laid down a calcareous white stone, intentionally shaped into a semicircle. The stone is 60cm long, about 10cm thick and weighs approximately 44 kg. Near to that stone an Early Bronze Age flint fan scraper of was found. The tumulus is visible from far away and it was supposed that this is a testimonial tumulus, a kind of monument that is mentioned in the Pentateuch, as Gal-ed. According to biblical narrations these monuments are built to commemorate an event, or as a testimony of agreement, or to dedicate a site (Gen 31, 43-45, Joshua 7, 25-26; 8,28-29).
This tumulus of black stones, was constructed to host a white stone, intentionally shaped by man as a crescent, lying on a boulder. After debate it was concluded that this was a dedicatory monument, a Gal-ed, by which the desert people of the Early Bronze Age, dedicated the mountain to the moon or rather to the Moon God, Sin.
The possible relation between Har Karkom and the Moon God Sin had already been hypothesised by the team studying rock art, on the grounds of numerous figures of ibex in cult scenes. The ibex, with its horns symbolising the moon, is somehow connected with the God Sin. These representations seem to indicate the importance that the cult of the God Sin had on this mountain in the Bronze Age. The figure of the ibex is often accompanied by a pair of footprints, which appear to indicate worship of adoration. It is also sometimes depicted on altar-stones, stones upon which there are cup marks, or man-made cupolas on flat surfaces. The depiction of the ibex is likely to indicate the connection between the sacrifices and this animal. A study by Rosetta Bastoni (1997), stresses the possibility that the name Sinai would derive etymologically from the name Sin, thus Mount Sinai would be the mountain of the God Sin.
Despite the fact that Har Karkom is only 847m above sea level, and 1246m above the actual level of the Dead Sea, whose depression is a landmark in the horizon, it dominates the surrounding desert. The Mountain is visible from the mountains of Edom and Moab in Jordan, more than 70km away. Likewise, it can be seen from Jebel Arif el-Naqe, identified by some as the biblical Mount Seir, located about 20km north-west, over the border with Egypt.
The Palaeolithic “sanctuary” (HK/86b) belongs to the beginning of the production of blade-industry, to a phase called “Karkomian culture”, which is earlier than the local Aurignacian; it is likely to be between 30.000 and 40,000 years old. In it, there are about 40 anthropomorphic orthostats made from flint, some of them are over 1m high. It is located in a small valley, on the edge of the eastern precipice of the mountain. Smaller figurines of flint have also been found, as well as remains of geoglyphs. From this sanctuary, we may presume that Har Karkom is likely to have been a sacred mountain from the moment it was visited by Homo Sapiens for the very first time. The Palaeolithic sanctuary has always remained exposed and visible in the course of millennia.
The cult sites on the mesa are mainly of the BAC period (an abbreviation of the Bronze Age Complex), which includes the Chalcolithic, the Early Bronze Age and the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age and covers from ca. 4,300 to 2,000 BC. The material culture, in particular the flint industry, maintains the same general characters throughout the various phases of this period. The society and the way of living seems to have kept similar trends based on a pastoral and hunting economy. Some of the hamlets and of the flint implements may indicate the presence of wheat agriculture. At the foot of the mountain several shrines, alignments of menhirs, and other cult structures of the same period, have been recorded near the living sites. There are also later cult sites, including a small temple from the Iron Age and a sanctuary from the Hellenistic period; both are near the mountain, but are not on it.
The evolved phase of the BAC period, between 3,300 and 2,000 years BC was the period of the most intense occupation, as is shown by numerous sites on the mountain and the campsites at its base. Out of 187 sites, 128 are living structures, villages with stone wall huts, which are located in the valleys at the foot of the mountain. The mountain was the theatre of numerous cult activities and large human groups came to its foot. Archaeological discoveries are offering the image of a paramount sacred mountain which has no parallels in the Sinai peninsula.
The area of Har Karkom has provided an immense documentation on the way of life, the social structure, the economy, the costumes and the beliefs of the desert people. It was clear from the very beginning that Har Karkom had been a cult high place, a sort of prehistoric Mecca, where human groups arrived and built their camping sites at the foot of the mountain.
Out of the multitudes, a few people only were allowed to go up to the plateau. We deduced that mainly from the following considerations. On the plateau, the surface is covered with important Palaeolithic remains, over 239 sites with hut basements, 42 fireplaces, and 55 flint workshops, were found practically intact. On the hammada, the typical stony soil of the stony desert, some trails lead from one to the other of the more than 20 cult sites of the BAC period and they cross the Palaeolithic sites. It is unlikely that the multitudes of the BAC camping sites came to walk as a mass on this surface, as otherwise the Palaeolithic sites would not have remained in this perfect state of preservation. It seems that the BAC population did not have access to the plateau: it was probably restricted to a limited number of persons. An analogous prohibition of the people to climb the mountain can be found in a passage in Exodus “…the people cannot go up Mount Sinai…” (Ex. 19, 12-13). This could theoretically be a rule for several of the sacred sites of the Bronze Age, and it is not the kind of argument relevant to confirm the proposed identification.
Flint stones or menhirs, circles of stones, geoglyphs, tumuli, altars, small “private sanctuaries” in which an orthostat is usually surrounded by smaller stones, and peculiar paved platforms likely to be what the Bible calls bamoth, are all indications of cult activities. We can add to this the enormous production of rock art (153 sites with over 40,000 engravings) the standing stone alignments, the remains of a small temple on the plateau and at least 9 more at the foot of the mountain. Indeed, Har Karkom concerns a unique aggregation of cult activities in the BAC period.
The first archaeological considerations which suggested a link between Har Karkom and Mount Sinai were based on the analogies between the field discoveries and biblical descriptions. Near one living site of the BAC period, at the foot of the mountain (site HK/52) a group of 12 pillars were found, in front of a stone platform. This recalls the Exodus passage (24,4): “And Moses got up early in the morning and built at the foot of the mountain an altar and 12 pillars, for the 12 tribes of Israel”. Here we found an altar and twelve pillars at the foot of the mountain, near a camping site from the Bronze Age. Obviously, we are not in a position to prove that this monument was built by Moses and not even that Moses ever existed, but the monument is there, and if nothing more, it was probably seen and interpreted by ancient visitors in biblical times.
On the top of one of the two hills of Har Karkom there is a small rock cleft. A cleft on the summit of a mountain is not common in the Sinai peninsula. In Exodus 33, 21-22, Mount Sinai is described as having such a characteristic. On the plateau of Har Karkom there are the remains of a small temple from the BAC period built with non-worked stones, with a platform (altar?), oriented to the east. Around this sanctuary are tumuli, geoglyphs, and rock engravings which include footprints, engraved in the direction of the mountain top. Ever since Neolithic times, the footprint has been a sign of veneration and cult in most parts of the Near East and elsewhere. In the book of Exodus there are mentions of a temple that Moses was supposed to have seen on the top of the mountain (Ex. 25, 40; 26, 30; 27, 8). This means that in the concept of the compilator there was a temple on the mountain.
Other similar parallels between the biblical accounts and the archaeological findings looked at first sight like coincidences, but, with the progress of research, these coincidences became too many. In the first place, rock art provides a remarkable number of parallels with the biblical accounts. The rock engravings representing the table with ten partitions, which was defined as “The Ten Commandments”, or the figure of the “serpent and the staff” or that of “the eye of God that looks from the rock” are well known already. Nothing similar has been found in other mountains in the peninsula or in other rock art sites. This peculiar style of hermetic rock art, from the BAC period, is typical of Har Karkom. This wealth of biblical parallels is at least peculiar for those who wish to explain it as purely casual.
Among the cult sites on and around this mountain there are also many sites which may not have anything to do with the biblical tradition. Around some of the boulders that have come down from the mountain, stone circles and stone alignments were built, and in some of them there are traces of ceremonial trails, likely to have been routes for ceremonial performances. On the plateau and around it there are 25 sites of geoglyphs. There are orthostats or menhirs in 60 sites, some of them forming circles or alignments.
The cult of this mountain persisted for millennia, with particular intensity in the Early Bronze Age and at the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age, involving different populations; and in more than one instance, human groups camped at its foot. So far we cannot say if one of these groups was made of slaves that fled from Egypt but we can say that the archaeological finds tell us stories similar to those described in the Bible. Year after year the general image becomes more complex.
When the identification of Har Karkom with Mount Sinai was proposed in 1983, within our archaeological area of investigation 200 sites were known. When the book The Mountain of God came out in 1986, 500 archaeological sites had been recorded. Since then, the archaeological expeditions conducted every year have brought their number to over 1200. Years of field research have allowed us to acquire a concrete knowledge of the territory and to collect a conspicuous documentation. The mountain, as far as we know, does not have parallels as a pertinent and paramount cult site, in particular in the BAC period, in the course of almost 2000 years. It is unlikely that such a site, in the area in which it is located, would not be mentioned in the Bible.
Current archaeology tends to identify the remains of structures of stones, basements of huts, fireplaces and other aspects of material culture. In this context, there are additional elements. Traces of battered, compact palaeosoils, intentional traced trails leading to standing stones, and stone alignments reveal the action of the human hand on the entire territory. It seems that man manipulated the forms of nature, completing and complementing them with new elements such as rock art, geoglyphs, orthostats, stone circles, tumuli and platforms. The entire surface of many sites appears as an immense “mosaic” where ancient people left their messages.
Today the majority of scholars agree that Har Karkom had been a great cult high place, a “Mountain of God”, but the scholars are split on its possible identification with the biblical Mount Sinai. Many archaeological documentation collected at Har Karkom correspond to the biblical narrations, but they do not demonstrate Keller’s theory “that the Bible was right” and they do not even demonstrate that there was a revelation on Mount Sinai or that Moses ever existed. The hypothesis that we had proposed in past years is that the compilers of the narration, or the storytellers that came before and after hem, had a clear and visual idea of Mount Sinai and that Har Karkom was the model that they had in front of their eyes.
But new finds seem to project towards a new perspective of interpretation. We refer primarily to the dedicatory tumulus to the lunar God Sin. This monument, on the grounds of the flint finds discovered in the course of the excavation, can be dated to an early phase of the Early Bronze Age, which is probably between 3200-2600 BC. The mountain was then dedicated to the lunar God Sin, a divinity of Mesopotamian origin, which is considered to be of the same origin as the Hebrews, and their cousins the Midianites, according to the biblical narrative. The proposal of the possible origin of the name of Mount Sinai from that of the Mesopotamian God Sin, apparently adds a new riddle to the many existing already.
However, the main arguments for the identification of Har Karkom with the biblical Mount Sinai concern topographic characters, and we shall talk about that in a forthcoming issue.
1956 Rock engravings from Jebel Ideid (Southern Negev), PEQ, vol. 83/1-2, pp. 5-13.
1986a The Mountain of God, Milan (Jaca Book)
1993 Har Karkom, In the light of new discoveries, SC, vol. 11, Capo di Ponte (Edizioni del Centro).
1997 Esodo tra mito e storia, SC, vol. 18, Capo di Ponte (Edizioni del Centro), 1997, 300 pp., 130 ill.
1998 Insediamenti di età del Bronzo, in F. Mailland (ed.), Har Karkom e Monte Sinai: Archeologia e Mito, Milan (Comune di Milano, Settore Cultura e Musei, Civiche raccolte Archeologiche), pp. 15-24, 117-118.
1997 Arte rupestre: Har Karkom e il dio Sin, BCN; pp. 22-25
MAILLAND Federico (ed.)
1998 Har Karkom e Monte Sinai: Archeologia e Mito, Atti del Convegno di Studi, Associazione Lombarda Archeologica, 18 Gennaio 1997, Milano (Comune di Milano, Settore Cultura e Musei, Civiche raccolte Archeologiche), 1998, p. 127.
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