by George Manginis, Haus Publishing, £20
Mountains have always commanded a singular place in religion. Pagan societies worshipped them and used them as boundary markers. Native Americans regarded them as sacred gods protecting their homeland. But it’s in the monotheistic tradition where mountains really matter, and none more so than Mount Sinai.
Sinai, as described in Exodus, is at the heart of Judaism – the site where Moses (and the Israelites) first received God’s covenant. It is the foundational moment in all three “religions of the book”, the actual place where the “book” first started taking shape, and is equally revered by all.
Manginis, an archaeologist and art historian at SOAS, has stitched together a rather odd mixture of travellers’ reminiscences, archaeological interpretation and geologic survey and, while always interesting, the book never plunges the reader into the deep mystery and history of the Bible’s most important theophany. Manginis is strong on history (excepting his strange and anachronistic use of the name Jebel Musa rather than Sinai or Horeb), contemporary observation and geology, but sometimes lacks a more analytical or literary approach, presenting evidence without commenting on it.
The story begins not with Moses but with the first Christian anchorites in the 3rd century. This was the era of the Desert Fathers and, as their popularity grew, holy men found themselves going further afield in search of blessed peace. It was these early penitents who first came to Sinai and identified it as the site mentioned in Exodus, despite the Bible’s vagueness on the actual location (and name) of the Mosaic mountain.
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