The millennia-old tradition declaring Mt. Sinai’s location as being in Egypt has gone largely unquestioned, until now.
The traditional site for Mt. Sinai in Egypt did not come into existence until nearly 2,000 years after the Exodus. In the 6th Century AD, Byzantine Emperor Justinian founded a monastery at this location, and erected a shrine over what he believed to be the bush in which God’s presence resided when He first spoke to Moses. Since then, that tradition has been passed down through the ages largely unquestioned.
“The origin of the present Monastery of Saint Catherine on the NW slope of Jebel Musa is traced back to A.D. 527, when Emperor Justinian established it on the site where Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, had erected a small church two centuries earlier.” (The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 1962, p. 376).
Since that time, this has been the site which most everyone has believed is Mt. Sinai. While there has been this tradition of Sinai’s location in the Christian tradition, the Jewish people have actually not held any tradition on the location of Mt. Sinai.
“There is no Jewish tradition of the geographical location of Mt. Sinai; it seems that its location was obscure already in the time of the monarchy…” (The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 14, p. 1599).
The only verified Jewish record of anyone visiting Sinai after the Israelites entered what would become their homeland was when the prophet Elijah fled from Ahab and Jezebel in 1 Kings 19. Aside from that, and one reference in passing from Paul in the New Testament (Galatians 4:25), there is little information in the Bible on the exact location of Mt. Sinai, other than that it is in Midian.
The historian Josephus gave details of the Exodus in his Antiquities of the Jews and identified Moses and his father-in-law Jethro as residents of Midian. His account details important events of the Exodus, including the Red Sea Crossing, provision of water at Elim, the battle of Rephidim, and the giving of the Law.
In one of the few scholarly works concerning the subject, Dr. Allen Kerkeslager states that the Jewish people felt little need to identify Mount Sinai’s true location. Rather, interest in its location seems to be a distinctly Christian phenomenon.
Pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai does not seem to have been an important means of affirming Jewish identity. Jews had many other ways of affirming a concrete physical connection to Jewish history, including the contemplation of their own biological existence. Later Gentile Christians may have felt more compelled tomake pilgrimages to Mt. Sinai and other concrete sites associated with Israelite history because, unlike Jews, they could not point to their own physical descent to support their claim to being “the true Israel.” Pilgrimage to sites from Jewish history was more of an identity imperative for Christians than it was for Jews.
Allen Kerkeslager, “Jewish Pilgrimage and Jewish Identity in Hellenistic and Early Roman Egypt,” in Pilgrimage and Holy Space in Late Antique Egypt, ed. David Frankfurter (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 1998), 207.
Skepticism of this traditional site began as early as the 1700s. Von Haven, the member of a Danish expedition to the traditional site, wrote, as reported in “Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1771-1767,” by Thorkild Hansen:
“I have observed earlier that we could not possibly be at Mount Sinai. The monastery [of St. Catherine] was situated in a narrow valley, which was not even large enough for a medium-sized army to be able to camp in, let alone the 600,000 men that Moses had with him, who, together with their wives and children, must have come to over 3,000,000.”
In Arabia and the Bible by James Montgomery, we read on page 31:
“…the land west of a line from the Wady of Egypt to the Elanitic Gulf [Gulf of Aqaba] has always belonged to the Egyptian political spheres and actually that is the present boundary of Egypt…..the South-Arabians called the same region Msr, i.e. Misraim, Egypt.”
Additionally, the few explorers of this region found the northwestern area of Arabia (Midian) to have a vast array of local traditions about Moses and Jethro in the area, as H. St. John Philby writes of his extensive exploration of the area in his book “The Land of Midian” (page 222).
“From here my guide and I climbed up the cliff 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 round it are numerous circles….”
Charles Doughty traveled the entire area and in the chronicles of his journey in his 1888 work “Travels in Arabia Deserta,” he writes of:
“…a tradition amongst their [the inhabitants of this NW Arabian region] ancestors that ‘very anciently they occupied all that country about Maan, where also Moses fed the flocks of Jethro Prophet.”
If we continue with Philby’s account as left off above, he writes:
“From here [the ridge which had the ‘Circles of Jethro’] I had a magnificent view of the whole of the Midian mountain range, with Lauz [Lawz] and its sister peaks in the northeast and Maqla’a very little north of east, with the valley of al-Numair separating the latter from the low ridge of All Marra, extending from east to south-east, where the two peaks of Hurab stood out in front of the great range of Zuhd, which runs down to a point not far from the sea to our southward …. The spot that held my imagination was the smooth, double-headed, granite boss of Hurab, an obvious candidate for identification with the Mount Horeb of the Exodus,…. the only candidate for the honor which can claim to have preserved the name….According to Hasballah, the name Hurab applies primarily to the wadi [canyon], while he calls the mountain itself Al Manifa (which simply means lofty).”
Modern Theory and Exploration
In 2003, Charles Whittaker wrote a dissertation claiming that Jabal al-Lawz/Jabal Maqla is the most plausible location for Mt. Sinai of the Exodus story. The dissertation is available for reading online, and was one of the most important sources of information for this project.
Additionally, explorers like Ron Wyatt along with Jean-Michel Cousteau, Dr. Lennart Moller, Jim and Penny Caldwell, and now Ryan Mauro have all been here and looked at the patterns of evidence for each specific piece of criteria. With more efficient means of transportation, and more prolific means of communication, this information is now going to become more at the forefront the historical debate.
This theory is relatively new to us, but the locals have long believed that this is where Moses and the Israelites went after they left Egypt. When we approached them during our trips, they were eager to tell us all about what has been tradition for them for thousands of years.
Last updated March 25, 2019.