Exploring the land of Israel; Nebi Musa: Muslim gravesite for Moses in Judea.
Years back during Passover week, a Jerusalem friend and I drove east into Midbar Yehuda, the Judean wilderness, and visited a lonely site of historic and cultural interest. Connected with it is what can be called "Pesach Politics" of the people of Eretz Yisrael. Down past the "Sea Level" signpost a few miles, another sign on the nineteen-mile Jerusalem-Jericho highway announces, "To Nebi Musa."
A narrow road leads to it. We drove over a mile or so of undulating, barren landscape. The air is very dry. (I always found the juxtaposition of lower than sea-level altitude and extreme dryness rather incongruous.) The building compound enclosing a shrine is folded into the yellow-brown desert terrain and appears suddenly. High walls, rising minaret, numerous white turret-like domes. A sign at the entrance explained Nebi Musa was a protected holy site and accordingly, demanded proper behavior.
Back in the 1970s, when I visited several times, while a Muslim caretaker looked after the site, it was under the supervision of Israel's Ministry of Religious Affairs. Today Nebi Musa is under the administration of the Palestinian National Authority.
Nebi Musa in Arabic refers to the Shrine of Prophet Moses. The building complex has two stories. It once served as a khan, a "motel" of earlier Middle East days. There are at least twenty-five individually domed rooms on the second floor, and more on the ground floor. Most of the rooms are small. The compound encloses two large courtyards that are skirted by balconies.
The entrance to the mosque is through the smaller northern courtyard. Woven mats cover the prayer room floor. Visitors remove their shoes before entering. A smaller room to the fight serves as the purported site of the tomb of Moses; it contains a large built-up sepulcher.
It was raining hard on my recent journey and so we did not stop to access the building. We stopped nearby, quickly snapped a few pictures, and went back on our way, but I told my companions about earlier visits, when the compound was clean and deserted except for an elderly Algerian-born caretaker. I had met him several times. He explained this had been his job for many years. Waving an arm, he said he came "from Algeria long ago," and I thought, "Perhaps from time immemorial."
He said that the place received few visitors.
In each courtyard is what looks like a water well with a metal lid, but they are actually cisterns that collect rainwater. The caretaker said that Bedouin living in or traveling through the area sometime use these water sources.
In the old days, my guide friend, Aaron Pick of Ein Kerem, explained that when the gate of Nebi Musa is closed, one can knock heavily on the thick timber door of the gate with a stone in hand, so the sharp sound will carry to be heard.
The caretaker who oversaw the premises was about sixty years old when I met him back in the 1970s. He lived alone, had a pickup truck, and went to Jericho for supplies. He said he had been at Nebi Musa some forty years, and shrugged when asked how he came to such a job.
Pick, who knew the region very well, and had visited Nebi Musa many times, later told me that the caretaker confided that he decided to look for a bride, from the old country. He was writing letters.
Ironically, from the rise east of Nebi Musa one can easily see Mount Nebo across the Jordan River. The Bible relates that Moses died and was buried there in an unknown sepulcher:
And the Lord spoke unto Moses... saying." "Get thee up... unto Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, that is over against Jericho... For thou shalt see the land afar off" But thou shalt not go thither into the land which I give the children of Israel." (Deut. 32, 48-52) And he was buried in the valley of the land of Moab.. . And no man knoweth of his sepulcher unto this day. (Deut. 34, 6)
How is it that the Muslims mark this site with a shrine as Moses' grave when the Bible is explicit? At least one guidebook describes Nebi Musa as a cenotaph, that is, a tomb erected in honor of a person buried elsewhere. But no local Muslim we asked, and we spoke of the subject with several in Jericho, acknowledged that this is not the actual burial site.
The caretaker himself said: "The Jews don't believe Moses is here; they think he is across the river, in Amman!"
It may be that Nebi Musa's location as an inn or motel of ancient times picked up its name became from its eastern side, one can see across the Jordan River into Jordan, ancient Moab, and see Mount Nebo, where the Biblical record states Moses died. The understanding may have morphed from a place where one can see the final resting area of Moses to the actual place itself. Or perhaps the Muslim choice derives both from a lack of careful concern for the original story as recorded in the Bible, and a linkage with an interesting bit of geology.
A certain type of rock found in the vicinity burns with a blue flame without being consumed. Pilgrims to these parts have long used this bituminous stone, containing hydrocarbons, as a fuel. It is called "hajar Nebi Musa," the stone of Prophet Moses. The courtyard of Nebi Musa is paved partly with this stone. Since the site faces Mount Nebo, and is connected with Moses according to the Biblical narrative, the local Arabs may have connected the burning stone with the burning bush miracle from the Exodus story.
The dramatic locale of Nebi Musa in the desert lends itself to wide-ranging stories. A dirt track skirts a sprawling Muslim graveyard that abuts the wall of the compound. Sparse rough thorny weeds grow among the tombstones.
The graveyard spreads out over caked broken earth. A zoologist friend along on one visit, Professor Yoel Margalit of Be'ersheva's Ben-Gurion University, pointed out other inhabitants, mostly alive. Within ten minutes, he found a yellow scorpion, a cream-colored poisonous spider related to the black widow, and a number of large black beetles impaled on thorns along the dirt track. Yoel explained that a local bird catches the beetles and stores them in this way as a reserve food supply. We began to call the poor creatures "the crucified beetles of Nebi Musa."
One also encounters z'vuv ha-chol, the sand fly, which I was told carry bacteria that cause pox and stain human skin. The affliction is akin to that suffered by many older Iraqi and Persian/Iranian Jews in Israel today. In these parts the disease is curiously known as Shoshanat Yericho, Rose of Jericho.
The sand fly lives only within a narrow range of altitude and was not found in the mountains above Nebi Musa where the Jewish community of Mitzpe [Lookout]Jericho was located, nor at the now large suburban community of Maaleh Adumim, far up the watershed and closer to Jerusalem. For obvious reasons, Israeli hikers prefer not to sleep around Nebi Musa.
A few hundred yards south of Nebi Musa there is a savage canyon officially called Nahal Og, but also with other names. It is a rough course for hikers, and was often referred to in the old days as Wadi Golani, for the esteemed Israeli infantry brigade that trained there. It is also referred to as Wadi "Ugh" in English, playing on the Hebrew Nahal Og, as many hikers, including this writer, have lost skin from palms and fingers (Ugh!) descending its cliffs via slippery nylon ropes without the benefit of gloves.
The rolling plateau upon which Nebi Musa sits is strategic military ground. Near the end of The Great War, World War I, British forces fought over the erosion-torn terrain described by their military historians as the most difficult country they had encountered. They advanced eastward, descending from Jerusalem toward Jericho. The British pursued Ottoman forces to the edge of the cliffs above Nebi Musa and there established the security of Jerusalem against counterattack from the east (still controlled by Ottoman forces). Today the area provides a logical main defense line for Israeli forces behind screening defenses along the nearby Jordan River.
The Nebi Musa compound, including mosque and khan, was built in 1269. A festival of Nebi Musa is first mentioned in written sources about 1500. Two Christian writers of the twentieth century provide some further religious-political motives for the Nebi Musa story.
"The Muslims relate a legend that Moses, becoming lonely in his grave, complained to God, who promised him an annual pilgrimage," wrote British historian H. V. Morton. Morton proposed that a hitherto humble shrine of some obscure holy man near the Dead Sea was arbitrarily ordained the tomb of Moses, and an annual pilgrimage was organized to honor it. He added that the festival was actually introduced to balance the Christian Easter pilgrimage to Jerusalem with a Muslim pilgrimage which occurs at the same time.
James William Parkes, an American Christian scholar, suggested that the pilgrimage to a festival at the mosque in the Judean Desert also served to raise the dignity of Jerusalem in Muslim eyes. By making it an annual event, it would be comparable, though on a lesser scale, to the annual assembly in the city of Damascus of those whose pilgrimage is to Mecca. Parkes made a telling point: "Curious enough, its date is fixed by the Christian, not the Muslim, calendar."
Its background would suggest that the nature of the festival is political and that it was created to provide Muslims an alternative feast of their own.
The Muslim pilgrimage goes out from Jerusalem into the desert to the east (the desert of Judea, from whence is derived the name Jew) rather than toward Jerusalem. The fact that the Nebi Musa festival was fixed by the Christian rather than Muslim calendar firmly suggests a political intention. (The Easter pilgrimage sometimes overlaps the Pesach aliyah to Jerusalem by Jews, depending on whether the Christian solar-based and Jewish lunar-based calendars overlap that year.)
For centuries the Nebi Musa festival's anti-Christian tone was illustrated by attacks on Easter pilgrims in Jerusalem. On the Friday before Easter week, Muslims congregated outside the Al-Aksa Mosque (atop the Jewish-built Temple Mount) and marched to Nebi Musa where they would spend five festive days in its courtyards before returning home.
In the 1930's, during a trance-like dance-march, they chanted the words "La illalah illa Allah..." meaning "There is no god but Allah." It is suggested in the literature that the chant may have been not only a glorifying proclamation but also an attack on the concept of the Christian trinity.
In those days, Morton reports, there were other Muslims carrying friends on their shoulders beating time with their hands or sticks like choirmasters and chanting something to which the crowd responded with enthusiasm. "I asked a man next to me what they were saying, 'They are cursing the Zionists,' he replied.' They are singing: 'Oh, Zionists, what right have you in this country? What have you in common with us? If you stay in this country, you will all find graves.'"
At the beginning of the British Mandate, when the religion of the ruling power became Christian (because England was victorious in World War I) instead of Muslim (Turkey/Ottoman Empire, which was defeated), the Nebi Musa spring festival took on its anti-Jewish aspect. It was ironic that a Muslim pilgrimage honoring the Jewish prophet Moses should be the occasion for a major pogrom against Jews.
The political conflict in the Middle East after World War I engendered by the renewed ambitions of British, French, Arabs, Jews, (along with Greeks and Armenians) in the Ottoman vacuum came to several heads in 1920, with a Greek invasion of Asia Minor, and violence in Eretz Yisrael. The political chaos brewing in the Holy Land was highlighted by the fall of the Upper Galilee Jewish settlement Tel Chai to Arab marauders in February. That March, Arabs of the Ottoman territory that became Syria, in a calculated gesture of repudiation toward France (which sought a League of Nations Mandate over what was Syria and Lebanon), offered Arabia's Feisal the throne of an enlarged Syria, to include Palestine (whose governing Mandate was sought by the British).
Ominous Arab nationalist pan-Syrian propaganda and agitation followed, and the British military government in Palestine was put on warning. The British military governor of Jerusalem was General Louis Bols, sometimes described as an antisemite whose administration responded to the alert by ordering the local population disarmed, but who enforced the order only insofar as Jews were concerned.
As the Nebi Musa festival week approached, coinciding in 1920 with Pesach and Easter, persistent rumors circulated that a large-scale Russian-style pogrom would be staged during the week by local Arabs. A British Army circular sent to every battalion in Palestine began: "As the government had to pursue in Palestine a policy unpopular with the majority of the population, trouble may be expected to arise."
The first day of the Nebi Musa feast coincided with Good Friday. General Allenby, commander of the British Middle East forces, visited Jerusalem from Cairo. He left on Easter Sunday, April 4, that year also the third day of Nebi Musa and the second day of Pessach.
Muslim revelers in 1920 arrived in Jerusalem on April 4, notably two days later than usual, after General Allenby had left Palestine for Egypt. A large crowd gathered to hear a nationalist harangue. It has been suggested that the political purpose was to influence the Allies, who were scheduled to dispose of the mandates in San Remo within the next two weeks. Then the riot erupted.
The Arab mob rushed into the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem shouting "El Dowleh Ma'ana!" "The Government Is With Us!" The Arab police stood by or joined the rioters. The British military did not react initially and then moved slowly.
Order was not restored until the third day of rioting. By then, five Jews and four Arabs were dead and 211 Jews and 21 Arabs wounded. Two Jewish women had been raped. The Jews experienced situations similar to those in Russia from which many had fled.
The aftermath of the pogrom was still more unnerving. Chaim Weizmann wrote (in Trial and Error): When one small group of men, under Captain Ze'ev Jabotinsky, had come out to defend their quarter, they had been promptly arrested... In the trials which followed before a military court, Jabotinsky received the sentence of fifteen years hard labour."
Jabotinsky had been an officer in the British army during the recently concluded Great War, and had been instrumental in creating the military formation called the Jewish Legion to fight alongside the British against the Ottomans. (Later, Jabotinsky was a leading Zionist figure. His secretary in the late 1930s in New York was historian Benzion Netanyahu, one of whose sons would become Prime Minister of Israel.)
The reaction in England as in Jewish centers was outrage. An official court of inquiry was convened in Jerusalem, where British officers of the military administration defended their conduct, and Arabs accused the Jews of attacking them. The Jews accused the mandatory government of complicity in the Arab pogrom, and of encouraging Muslim nationalist unrest. At the same time, Colonel Richard Meinerzhagen, chief British intelligence officer in Cairo, astounded his superiors by fully endorsing the Zionist accusations.
Within the month following allocation of the Palestine Mandate to Britain, the military regime was replaced with a civil administration. Sir Herbert Samuel, an English Jew of high reputation in the British government, arrived in Jerusalem to take charge. Jabotinsky appealed his sentence, and in due course, it was quashed.
It was largely due to Sir Herbert Samuel that Amin Hussein became head of the Muslim Supreme Council and Mufti of Jerusalem. He gained considerable power and control over large funds. The results are well known: the Mufti was to arouse the Arabs repeatedly to murderous outrages against the Jews, and during World War II, was to dwell in Berlin and serve as an active ally of Hitler.
Through all of this, the Arabs learned a first lesson in dealing with appeasement-oriented Western democracies. Chaim Weizmann wrote: "The Arabs soon discovered that the High Commissioner's deep desire for peace made him susceptible to intimidation."
It is likely that the Nebi Musa violence convinced Sir Herbert Samuel that Arab disquiet could best be appeased by minimizing Jewish rights and the principle of unlimited Jewish immigration--this at a time of chaos and pogroms in Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. And so the concept of controlling, i.e., limiting, Jewish aliyah to the Jewish homeland became a policy of the British Mandate authorities. It ultimately cut off this logical Jewish refuge completely during the Nazi rule leading to the Holocaust.
Arab migration, meantime, was drawn across the open land frontiers of Eretz Yisrael/Palestine by the growing economic opportunities near flourishing Jewish communities. Land migration/immigration was uncontrolled, and the Arabs moved by land; the Jews mostly by sea. Jewish immigration was carefully regulated since the ports were tightly monitored by the British.
Two years after the Pesach violence, the British unilaterally sliced up the Mandate of Palestine, renaming the eastern three-quarters of it "Transjordan" and shifting the name of Palestine, which had applied to the whole, now only to the remaining one-quarter, really West Palestine. The British then prohibited Jewish settlement in Transjordan, i.e., East Palestine. In League of Nations documents, Jewish settlement in eastern Palestine was "postponed."
History repeats itself, and people forget; but it only takes a little effort to remember, remind others, and draw valuable lessons.
In 1948 Arab military forces of Transjordan invaded West Palestine, i.e., the remaining, narrowly circumscribed, Jewish Homeland, and newly declared State of Israel.
After capturing Judea and Samaria in 1948, and soon after annexing the areas and renaming them the "West Bank," the new Muslim authority, the Kingdom of Transjordan, prohibited the traditional spring pilgrimage and festival related to Nebi Musa. Apparently, it considered there was no appropriate target for the usual revelers except its own Hashemite regime, now ruling such massive parts of Palestine.
It soon renamed its country the Kingdom of Jordan, changing the name from the more limited Kingdom of Transjordan. The name Palestine was put in low-profile for the next nineteen years. That is, until Jordan in 1967 attacked Israel, was counterattacked, and lost Judea and Samaria to Israel. Soon afterwards, the Arabs again began to use the Roman name Palestine.
From 1948 to 1967--the entire period of Jordanian control over the site--the Nebi Musa religious shrine was desecrated by conversion into an ammunition dump and military base. In 1995, Israel gave administrative authority over the Nebi Musa site to the Palestinian Authority, which also would control nearby Jericho, although not the main highway or the hinterland towards the Dead Sea and into the Judean Desert to the south.
The Algerian-born caretaker of Nebi Musa had pointed to the old "No Smoking" signs written in Arabic and English, and explained when asked that they once warned of ammunition and fuel supplies.
In 1967, the Israelis found the domed stone sleeping rooms filled with army equipment, much of it U.S. Army surplus. One room was full of shovels, another of rubber boots! There was much ammunition, and thousands of jerry cans of gasoline. I was told that in the first weeks after the Six-Day War, some Israeli civilians as they explored the Judean and Samarian hills so central in their ancient history, had stopped at Nebi Musa to gas up their vehicles. The area and the site had been forbidden territory to Jews for the previous nineteen years of Arab-Jordanian occupation.
Currently, Nebi Musa is largely ignored, but a dramatic and telling story is represented by its presence. The Palestinian National Authority now administers the site, from nearby Jericho.
MICHAEL A. ZIMMERMAN, an American political analyst and writer, lived in Jerusalem for some years and thoroughly explored the rugged canyon and ravine-creased region of the Judean Wilderness to the east and south of Israel's capital. MikeZimmerman3@gmail.com