"In Search of the Real Mount Sinai" (Part One) by George Potter
Why is locating the real Mount Sinai important to the LDS community? First, Mount Sinai is the most ancient of all known temples. Given its role in the Latter-days, it appears that it is still a dedicated temple site-a "House of the Lord." The LDS Bible dictionary states of Temples: "In case of extreme poverty or emergency, these (temple) ordinances may sometimes be done on a mountain top (see D&C 37:55). This may be the case with Mount Sinai." Second, it provides the faithful with an actual Biblical site, one that has remained nearly untouched since the time of the Exodus. And third, our exploration of Mount Sinai led to the discovery of several Book of Mormon sites, including the Valley of Lemuel and the River of Laman (see our web site http://www.nephiproject.com).
What Are The Characteristics of Mount Sinai?
Before exploring the "out back" of the Arabian wilderness for the mountain, we listed what the scriptures said about it:
1.) It was said to be located in Arabia (not the Sinai Peninsula) (Galatians 4:25), and not in Egypt, (Exodus 2:15,19, 3:8.10,12; the Sinai Peninsula is part of Egypt, and was so at the time of Moses).
2.) It was said to be located in the furthest northwest corner of Arabia called Midian (Exodus 4:19-25; to locate Midian, see your LDS Bible Maps).
3.) The burning bush, and subsequently the camp of Israel, was said to be on the backside of the mountain, the side away from the homeland of Moses and Jethro (Exodus 3:1-2).
4.) There was an altar there built of unhewn stones (Exodus 20:24-26),
5.) Sinai had a brook (Deuteronomy 9:21).).
7.) Boundary markers were erected to prevent the children of Israel from coming up the mountain (Exodus 19:23).
8.) Twelve pillars were set up, one for each tribe (Exodus 24:4).
9.) Sinai had a habitable cave that was used by Elijah (1 Kings 19:8-9).
10.) The mountain was "exceedingly high" (Moses 1:1).
11.) There was room for approximately 3,000,000 Israelites to camp next to the mountain (Exodus 12:37).
12.) From the campsite at the foot of the mountain, the children of Israel could see the presence of God (Exodus 19:17-18).
13.) There was ample grazing land for their animals over an extended period of time.
The Traditional Site for the Mountain of Moses
Susan Potter on the traditional Mount Sinai
We concluded that the traditional claim that the so-called Mount Sinai found on the southern end of the Sinai Peninsula, is a myth that is promoted mainly by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism. After visiting the mountain in 2001, I now understand why its credibility has been discounted over the last hundred years.
So where is the mountain of God?
One modern commentary to the Torah contains a map showing eight possible candidates for mount Sinai. Indeed, the quest to find mount Sinai has baffled explorers and scholars for millennia, and the scriptures seem to suggest that the mountain's real location might never be revealed (Moses 1:42). However, the Apostle Paul seems to have known Sinai's location. He placed the Mountain of Moses in Arabia (Galatians 4:25), not in the Sinai Peninsula. Paul's testimony of where the sacred mountain was located seems to have been based on what he saw in that desert land. Paul wrote that, "Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia...." (Galatians 1:17) Since Paul spent time in Arabia, it is possible that he actually visited the mountain himself. Regardless, if we are to trust this great Apostle. seven of the eight proposed sites of mount Sinai could immediately be dismissed. They are not even found in Arabia.
What is most impressive about the only Arabian mount Sinai candidate are the many
Altar of Moses Golden Calf Altar
archeological artifacts that are found at its base. The mountain is found in a remote place, yet there are man made artifacts that suggest it is mount Sinai. These include what Williams and Cornuke believed to be the altar of Moses-eleven piles of stones that are found next to the mountain. These seem to form "boundary markers, a natural rock formation that has had a Petra style high-place altar cut in its top and which is surrounded with petroglyphs of Egyptian stylized calves (the altar of the golden calf), and semi-buried marble pillars which have been broken in pieces. There is also a dried brook bed that runs next to the altar and a habitable cave that overlooks the archeological monuments.
Marble Columns Boundary Markers
What The Scriptures Say:
The record of the Jews, the Torah, meaning the Instruction and the Hebrew Old Testament point to Arabia as the land of Mount Sinai. Although 55% of the modern locations of Biblical place-names are still lost to us, there are several key place-names that have been carried down from antiquity[ii]. One of these is Midian were Mount Sinai was located.
The account of Moses reads:
Moses fled from the face of pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian: and he sat down by a well.
Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters: and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father's flock.
And the shepherds came and drove them away: but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock. (Exodus 2:15-17)
There is ample scholarly evidence that Midian was both a town and also a "land" in northwest Arabia. Its western border is the eastern shore of the Gulf of Aqaba. Its capital city, Madyan (Midian), was a major halt of the ancient frankincense trade route from southern Arabia to Egypt, and would have been a good place for Moses to have come upon as he fled along the trail from Egypt to the great desert.[iii] The official name of the town is now al-Bada'a. However, modern Arabic maps of northwest Arabia still show the name of the town as Shu'ayb, the Arabic version of Jethro.
The LDS Bible (1979 Edition), Map #6, The Ancient World at the Time of the Patriarchs, agrees with the early Islamic geographers, i.e., Midian, was located in Arabia next to the Gulf of Aqaba. The first Western explorers in the area agreed that the northwest corner of Arabia was Midian (Beke (1834), Burton (1878)[iv], Wallhausen (1886), Sayce (1894), Moore (1895), Shede (1897), Gall (1898), Gunket (1903), Meyer (1906), Schmidt (1908), Gressmann (1913), Haupt (1914) and Musil (1911).[v]
Over a thousand years ago, the early Islamic geographer Al-Hauqal wrote that there was a well in Midian from which Moses watered the flocks of Jethro (Shu'aib). He explained, even then, that the name of the town was derived from the tribe of Jethro.[vi] Writing in the same period, Al-Muqqaddasi wrote "Here may be seen the stone which Moses removed when he gave water to the flocks of Shu'aib. Water here is abundant."[vii]
Arab geographers place the land of Midian west of the city of Tabuk,[viii] which implies that the land Midian only reached a short distance into the interior of Arabia. Tabuk is less than 150 miles east of the Gulf of Aqaba. Abdulla Al-Wohaibi, who compiled the writing of the Arab geographers between 900-1100 A.D., noted "The attention that Madyan [Midian] has always attracted from the Arab geographers is due to the fact that it is mentioned in the Qur'an in connection with the story of the prophet Shu'aib [Jethro].[ix]"
Some try to justify the myth that mount Sinai was in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula by suggesting that Midian might have included the Sinai Peninsula during the time of Moses. Biblical scholar James Montgomery dismisses this: "the land west of a line from the Wady of Egypt to the Elanitic Gulf [the Gulf of Aqaba] has always belonged to the Egyptian political sphere, and actually that is the present boundary of Egypt...the South-Arabians called the same region, Msr, i.e., Misraim, Egypt"[x]. The remains of the ancient Egyptian copper mines near St. Catherine's support the idea that Egypt controlled the Sinai.
Although local traditions can be misleading, the local habitants of Midian (al-Bada'a) have a rich tradition of Moses and his father-in-law Jethro. Besides the traditional name of the town being Jethro, the locals will readily show you the caves of Moses, the wells of Jethro, the wadi Horeb, the wadi Moses, and the Waters of Moses. The renowned Arabia explorer H. St. John Philby wrote on his visit to Midian: "From here my guide and I climbed up the cliffs to visit the 'circles' of Jethro on the summit of Musalla ridge, from which we climbed down quite easily to our camp on the far side...A cairn marked the spot where Jethro is supposed to have prayed, and all around it are numerous circles,...from here I had a magnificent view of the whole of Midian mountain range, with Lauz [Jebel al-Lawz] and its sister peaks in the northeast...."[xi]
In Exodus we read of the place where Moses saw the burning bush:
Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb.(Exodus 3:1)
As Philby described, the mount al-Lawz is visible from al-Bada'a (town of Midian) and is to its northeast. The Bible seems to suggest that this is the location of Mount Sinai. First, Moses took Jethro's flocks there, which implies that the mountain is in the vicinity of Al-Bada'a. Second, since Arabia has long been known as "the desert" or "the wilderness," its backside would be the interior or east-not the shoreline. This would further imply that the burning bush was on the eastside of the mountains, the opposite side of the mountain from the town of al-Bada'a (Midian). Since Jethro's home in the valley where the major settlements existed was on the west side of the mountain, the backside would be the side of the mountain away from Jethro's home and the town of Midian.
This describes exactly the location where we found the monuments and petroglyphs. Not only is the mountain northeast of Al-Bada'a, the monuments we found are on the east side of the mountain. The exodus story in the Qur'an appears to support the notion that the backside of Sinai was indeed the eastward side. Facing the mountain from Jethro's home, the mount is on the northeast, or one's right side. The Qur'an states that the Lord appeared to Moses on the "right side" of the mountain. (Qur'an 19:52, see Abdullah Yusuf Ali's translation, footnote 2601, which implies that the right side was the east side.)
Although these arguments are straight-forward and consistent with the Biblical account, there are still those who hold that mount Sinai was on the Sinai Peninsula. They argue that there are Biblical accounts of herdsmen taking the flocks to far off lands. "Perhaps", they argue "Moses took Jethro's flocks on a long search for food and ended up in the southern region of the Sinai Peninsula.
This seems very unlikely, especially if one realizes that the entire region around the St. Catherine site is unsuitable for grazing. Britain's governor of the Sinai after WWI, became acquainted with the peninsula during this long tenure there as perhaps no other westerner before him. Writing in 'Yesterday and Today in Sinai,' C.S. Jarvis asserted that there was no way the Israelite multitudes and their livestock could have traveled through-much less sustained themselves for more than a year-in the "tumbled mass of pure granite" of the southern Sinai. Besides, what would Moses's reason be for taking Jethro's flocks out of Arabia and into Egypt's Sinai Peninsula where the pasture is inferior and where Moses was a wanted man? It should be remembered that Egyptian garrisons protected the copper mines near St. Catherine's mountain!
In contrast, we have observed large Bedouin camps in and around the mountains of Midian. Historian Abdulla Al-Wohaibi indicates that Midian was "a flourishing ancient town with numerous wells and permanently flowing springs whose water had a good taste. There are farms, gardens, and groves of palm trees.[xii]" In ancient times there appears to have been more than enough fodder for sheep in Midian. The Greek Agatharkides of Cnidos wrote of Midian "the country is full of wild camels, as well as of flocks of deer, gazelles, sheep, mules, and oxen." As a result he also noted that the game "attracts numerous lions, wolves, and panthers".[xiii]
If Mount Sinai is in Midian, then where exactly is it? A bluntly naïve thing to do is to just pick up a modern road map and follow it. The most widely used road maps in Arabia are published by Eng. Zaki M.A. Farsi. His map guide to Tabuk[xiv] covers the land of Midian. The modern roadmap shows a trail leading east from the wadi I'fal, about ten miles north of Al-Bada'a. The trail heads directly towards a towering V-shaped mountain that towers into the sky. The name of the valley is "wadi Musa," meaning the valley of Moses. The wadi Moses ends at the western base of the V-shaped mountain. On the "backside" or "eastside" of this very peak is where we found the monuments that suggest that it is the real mount Sinai.
There are many other reasons for believing that the peak nine miles south of Jebel al-Lawz is the best candidate for mount Sinai. My companions and I have discovered more information concerning this candidate for the Mountain of Moses.Watch for May's newsletter, Discovering the Trail of the Exodus. You may also see these sites on our DVD, Into the Desert with George Potter.
[i] Hadith, Riyadh-US-Saleheen, Imam Adu Zakariya Yahya Bin Sharaf An-Nawawi, Vol. II (Riyadh, International Islamic Publishing House), p. 873.
[ii] Yohanan Aharoni, The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography, trans. A. F. Rainey, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1979), 129.
[iii] Abdulla Al-Wohabi, The Northern Hijaz In The Writings of The Arab Geographers 800-1150 B.C. p. 142
[iv] Burton, Richard, Sir, The Gold-Mines of Midian, and the ruined Midianite cities (1878) (Cambridge, England: Oleander, 1979).
[vi] Abdulla Al-Wohabi, The Northern Hijaz In The Writings of The Arab Geographers 800-1150 B.C. p. 142.
[vii] Al-Wohabi, p. 142.
[viii] Burton, p. 169.
[ix] Al-Wohaibi, 140.
[x] Montgomery, James A, (University of Pennsylvania, 1934), p. 31.
[xi] Philby, H. St. John, The Land of Midian (London: Ernest Bean Limited), p. 222.
[xii] Al-Wohaibi, p. 141.
[xiii] Burton, 108.[xiv] Farsi, Eng. Zaki M.A., Map and Guide of Tabuk, (Jeddah: Farsi).] Farsi, Eng. Zaki M.A., Map and Guide of Tabuk, (Jeddah: Farsi).