“The Burned Mountain” – The Blackened Peak
Jabal Maqla means “The Burned Mountain.” Its name reflects the distinctness of the peak’s darkened top.
Its name may also be influenced by the local tradition that it is “Jabal Musa” (the Mountain of Moses) or Mount Sinai, where the Abrahamic religions’ holy books say God descended as a fire and delivered the 10 Commandments to Moses.
The color of Jabal Maqla’s top is so distinct that the British explorer John Philby made a point of mentioning “the basalt pyramid of Maqla” when he traveled through the area. Basalt is a dark, igneous rock formed from volcanic activity.
The darkest spot is at the top of Jabal Maqla, which is within a broader black streak that is a bit less dark. The less darkened portion is below the top and continues along the ridges, extending about a half-mile to the northwest to another peak.
The darkened rock also encircles the plain that is in front of the mountain, giving it an appearance that is similar to an arena. The rest of the mountain is brown and grey.
Some proponents of Jabal Maqla as Mount Sinai believe that the blackened top is evidence of the miracle described in Exodus 19:18:
Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently.
The appearance of Jabal Maqla’s darkened top is visually stunning when it is viewed with the Exodus story in mind.
There is disagreement among proponents of the mountain being Mount Sinai over whether this appearance is evidence of the phenomenon described in Exodus when God is said to have descended upon the mountain.
The rocks at the top of the mountain are only black on the outside. The inside is a different color, making it tempting for believers in the Exodus story to envision the rocks as having been burnt.
Bob Cornuke, the President of the BASE Institute, climbed the mountain in the 1980’s and described the rocks at the top as completely black and looking slick like glass.
When broken, the inside of the rocks show a reddish-tan layer and a brown core that matches the rocks found on the rest of the mountain. It indicates that the rocks had a chemical interaction that only altered the outside and only occurred at the top of the peak.
Analysis of the Rocks
Dr. Charles Whittaker interviewed multiple scientists for his 2002 thesis about the rocks at Jabal Maqla.
There were differences in the analyses because the scientists could not have access to the mountain directly and so they were unable to determine how representative the rock samples are of the entire peak or particular sections of the peak.
However, “there is of course little doubt about the abundance of granite.”
Tests on samples of the blackened rock retrieved in the 1980’s by Bob Cornuke, President of the BASE Institute, indicate they are metamorphic basalt.
The analysis of his rock samples concluded that it is most likely basalt that went through metamorphosis:
“[the rock was] metamorphosed in the low to middle amphibolite facies and may have undergone metamorphism at an approximate temperature of 500 degrees or lower at lower pressure, no more than 2 to 3 kilobars. My guess is that the rock started out as an igneous rock, probably of basaltic or andesitic composition and was later metamorphosed.”
If the blackened rocks are basalt, then it can be argued that the darkened top is a natural “roof pendant” that is formed when metamorphic rock protrudes through younger rock and forms a layer on top. The result is a dark top with a distinct line where the color becomes lighter.
Two Types of Granite
Another geologist interviewed by Dr. Charles Whittaker provided a different analysis. He said that the darkened rock is one of two types of granite at the top of Jabal Maqla.
Most of the granite is of the kind that exists throughout the entire upper region of the mountain. It is not limited only to the top. It is granite that turned into “greenstone;” a smooth and rock with a dark blue-black-grey look.
Mixed in with that granite is the kind that exists only at the top of the Maqla. He explained:
“It is absolutely granite, of the exact same variety of the entire rest of the mountains in the area. It appears reddish-pinkish-brown on all the surrounding mountains. The difference in this peak’s dispersion of this rock is that it has been darkened. By what, I don’t know.
It is much softer in texture than the greenstone. While you absolutely cannot break the greenstone, you can relatively easily strike the granite against another stone and break it open…once broken open, having a darkened rind around it while maintaining the pinkish granite on the inside.”
The geologist would not attribute the difference in the grannite to heat because granite rock that is exposed to intense heat and undergoes metamorphosis does not become shiny black. However, he could not say what caused only some of the granite to darken.
The granite rock would only become shiny black if it has changed into obsidian, a volcanic glass formed when lava covers an igneous rock and cools rapidly.
If the phenomenon described in the Exodus account happened, we obviously do not know its chemical makeup and therefore cannot say whether its effects on the rock would replicate or resemble the process that creates obsidian.
Scientific Criticism of the “Burnt Peak” Theory
Dr. Glen Fritz, who holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Geography and wrote a book about this issue, believes that Jabal Maqla is the best candidate for Mount Sinai but dismisses the significance of the blackened peak as being a purely natural creation.
According to Dr. Fritz, the rocks are darkened because they are ancient Precambrian volcanic basalt and the lighter rock below it is granite. He writes that the change in color is due to the iron oxide inside the basalt and not because of any non-natural phenomonon. The rocks cannot be scorched because granite and basalt do not have the carbon necessary for combustion.
Geologist Dr. John Morris agrees that the darkened rocks in the Jabal al-Lawz range, including Jabal Maqla, are normal metamorphic rock. He says the rocks are typical for northwestern Saudi Arabia because there are multiple volcanoes. A critic would point out that the Al-Harrah basaltic volcanic field that he refers to is several hundred miles to the northeast of Jabal Maqla.
Dr. Morries says the peak is missing the evidence of burning that one would expect to be found, such as plants being melted into the rock (although they may be vaporized in such a scenario). Three university professors interviewed by Dr. Charles Whittaker for his doctoral thesis about the search for Mount Sinai agreed with that analysis.
However, one cannot rule out the possibility that future excavation or scientific advances may detect signs of a phenomenon resembling the one described in the Exodus account.
Dr. Charles Whittaker has presented several theories as to how such a phenmenon may have occurred without contradicting the scientific analysis.
Attempts to Reconcile the Views
There have been multiple speculative theories that may reconcile the Biblical account with the scientific data.
Consumption of Granite Exposes Basalt
Whittaker theorizes that the fiery phenomenon may have consumed the granite rocks at the top of the peak, resulting in the black basalt dyke protruding through the granite to the top as seen today.
In such a scenario, the intense heat would turn the granite into a molten substance and then consume it. The granite would act as a buffer to the basalt, slowing its metamorphosis in a process known as thermal gradient.
If the heat source suddenly disappeared as the Biblical account suggests, the unconsumed granite would cool rapidly and could create the obsidian rind seen today. As mentioned before, obsidian is created when an igneous rock is impacted by extreme heat and then rapidly cools.
One professor interviewed by Whittaker was surprised by the granite. He said that it is uncommon for the granite to metamorphosize into having a black and shiny exterior like cultured glass, but to still have the pinkish granite on the inside.
However, obsidian has a glassy texture. The blackened rocks are shinier and smoother than the other rocks, but the texture is not glassy as obsidian should be.
The difficulty in testing the theory is that it is not known how much granite was originally above the basalt dyke, so it cannot be determined whether granite has disappeared and if so, how much or what the cause was.
Accelerated Chemical Weathering
It’s also been speculated that the natural chemical weathering process seen in the rocks was sped up by the phenomenon.
According to this idea, the extreme heat source could have consumed some of the granite as described above.
The remaining, lighter-colored granite would be weakened by the episode and become more susceptible to the chemical weathering that naturally occurs over the years.
This could theoretically account for the mixture of greenstone and granite and the fragility of the granite that makes it so breakable.
One professor interviewed by Dr. Whittaker suggested that the dark rind is not obsidian and is a feature that can be greated by natural chemical weathering of granite.
The problem with that suggestion is that it does not explain why the inevitable weathering process would only impact that peak and not the entire area experiencing the same conditions. Whittaker suggests that the Biblical phenmeon may have impacted the peak, therefore altering its weathering process.
The Cause of the Metamorphisis
It is sometimes suggested that the Biblical phenomenon could be responsible for the metamorphic process seen in the rocks. Metamorphic rock is created when igneous rock is effected by extreme heat and pressure and then fuses with other types of minerals.
The problem with the theory is that the light-colored greenstone granite is not the “parent” rock of the metamorphic black rock. In other words, the lighter rock was not metamorphosized into the dark rock that is in question.
Does Mount Sinai Have to Have a Blackened Top?
This discussion raises the question of whether the real Mount Sinai even necessarily needs to have a blackened top or evidence of the fiery Biblical phenmenon.
The Burning Bush Comparison
The strongest argument that there shouldn’t be evidence of flame is that other supernatural fires described in the Bible don’t necessarily burn anything.
The clearest example is that of the Burning Bush, where the book of Exodus says that God spoke to Moses through a bush near Mount Sinai that appeared to be on fire but was not consumed by the flame.
Another example is the “pillar of fire” that guided the Israelites out of Egypt, blocked the Pharoah’s army from reaching the Israelites at the beach before the Red Sea Crossing and continued to guide them to Mount Sinai. The account gives no indication that the pillar left behind smaller flames, burnt the ground or created smoke that could have inhibited the Israelites’ travel.
Those who favor this camp can also point to some translations of the book of Exodus that say God descended upon the mountain “like a fire,” referring to the smoke and visual effects of the phenomenon.
They can also point to the fact that Moses was able to get close to the fire and talk to God, something that is difficult to explain if it was a literal fire with intense heat and smoke.
“Smoke Went Up Like a Furnace”
A very literal reading of the text favors the existence of an intense flame, as Exodus 19:18 describes a massive smoke ascending upwards from the mountain as a result of the flame.
Deuteronomy 4:11 more directly describes a high-reaching fire, saying “the mountain burned with fire, to the very heart of heavens.”
Although the Biblical record describes nonliteral fires, there are supernatural occurences with literal fires described. For example, 1 Kings 18:38 detals how God manifested a literal fire on Mount Carmel to assist the Prophet Elijah that even consumed the altar stones.
A Brief Fire Leaving Minimal Evidence?
Whittaker points out that we may be overestimating the amount of evidence that the fiery phenomenon would leave behind. This is especially true if it was a literal fire that had supernatural or uncommon characteristics along with it.
Exodus 20:18 indicates that God came down onto Mount Sinai as a fire and invited Moses up to speak with him on the third day at the mountain. The other interactions do not explicitly describe a literal fire. It is possible that the literal fire happened only once and it may have been for a relatively brief period of time.
To conclude, we will quote Dr. Charles Whittaker, whose 2002 thesis included a robust review of the different considerations and opinions on this topic:
“The fact remains that there are some questions about explaining the black top of Maqla in completely natural terms. The fact of such isolated weathering on just one peak on the granite rocks, fosters questions that may only be answered by an on-sight analysis.
However, it may be concluded that one might explain this feature as a natural phenomenon. Yet, if one can demonstrate that the Biblical scenario is possible from what can be viewed at the site, without disregarding geologic science, then a door stands open to regard the natural/supernatural theories for this phenomenon.”