On Tuesday, while most of Israel was deluged by the Carmel storm, thousands gathered at Mount Karkom in the sunny southwest Negev to witness the annual “Burning Bush” phenomenon. Tuesday was, in fact, the winter solstice, the day Earth is farthest from the sun and the shortest day of the year. Due to the precise location of the sun during this week in December, a hole in the rocks of the mountain glows vividly and appears to be on fire. This phenomenon is the result of sunlight illuminating a limestone cave through a hidden aperture in its roof
“The phenomenon persists even more in the shortest afternoon of the year, but can be seen both in the days close to it and in the afternoon,” explains Dr. Shachar Shilo, the Director of Tourism for the Negev Mountains. “It is not clear what exactly makes the light look like a glowing fire at the edge of a rock hole, but its edge is illuminating and shining only these days in December, when the peak of glow always occurs on December 21 – it is the shortest day of the year.” Coincidentally, the solstice took place during the weekly Torah portion describing Moses’ encounter with the Burning Bush was read. This section of the Negev is near the Egyptian border and is an IDF firing zone normally closed to the public. But Route 10 was opened for the first time in a decade to afford the public access to this optical phenomenon.
Mount Karkom is considered a possible candidate to have been Mount Sinai. Italian archaeologist Emmanuel Anati supports this claim based on the findings of thousands of rock carvings, shrines, altars, tombs which imply that the mountain area was a Holy site. The flat valley around the mountain offers a suitable place for an assembly of a large crowd, such as the event of Mt. Sinai. Evidence of gathering and worship can be seen all around the mountain. In the area of Mt. Karkom there are over 300 archaeological sites, including assembly places, 120 altars and temples, worship stages, monuments, small temporary settlements, and tombs. The mountain also contains one of the largest concentrations of rock-engraved paintings in the country, with about 44,000 rock paintings discovered in its area. However, there are no signs of permanent places of residence. The archaeological sites date to about 5,000 years ago (3rd Millennium BC) and continue until the Byzantine period.