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February 12, 2014

CONTACT: Robin Ngo
The Biblical Archaeology Society
Phone: 1.800-221-4644 ext. 208
Fax: 202-364-2636


WASHINGTON, D.C. (February 12, 2014)— A conference of mostly Israeli scholars recently convened in the Negev Desert to consider the location of Mt. Sinai. Hershel Shanks reports on the conference in “Where Is Mount Sinai?” in the March/April 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, a leading American archaeological publication.

The initial focus of the conference was the Negev site of Har Karkom. Italian archaeologist Emmanuel Anati contends it is Mt. Sinai. Anati has been working here for more than a quarter of a century. Among the experts at the conference, however, Har Karkom found few supporters, although the site’s hundreds of fascinating rock engravings suggest that it might well be a holy site.

Speaker after speaker was sure that his or her site was in fact Mt. Sinai—or at least that this was the site that the Biblical writer had in mind.

The one site that failed to garner any support was the traditional Mt. Sinai in the Sinai Desert that rises above St. Catherine’s Monastery. When Israel occupied the Sinai after the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli archaeologists scoured the peninsula and found nothing that would suggest that the Israelites—or anyone—was in the Sinai Peninsula in Iron Age I period (1200–1000 B.C.E.) when the Israelites are thought to have fled Egypt. As one Israeli archaeologist wrote, “Nowhere in the Sinai did we or our colleagues find any concrete remains of the stations on the Exodus route, nor even small encampments that could be attributed to the relevant period,” adding that they did find pottery from even earlier periods, so the age of the supposed Israelite occupation should be no problem.

The earliest suggestion that the traditional Mt. Sinai was in fact the Mountain of God was in the 4th century, when a monastery had been located at the foot of the mountain. At that time a Christian pilgrim named Egeria was told that this was Mt. Sinai (and also that a plant in the monastery was the burning bush that the Bible says was on fire but “was not consumed.” (Exodus 3:2)

According to the recently deceased Harvard scholar Frank Moore Cross, whose view was urged at the Israeli conference by Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, the mountain that the Biblical writer had in mind was actually in Saudi Arabia. This contention finds its basis in the Biblical text. After Moses killed the Egyptian overseer, he fled—to Midian. There he worked as a shepherd for Jethro, priest of Midian. He married Jethro’s daughter Zipporah, who bore his son Gershom. It was when Moses was tending Jethro’s flocks in Midian that he received God’s call at “the mountain of God” (Horeb, another Biblical name for the site where Moses received the Tablets of the Law).

Scholars agree that ancient Midian is in northern Saudi Arabia, just south of the Jordanian border. The most fabulous site there (although much later) is known as Mada’in Saleh. “Mada’in” still bears linguistic traces of its historic source: Midian.

The so-called Midianite Hypothesis of Mt. Sinai has now garnered archaeological support. In contrast to the empty Sinai at the time the Israelites were supposed to be there for 40 years, Midian at this time was full of thriving Bedouin settlements, most recently exposed by British archaeologist Peter Parr. Archaeologists call the distinct pottery found there Midianite ware.

The highest mountain in Midian is 8,500 feet high. The traditional site of Mt. Sinai is 7,500 feet high. Har Karkom is 2,500 feet high.

So is Mt. Sinai in Saudi Arabia? No more—or less—likely than any of the other 20 or more sites that scholars have proposed.

The Negev colloquium was directed by Joshua Schmidt of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and organized by several research organizations.