Search for the Origin of the Ten Commandments

Photo: Mount Sinai

Part of our exploration into the origins of the Ten Commandments included examining just where Mount Sinai might -- or might not -- be. Archaeologists, biblical scholars and historians have pointed to some 30 different mountains in Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia as possible contenders for the title of Mount Sinai.

But open the tourist guidebooks, and you will find that there is a place that has attracted pilgrims and visitors for centuries: Gebel Musa -- Mount Moses. This mountain, in the southern part of the Sinai desert in Egypt, has been the traditional location of Mount Sinai for more than 1,500 years, so I traveled there to begin my journey to try to understand where the Ten Commandments came from.

Watch "The Ten Commandments" series on "Nightline" starting Thursday, Sept. 24, at 11:35 p.m. ET

After meeting up with cameraman Shadi Foley in Cairo, we made the long drive to Gebel Musa in the Sinai. Crossing the Suez Canal, and seeing cargo ships piled 10 stories high with shipping containers cruising on the Red Sea, left no doubt that we were no longer in biblical times.

But as we approached Gebel Musa, the road ended at St. Katherine's Monastery. Nestled between mountain peaks, the exterior walls date to about 550 AD. And within those walls grows the Burning Bush from which God spoke to Moses.

At least that's according to the two dozen Greek Orthodox monks who live at the monastery. For them, Gebel Musa is the true Mount Sinai. We had the chance to speak with Father Justin, an American monk originally from El Paso, Texas.

"We are devoted here to the memory of the prophet Moses and to the revelation of God to Moses," Father Justin explained. "His whole life becomes the example that we should leave the attachments that pull us away from God, come into the place where our prayers and our attention are not distracted by the things of this world, and then ascend the mountain and there encounter God himself."

Climbing Gebel Musa

For many pilgrims and tourists who visit, that is the goal -- to climb Gebel Musa. And that is best done at night in order to catch the sunrise from the very top.

My cameraman and I began the climb after midnight, joining hundreds of others as they made their way under a moonless but star-filled sky. With our camera gear to consider, hiring a couple of camels and local Bedouin guides seemed a prudent choice. (although I had to wonder, as I rocked back and forth in a most uncoordinated fashion, why after nearly 3,000 years of domestication humankind had not perfected a comfortable camel saddle ...).

We couldn't see our destination -- the peak of Gebel Musa. But we could see dozens of little flickering lights from flashlights bouncing along the path up to the top as groups of people made their way up.

And to our left was another light peeking out from part way up another mountain. Father Justin had told me earlier in the day that a Greek Orthodox hermit lived there; Father Moses led a life of spiritual reflection living in a small cave. The monastery had recently insisted on running a power line up to him so that he could run a small space heater to help keep the aging hermit in good health.

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