We open on a shot of a mountain – ‘Sunrise at Mount Sinai’ Nimoy intones. I’m not a religious man, but seriously – chills. There’s a shot of some tourists/pilgrims at the mountain while Nimoy tells us that this is supposedly the mountain where Moses was given the Ten Commandments. Nimoy wonders if they’re coming to the right place.
There are several flavours of In Search Of… episode, and I don’t think I’ve made any secret of the fact that the Biblical episodes are my least favourite. There’s a terrible saminess to them. Lingering shots of the desert, pseudo-Middle Eastern music and the weird and patronising insistence that little has changed in the Holy Lands in thousands of years. The arguments they present seem designed to annoy believers and non-believers alike with a strange mix of literalism and wild speculation. And there’s no need for any of it. They have some nice footage, some researchers and Leonard Nimoy. They could do their Biblical episodes in the same straightforward way they do their true crime episodes and it would work perfectly well. Instead, they get caught up in these pointless ‘mysteries’ and the payoff is usually nothing but ‘this thing that people thought was over here is actually over there.’
Rant over. Let’s do the episode.
Nimoy tells us that the Israelites escaping from Egypt camped at Mt Sinai. But where is it? Looking suitably sombre in a three-piece suit, Nimoy tells us we must examine the ‘Old Testament’ which, given Nimoy’s Jewish background, is an odd way to have him talk about the Torah.
He tells us the story of Moses fairly straightforwardly, first straight to camera and then over footage of goats, presumably in Europe. Nimoy’s voice is what sells this story so well, and the imagery of a Moses cosplayer and what looks like Gustave Doré illustrations of Exodus. Gotta love me some Doré!
Nimoy suggests that it was early Christian pilgrims who identified Mt Sinai as the peak known in Arabic as Jabal Musa – the Mountain of Moses. There’s shots of the 4th century Church of Santa Katerina, which Nimoy tells us was built there by a woman named Helana. She was an early version of In Search Of… apparently, going around and trying to find locations named in the Bible.
More shots of the Monastery. Nimoy tells us that Emperor Justinian built the walls to ‘protect the monks from invading Turks and Muslims.’ Hm. Justinian died shortly before birth of the Prophet Mohammed, so no, he wasn’t worried about Muslims, invading or otherwise, but who needs history? We’re learning why a mountain isn’t the right mountain.
There’s some very cool shots of the monastery, including the bone house where monkish bones are looked over by the skeleton of Saint Stefan, which has just been left sitting where the saint died — which, if nothing else, is pretty friggin’ metal.
More shots of desert. Mountains. Moses on the mountain, and the golden calf. A chat to Avne Goren, an extremely German man who used to be the most senior archaeologist at Mt Sinai. He says that the Hebrew nomads left no evidence of their passing. Therefore, it is not possible to prove that any specific mountain is the ‘correct’ mountain through archaeology.
Now we’re looking at Jericho … getting bored now… Land of Goshen… Ramses II… Shots of Egyptian ruins… Generally accepted date of the Exodus… Okay, Nimoy is telling us that the captive Jews may have ‘absorbed a certain amount of Egyptian religion’.
Interesting. In the King Tut episode, Nimoy suggested that Moses learned about monotheism from Akhenaten. How does this connect to the Israelite’s sudden interest in Egyptian pantheism? Does it connect? Does anybody on this show even remember what they already said?
In the 18th Century, a Danish traveler discovered an Egyptian temple. And now we’re talking to a scary-looking ‘geographical historian’ from Tel Aviv named Svi Elan. He suggests that the plateau where the temple was is actually where Moses went to talk to God. Nimoy says that the Jews would have gone to a place that was ‘already sacred’. Which is not as stupid as it sounds, honestly. The world is full of churches built on top of the sacred sites of other faiths for exactly that reason.
There’s a long bit about how the Beduin know that it is possible to survive here — so surely an estimated two million Jews could have camped here for ten months, because that’s how desert survival works.
Looking at the temple in closer detail. Cave of Hathor looks interesting, though we pass over it quickly to suggest that Hathor could be the inspiration for the Golden Calf — which, to be fair, is not inconsistent with Hathor’s known iconography. Elan goes into this in a big way, before Nimoy undermines him by wondering whether the Israelites were at this temple at all.
Some questionable interpretation of temple carvings, and now we’re looking at a cool looking cave in the desert floor. This contains some extremely early writing on the walls. A carving in a second, nearby cave called Wadi el-Hol contains what might be the word ‘el’ which could refer to ‘the Hebrew God.’ A little research reveals little except that this is by no means certain, either as a translation or an interpretation of that translation. Even if it were certain, the presence of a writer inscribing words referring to Jewish religion is not really proof of the presence of two million Jews, is it?
Moses cosplay guy in desert, reiterating previous questions. Nimoy claims we don’t know where Mt Sinai is but says ‘now there is hope’ that we will. A very, very cool narration over shots of ruined army vehicles in the desert as Nimoy basically repeats the same thing, the end.
So… okay. Let’s leave for a moment the question of the historicity of the Exodus story, mostly because I can’t be bothered doing otherwise. Moses stopped at a mountain, but pilgrims looking for that mountain have been going to the wrong mountain. Does that mean that they failed as pilgrims? Does that mean that any sense of religious awe or wonder they felt; any sense of connection to God that they experienced was wrong? That their spiritual journey was less meaningful than the journey of a pilgrim who went to a correct place of worship? Because if that’s not what they’re saying, then honestly why the hell does it matter?
“Legend, no matter how old, is not proof.” –Leonard Nimoy..
WHAT SHOW IS THIS, LEONARD? HAVE YOU EVEN WATCHED THIS SHOW? This is In Search Of… and on this show legends. Prove. EVERYTHING!
Shots of the desert: 4/10, Central question: 4/10, Nimoyness: 7/10, Actual shots of Ten Commandments: 0/10, Metal saints: 10/10. Overall: 25/50. Pass.