As Saudi Arabia increasingly opens up to tourists, a travel group in the country started offering this week a "first-ever Christian tour of rare sites," promising participants a close-up look at a controversial location believed to be the real Mount Sinai — the mountain where, according to the Bible, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.
Saudi Arabia, which has been closed for tourism the last several decades and has a dismal record on human rights, decided to give tourist visas on the heels of the second delegation of evangelical leaders from America, hosted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last year and earlier this year.
"The atmosphere in Saudi Arabia is changing," said Rhonda Sand, owner of U.S.-based travel company Living Passages. "They are hard at work developing the country for Western tourism."
Living Passages is taking a group of 25 people this week through "Jethro's Caves in the land of Midian," believed to be ancient Midian. The tour will be led by Joel Richardson, the author of "Mount Sinai in Arabia: The True Location Revealed."
“This portends to be the most significant new archaeological site in modern history," Richardson told Fox News. “We're tremendously blessed that the Saudi government is allowing us to visit the kingdom to see some of its rich historical and geographic treasures.”
Richardson, who said this is one of the most faith stirring experiences of his life, explained tourists will be flocking to see the historical mountain and other sites covered in a short documentary, "Finding the Mountain of Moses: The Real Mount Sinai in Saudi Arabia," by Ryan Mauro, who will also be leading a tour in February.
Most notably, the group is visiting the Jebel al-Lawz mountain in the ancient land of Midian. Early Jewish, Christian and Bedouin traditions have long attested this site to be the real Mount Sinai. The controversial theory contests the traditional location in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. On the north-west side of the mountain is the Split Rock of Horeb — a massive stone several stories tall, split down the middle, with evidence of water erosion at its base.
This week tourists will visit the town that has an ancient well, held to be where Moses met his wife Zipporah, daughter of Jethro, after fleeing Egypt. The group will explore the ruins of Dedan, Wadi Tayyib – along the Red Sea coast – and Tayma, where Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar may have occasionally stayed.
Beyond the historic sites, the kingdom is hoping to increase international tourism with new museums and first-class hotels — and even a smart city in the northwest called Neom, set to be fully functinal by 2025.