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.
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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.
Along the way, several kiosks sold snacks and drinks. The ones closest to the top offered hot tea and blankets for rent. Even in the summer, where the heat during the day easily topped 100 degrees, it could be uncomfortably cool at night. I was quite thankful I had tossed a fleece and wool hat into my luggage at the last moment.
Sadly, the camels could not take us all the way. The last portion of the climb was 750 awkward rocky steps heading straight up. Bogged down with our camera gear, we were a bit chagrined as more than one grandmotherly-looking type trotted right past us on their way up.
When we reached the top, I was surprised by how small the area was. A group of sleeping tourists, curled up in sleeping bags, was near the chapel that sits on top of the mountain. Close by, a garbage can overflowed with water bottles and food wrappers.
But on the other side of the chapel, a group of Italian visitors gathered in a circle and were led by two priests in a predawn service. A nun bowed her head in prayer and then raised her small digital camera to capture the lightening sky. A thin chorus of "Hallelujah" floated over the heads of people curled up in their blankets watching the sun come up over the chain of rugged mountain peaks that stretched to the horizon.
Ten Commandments Stand Test of Time
And then, as soon as the sun was up, the crowds started making their way back down. I spoke to the few tourists I could find who spoke English. Most did not believe that this was the true location of Mount Sinai, but its history as a possible location for where Moses received the Ten Commandments seemed good enough. As one young traveler from Australia put it, "I like to think it is because then I've climbed Mount Sinai, which is amazing. ... It's such an historical mountain."
A visitor from Paris pointed out the fact that in this location there was a Greek Orthodox monastery, in a Muslim country, celebrating an important moment in the founding story of Judaism. It was that mix of religious experience that drew her to the top of Gebel Moses.
And while some of the visitors didn't think this was the true location of Mount Sinai, they did believe that the Ten Commandments still had a purpose in the 21st Century. As the climber from Australia said, "If we all have some sort of basic moral code it makes things easier."
Father Justin agreed. "They are the cornerstone of the encounter between God and man," he said. "They remain applicable to this day. Technology changes at a bewildering pace, but human nature doesn't change."
Father Justin pointed to 19th century British mountain surveys that supported the centuries-old tradition that Gebel Musa was Mount Sinai, by comparing its geography to biblical description. But modern archaeology has not dug up any proof whatsoever. According to Richard Freund, a professor at the University of Hartford, who has examined seven potential sites of Mount Sinai, "There is no evidence. Not a pottery shard, not a single artifact from the Bronze Age, from the time when the Israelites would have been encamped there."
So my journey would have to continue. And what I found at each place I visited was that while some proof hinted that the location could be Mount Sinai, there were counterarguments that it couldn't be the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments. But the interesting thing was, for almost every person we spoke to along the way, where it happened, even if it happened, didn't seem to matter. The story of the Ten Commandments, and the Ten Commandments themselves, have nonetheless stood the test of time.
"Even though they were written on rock," Freund said, "their meaning was really written on the hearts and souls of the people who came afterwards."