Early Christians identified Mt. Nebo with the Moses tradition
Where was Moses buried? We don’t know exactly. Nor did the biblical writers: “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:5–6).
This uncertainty, however, did not discourage early Christians, who determined that Moses died and was buried on Mt. Nebo, in what is today central Jordan. Known locally by its Arabic name, Siyagha, Mt. Nebo began attracting Christian worshipers in the early fourth century, when Christianity was acknowledged in the Roman Empire as a lawful religion. Its connection to Moses and the Exodus narrative brought in Christian monks, who wanted to live and pray near where Moses was buried, as well as pilgrims, who wished to commemorate the prophet and contemplate God’s promises to his people.
In her article “Moses and the Monks of Nebo,” published in the Summer 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Debra Foran outlines the early history of Christian pilgrimage to and around Mt. Nebo and describes some of the central monuments in the region. “A network of monastic communities extended from [Mt. Nebo] to the east as far as the desert fringes and to the south until the Wadi Mujib (the biblical Arnon River). This development was likely connected to the growing monastic movement across the southern Levant during the Byzantine period, exemplified by the Judean Desert monasteries near Jerusalem.”
Assistant Professor in the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Foran also delves into related questions of how the monks of Mt. Nebo interacted with the local population. “Interwoven into this monastic landscape was an active and prosperous lay population that catered to its ascetic neighbors. The rural population also served the many pilgrims traveling through the region.”
So we arrived at the summit of that mountain, where there is now a church of no great size on the very top of Mount Nabau. Inside the church, in the place where the pulpit is, I saw a place a little raised, containing about as much space as tombs usually do. I asked those holy men [i.e., monks] what this was, and they answered: “Here was holy Moses laid by the angels, for, as it is written, no one knows his burial place, and because it is certain that he was buried by the angels. His tomb, indeed, where he was laid, is not shown to this day; but as it was shown to us by our ancestors who dwelt here, so do we show it to you, and our ancestors said that this tradition was handed down to them by their own ancestors (XII, 1–2).
The small church that Egeria visited was rebuilt and expanded in the fifth century to include several side chapels and a baptistery (see photo), all of which were decorated with intricate mosaics or paved with marble tiles arranged in geometric patterns. This Byzantine basilica was recently excavated, and a new church (termed the Memorial Church of Moses) was built over it to protect the archaeological remains and provide visitors with the visual experience of the sixth-century church. During the restorations in 2013, an empty tomb was discovered in the center of the nave of the basilica. Foran writes:
Located at the highest point of the mountain, this tomb initially may have been part of an earlier shrine dedicated to Moses that was later incorporated into the basilica and sealed under its floor. The monastic community of Mt. Nebo possibly regarded this tomb as a burial monument dedicated to Moses, and it could have been the one that Egeria and her fellow pilgrims saw in the fourth century.
Several other monastic sites around the alleged burial site of Moses at Mt. Nebo flourished during the Byzantine period (fourth–seventh centuries). Among them were ‘Uyun Musa (the Springs of Moses)—a perennial spring in the valley to the northeast of Mt. Nebo that also offered caves for Christian hermits (see photo). There is also Khirbat al-Mukhayyat, which is a hill about 2 miles southeast of Mt. Nebo that has at least three churches dating from the sixth and seventh centuries. This site is the focus of current explorations within the Town of Nebo Archaeological Project, directed by Foran.
This article first appeared in BHD on July 20, 2022
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