Mount Nebo is the place from which Moses contemplated the Promised Land, without being able to enter it. Mount Nebo rises eight kilometers to the northwest of Madaba, at the western reaches of a plateau with various peaks, bordered to the north by Wadi Uyun Musa, “valley of the springs of Moses” and to the south by Wad Afrit. The highest point to the left of the road, where some dolmens rise, is the actual Mount Nebo, Jebel an-Neba in Arabic (802 meters high). Mount Pisgah, of which the Bible speaks (Ras Siyagha), extends toward the west, but is lower in altitude (710 meters). Toward the south, the Khirbat al-Mukhayyat slope (790 meters), used to be the location of the city of Nebo.
In the Bible, Mount Pisgah is mentioned in two different contexts. In the first case, the Moabite king Balak tries to convince the visionary Balaam to curse the Israelites on three different occasions, but each time he gets the opposite effect. The second try has Pisgah as its backdrop:
“What have you done to me?” cried Balak to Balaam. “It was to lay a curse on my foes that I brought you here; but instead, you have blessed them!” Balaam replied, “Is it not what the LORD puts in my mouth that I take care to repeat?” The Second Oracle. Then Balak said to him, “Please come with me to another place from which you can see them; but you will see only some, not all of them, and from there lay a curse on them for me.” So he brought him to a lookout post on the top of Pisgahh, where he built seven altars and offered a bull and a ram on each of them. Balaam then said to Balak, “Stand here by your burnt offering, while I seek a meeting over there.” Then the LORD met Balaam, and, having put an utterance in his mouth, said to him: Return to Balak, and speak accordingly. So he went to Balak, who was still standing by his burnt offering together with the princes of Moab. When Balak asked him, “What did the LORD say?”
Balaam recited his poem: Rise, Balak, and listen; give ear to my testimony, son of Zippor! God is not a human being who speaks falsely, nor a mortal, who feels regret. Is God one to speak and not act, to decree and not bring it to pass? I was summoned to bless; I will bless; I cannot revoke it! Misfortune I do not see in Jacob, nor do I see misery in Israel. The LORD, their God, is with them; among them is the war-cry of their King. They have the like of a wild ox’s horns:God who brought them out of Egypt.No, there is no augury against Jacob, nor divination against Israel. Now it is said of Jacob, of Israel, “Look what God has done!” (Numbers 23:11-23).
The other two places from which Balak tried to force Balaam to cast a curse on Israel were not identified: “Kiriat-Cusot” (Numbers 22:39) and the “summit of Peor” (Numbers 23:28). However, it is interesting that Pisgah is defined as the “field of the explorer,” which corresponds to its protruding natural formation that resembles a balcony. But Pisgah plays a far more important role in the second context in which it is mentioned in the Bible. Moses in fact will not be able to set foot in the Promised Land; he can only contemplate it from here.
On that very day the LORD said to Moses, Ascend this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo in the land of Moab facing Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites as a possession. Then you shall die on the mountain you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your people, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and there was gathered to his people,because both of you broke faith with me among the Israelites at the waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin: you did not manifest my holiness among the Israelites.You may indeed see the land from a distance, but you shall not enter that land which I am giving to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 32:48-52).
At the time of the execution of this divine order, it is the text itself that provides some clarification concerning Mount Pisgah:
Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo,the peak of Pisgahh which faces Jericho, and the LORD showed him all the land—Gilead, and as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, the plain (the valley of Jericho, the City of Palms), and as far as Zoar. The LORD then said to him, This is the land about which I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “I will give it to your descendants.” I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross over. So there, in the land of Moab, Moses, the servant of the LORD, died as the LORD had said;
and he was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; to this day no one knows the place of his burial (Deuteronomy 34:1-6).
Nebo/Pisgah, although not expressly mentioned, will return to the scene in the Second Book of the Maccabees. In a letter sent to the Jews who lived in Egypt, the inhabitants of Jerusalem recall a lost text in which it was written that the prophet Jeremiah, before the destruction of the Solomonic Temple by the Babylonians, had hidden the sacred tent, the Ark of the Covenant and the altar of incense on Mount Nebo:
The same document also tells how the prophet, in virtue of an oracle, ordered that the tent and the ark should accompany him, and how he went to the very mountain that Moses climbed to behold God’s inheritance. When Jeremiah arrived there, he found a chamber in a cave in which he put the tent, the ark, and the altar of incense; then he sealed the entrance. Some of those who followed him came up intending to mark the path, but they could not find it. When Jeremiah heard of this, he reproved them: “The place is to remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows them mercy. Then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will be seen, just as they appeared in the time of Moses and of Solomon when he prayed that the place might be greatly sanctified” (2 Mac 2:4-8).
The excavations on the Ras Siyagha have brought to light, in addition to six tombs, a small cross-shaped building located overhead that is thought to be pre-Christian: a sort of sepulchral chapel that internally has three rounded sides and a beautiful mosaic floor. A synthronon (or priestly seat) was added in the central apse in the 4th century AD, as well as a vestibule. In the latter was a cross intertwined with mosaics. Based on an inscription, this is an “imperial foundation, at the time of the presbyters Alessio and Theophilus.” Another inscription speaks of a restoration carried out “at the time of the very honorable and devoted priest and abbot Alessio.”
A Byzantine baptistery was later placed in an adjacent chapel on the left hand side, which has a depth of one meter. A beautiful mosaic with pastoral and hunting scenes can be dated to the year 531 thanks to a long inscription that runs above and below it. In the text not only the authorities like the “Bishop Elia” but also the mosaicists “Soelos” (or Saul) “and Kaiomos and Elia and their families” are entrusted to the Lord.
In the sixth century, the original chapel was transformed into the presbytery of a basilica, of which the simple mosaics from the side aisles are well preserved, while little remains of the mosaic decorations in the central nave. The columns are original, which at the four corners develop into shapes that resemble sprigs of mimosa flowers. The old baptismal font that existed on the left side was eliminated, bringing the floor to the level of the basilica and embellishing it with geometric mosaic figures.
In 597, a new baptistery was built to the south (right hand side) of the basilica, or above the ancient sepulchral chapel. At the beginning of the seventh century the chapel of the Theotokos, or Mother of God, was added to the west. Therefore, also considering the lateral additions, it measured 30 x 37 meters. Quite unusual in the Marian chapel is the mosaic (destroyed by the iconoclasts) in front of the apse, commissioned by Bishop Leonzio (603-608): it clearly refers to the passage from 2 Maccabees quoted above, showing—between two gazelles, two bouquets of flowers and two bulls— a stylized image of the temple of Jerusalem, or perhaps the grotto similar to a house found by Jeremiah on Nebo. We recognize the fire that rises from the altar of sacrifices and the table for the offering of loaves inside a tabernacle. The inscription in Greek shows Psalm 51:21: “Then they will offer up young bulls on your altar.” The quotation of this verse makes sense if we remember that on the altar of the chapel the sacrifice of the New Covenant was celebrated, which brought the ancient ones to completion. On three sides—except the front one to the east of the original chapel— the church was surrounded by the buildings of a monastery of considerable proportions (78 x 82 meters).
The church would then be identified with that “memorial of Moses” that Egeria wished to visit on Mount Nebo after taking an exhausting detour from Jerusalem. The pilgrim reports the existence of “a church that is not too large on top of Mount Nabau” erected in honor of Moses’ sepulcher. But she does not do a great job of explaining the origins of the building: the fact remains that, according to the Bible, “no one yet knows where” Moses’ sepulcher is (Deuteronomy 34:6).
However, it is understandable that this deterrent was not enough. A Jewish apocryphal text, The Ascension of Moses, strives to fill the gap. The theme comes to the New Testament in the Letter of Judas (not the Iscariot), which even describes the battle carried out by the archangel Michael to obtain the remains of the great leader of the Israelites: When the archangel Michael, in contrast to the devil, discussed getting Moses’ body, he did not dare to accuse him with offensive words, but he said: “May the Lord condemn you!” (Judas 9).
According to Pietro Iberico’s biographer, who came around here around the year 430, the burial site on Mount Nebo was found thanks to a shepherd who, following a vision, had arrived in a fragrant and illuminated grotto: there Moses lay like a respectable old man, with a luminous face, on a bed that sparkled with grace and glory.
Then when the locals had built the church, the prophet and giver of the Law had shown all of “his goodness and power through signs, miracles and healings that have been happening ever since without interruption.” So, in Christian times the place became a favorite destination for pilgrimages. The German pilgrim Thietmar clambered up here again in 1217.
In 1932, the Franciscans succeeded in buying the Ras Siyagha peak, and then in 1935, they also purchased the Khirbat al-Mukhayyat. Since there was no specific information on what Nebo and Pisgah were, the Custody of the Holy Land decided to buy both of them. This incredible transition of Bedouin lands to the hands of foreigners was only possible thanks to friar Gerolamo Mihaic, a Croatian Franciscan who was in Jericho and who had won the sympathy of the then emir —who then became king —Abdallah I, thanks to his contagious joy and the products of his garden (it is said that he was once entrusted with the surveillance of the harem!). Franciscan archaeologists, Sylvester Saller and Bellarmino Bagatti, of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, led the first exavations before World War II broke out. Research on Mount Nebo was then carried out by Fr. Michele Piccirillo between 1976 and 2008, the year he died.
The panoramic view from Mount Pisgah reveals the Promised Land, as it did with Moses: from the Dead Sea through Herodium, Bethlehem and Jerusalem (46 kilometers away as the crow flies) to the pointed top of the Alexandreion and Jericho. At night you can see the lights of the cities glimmering.
The site, with the new basilica and the ruins of the vast Byzantine monastery, is entrusted to the care of the Custody of the Holy Land.
After the entrance of the site, a six-meter wide commemorative plaque recalls the visit of John Paul II to the Holy Land in 2000. On the front, in Latin, we read: “One God and Father of all, above all” (Ephesians 4: 6). On the north side, to the right, are depicted the Old Testament prophets, who ‘saw’ a glimpse of the future (1 Peter 1: 10-12).
On the back, “God is love,” is written in Arabic, which is “the invitation of Heaven and the message of the prophets.” Finally on the south side, to the left, we read again (this time in Greek): “God is love” (1 John 4: 8). The emblem of the Custody of the Holy Land can be seen above.
In the small museum some minor artifacts, especially ceramics, are exhibited, in addition to little models and illustrative tables, and two milestones of the Roman road that went from Heshbon to Livias (now Tell ar-Rame, near the place of the Baptism on the Jordan) bypassing Mount Nebo to the north.
The central column, in a group of three, is made of precious black and white marble from an imperial quarry, which was probably a gift from the emperor (Constantine?) to the local Christian community.
In the Byzantine basilica, mosaics were found in three layers, sometimes even four, covering a total surface of 700 square meters. They were secured and separated and almost all of them are now exhibited inside the new basilica.
The new basilica
Beginning in 1963, the basilica began to be restructured, initially as a simple protection for the remains of the memorial dedicated to Moses, and later (from 2008) so that it could serve simultaneously as a sanctuary, museum and shelter for antiquities.
The works, completed in 2016, were slowed down first by the sudden death of the archaeologist and construction site manager Michele Piccirillo and later by the development of new preservation techniques, or rather by the rediscovery of the ancient mosaic technique. In fact, it was proved that the methods of fixing the tesserae with cement used in the 60s and 70s will, in the long run, damage the work, while the lime mortar method takes more time, but lasts longer.
The new church is wider than its Byzantine predecessor, as it also incorporates additional rooms and side chapels. However, the unusual presbytery with three apses, in the shape of a clover, corresponds to the original. In the lower stone layer (the original one), we note that the architectural elements were made with reused materials from a previous building; for example: a column base that now appears overturned. Unfortunately, we know almost nothing about this original structure, especially since finds from that era are very rare. It could be a pagan construction, or also a Jewish or Samaritan memorial in honor of Moses. In fact, the remains of a Samaritan inscription were found, but it is almost incomprehensible: these are now preserved in Jerusalem at the museum of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum.
The windows of the apse, which date back to the first “makeshift” version of the church, show Moses and Aaron on the left with the water that flows from the rock (Exodus 17: 1-6); in the center, Moses interceding for the people, supported by Aaron and Cur (Exodus 17: 8-13); on the right the death of Moses here, on Mount Nebo.
During the works, the important discovery of a tomb that was never used (because it is too shallow and shows no trace of burial) took place by chance in the central nave. For this tomb, the alabaster from an older (Herodian?) monument was reused. Experts are almost certain to have laid their hands on the “Moses’ sepulcher” described by the pilgrim Egeria:
“In this church, where the ambo stands, I noticed a slightly elevated area, more or less the size of a tomb. I asked those holy men what it was about, and they replied: ‘Here holy Moses was deposed by the angels. Since, as it is written [Deuteronomy 34: 6], no man knows where his tomb is, then it was certainly the angels.’”
For the reorganization of the mosaics, the following criterion was followed: of the various mosaic layers, the best preserved or most richly decorated part was relocated to its original location. The rest of the mosaics were hung on the walls as close as possible, therefore almost all the works, belonging to the different phases of the building's history, found a place in the new basilica.Modern sculpture
The modern sculpture seen on the square in front of the church was built in 1983-84 by the Florentine Gian Paolo Fantoni: the copper serpent raised by Moses in the desert is clinging to a cross-shaped shaft. The artist connects the Old Testament history with Christology, as did the evangelist John. In reality, it is not clear where the copper snake was raised during the Exodus, nor is the proximity to Mount Or helping to solve the riddle.
“They left Mount Hor by the road to the Sea of Suph, to skirt round Edom. On the way the people lost patience.They spoke against God and against Moses, 'Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in the desert? For there is neither food nor water here; we are sick of this meagre diet. At this, God sent fiery serpents among the people; their bite brought death to many in Israel.The people came and said to Moses: 'We have sinned by speaking against Yahweh and against you. Intercede for us with Yahweh to save us from these serpents.' Moses interceded for the people, and Yahweh replied, 'Make a fiery serpent and raise it as a standard. Anyone who is bitten and looks at it will survive.' Moses then made a serpent out of bronze and raised it as a standard, and anyone who was bitten by a serpent and looked at the bronze serpent survived” (Numbers 21: 4-9).
“As Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3: 14-15).
The city of Nebo is identified today with the summit of Khirbat al-Mukhayyat, in Arabic the “ruins of the encampment,” two kilometers from Ras Siyagha. The tombs on the edge of the hill date back to the second millennium BC. In the Bible, Nebo, inhabited by cattle breeders (Numbers 32: 1-4; 37-38), is listed among the cities destined for the tribe of Ruben. Buildings from the Herodian age were identified. At the time of Bishop Eusebio (in the early fourth century), Nebo was an abandoned village, which came back to life only in the fifth century. It seems that even prosperity reigned there in the sixth century. In the years preceding World War II, four churches were found here.
One is that of Saints Lot and Procopius, for whose protection a stone building that covered the ruins was built. Of the learned “lector” (professor) Procopius of Scitopoli (Bet Shean) we know—from St. Eusebius—that he was beheaded in Caesarea in 303: he was the first victim of the Diocletian’s persecution. The mosaic of the little church (about 16 x 8.5 meters), which is one of the liveliest and best preserved in the Holy Land, was found as early as 1913 during the construction of a house. In twenty medallions designed with tendrils, the life of the village is described in detail: hunting, sheep farming and viticulture. The innermost part (to the west) of the mosaic shows fruit trees, hares and deer, but also the altar of holocausts in Jerusalem with two bulls and the verse Psalm 51:19: “...and young bulls will be offered on your altar,” as in the chapel of the Mother of God on Mount Nebo.
In 1935, on top of the hill, the small church of St. George was discovered, with three naves (12 x 12.5 meters). Built during the episcopate of Elias in the year 536, it was inserted inside a monastic complex and had a cistern placed under the presbytery. The mosaic floor is well preserved.
To the east, on the slopes of Wadi Afrit (from the entrance of the archaeological site, looking down on the left), the so-called Church of Amos and Kasiseos was brought to light. It is not known to whom it was dedicated; the name is that of the founders, indicated on the seats of the choir that were reused in an Arab private house. This must be the oldest church in the area. On its north side stood an outbuilding with two superimposed mosaic floors. The themes are, again, hunting, pastoralism and rural life. Today the female figure that symbolized the Earth is no longer visible, but the inscription on the tympanum is clear, between peacocks, roosters and four massive columns: “For salvation and by the donation of your servants Sergio, Stefano and Procopio, Porfiria, Rome and Mary, and the monk Julian.” The mosaic is the work of the same artists who worked in the church of Saints Lot and Procopius. The underlying mosaic, discovered in 1985, belonged to a smaller chapel, founded almost a century earlier (the second half of the fifth century) by the “Deacon Kaiumos,” at the time of “Bishop Fido.” This mosaic (one of the oldest ones) demonstrates the skill of its performers.
On the slopes of the hill, on the opposite side of Wadi Afrit, a small monastery consisting of a chapel (9 x 12 meters) and three adjacent rooms was freed from the soil. In the past, the local Arab population was aware of the ruins, which they simply called al-Kanisa, “the church.” Of the mosaic floor of the chapel, only a piece in front of the altar has remained: this depicts a vase containing a vine with two branches of different colors.
Monastery of the Mother of God
We cannot forget the monastery of the Mother of God which stands on a southern spur of Mount Nebo, east of the fountain called Ain al-Kanisa (“fountain of the church”) by the Bedouins. This site was identified by Saller and Bagatti since the 1930s, though the excavations were only carried out in the 1990s. Both the courtyard—which covered a cistern—and the church were decorated with mosaics: at the altar, shell-shaped decorations; in the nave, again, medallions surrounded by tendrils, with flowers, fruits and animals, later damaged by the iconoclasts. However, the most important find is represented by the inscriptions on the top and bottom of the historiated mosaic rug, which allows two historical phases to be identified.
In the first Christian centuries, many monks lived here, inwardly reliving the paradox that Moses could see the Promised Land only from a distance, without any access to it. This Christian presence remained significant for as long as the area remained under the Byzantine rule, preserving itself until the time when the political headquarters of the Damascus caliphate was transferred to Baghdad.
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