Is it a burning bush? Is this Mount Sinai? Solstice strengthens a claim

MOUNT KARKOM, Israel – The mountain has kept its secrets for centuries, its air of sacred mystery reinforced by an isolated location in the Negev Desert in southern Israel.

But one day last week, hundreds of Israeli adventurers descended into the desert to reach Mount Karkom, determined to come closer to answer an intriguing and controversial question: is this Mount Sinai from the Bible, where is God supposed to have communicated with Moses?

The location of Mount Sinai has long been disputed by religious and academic scholars, and there are a dozen other traditional contenders, most of them in the mountainous areas of the Sinai Peninsula across the country. the Egyptian border.

But Mount Karkom’s claim gained some popular support due to an annual natural phenomenon that an intrepid group of archeology and nature enthusiasts had come to witness for themselves.

In 2003, a local Israeli guide and environmentalist was on top of the vast Karkom Plateau one day in late December around the time of the winter solstice, when he stumbled upon a wonder.

At noon, with the sun low in the sky on one of the shortest days of the year, he looked across a deep ravine and spotted a strange aura of light, flickering like flames, emanating from one place. on a steep rock face.

It was sunlight reflected at a particular angle off the sides of a cave, but the discovery quickly caught on on Israeli television and was fancyly named “the burning bush.” Maybe this, some said, was the supernatural fire that according to the Book of Exodus, Moses saw on the holy mountain when God first spoke to him, and where he will later receive the Ten Commandments then. that he was leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

The burning bush, never consumed by fire, is symbolic in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other religions, including Bahá’í.

But decades before this accidental astronomical discovery, Mount Karkom was already captivating some archaeologists with clues that the site had played an important spiritual role thousands of years ago.

More than half a century ago, Emmanuel Anati, a young Italian archaeologist, discovered an extraordinary concentration of thousands of rock carvings and rock circles as he surveyed the plateau of Mount Karkom, about 2,500 feet above sea level. above sea level. Among the rock drawings are many ibex, but also some which have been interpreted as representing the tablets of the commandments or other references from the Bible.

At the foot of Mount Karkom, named in Hebrew for a desert crocus, there is evidence that ancient migration trails converged here and that worship rituals took place in the area. Mr. Anati identified what he believed to be a sacrificial altar with the remains of 12 stone pillars that could possibly match the one described in Exodus 24 that Moses built, representing the 12 tribes of Israel.

In his writings, Professor Anati stated that he did not set out to search for Mount Sinai. But after years of fieldwork and exploration, he proposed in the early 1980s that, based on topographical and archaeological evidence, Mount Karkom “should be identified with the sacred mountain of Biblical accounts.”

But aside from the usual difficulties of desert archeology – nomads tend to leave little permanent trace – and the whole question of whether an archeology could be linked to the biblical story of the Exodus, the professor’s theory Anati posed a problem of chronology.

Israel Finkelstein, professor emeritus of archeology at Tel Aviv University and an early critic of Professor Anati’s theory, said most, if not all, of the datable sites around Mount Karkom date from the third millennium BC .

The Exodus, if it did occur, is usually dated to around 1600-1200 BC.

“There is therefore more than a millennium of gap between the reality of Karkom and the biblical tradition,” said Professor Finkelstein, adding that since the evidence is vague and the identification of such sites as cult is a question. interpretation, “It may be safer not to speculate.”

No matter how intense the academic debate, the air was freezing cold as a convoy of rugged four-wheel-drive jeeps made their way up the mountain through rough terrain at dawn on the day of the winter solstice.

Access to Mount Karkom is generally limited to weekends and certain holidays as it requires passing through a military shooting and training area. A paved road that shortens the journey by several hours, much of which takes place on dirt roads, has been mostly closed to civilian traffic in recent years due to fear of cross-border attacks by militants Islamists from Sinai.

This year, midweek for the first time, the military opened up the paved road and allowed Burning Bush researchers through the firing range.

When the group pulled into the parking lot at the foot of Mount Karkom, there was an unexpected bonus: Professor Anati, now in the early 90s, was sitting on a lounge chair, holding a yard and promoting his books.

In the search for Mount Sinai, Professor Anati said, some insist for political or nationalist reasons that the site must be within Israel’s borders, not Egypt. Others, for religious reasons, say that you have to be outside the borders, to conform to the tradition of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for 40 years before reaching the Promised Land.

“Neither of these approaches is correct; you have to look for the truth, ”said Professor Anati. “I bring all the opinions and evidence and let the reader decide for themselves,” he said, adding of the treasures of the mountain, “This is the story of the history of the humanity.”

After a steep climb up the Karkom side to its blustery plateau, dozens of people fanned out along the ridge and peeked across the ravine through the window away from the cliff to catch a glimpse of the ” burning bush”.

Without binoculars or biblical vision, it was possible to make out a strange, albeit faint, glow, although some visitors expressed disappointment that the aura around the mouth of the cave was not more fiery.

But as you stumbled across the rocky plateau, it was thrilling to encounter pieces of ancient rock art, the images etched into the dark brown patina of the stones, exposing the light limestone below.

Shahar Shilo, a researcher who runs the Negev Highlands Tourism cooperative, spoke about the importance for ancient people of being able to measure the seasons for agricultural purposes and the holiness of those who could accurately identify the shortest day on the calendar. .

Mr. Shilo also had a more prosaic explanation of why Mount Karkom had drawn people there in the distant past: the supply of quality flint that was crucial for everything from hunting to household tools. Even after much of humanity advanced through the Bronze and Iron Ages, he said, the desert dwellers here still depended on stone.

Whether it’s Mount Sinai and the winter solstice phenomenon, the burning bush “is in the eye of the beholder,” Mr. Shilo said.

“But,” he added, “it’s a big myth, you have to admit it.”

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