A Glimpse of the Tomb of Moses

Driving from Jerusalem to Jericho or the Dead Sea there is a road sign with the words “Nebi Musa”, the prophet Moses. As the landscape flashes by outside your window you may be able to make out a low stone building with white domes that appears fleetingly between the hills. To explore further, take the exit and follow the curving road past a Muslim cemetery on the slope in the desert, an interesting location to photograph in black and white or color.

Nebi musa

Nebi Musa cemetery B&W

Nebi Musa cemetery 2 B&W

From this point you can look across the Jordan Valley and see Mount Nebo where according to the last chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses ascended the mountain to view the land of Israel, that he would never enter. According to Jewish tradition Moses died and was buried in an unknown valley in Moab; according to Christian tradition and some Muslim traditions, Moses was buried on the mountain. 

The Nebi Musa site off the Jerusalem-Jericho road goes back to 1269 when the Mamluk sultan Baybars built a small shrine setting a precedent for others. Over the late medieval period (between 1470 and 1480), accommodation for travelers was added next to the shrine. Gradually, the lookout point for Moses’ distant gravesite beyond the Jordan was confused with Moses’ tomb itself, laying the groundwork for the cultic importance of Nebi Musa to Muslims. Around 1820 the Ottoman Turks restored the buildings which had over the previous centuries fallen into a state of dilapidated disrepair.

The Turks promoted a festive pilgrimage to the shrine that goes back to the time of Saladin that coincides on the calendar with the Christian celebration of Easter. This ‘invention of tradition’, as such imaginative constructs are called, made the pageantry of the Nebi Musa pilgrimage a potent symbol of religious as well as political and national identity among Muslims from the outset of the modern period.

Nebi Musa 2

Nebi Musa Judean desert

Nebi Musa


4 thoughts on “A Glimpse of the Tomb of Moses

  1. Bob

    Such a SIDE TRIP. Gorgeous photographs — I lean toward the B+W. A fascinating / important story regarding the impact of interpretation — Where WAS Moses buried? I look forward to and enjoy your Blog. Thanks.

  2. Outremer

    Shmuel, hi…

    Very interesting post about a place I have visited on several occasions. One hears many versions of the origins of both the site and the festival. I have never been totally clear on either, and am still a bit confused: Specifically, if the first shrine dates to Baybars (1269), then what is it that “goes back to the time of Saladin” in the previous century? I’m not trying to be overly analytical, just wondering, per your sources!

    In any event, the idea that it started as a viewpoint for Moses’ resting place in Moab, then morphed into the place itself (which I had never heard before), makes a sort of sense, knowing how some other “holy places” have evolved or “moved” in history. It certainly explains the disconnect with the biblical tradition.

    About the date, I have heard that it was very deliberately set to always coincide with the Eastern/Orthodox Holy Week, as a competing festival. (It was during the dueling festivals in 1911, with Jerusalem crowded to the max, that the uproar broke out over the quack archaeologist Montague Parker’s violation of the Dome of the Rock, resulting in several fatalities.)

    TOM POWERS / Waynesville, NC

  3. Shmuel Browns Post author

    I understand that there was a tradition of a Muslim festival during Easter that goes back to the time of Saladin, even before Baybars built a shrine at the site.

  4. Pingback: Through My Lens, Dead Sea | Israel Tour Guide | Israel Tours

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