Jebel Sufsafeh, identified in the Byzantine period with Biblical Horeb (Exodus 3:16, etc.), rises about 7,000 feet above sea level just south of St. Catherine’s Monastery. The multi-peaked Jebel Sufsafeh is actually an offshoot—over a mile long—of Jebel Musa, the traditional site of Mt. Sinai from the time of the early Christian communities in the fourth century A.D. Jebel Sufsafeh’s slopes are steep and barren of vegetation, but in clefts between several of its peaks are small mountain valleys covered with deposits of alluvial soil. In most of these deposits of rich soil small monastic complexes were erected in the fourth to sixth centuries. Because of the proximity of Jebel Sufsafeh to the places identified as the Burning Bush and Mt. Sinai, Byzantine occupation was particularly intensive in the fertile crevices between the bare granite slopes. In fact, of all of the southern Sinai mountains, it is here at Jebel Sufsafeh that the most intensive accumulation of Byzantine remains is found.

In the photograph above a 19th-century chapel is seen alongside remains of one such Byzantine monastery, faintly visible between the chapel and the wall remnants in the lower right. This wall originally surrounded the entire rectangular complex, protecting cultivated fields as well as buildings. Some of the sporadic, heavy rains that run down the non-porous granite slopes of Jebel Sufsafeh collect in pools such as the ones seen here near the chapel.

Another monastic complex detailed in the plan above is situated in a picturesque mountain valley about 6,000 feet above sea level. An extensive network of paths connects it with adjacent monastic complexes. On a slightly raised bedrock platform in the center of the valley stands a chapel, next to the remains of another building, apparently a small monastery. Small hermit cells occur in natural cavities under the boulders; in order to transform the cavity into a room, a wall was built across the cavity on its open side. In the west of the valley, at the head of a steep cleft, a dam was built, creating a pool for water storage behind it, enclosed by the almost vertical rock walls on either side. The water reached the pool through two short channels running along the small wadi that enters the valley from the southeast. The channels caught the runoff water from the ravine itself and from the rock surfaces on its slopes. This water served both as drinking water and for irrigating the stone-walled plot in the center of the valley. The area of the plot was less than one-quarter acre.

The majestic granite massif of Jebel Sufsafeh is located a few miles south of the principal Byzantine monastic complex in southern Sinai, St. Catherine’s Monastery, built in the sixth century A.D. by the Emperor Justinian and in continuous use as a religious center ever since. Jebel Sufsafeh is seen here from the plain of Er-Rahah. St. Catherine’s Monastery is situated in the wadi to the left of the mountain. This is the scene that inspired Edward Robinson upon first reaching the region to write:

“Here the interior and loftier peaks of the great circle of Sinai began to open upon us, black, rugged, desolate summits; and as we advanced, the dark and frowning front of Sinai itself (the present Horeb of the monks) began to appear … [As we advanced,] The valley still opened wider and wider … shut in on each side by lofty granite ridges with rugged, chartered peaks a thousand feet high, while the face of Horeb rose directly before us … Reaching the top of the ascent or watershed, a fine broad plain lay before us … enclosed by rugged and venerable mountains of dark granite, stern, naked, splintered peaks and ridges … of indescribable grandeur … [the plain] terminated at the distance of more than a mile by the bold and awful front of Horeb, rising perpendicularly in frowning majesty, from twelve to fifteen hundred feet in height. It was a scene of solemn grandeur, wholly unexpected, and such as we had never seen; and the associations which at the moment rushed upon our minds were almost overwhelming … (Biblical Researches in Palestine [Boston, 1841], pp. 190–191).