ISIS Threat to Archaeological Sites in the Sinai: Would They Rip Up the Burning Bush?

Marty Friedlander
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Fighting in Kobani: Islamic State fighters control much territory in Iraq and Syria - and seek a foothold in the Sinai too. Credit: Reuters
Marty Friedlander

As Islamic State has spread in parts of Iraq and Syria, it has been destroying irreplaceable pre-Islamic artifacts going back thousands of years. Based on this track record, if ISIS gains a substantial foothold in the Sinai Peninsula,  unique sites in this remote desert that mark the last remains of great ancient civilizations could be in danger. ISIS might find them offensive, but like the ancient cities of Nineveh and Nimrud, which are finally lost forever - their destruction would be mourned by the rest of the world.

The shrines of Mount Sinai

Atop Mt. Horev, also known as Mt. Sinai or even Mt. Moses (Photo: Mohammed Moussa, Wikimedia Commons)

As anyone with even a modicum of Sunday School attendance can attest, Judaism began in the Sinai, where a multitude of freed Hebrew slaves from Egypt spent a formative 40 years before entering Canaan. Though it wasn’t until Byzantine Christianity’s arrival that sites described in the Five Books of Moses were assigned actual locations, with appropriate shrines built overhead.  

Crossing the border at Taba and driving 180 kilometers southwest into the Sinai Peninsula, one reaches the spectacular granite and volcanic mountain known as Jebel Musa (Arabic for Mount Moses). It is here that the Byzantines determined that Moses received the Ten Commandments.

The Sinai DesertCredit: NASA

On the mountain's summit is a chapel, said to be where Moses stayed for the 40 days and nights it took to receive the Torah. Another chapel alongside marks the spot where the stone for the tablets was hewn. Given ISIS' propensity for eradicating precursors to its version of Islam, these chapels could be in danger, even if the mountain is not.

The Monastery of St. Catherine and the Burning Bush

Monastery of Saint Catherine, home to what  some believe is the original – and still living – burning bush. (Photo: Joonas Plaan, Wikimedia Commons)

Lying at the foot of Jebel Musa is the Monastery of St. Catherine. Considered the world’s oldest continuously operating Christian monastery, Santa Katarina, as it is known locally, is unique.

Unlike practically every other church in the Holy Land, the Persians did not sack and destroy it when they attacked the Byzantine Empire in 614. Consequently, it boasts the world’s oldest and richest collections of both manuscripts and icons. The former include the 4th century Syriac Sinaiticus (a translation into Aramaic of the four gospels) and an authorized copy of the original Achtiname of Muhammed, in which the prophet personally granted protection to the monks at St. Catherine’s. Over 1,000 priceless documents are housed in its library.

And almost as an afterthought, a remote corner of the monastery features the supposedly original (and still blossoming) Burning Bush, where Moses encountered God in their first one-on-one meeting.

The plant venerated by some as the still-living burning bush, at the Monastery of St. Catherine (Photo: Dave Penman / REX Shutterstock)

Kadesh Barnea and Israelite fortresses

Ruined Israelite fortresses at Ain el-Qudeirat, which has been associated with the biblical Kadesh Barnea. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

To date, no specifically Jewish sites have been targeted by ISIS (though potential danger has been noted to the purported Tomb of Nahum, and the movement blew up the traditional Tomb of Jonah in Mosul, Iraq, over which an Assyrian church was built). That might be by virtue of the fact that so far, ISIS has only gained control of areas outside of the cradle of Judaism. But aside from Mount Sinai (and according to Judaism, its location is still unknown), the Sinai Peninsula is home to several sites with strong bona fide connections to the Israelites, the forebears of Judaism.

Ain el-Qudeirat in the northern Sinai has been widely accepted as a possible location of biblical Kadesh Barnea, where the Bible says the Israelites spent 38 of their 40 years in the desert.

Even if that identification is wrong - many scholars now think Kadesh Barnea was near Petra, in modern-day Jordan - several Israelite fortresses from as much as 3,000 years ago have been unearthed at Ain el-Qudeirat. One dates to the 10th century BCE, another to the 8th century BCE (and was probably built by King Uzziah of Judah). Both fortresses were built at least three centuries after Moses and the Children of Israel would have stayed there, and both could now be in danger from this latest wrinkle in religious fanaticism.

King Solomon and Coral Island

Coral Island, with the reconstructed remains of the Crusader-era fort. (Photo: Courtesy of Arie Shemer,

Coral Island is another site linked to the Bible. It is an offshore dot a few kilometers down the coast from Eilat, just large enough to fit a Crusader-era Muslim fortress that overlies Byzantine-period remains.

According to some researchers, Coral Island also matches this description of an ancient Israelite commercial venture: “Then Solomon went to Ezion-Geber, and to Eloth, on the seacoast of the land of Edom. Huram [Hiram of Tyre, Solomon’s Phoenician ally] sent him, under the charge of his servants, ships and a crew that had knowledge of the sea. They went with Solomon's men to Ophir, and obtained there 450 talents of gold, which they brought to King Solomon" (2 Chronicles 8:17-18).

Ancient Israelite mosquito shelters?

If Coral Island is reputed to have a lofty Solomonic link, at the other end of the Biblical chronological spectrum are the nawamis of southern Sinai.

"Nawamis" is Arabic for mosquito. Although proven to have been built toward the end of the 4th millennium BCE, eons before Abraham had his monotheistic epiphany, local Bedouins say the nawamis constructed by the desert-dwelling Israelites of the Exodus as shelters from pesky Sinai mosquitoes!

The nawamis are in fact six-foot high round sandstone huts with flat roofs that archaeologist Avner Goren demonstrated were ancient graves, or more specifically, secondary graves used to collect the bones of Sinai nomads some 6,000 years ago.

While debunking the tall tales of the region, then we should note that nawamis is in fact an Arabic homonym meaning both “mosquito” and “freestanding structures”.  With any luck, ISIS will not hear the sham mosquito-shelter-for-wandering-Israelites story and will leave these unique stone huts alone.

Temple of Hathor

A pillar still standing from the Temple of Hathor, Serabit el-Khadim, Sinai. (Photo: Einsamer Schütze, Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, since ISIS has demonstrated its loathing of the ancient local cultures that predate Islam, it could set its sights on Serabit el-Khadim, in the southwest Sinai Peninsula, where the ancient Egyptians once mined turquoise. The miners used to worship at an adjacent temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Hathor, of which parts still stand today.

May we hope and pray that the Muslim leaders of ISIS include the 109th surah of the Koran in their studies, where the Prophet shares this ecumenical message with his followers: “To you be your religion, to me be mine.”