National Geographic : 1957 Dec
84 -they shook off Pharaoh's yoke and made an epic march to a sacred mountain in the craggy wastes of the Sinai peninsula, there to be molded into a nation under one God.* Fortunately, archeology enables us to re construct much of the story of the Exodus with a high degree of confidence. But locat ing Mount Sinai is an archeological problem that may never be satisfactorily solved. Yet evidence favors the traditional location in the Sinai peninsula, which the author has used as his model. It is so far off the beaten track that one can hardly imagine fifth-cen tury Christians inventing it at a time when the pilgrim traffic was being encouraged and accessibility was a prime factor in pinpoint ing holy sites. To see "that great and terrible wilderness" of Sinai is to wonder how the Israelites ever survived their march through its harsh deso lation. And, almost automatically, one harks back to the manna provided by God when food was scarce. The Book of Exodus de scribes it as "a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground" (16:14). Manna Traced to Desert Insects Once again we find a Bible story buttressed by solid fact, for the miracle of the manna from heaven recurs annually in Sinai. Every summer without fail, white droplets of a sweet and nourishing substance appear mysteriously on the bushes. At peak season a man can gather more than two pounds of it a day. In 1927 a zoologist of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, Professor F. S. Bodenheimer, jour neyed to the Sinai peninsula in quest of the secret of manna. His trained eye quickly un raveled the mystery: the little honeydew drops are given off by scale insects. These tiny creatures suck up plant saps which, while poor in the nitrogen the insects require to balance their metabolism, are rich in carbohydrates. Using the nitrogen, they excrete the excess sap as sweet drops. Evap oration quickly converts the liquid into a sticky solid. To this day, manna is a favorite confection in the Near East. The most famous variety comes from Kurdistan, and vendors hawk cakes of it on the streets of Baghdad under the name of man. Markab Reminiscent of Biblical Ark The climax of the Israelites' wandering through the Sinai desert came at the sacred mount, where, according to Hebrew tradition, a new nation was born. There the people re ceived their laws and erected two of the cen tral objects of their religious life-the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle, or tent shrine. Archeologists know that such portable tent shrines were relatively common among the ancient Bedouin. For example, a relief from the Roman period, found at Palmyra in cen tral Syria, shows a camel bearing upon its back a small sacred tent. Vestiges have also survived into modern times. The Ruwalla Bedouin, who wander the Syrian Desert, possess a strange feather decked structure of wooden poles (page 864). This is the Markab, the Ark of Ishmael, which to this day is the tribal standard of the Ruwalla. For generations, whenever the tribe has moved as a body, the Markab has been placed on a camel to lead the migration. The Markab is strikingly reminiscent of the Ark of the Covenant which led the early Isra elites in war and migration. Numbers (10:35) tells us: "And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee." From the hardships of the wilderness, the * See "Sinai Sheds New Light on the Bible," by Henry Field, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, De cember, 1948.