The inscriptions in The Christian Topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes

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The inscriptions in The Christian Topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes

The following account of the Sinaitic Exodus inscriptions is from an Egyptian merchant-monk called Cosmas Indicopleustes (“the sailor to India”), who set out on his Sinai expedition some time at the beginning of the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian c. 520 AD (MS. p. 205sq., ed. trans. McCrindle, Hakluyt Soc., London, 1897, p. 158f. modified):

And [as regards the Israelites after the Exodus], having received the law from God in writing, and being only newly under instruction in the art of writing, God made use of the desert as a quiet school, and permitted them for forty years to carve out letters on stone. Wherefore, in that wilderness of Mount Sinai, one can see, at all their halting-places, all the stones, that have there been broken off from the mountains, inscribed with Hebrew letters, as I myself can testify, having traveled in these places. Certain Jews, too, who had read these inscriptions informed me that the manner of their composition was as follows: a stringing together* of such-and-such a person [Greek: toude] with [Greek: ek] such-and-such a family [or tribe, group of people, Greek: tês phulês têsde], in this year, in this month [Greek: etei tôide, mêni tôide]; just as with ourselves there are travelers who scribble their names in the inns where they have lodged. And they [the Israelites], having but newly acquired the art of writing, continually practiced it, and filled a great multitude of stones with writing, so that all those places are full of Hebrew inscriptions, which, as I think, still survive to this day for the sake of unbelievers. [p. 206] Any one who so wishes can go to these places and see for himself, or at least can inquire of others about the matter, when he will learn that it is the truth we have spoken. First, then the Hebrews, having received wisdom from God, and having received written characters through those tables of stone, and having learned them for forty years in the wilderness, communicated them to their neighbors the Phoenicians, first to Cadmus King of the Tyrians; from him the Greeks received them, and then in turn the other nations of the world.”

*A stringing together, Greek: apersis, apo + ersis, presumably a nominal formation from eirô, “string together”. The word diersis, “stringing together”, i.e. ersis preceded by the preposition dia, occurs elsewhere, but apersis, i.e. ersis preceded by the preposition apo, so far as I am aware, only here. McCrindle follows the corrected reading aparsis, so used in LXX Num. 33. 2, to translate Heb. massa, “station” or “halting-place” of the Israelites in the wilderness wanderings. The phrase would then mean “the halting place of such-and-such a person [Greek: toude] of [Greek: ek] such-and-such a family [or tribe, group of people, Greek: tês phulês têsde], in this year, in this month [Greek: etei tôide, mêni tôide]”.

The glorious Wadi Feiran (Rephidim) with Mount Sinai (Serbal) in the background

The Sinaitic Inscriptions, according to various scholars and travelers of the nineteenth century, with a Christian criticism in H. Shepheard, Traditions of Eden, London 1871, pp. 293-318:

(Square brackets [] enclose footnotes in the original, braces {} enclose my comments.)

And therepreserved even to this present time — are the mysterious Inscriptions still, just as they were seen and described by the honest Egyptian merchant-monk …. They are thus described by Lord Lindsay “We now entered Wady Mokatteb, a spacious valley bounded on the east by a most picturesque range of black mountains, but chiefly famous for the inscriptions on the rocks that line it, and from which it derives its name; there are thousands of them — inscriptions too — and here is the mystery — in a character which no one has yet deciphered.” [Lord Lindsay’s Letters on Egypt — Letter i., p. 176.]

Again — “The Sinaite inscriptions,” says Dr. Robinson, “are found on all the routes which lead from the west towards Sinai, as far south as Tûr. They extend to the very base of Sinai, above the Convent el-Arba’in: but are found neither on Gebel Mousa {this is not factually correct as a number of Sinaitic inscriptions have been found on Jebel Musa: Stone No. 4024 etc.}, nor on the present Horeb, nor in St. Catherine, nor in the valley of the Convent; while on Serbal they are seen on its very summit.” [Dr. Robinson’s Biblical Researches, vol. i., p. 188.]

Professor Beer says — “These inscriptions exist at Mount Sinai, or, more accurately, in the valleys and hills which extend from its roots as far as to the eastern shore of the Gulf, so that those who at the present day travel from the monastery of Mount Sinai to the town of Suez, whichever route they choose — for there are several — may see these inscriptions on the rocks of very many of the valleys through which they are conducted, even as far as to those parts of the coast which they reach after accomplishing more than half their journey. Besides these places, similar inscriptions are found, and those in great numbers, on Mount Serbal, which is situated near the south-western route; and likewise, though less frequently, in some of the valleys which are to the south-west of Mount Sinai.” [Beer, Studia Asiatica, Introd., pp. 1-15.]

But the valley,” he adds, “which beyond all the rest claims special notice, is that which stretches from the neighbourhood of the eastern shore of the Gulf of Suez for the space of three hours’ journey in a southern direction. Here, to the left of the road, the traveller finds a chain of steep sandstone rocks, perpendicular as walls … these, beyond all beside, contain a vast multitude of tolerably well preserved inscriptions.”

Another traveller found a multitude far more vast in another direction. — “For the so-called Sinaitic Inscriptions,” says the Rev. R. St. John Tyrwhitt, “they are doubly numerous, and much more legible (if one could read them) all along Wady Maghara and near the mines. The Mokatteb ones cannot be compared to them. No Hebrew or Greek occurs, as on the regular road to Sinai.” [Galton’s Vacation Tourists, art. “Sinai.”]

So of the Djebel Mokatteb, another writes — “These hills are called Gebel el Mohatab, that is, the Written Mountains; for as soon as we had parted from the mountains of Faran we passed by several others for an hour together, engraved with ancient unknown characters, which were cut into the hard marble rock so high as to be in some places at 12 or 14 feet distance from the ground; and though we had in our company persons who were acquainted with Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Syriack, Coptic, Latin, Armenian, Turkish, English, Illyrican, German, and Bohemian languages, yet none of them had any knowledge of these characters, which have nevertheless been cut into the hard rock with the greatest industry, in a place where there is neither water, nor any thing to be gotten to eat.” [From A Journal from Cairo to Mount Sinai by the Prefetto of Egypt, translated by the Rt. Reverend Robt. Clayton, Bishop of Clogher.]

Dr. Lepsius says — “I went the same evening up the Wadi Aleyat” (under Mount Serbâl) “and passed innumerable rock inscriptions” …. “Distinguished from all the other mountains, and united in one mass, rises the Serbâl, first in a gentle slope, and then in steep rugged precipices, to a height of 6000 feet above the sea.” “It appeared to me very doubtful, when I was in the Convent at Gebel Mousa, whether it was the holy mountain on which the commandments were given or not. Since I have seen Serbâl, and Wadi Feiran at its foot, and a great part of the rest of the country, I feel quite convinced that we must recognize Sinai in Mount Serbâl. The present monkish tradition has no worth in an impartial research.” [Dr. Richard Lepsius’ Letters from Egypt, Ethiopia and the Desert of Sinai, p. 350.]

Mr. Bartlett writes — “In a short time after leaving the mouth of Wady Maghara the valley expands into a small plain, and suddenly contracts; it is here, on the right hand rocks, that the largest collection of the Sinaitic writings is to be found: they occur, indeed, in considerable quantity, and must have been the work of a large body of men. Wady Mokatteb is the name given to the spot. It is somewhat singular that there should be so many of them at this particular place; and some could only have been executed by means of a ladder, or at the least by clambering up the face of the rocks. They occur hence continually, though at intervals, all the way to Wady Feiran, and up to the very top of the Serbâl.” [Bartlett’s Forty Days in the Desert, p. 47.]

Again — “While my guides and servant lay asleep under the rock, I walked round the rock, and was surprised to find inscriptions similar in form to those which have been copied by travellers in the Wady Mokatteb. They are upon the surface of blocks which have fallen down from the cliff, and some of them appear to have been engraved while the pieces still formed a part of the main rock. There is a great number of them, but few can be distinctly made out.” “The rock, though of sandstone, is of considerable hardness.” [Burckhardt’s Travels in Syria and the Holy Land, p. 477. Ed. London, 1822.] The inscriptions here described were in the Wady Naszeb.

Miss Martineau, describing the approach to the Wady Mokatteb from Suez, says: — “For six miles or so, now, we passed through rocks inscribed all over with characters which nobody can read. They are irregularly carved, — some larger, some smaller, from, I think, nearly a foot high to half an inch. Those of us who had a good sight perceived that there were inscriptions much higher up than we had been given to understand by travellers. On many a smooth natural tablet, high on the face of the mountain, could I see mysterious lines like those below; … but the unbroken mass of inscriptions were between the base and a height of twenty feet. Almost every large stone which lay in the valley also bore similar records. Some were rather lightly traced, little more than scratched, on the stone; but many were deep cut.” [Martineau’s Eastern Life, vol. ii., p. 238.]

Various travellers,” says the author of Stones crying out, “agree in the report that, commencing near Suez, the Wadys Wardan, Maghara, Mokatteb, Feiran, and Aleyat, are all full of them; and the last, Wady Aleyat, leads up to the five-peaked Serbâl, whose two easternmost summits, according to Burckhardt and Dr. Stewart, are covered with inscriptions. Ruppell finds them on the second peak from the west; Stanley saw them on the top of the third or central peak; and Mr. Pierce Butler especially tells us that innumerable inscriptions clothe the northern side of the mountain.” The nature of the ground traversed in order to reach the localities of these Inscriptions is thus described — “Stewart descended from Serbâl as daylight was fading, and depicts the agony of walking when footsore over the loose angular stones of Wady Aleyat. He reached his tent utterly exhausted, and bruised with severe falls sustained by stumbling over rocks in the darkness; and he elsewhere speaks of the ‘avalanches’ of rock and stone which during the course of ages have been brought down from the mountain by the winter torrents, and have so covered the Wady Aleyat as to suggest the idea that the clouds must have some time rained down boulders instead of hailstones.” [Stones crying out, p. 222.] Once more — “In ascending the Wady Aleyat, on his way to the summit of Mount Serbâl, Mr. Butler observed traces of a path to the left, out of the usual track of the ascent, which led through a chaos of enormous rocks, evidently precipitated from the broken face of the perpendicular mountain above by some great convulsion of nature. Into this untrodden path he struck, and as he clambered through these wrecks of nature, he discovered, to his great astonishment, that hundreds upon hundreds of the fallen stones were covered with Sinaitic Inscriptions. So numerous were the instances that he added, he could state with safety ‘that every second stone was inscribed.’”

But there occurred a still more remarkable phenomenon. The granite rocks were largely interspersed with blocks of trapstone: a species of stone black on the surface, but lemon-coloured inside. Now this peculiar material had been studiously selected by the Sinaitic engravers, as the receptacle for their Inscriptions; and the consequence was that the Inscriptions carved on this material came out with the effect of a rubricated book or illuminated manuscript; the black surface throwing out in relief the lemon-coloured inscriptions. The proofs of thought and care, of taste and judgment, contained in this eclectic choice of material are such as to require no other comment than the statement of the fact.” [Rev. C. Forster’s Israelitish Authorship of the Sinaitic Inscriptions, p. 29, &c.]

As to the extent of the Inscriptions, Mr. Forster adds — “Here, at least, all parties are agreed. There is no diversity of opinion as to the extent of the Sinaitic Inscriptions. Mr. Stanley here coincides with all preceding travellers. They stretch, on the western side of the peninsula, in broken or continuous succession, from the vicinity of Suez, through the Wadys Wardan, Sidri, Mahara, Mokatteb, Firan, and Aleyât, (exclusive of those in the Wadys Nasb, Humr, and sundry more), up the side and to the summit of the giant Serbâl, whose lower part, the Wady Aleyât, is literally clothed with them. They stretch, on its eastern side, in great numbers, in the Ledja, along the table plain between the Wady Sayal and the Wady el Ain, in the direction of Akaba. And they reappear in the vicinity of Petra and Mount Hor, only here scattered and rare. In other words, they reach, on a rough calculation, along lines of two degrees in both directions, exclusive of the few vestiges of them at Petra, and in the neighbourhood of Mount Hor. But their central site is around Mount Serbâl, the leading avenues to which they throng in innumerable multitudes.”

Reflexions forced upon a thoughtful mind by these marvellous facts are thus expressed in Mr. Lowth’s interesting work, The Wanderer in Syria.

Thus we came to the Wady Mokatteb, the Valley of Writings. On both sides of it it was about sixty or seventy yards broad, with perpendicular rocks on either side, starting straight up from the level floor high up on the face of the cliffs, and low down on the large spreading slabs of sandstone, were in immense numbers the Inscriptions, with occasional figures of animals. You wonder how the places could have been reached, at such perpendicular heights were some of the writings. Although you cannot read a word of all this wide amount of inscription, yet so great and general is the question concerning the writers Were they Israelites or were they not? that you gaze and stop, and gaze again, and you try to decipher a letter in vain. You people the whole place with living beings at this laborious and enterprising work, and you are lost in wonder at such a remarkable and tremendous amount of apparently useless labour and skill in these untenantable wilds. As you ride on thus, you quietly argue the matter. Here are miles and miles of writings, if they were drawn out into lines, and this requires that the writers must have been numerous. Their number and position oblige a long residence on the spot, for the work must have occupied a long time, the letters being large and deeply cut. The workmen must have used ropes or ladders, or have built up wooden machinery, to enable them to reach up from above or from below the places inscribed, all of which protracted labour involves considerable time and an acquaintance with habits of building on a large scale. The rude style of the greater part of the writings, and the finished sculpture of other portions, betray a people of various ranks in point of knowledge of art a large and mixed people, and also accustomed to the presence of works of art on a magnificent scale; for how could an assemblage of common men have imagined and executed the gigantic and imposing work ‘The Title’ the work measuring, as it is guessed by the eye, about one hundred feet of perpendicular height? Who could come here what cultivated artists what ingenious mechanicians of various trades what crowds of untaught labourers would come and dwell in these savage deserts for the purposes of engraving sentences on bare rocks? Would the Nabathaeans come here from distant places across the deserts to do this objectless work, far from all places of habitation? Would pilgrims in thousands stop on the way of their pilgrimage, and build scaffolds, and make ladders, and work skilled works in a place where death threatened them hourly? …. You come to the conclusion that there is something in the matter of these inscribed rocks that is not in the usual and common course of human actions. You ride on with your thoughts pointing, whether you will or no, in the direction of the story of the wanderers fed and maintained by God upon these deserts for years and years, accustomed to see the works of art of Egypt, some of them skilled workmen of Pharaoh’s buildings, habituated to scaffolding and ladders not now needing to work for their bread idle, unemployed, ready for covering the rocks of the Wady Mokatteb, or any others, with their rude inscriptions.”

Of all the Sinaitic records, the most extraordinary are the one last mentioned and another close to it, both described by the Comte d’Antraigues, a French nobleman who travelled in the peninsula with his suite in the year 1779. His account of them “was published originally in 1811, in the Posthumous Letters of J. G. Von Müller, the historian of Switzerland, a name so eminent in literature, before, at the call of Napoleon, he exchanged the path of ‘quiet and delightful studies’ for the cares of state.” [Forster’s Voice of Israel from the Rocks of Sinai, p. 82.]

The following is a translation of the Comte’s own words: — “At five o’clock in the morning, on the 14th May, 1779, I put my whole caravan in motion, and we repaired to the Dshebel el Moukatab. It consists of two very lofty rocks, cut perpendicular, separated one from the other by 50 paces. It appears that their base has been hollowed by the action of the waters. …. These rocks, covered with characters carved in relief, have none from their base up to the height of 14 feet 2 inches. The total length of the valley is 547 Paris toises. [1094 yards.] The rocks are covered with characters up to their summits: the lines are straight, but their extremities bend up to the junction of the line above, and form a writing in furrows. On the right hand rock, in coming from Tor, there are in all 67 lines; 41 on the rock to the left. The characters stand out one inch, and are one foot long. On the left side, on the highest part of the rock, are the characters which are called The Title. The reason of their having been called by this name is that the letters which compose it are 6 feet high, and stand out 3 inches. I caused them to be drawn with the greatest exactness. It would require six months of stubborn toil to draw the whole of these characters: it is a book unique, perhaps, under heaven, and the history of a people perhaps unknown.” [“Extract of a letter from M. le Comte d’Antraigues, ap. J. G. Müller, tom. vi. p. 330. Von Müller saw no improbability in the assignment of an Israelitish origin to these monuments …. The writer whom Napoléon summoned to the offices, successively, of Secretary of State for Westphalia, and Minister of Public Instruction, will hardly, in our day, be taxed with credulity. At least, if he be, the charge will assuredly recoil upon the taxers.” — Forster’s Voice of Israel, p. 82, &c.]

Of the forty-one line Inscription here described, the first line has been copied and brought to England and of this a copy was furnished to Mr. Forster, who has succeeded in deciphering it by his Primeval Alphabet. {This claim of Mr. Forster was extended to the other Sinaitic inscriptions. The evidence, however, bears out Beer’s claim that they are “Hebrew,” that is Aramaic, written in an alphabet of the square Hebrew, or Nabataean, type. But Forster was right in his fundamental argument that the inscriptions are memorials of the Exodus, and Beer mistaken in his belief that they are the scribblings of Nabataean pilgrims. These conclusions should be substantiated to the satisfaction of an unbiased critic in the course of the investigation.}

Such is a general description of these remarkable records graven upon the rocks of the Sinaitic deserts. Who were the mysterious scribes? What people what artisans what industrious and persevering workers were they, who have left these singular memorials of their profitless labour and skill? The question is one of transcendent interest. What if these Inscriptions are indeed nothing else but the sculptured records of Israel’s forty years’ sojourning in the Wilderness? What an unanswerable confirmation of that which, however, needs no confirmation, the truth of the Scripture narrative! And what stores of curious and instructive information concerning the details of those forty years’ wanderings may yet be opened up by the copying and decipherment of these rock-sculptured records!

Now the idea which first occurs, that these Inscriptions were the work of Israel in their wilderness sojourning, is not only the most natural, but it is the only idea that is consistent with the facts of the case. The countless numbers of these Inscriptions — the heights at which many of them are found, — the vast labour bestowed upon them, — the difficult and almost inaccessible situations of multitudes of them, — all combine to form a demonstration of the absolute impossibility of executing them without resources and opportunities as ample as the work is great. The workers must have been a multitude, they must have had ladders or scaffoldings of a great height, they must have had plenty of tools, and very abundant leisure, allowing them to choose their time, and take advantage of the opportunities of shade from the scorching sun of the desert, and not less from the fierce winds which frequently rage there, blowing up the sand in blinding clouds, and making it difficult and dangerous to use a ladder at all. All these considerations point out the absolute impossibility that these Inscriptions could have been executed by any mere straggling pilgrims or passing travellers. The work done is out of all proportion greater than any such desultory workers could possibly accomplish, even if they had the inclination to make the attempt.

These reflections would hold good even if the country were a land of ordinary fertility, and productive of ordinary supplies of food and water. But the weight of proof is altogether overwhelming when the greatest peculiarity of the whole case is taken into account, — viz., that the country over which these marvellous records are scattered, to distances of about 150 miles apart, is a stony desert, — interspersed indeed with narrow belts of pasturage in the bottoms of the valleys, but absolutely barren and destitute of all sustenance for human life. Food there is none — water is scarce and scanty, only found at distant spots known to the Arab guides, but undiscoverable by travellers without their aid. Even the Bedouin shepherd must carry his provision with him — and the “passing traveller” must not only pass, but pass on quickly too, for fear of dying by thirst or hunger in those savage wastes. Not even a moderately numerous caravan could remain for more than a day or two in any one spot, (except the Wady Feiran or some similar oasis here and there), without an organized commissariat bringing supplies from a distance.

This is the climax of the demonstration. The argument is narrowed up to a dilemma from which there is no escape. Those Inscriptions were the work of men who had miraculous supplies of food and water — for it was impossible they could either work or live there without such supplies. That such a miraculous supply was given to Israel is matter of history: if we refuse to believe the miracle we must believe the impossibility. Thus does the creed of the infidel recoil upon himself. To believe the miracle requires only the common sense and rational faith of a Christian — to believe the absence of the miracle demands the capacious credulity of the infidel, who strains out a gnat but can swallow a camel — who can remove (from his own sight, at least) mountains of facts harder than adamant, which demonstrate the truth of Scripture, and can build up castles of vain theories out of fancies as visionary as the mirage of the desert.

It is important to observe that, with the exception of a few Greek and Latin sentences of quite a different aspect and evidently more recent date, all the Inscriptions are so alike as to be clearly the work of one single people. This fact is fully admitted, and candidly stated, by Professor Beer himself, the principal objector against their Israelitish origin. Beer says — “The internal evidence of the writing is so uniform, that I doubt whether the most ancient of the inscriptions was separated from the most recent by an interval of much more than one age (or generation).” [“Saeculum.” — Beer, Studia Asiat., Introduction. {On this assumption of Beer, which is unwarranted as extended to the whole body of Sinaitic inscriptions, and was unwisely adopted by Forster and those who followed him, see infra.}] If by an age Beer means a natural generation, no expression could more accurately coincide with the forty years of the Israelites’ sojourning in the wilderness. If, again, he means a century, still the exact uniformity of the writing proves all the Inscriptions to have been the work of one and the same people; and Beer’s admission, taken even at its widest limit, restricts the whole mass of them to one hundred years, at the most, as the period within which they were begun and finished. It is obvious that this admission of Beer’s is fatal to the theory of the Inscriptions being the work of pilgrims or passing travellers. If this were so, each pilgrim or traveller would have carved his sentence in his own language, and this throughout the course of the hundreds and thousands of years since the desert was travelled at all. There would have been seen upon the rocks of Sinai specimens, not of one language only, and that one unknown, but of the languages and letters of all the nations within reach of the Arabian peninsula: and there would have been the marks of greater and less antiquity discernible among them: whereas Beer, while attributing them to pilgrims, admits the absolute identity of them all in language and character, and limits them all to the space of one generation, or, at most, one century.

Another important point is the date of these mysterious writings. In the time of Cosmas they were believed to be the work of the Israelites of the Exodus, and consequently to be, even in his day, 2000 years old. This belief was confirmed to the eye of the Egyptian traveller and his companions by their appearance; and he especially notes a circumstance which subsequent observation has proved to be a most important proof of their great antiquity even in his time. He says, that the Inscriptions were found “on all the rocks which had been broken off from the mountains.” Now these inscriptions have since been ascertained to be in many instances turned upside down by the fall of the fragments: from which it follows that the inscriptions were made while these fragments were still part of the solid cliff. Those sculptured rocks had borne the brunt of ages before the time of Cosmas himself; till at length the wear and tear of tempest and torrent, scorching sun and searching blast, had loosened and rent the fragment from its bed, and hurled it into the depths below.

The testimony of Cosmas is unimpeachable. Beer himself quotes with approbation the words of the learned Montfaucon, — the editor of Cosmas’s work — “What Cosmas reports of the inscriptions of this kind seen by himself, I think cannot be called in question by any one: for he is a truthful writer, and worthy, of confidence, if any one is so.” [Beer, Studia Asiat., Introduction.]

We have, then, express and indisputable historical testimony to the remote antiquity of the Sinaitic Inscriptions: and to the fact that in the time of Cosmas they were believed to be the work of the Israelites of the Exodus. That belief appears to have been universal: since Cosmas does not so much as hint at any other opinion being then entertained.

And if, five hundred years only after the Christian era, those Inscriptions were generally believed to be the work of Israel in the Wilderness, this alone ought to silence the modern sceptics who pretend to be better acquainted with ancient times than the people who lived in those times.

Moreover, this express historical testimony is borne out by the facts of the case: which present a chain of circumstantial evidence hardly less cogent than mathematical demonstration.

The combined force of the evidence both of history, and of visible facts existing at the present moment, must carry conviction to any honest mind.

But still, as other theories have been started, and have found adherents, it may be well to take some notice of them.

The principal objector, as already stated, is professor Beer. His theory is, that the Inscriptions were the work of Nabathaean pilgrims to Mount Sinai, and were executed mostly in the fourth century. Yet Beer himself, who writes with an amusing simplicity, and a candour worthy of a better cause, immediately adds, that certainly he had never heard that there ever were any such pilgrims, nor did he think it likely that pilgrims from Palestine or Syria had at that time visited Mount Sinai; though it is true that Helena, the mother of Constantine, had made a pilgrimage thither, and built a sanctuary on the spot. But as a custom had grown up about that time of making pilgrimages to sacred places, especially Jerusalem, “it might easily happen,” he says, “that the desire of visiting holy places might stimulate some tribes of Arabia Petraea to go in considerable numbers, from religious motives, to the sacred spots of their own country, Mount Sinai and the valleys of the great miracles of Moses.”

[The whole passage is such a curious piece of reasoning that I give Beer’s own words. “Ipse primus (Cosmas) inscriptionum harum nuntium viris eruditis suae aetatis tradidisse videtur. Unde conjicimus, Aetatem harum inscriptionum tempore haud ita brevi superiorem esse aevo Cosmae. Crucis Christiana; figura Y, quae in nostris inscriptionibus frequentior est quam +, num diu post Constantini aetatem … in usu manere potuerit praeter alteram, dubito.

“Itaque saeculo quarto maximam partem harum inscriptionum factam esse existimo. Eo tempore apud Christianos maxime increbuerat mos sacra loca, praecipue Hierosolyma, cum exspectatione miraculorum adeundi et religionis causa peregrinandi, ita quidem ut sub finem ejus saeculi Gregorio, episcopo Nysseno, necesse videretur ut peculiari libello contra hunc morem dissereret. Montem Sinai turn temporis visitatum esse a Palaestinensibus Syrisve verosimile vix est, certe desunt testes: quamquam haud negaverimus, Helenam, matrem Constantini, ad eum montem religionis causa profectam esse, ibique sanctuarium erexisse …. Sed facile fieri potuit, ut ilia sacrorum locorum visitandorum cupido aliquot Arabiae Petraeae tribus excitaret, ut suae terrae loca sacra, montem Sinai vallesque magnorum Mosis miraculorum per aliquod tempus frequentes et religiosi adirent.” Beer, Studia Asiatica, Introduction.]

The German Professor has much ado to conjure up his Nabathaean pilgrims, and make them cover the rocks with inscriptions scattered along one hundred and fifty miles of desert. True, he had never heard of any pilgrims whatever going to Mount Sinai, with the solitary exception of the Empress Helena: true, he thought it not likely that any should go there from either Palestine or Syria, (though from thence, if from any quarter, it was likely they would go); yet, as it was the custom for Christians to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and other holy places, it was just possible that pilgrims might go from Arabia Petraea (Nabathaeans) in such multitudes as to cover the desert with the countless thousands of the Sinaitic Inscriptions! [Beer thinks the Inscriptions were executed in the fourth century, because it was at that time that the custom of pilgrimages had grown up. But Niebuhr says that “even in the third century these inscriptions had been mentioned by a Greek author” (Niebuhr’s Travels, vol. i., p. 200:) so that they existed before those pilgrimages were made which are supposed by Beer to have produced them. Beer attributes them to pilgrims from Arabia Petraea because “he does not see any other country which can be mentioned as so likely”!] The Professor has omitted to inform us how, when they arrived at their destination, they managed to live without food or water, or where they obtained ladders and scaffolding: or how it is that the great majority of the Inscriptions are found, not on the route from Arabia Petraea to Mount Sinai, but far to the opposite side of it, where his pilgrims would have no occasion to go at all.

Beer’s chief argument for a Christian authorship of the Inscriptions is the occasional occurrence of the character +, which he assumes to be meant for the Cross. But as even this character is too rarely found to sustain his theory, he farther enlists into his service the character Y, which occurs more frequently, and which he supposes to be another form of the Cross. True, he adds, with admirable simplicity, this form of the Christian Cross is unheard of; which may certainly be thought a difficulty in his theory: true, he has never heard of any such form of the Cross among Christians: but this he thinks a circumstance of no great moment; it may have existed among Christians in some countries, in which perhaps malefactors may have been executed upon crosses of the furcated figure Y!

[Here again, I give Beer’s own words, lest I should be thought to have in any way misrepresented his meaning, so as to produce so remarkable an argument. “Ob hunc in inscriptionibus locum hoc signum crucis Christianae figuram esse existimo, quae in nonnullis regionibus usitata fuerit, in quibus fortasse malefici plerumque in cruces quae hunc furcae (Y) figuram habebant, agebantur. Cui sententia obstare videtur quod talis Christiana crucis figura nova est, certe equidem nullum ejus testem reperi: sed hoc levioris momenti esse puto.” — Beer, Studia Asiat., Introduction, p. 13.]

The learned German Professor’s theory, then, is this: That the Sinaitic Inscriptions, in their countless thousands, were the work of Nabathaean pilgrims who, (so far as he, or any one else, knows) never existed: that they are proved to be the work of Christians by the occurrence now and then, though very rarely, of the sign +, and more frequently of the sign Y; which signs he takes to be meant for the Christian Cross, though there is no proof that either of them was so intended, and though a Cross of the latter form never was seen or heard of by any one. The fact that not a single particle of proof can be adduced in favour of his theory is a circumstance which the Professor treats with sublime unconcern: to say nothing of the still more inconvenient circumstance that his theory is opposed by the fact that people cannot live without eating and drinking. Moreover, so learned a Professor, before he undertook to decipher Sinaitic Inscriptions, ought to have known that the character + is not necessarily the sign of the Cross at all, but is simply a letter of the alphabet. It is just the letter t, the tau of the most ancient, as it is still the T of the most modern languages. It was variously written T, and +, and in other forms: and as the mystic Tau the initial letter of Tammuz it is found in the medals and monuments of Chaldaea, Egypt, Etruria, Rome, the Celtic nations, Mexico, Tartary and other Buddhist countries, and, in short, in almost every Pagan tribe and people under heaven. [See Hislop’s Two Babylons, p. 289, &c.] — So little does it make for Professor Beer.

Nothing daunted, however, by such considerations, other authors have followed in Beer’s footsteps, the most noted of whom is Dean Stanley. The Dean adopts the idea that the Inscriptions were the work of passing travellers. — “Their situation and appearance,” he says, “are such as in hardly any case requires more than the casual work of passing travellers.” Again — “None that I saw, unless it might be a doubtful one at Petra, required ladders or machinery of any kind. Most of them could have been written by any one, who, having bare legs and feet, as all Arabs have, could take firm hold of the ledges, or by any active man even with shoes. I think there are none that could not have been written by one man climbing on another’s shoulders.” [Sinai and Palestine, p. 60.] — Again, he would diminish the difficulty by reducing the number. — “Their numbers,” he says, “seem to me greatly exaggerated.” … “The Inscriptions straggle not by thousands, but at most by hundreds or fifties.” {This is factually incorrect. There are around 7000 inscriptions of this type at the latest count.}

Now let any one compare these remarks with the descriptions given by all other travellers, and even by Beer himself, and judge whether the Dean’s theory is not wholly irreconcileable with the facts. The unanimous testimony of other travellers, as given in the extracts above, is entirely opposed to the Dean’s statement. They declare that the Inscriptions are in countless thousands, that they are in every possible position, and at every height up to about a hundred feet from the ground, that they cover not only the sides of perpendicular walls of rock, to the height of twenty, thirty, forty, eighty, or even one hundred feet, but that they are found on the very peaks of the almost inaccessible Mount Serbâl, and in places so remote and rugged that “passing travellers” would be likely to pass some other way, and that none but curious explorers would penetrate there at all. Is it likely that passing travellers would spend their time and strength in clambering up the rugged precipices of a mountain more than 6000 feet high, carrying with them chisels and mallets, for the useless object of carving inscriptions which might never meet the eye of man, and that, too, in such numbers that in the ravine discovered by Mr. Butler every second stone is covered with them?

The Dean says that most of those which he saw could have been done by one man climbing on another’s shoulders. He has omitted to explain how any man balancing himself upon the shoulders of another, and maintaining his position, as he must do, by holding on to the rock, could at the same time use a punch or chisel, and a mallet which would require the free use of both hands. And we must needs suppose that those Inscriptions which the Dean did see were as nothing in proportion to those he did not see. A man “on another’s shoulders” could not even touch the rock higher than about a dozen feet from the ground: whereas the Inscriptions are found at all heights up to eighty or a hundred feet, carved on perpendicular walls of cliff. Did the Dean see, for instance, those described by Mr. Grey, and carefully verified by Capt. Butler and his brother [See, for the full description, the Rev. C. Forster’s Israelitish Authorship of the Sinaitic Inscriptions, p. 17, &c.] many of which are described as “high up,” “inaccessible,” “inaccessible without a ladder,” &c.? Or did he see those marvellous monuments of patient toil, daring, and skill, described by the Comte d’Antraigues, the inscription in 40 lines of characters a foot high, surmounted by “THE TITLE,” in letters carved three inches deep into the rock and 6 feet high, forming a sculptured face of cliff about 100 feet in height: or the other in 67 lines, apparently on a similar scale of grandeur, and which, in proportion to the number of lines, must be very much higher? The expressions in the Comte d’Antraigues’ description, “deux rochers, très élevés, taillés à pic” and “caractères taillés en relief,” imply that the perpendicular faces of the two cliffs had been smoothed in order to receive the inscriptions, and that the letters were actually embossed upon the surface by chiselling out the interstices, so that the letters of “The Title” stood out three inches, the rest one inch, from the face of the rock. If this be the true sense (and it is the literal sense) of the words, and if the Count was correct in his observation, the labour of executing the work must have been enormous; and the skill required could be possessed only by educated and practised artisans. It is needless to observe that the work could no more have been executed without scaffolding than could the building of a church tower.

The following description may serve to illustrate the nature of some of those situations where Inscriptions are found, and the probability that they might be executed “by one man climbing upon another’s shoulders.” — “Except to a daring cragsman some of the highest elevations now in question are absolutely inaccessible, being on the face of sandstone cliffs perpendicular as house-walls. Examples of this character are so important in the evidences, that I must give a specimen, instar omnium, from the account of it given me by Mr. Pierce Butler. His Inscriptions numbered I., II., III., IV. [See Forster’s Israelitish Authorship of the Sinaitic Inscriptions, p. 24], he discovered in the Wady Mahara; the first two at the height of thirty feet from the ground, the others a very little lower, on the face of a perpendicular sandstone cliff. To all appearance, those Inscriptions were wholly inaccessible; but the sandstone lying in strata presented seams at intervals of five or six feet; and Mr. Butler, accustomed to scale the face of the Giant’s Causeway, and of the other gigantic cliffs of the County of Antrim, contrived to climb this wall by means of its slight fissures, and holding on with the left hand, to copy with the right the Inscriptions which, by this perilous process, he had succeeded in reaching. His Arabs and his dragoman beneath gave him up for lost; repeatedly ejaculating, after their fashion, that he must be killed. To their utter astonishment, however, he descended in safety, bringing down facsimiles of the life-imperilling records.” [Israelitish Authorship, &c., p. 23.]

To pursue farther the reductio ad absurdum may seem to be a waste of words; yet for the sake of those who have not attended to the subject, and are therefore in the greater danger of being misled, it may be as well to point out the extreme labour and difficulty of executing these desert rock-writings. The reader will then be able better to form a judgment as to the probability, or rather the possibility, of their having been done by passing travellers.

Dr. Robinson, for instance, says that they occur “at such points as would form convenient resting-places for travellers or pilgrims during the noon-day sun” [Biblical Researches, vol. i. p. 128] during “the mid-day halt,” as it has been otherwise expressed. But Dr. Bonar states that, in the Wady Mokatteb, inscriptions are found in very great numbers on rocks where “from nine in the morning till three or four in the afternoon the sun never left them. They lie fully exposed to his rays.” [Desert of Sinai, p. 166.] The conclusion is obvious. Would passing travellers be inclined to aggravate their weariness by working instead of resting? Would they choose to hazard their lives by sunstroke in the almost insupportable toil of standing for hours under the scorching sun of the desert, for the purpose of carving useless inscriptions?

It is easy to talk about travellers doing this or that the actual doing of the thing is a very different matter. The practical difficulties of sculpturing inscriptions on the rocks of Sinai may be judged of in some degree from the following descriptions of the labour of even copying some of them.

On the fourth of this month (May 1845) I set out for Sinai; and on reaching the Wady Mokatteb, I and my people kept a sharp look-out for the writings. At the first graven rock which I espied, I ordered a halt. I then reconnoitred the neighbourhood, and found that if we tarried three days, or even two, our water and provisions would not hold out till the Convent, whither we must go to take in a six-days’ supply for our return. The expense, too, of detaining the camels and Arabs would be not inconsiderable. I therefore determined to select only the best and clearest inscriptions for copying, and worked, almost unremittingly, from noon to sunset under a burning sun; my servant, and the Arab Shieck and his boy, holding an umbrella over me in turns. The next morning, before sunrise, I went to work again; and when the sun began to wax hot, I called my servant to bear the umbrella as before. He, having something to do in the tent, called the Shieck; and he, from out of a rocky cave where he lay, called the boy; and forth came the poor boy from another shady retreat, to face the fierce glare of the sun, wondering what could possess the Frangee {= European} to stop in this frightful desert, to copy these useless and, (as he thought) unintelligible writings. I worked till noon; and then took a slight meal, and set forth on my journey.” [“Extract of a letter from Rev. T. Brookman. One of his inscriptions sent to me is thus endorsed: ‘No. 17. Mem. Many after this too much effaced to be read, and many inaccessible without a ladder’.” From the Rev. C. Forster’s Voice of Israel from the Rocks of Sinai, p. 174, 1852.]

The next extract is from the journal of M. Lottin de Laval: “who describes the character of the country, the sites of numbers of the Inscriptions, the appliances indispensable for the task of copying them, and the difficulties and dangers to be encountered in their application, in terms to which nothing can be added.

“ ‘To the west of the brown Wan-dick, to the east of the land of shade, there I found the track of a wolf (d’yp): and certainly, if these beasts of prey are numerous in the peninsula of Sinai, they must dine but very seldom; for there is nothing, absolutely nothing, but stone, granite, and sand. The country becomes more and more dreary in proportion as one rises: the desolation is oppressive. A deathlike silence reigns in these frightful gorges, so rarely visited; and they terminate in a steep ascent almost insurmountable. At the outlet of these rugged passes, at some distance, the gigantic peak of Djebel-Cédré suddenly rose at the bottom of the route like a castle wall: I thought for a moment that we should have to return back again to find a passage; but, to my great joy, a narrow wady opened in a cleft, and I had not gone a hundred paces before I perceived, on the wall of rocks, some Sinaitic Inscriptions, the characters of which shewed themselves clearly upon a dark ground.

“ ‘Firing immediately a pistol shot (from the Wady Maghara) the Sheik Saleh brought me my ladders” (30 feet in length) “and the necessary materials. The operation was of extreme difficulty in the midst of this inextricable chaos, and I did not well know how to make myself a scaffold. I had tied two of my ladders, the base of which I propped with blocks of sandstone on the steep declivity of the mountain; but the violent wind which had been blowing for several days across the gorges of the peninsula, made them oscillate like a willow branch, threatening every moment to carry me away together with them into the abyss.

“ ‘Leaving Wady Feiran, I returned southwards by the Wady Zreitt, which is the last spur of the Sinaitic group. There is not perhaps under the sun so dreary a corner. The ground is covered with black sparkling pebbles; one sinks in quicksands where the sand crumbles every moment under the feet of the camels; and at the end of this, to crown the work, one descends a frightful defile abutting on the desert of Gah, which stretches from north-west to south-east.

“ ‘This desolate plain is the celebrated desert of Sin of the Hebrews. The tempest, which had been blowing for a fortnight over Arabia, was there of terrific violence. The north wind parched me to the very marrow; and to complete my misery, it was impossible to pitch my tent. I arrived at the palm trees of Tor on the evening of the second day, half-dead, and spitting blood by mouthfuls.’” [Archives des Missions Scientifiques, 1er Cahier, Jan. 1851, p. 10-14, quoted in Forster’s Voice of Israel, p. 188, &c.]

Such are some of the difficulties of attempting even to copy the Inscriptions: what must have been the difficulties of executing them? Besides the toil and danger of the work itself, the impossibility of even existing in the desert, without miraculous supplies of food, long enough to execute the Inscriptions, is thus commented upon by another traveller: “No reflection forced itself upon me so often or so urgently, in passing over the track of the Israelites, as the utter and universal inaptitude of this country for the sustenance of animal life. It seems really to possess no elements favourable to human existence besides a pure atmosphere; and no appearances favour the supposition that it was ever essentially better. I am filled with wonder that so many travellers should task their ingenuity to get rid of the miracles, which, according to the narrative of Moses, were wrought to facilitate the journey of that vast, unwieldy host; when it is demonstrable that they could not have subsisted three days in this desert without supernatural resources. The extensive region, through which we were twelve days in passing on dromedaries, is, and ever must have been, incapable of affording food sufficient to support even a thousand, or a few hundred people, for a month in the year. There is no corn-land or pasturage; no game nor roots; hardly any birds or insects; and the scanty supply of water is loathsome to the taste, provoking, rather than appeasing, thirst. What could the two millions of Israel have eaten, without the miracles of the manna and the quails? How could they have escaped destruction by drought, but for the healing of the waters of Marah? a miracle that was probably repeated in the Wady Gerundel, and at the other salt wells on their route to Sinai.” [Dr. Olin’s Travels in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land, vol. i. p. 381, quoted in Forster’s Voice of Israel from the Rocks of Sinai, p. 39, 1852.]

This is the language of consistency and common sense, — which cannot be said of the theories of Professor Beer and others.

There is one thing more, which is important to the enquiry What could have been the motive of those who spent so much time and labour on these profitless Inscriptions? Men do not toil without some motive. The common ambition of travellers could have little force to induce them to leave their names inscribed in those savage solitudes where few indeed would ever see the writings, more especially at inaccessible heights where none could read them. And to suppose that men would endure the toil of executing “The Title” and its 40 lines ensuing, a work which the Comte d’Antraigues estimated must have cost six months of “stubborn labour” [The Count’s words dessiner la totalité &c., seem to mean that it would take 6 months even to copy the whole of these two inscriptions.] merely to immortalize their folly, would be to suppose that they acted from motives which are not credible. But suppose men to be placed in such circumstances that time hangs heavy on their hands, — that inaction becomes a burden, — that ennui oppresses them till the smartest toil would be a positive relief from the sorer drudgery of doing nothing, — in this case it is not only conceivable, but morally certain, that even such profitless labour as that of the Sinaitic Inscriptions would be a welcome resource.

And such exactly was the case of Israel in the Wilderness, and such has never been the case with any other people, either there or any where else.

The idea of rock-writing was familiar to the Israelites and other Eastern tribes: as is evident from the often quoted words of Job — “Oh that my words were now written! oh that they were printed in a book! that they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock for ever!” — Job. xix. 23, 24. There was no lack among them of skilled artisans, accustomed in Egypt to sculpturing and scaffolding on a large scale: and there were the rocks all around them, inviting their skill, and offering the means of “killing time,” if nothing better. What more natural, what more probable, one might almost say, more certain, than that they would beguile the tedious, weary days of their wilderness life in such works as the Sinaitic rock-writings?”


(Brackets and braces have the same significance as in the excerpt above.)

The following statement of the problem is from A. Negev, New Dated Nabataean Graffiti from the Sinai, Israel Exploration Journal 17 (1967), pp. 250-255, this passage pp. 253-255:

The questions naturally arise who wrote these numerous inscriptions and what were these people doing in the region?

For the first problem we have some hints within the inscriptions themselves. Although most of the texts include names and a short benediction only, some also bear titles. Thus we find a עבדחרתת הפרכא (commander of cavalry), several have the title כהן (priest), or more common אפכלה ,אכפלה (priest), many מבקרא [note 29: “… the meaning of this title is not at all clear …”], some כתבא (scribe), two נגרא ,נגרה (carpenter), there are also עלים (slaves). The list is not very enlightening, but as far as religion was concerned, the community was quite well cared for. Some scholars have attempted to answer the question of why and by whom these inscriptions were written. These opinions are conveniently summarised by Cantineau [I, p. 24].

As many of the inscriptions were found in the vicinity of the small {sic!} oasis of Pharan, Clermont-Ganneau believed them to mark the rights over pasture-lands. This seems, however, highly improbable. Since many of the inscriptions begin with דכיר {= “Remembered”}, Wallis Budge thought they should be considered as funerary inscriptions but, again, no tombs are found on the rocks on which the graffiti were engraved. Euting suggested that the graffiti were engraved by Nabataean caravaneers, but Cantineau rejected this view because the region where the inscriptions are concentrated is too far from the caravan routes, which run to the north. P. Moritz, after criticizing all the previously mentioned views, suggested because of the few inscriptions in which Nabataean deities were mentioned — that Jebel Musa and Jebel Serbal were sacred to these deities, and that pilgrims coming from the lands of Midian and Heijaz incised the graffiti.

Kammerer, developing Clermont-Ganneau’s theory, suggested that the graffiti should be regarded as wasms {Bedouins’ signs}, but he is also inclined to admit that they might have also had religious meaning. Cantineau himself concluded: ‘En fait la question de l’origine des graffites sinaïtiques n’est pas éclaircie. Seul un examen très attentif des lieux pourrait peut-être la resoudre.’ {‘In fact the question of the origin of the Sinaitic graffiti has not been resolved. Only a very close examination of the locations could perhaps provide an answer.’}

In my opinion the solution really lies in Cantineau’s last remark, viz. it should be sought in the nature of the region itself. Palmer writes: ‘Like those which we have met in the granite district (i.e. Wadi Mukatteb) these are mere scratches on the rock, the work of idle loungers, consisting for the most part, of mere names interspersed with rude figures of men and animals. {Actually Palmer meant, not Wadi Mukatteb, as Negev presumes here, since that is mainly sandstone, but the other locations he had described in earlier sections of his work, e.g. the granite of Mount Serbal itself.}…. the “Sinaitic inscriptions” are as worthless and unimportant as the Arab, Greek, and European graffiti …. it is not true that they are found in inaccessible places high up on the rock, nor do we ever meet with them unless there is some pleasant shade or a convenient camping ground close by. {If the word ‘inaccessible’ is taken in a very literal sense, this is an accurate statement, but it is misleading, since its effect is to diminish the credit due to the reports of many reliable witnesses concerning the difficulty they experienced in accessing inscriptions high up on rock faces, some of whom have been cited supra.} …. I imagine, then, that the greater part of the inscriptions are due to a commercial people, traders, carriers, and settlers in the land’ {end of Negev’s quotation from Palmer}.

It is my {Negev’s} belief that a close look at the map of Sinai may help to solve the problem. To the north-west of the region where most of the inscriptions were found lies Serabit el-Khadem; the famous mines there were not the only copper and malachite mines, there are many more in this rocky part of Sinai. On the other hand, the three major routes running through the peninsula, and connecting Egypt with the lands to the east, pass to the north and do not touch this part at all. We believe that the people who wrote the inscriptions were involved in mining activities. We know a little about these activities in the early period, but hardly anything about the later part of the second and the third centuries AD. The dated inscriptions, and especially those which refer to current affairs, were not written by ‘idlers’, but by well-informed persons.

Similarly, it is difficult to explain the raison d’être for Oboda and Mampsis in the 2nd-3rd centuries. At Mampsis the two military inscriptions, one of the cohors prima Augusta Thracum, and the other of Legio III Cyrenaica, and the extraordinary hoard of tetradrachms, are also not easily accounted for. It may be that there is some connection between these military and economic activities and the activities in Sinai during the same period. A legionary inscription of the same Legio III Cyrenaica was found at the head of the Gulf of Elath, and some Latin inscriptions were also found in the Sinai peninsula itself, but never adequately published.

It would seem that, in order to solve this problem, one should combine a survey of pottery and building remains with a survey of the ancient mines, and combine the results on a map together with the sites of the inscriptions. This would probably produce an answer to the question of why, when and by whom these graffiti were incised.”

The most negative assessment of the inscriptions cited by Negev is that of Palmer. And Palmer was negative about the inscriptions, not because he denied the truth of the Biblical account of the Exodus, but because he had swallowed, unquestioningly, the dogma of German rationalists, that is, of nineteenth-century “anti-fundamentalists”, with a very big ax to grind, that the inscriptions were Nabataean of the Roman Imperial period, and certainly not the work of ancient Israelites. Palmer’s negative attitude towards the inscriptions made him cavalier, to say the least, in his treatment of them: he actually tried to blast loose one of the most famous inscriptions in Wadi Mukatteb, Bilingual Inscription I treated infra, with dynamite! He was unsuccessful, and thankfully gave up the attempt, but only when he noticed a crack appearing in the stone!

Nevertheless, in parts of the cited passage omitted by Negev, Palmer admitted the correspondence between the style and nature of the Sinaitic inscriptions, as revealed by researchers in his own day, and the ancient description of Cosmas Indicopleustes. The full passage reads as follows (Palmer, Desert of the Exodus, p. 159f.):

Like those which we had met with in the granite district, they {the inscriptions of Wadi Mukatteb} are mere scratches on the rock, the work of idle loungers, consisting, for the most part, of mere names interspersed with rude figures of men and animals. In a philological point of view they do possess a certain interest, but otherwise the ‘Sinaitic inscriptions’ are as worthless and unimportant as the Arab, Greek, and European graffiti with which they are interspersed. The language employed is Aramaean {Aramaic}, the Semitic dialect which in the earlier centuries of our era held throughout the East the place now occupied by the modern Arabic, and the character differs little from the Nabathaean alphabet used in the inscriptions of Idumaea and central Syria. THUS FAR THEY ACCORD WITH THE ACCOUNT GIVEN OF THEM BY COSMAS INDICOPLEUSTES IN THE SIXTH CENTURY; I SEE NO REASON WHY, WITHOUT FOR A MOMENT ADMITTING A TOO REMOTE ORIGIN, WE SHOULD NOT BELIEVE THAT HIS JEWISH FELLOW-TRAVELLERS READ, AS HE ASSERTS THAT THEY DID, INSCRIPTIONS IN A LANGUAGE AND CHARACTER SO COGNATE TO THEIR OWN. {My emphasis.}”

But why, in view of Cosmas’ acknowledged accuracy in these regards, the reluctance, rather animadversion, on Palmer’s part to admit also Cosmas’ chronology of the inscriptions, and his explanation of their origin, particularly when Palmer himself was unable to offer anything other than an “imaginative” alternative? The irrational rejection of any connection between the inscriptions and the Old Testament records belies the influence of German “Rationalism”. Cosmas was right when he claimed the inscriptions a) were composed in “Hebrew” (which was the ancient term for Aramaic), b) were typically names, cast in the form so-and-so son of so-and-so, c) included at the end, as may be, a dating by year and month, and d) were graffiti incised in convenient resting-places along the way. Scholars have spent the last century and a half proving, quite unintentionally, these statements to be the simple truth. Why should Cosmas’ other assertion not be accepted, that the inscriptions were the work of Israelites in their wanderings through the wilderness?

The only empirical arguments against Israelite authorship advanced by Palmer were an unspecified “philological” one, — but there is little philologists can prove from a string of typical ancient Semitic names, except that all of them are ancient, several contain what appear to be forms of the Divine Name “Yahweh” (Taylor, Petra, p. 168) of the God of Israel, revealed to Moses at the burning bush, and not one of them, significantly, is Greek, Roman or Christian — and that he found in the mining area of Wadi Maghara a Sinaitic inscription overwriting a fragmentary Greek inscription (Desert of the Exodus, p. 171f.). As regards the latter, a similar phenomenon was noticed years earlier by Lepsius (Letters [No. XXXIII], p. 299), but he did not specify a location. This argument is as weak as one which would try to prove all Latin texts must be dated after the invention of printing, because Latin graffiti were once found in a printed textbook! It is admitted the Sinaitic script was used long after the time of the Exodus, well into the Roman Imperial period, at least amongst the Nabataeans. Individual inscriptions in Sinai and elsewhere (a scattering can be found on the western side of the Gulf of Suez between the coast and the Nile) might well be post-Exodus, if they do not contain internal indications of a date. They might even imitate the style of the earlier inscriptions, because these were understood and valued as memorials of the Exodus till at least the sixth century AD. It is difficult to be more specific when none of the “overwritings” have been published. Beer, the disciple of the “Neologian” (Rationalist) Gesenius, pontificated that the whole body of Sinaitic inscriptions belonged to a “single era”, but only in what appears to be an attempt to forestall the very proposition made here. In fact the wide variety of different styles and letter-forms in the Sinaitic inscriptions indicates a probability that they span different eras.

Lepsius in his Letters (ibid.) dated the Sinaitic inscriptions “taken as a whole”, to the first centuries before and after Christ. They were found scattered “singly” here and there across the peninsula, sometimes in the most remote places, but were centered around Wadi Feiran. According to the interpretation proposed here, a minority of these may, indeed, be Nabataean graffiti dating from the Roman Imperial period. Lepsius seems to have been swayed in the direction of a later chronology by the comments and analysis of his friend Professor Beer who had just deciphered the script, e.g. by his dogmatic assertion that they belonged to a “single era”. Beer’s actual words are as follows, and it can be seen that his view did not tally with the visible evidence — he had to resort to the lame excuse that inscriptions which seemed to be transitional between standard Sinaitic and Arabic were in a “debased” style, which he assured his readers could only properly be appreciated by a trained palaeographer: “There remains the question over how long a period of time these inscriptions were produced. The formal structure of the letters is so uniform, that I doubt whether much more than a single historical phase separates the earliest from the most recent. Those inexperienced in palaeography should beware lest they are led into an opposite opinion by inscriptions which are badly preserved or written in a debased style, both Sinaitic and Arabic; given that there is such an apparent congruence of outward form between the Arabic script and the Sinaitic, that in some case you may hardly distinguish whether individual specimens are Sinaitic or Arabic. To those who think they can demonstrate that these hold a medial position between the two or that the script transitioned from one to the other over a series of historical phases I answer that the inscriptions cannot be explained in this fashion because of the debased style, and thus no such conclusion can be drawn from them, but on the contrary, care must be taken lest inscriptions are confused together which are separated by a thousand years and more.” (Beer, Studia Asiatica III fasc 1, Leipzig 1840, p. xv.) Much of Beer’s secondary analysis, however, as opposed to his successful deciphering work, has not stood the test of time. Lepsius was a more acute mind than Palmer. His first-hand impressions of the inscriptions were entirely different from Palmer’s, and also from the armchair analysis of Professor Beer, and that in spite of the fact he knew some of them “overwrote” Greek graffiti. This is documented in the MS. diary of Lepsius’ travels and investigations in the Sinai. The Sinaitic inscriptions he found in the wadis radiating from Serabit el-Khadim Lepsius first ascribed to a pastoral people contemporary with the Egyptians who ran the mining operations there. Ritter’s account of these based on the content of the MS. of Lepsius’ diary is as follows (C. Ritter, trans. W. L. Gage, The Comparative Geography of Palestine and the Sinaitic Peninsula, vol. 1, New York, 1866, p. 350): “The side valleys [running away from Serabit el-Khadim] could not be followed far, so narrow and difficult of access did Lepsius find them; but the number of inscriptions like those of Mokkateb is very great, and points, in the opinion of the great Egyptologist, to the existence there of a race of shepherds so far civilised that they could write in this rude way. They may have lived here contemporaneously with the Egyptians; their labour may have given food to the miners from the Nile, and have been useful for transporting goods from Egypt.” That implies an original dating by Lepsius any time between the Old Kingdom at the earliest and the last phase of the New, viz. between the third and late second millennium BC. This phase, according to the interpretation proposed here, is Israelite and Kenite (Midianite), and dates from the middle of the second millennium BC onwards. “Nabataean” was a later term for Kenite, according to Rabbinic tradition, therefore, presumably the later, or “Nabataean”, inscriptions were an outgrowth of the earlier “Kenite”. Since the family of Jethro, allied to the Israelites at the time of the Lawgiving, was termed “Kenite”, the use of the same script in its different phases by Israelites, Kenites and Nabataeans, reflects the social intercourse between these groups, particularly when the script first appeared in the latter half of the second millennium BC.

A concentration of inscriptions belonging to the earlier phase of the script near Wadi Feiran was ascribed by Lepsius to the same era as the giving of the Law. It was associated with the remains of stone houses or shelters in Wadi Aleyat at the foot of Mount Serbal, which he proved to be the original Mount Sinai. The houses, he believed, were occupied by Moses’ followers at the time he received the Law, and were separated by the barrier mentioned in the Book of Exodus from the Mount itself. Ritter’s summary of the record in his diary reads as follows (ibid., p. 311ff.):

“It now remains to enter into a more detailed description of the Wadi Aleiat, the chief branch towards the south of the Wadi Feiran, and leading to the northern base of Serbal. We have already, in Burckhardt’s company, glanced at it, and have noticed Lepsius’ repeated references to it. It will richly repay a more careful study.

“It lies between Mount Debbe on the east and Mount Maa on the west, and beginning at its divergence from the Wadi Feiran, where the ruins of the ancient city of Faran lie, it continues its course first southwardly, then to the south-east, always tolerably broad, and is in length from the junction with Feiran and the base of Serbal a two hours’ walk. Up to the place where the wadi bends, and where a spring is found, there is a large number of inscriptions, ruins, and tombs; and after that, the glory of the Lord’s work begins more and more conspicuously to appear. The Wadi Aleiat is called el-Derb Serbal, or the road to Serbal, and its name is exactly conformable to the fact; for as the traveller advances through it, the mountain rises in unbroken sublimity before him, all of its five peaks being clearly visible, and there being not even a hillock in the way. When the sun is shining upon the mountain, the sharp pinnacles glow with an almost unearthly splendour, and the mountain seems a flame. Seen from the Wadi Aleiat, Serbal is decidedly the most imposing eminence of the whole Peninsula. The road prolonged would lead to the summit of one of the loftiest pinnacles of the mountain, but which has never been ascended.

“Lepsius, who is of the opinion that the law was given at Serbal, thinks that Moses must have ascended the mountain at this place, and that a barrier was put up at its base, lest the people who lived in the stone houses whose ruins are now standing should go up and touch the mount. The valley is full of sejal (acacia) and nebek: at the left, where there are the most ruins, there are the most inscriptions: no block has fallen or been broken there for thousands of years; and the inscriptions seem to be preserved by lying for the most part in the dry bed of the stream, which is rarely filled with water. The inscriptions and ruins seem to be of equal antiquity.

“The place where the ruins are found in the Wadi Aleiat is called Sich el Udhar, and is removed some distance from the junction with the Wadi Feiran. The houses which are there are houses only generically: they consist each merely of a low stone cell, about eight feet long and two wide, and capable of being covered with a flat stone, which spans the entire breadth. These stones are very roughly hewn, and are laid on without any special nicety. As the cells or houses are not high enough for a person to stand in, they might be taken, some of them at least, for tombs, if we found bones, or the least traces of interments. Nor are there inscriptions upon their walls; and the little huts seem to have been constructed with a view to providing a cool place to sit, or to serve as a mere encampment. Farther on in the valley they become larger; yet their object still remains exceedingly uncertain, though there they are evidently too large for tombs. Lepsius took sketches of some of them. One of these houses had two contiguous chambers, one of which was entirely closed, and had to be reached from above. Removing the stones which covered it, he found it to be entirely empty, and it was evident that it had never been disturbed before.

“These rude houses continued to be found up the wadi to the bend which disclosed the five-pinnacled Serbal, where they cease, although traces of them may be discovered still farther. The inscriptions, which are extremely numerous, lie in the lower valley, near the brook, along the Derb Serbal, and are also traced in the upper valley, above the spring. They are not very deeply cut in the hard granite; but the difference of colour between them and the unwritten rock is very marked. The inscriptions are precisely similar in character to those of the Wadi Mokkateb, and need no special description in this place.”

Sinaitic Inscriptions in Wadi Aleyat (Aleiat) under Mount Serbal

The evidences in favor of ancient Israelite authorship of a significant portion of the inscriptions will be weighed in this study. They include internal ones which are, to an unbiased mind, conclusive. The system of numerals used in the Sinaitic inscriptions, for example, is completely different from the later Nabataean, and shows they were not written by Nabataeans of the Roman Imperial period.

The usual Sinaitic form of the script is similar to an earlier style of the Nabataean, and that indicates that it predates the Roman Imperial period. The convoluted, and hardly credible, explanation for this phenomenon suggested by a recent author is as follows (Taylor, ibid.): “Although written well after the time when the Nabataean script in Petra and elsewhere had acquired its elegant cursive form, the Sinai inscriptions, informal as they are, resemble the older, monumental style of Nabataean script — perhaps an indication of the lack of habituation in writing of this provincial and peripatetic people”. This is a revival of Beer’s “debased style” argument. Still, the change in letter-form and style is little more than that noticed between, say, the Hebrew script of the Dead Sea scrolls, and a modern Hebrew hand style, over a span of two thousand years. Literate Israelis today have no trouble reading the Isaiah scroll. A similar interval is envisaged between the era of the Sinaitic script and that of the latest Nabataean, but one which was much more conservative in matters such as these. The reason the Nabataeans adopted the Sinaitic script was that their capital city was Petra, and Petra was the Kadesh of the ancient Israelites, where they had camped in the last 38 years, particularly in the last year, of their wanderings through the desert. The Israelites left some of their own inscriptions at Petra, and the Nabataeans “revived” the same script, when they built up their kingdom at that site.

Following: an example of the later Nabataean style AD 26. Compare the Sinaitic inscriptions in this study, noting the similarities, but also the differences, particularly the different style of the letters aleph, tet and samekh.

This plate and commentary is from Cooke, A Text-book of North-Semitic Inscriptions, Oxford, 1903, p. 229f. and Plate VII

A Transcription of the Plate into modern Hebrew characters

Cooke’s translation and commentary of the above.


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