Category Archives: Tomb

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

Nebi Samuel

Nebi Samuel Overlooking the ancient route from Beit Horon to Jerusalem (today highway <436>) is a tree-covered, limestone mountain (885 meters high) that gets its name from the Hebrew prophet Samuel who according to Judaism, Christianity and Islam is buried there. Another tradition, supported by archaeological evidence, is that this site is Mizpeh, where Samuel anointed Saul, the first King of Israel and where King Solomon made a thousand burnt offerings at the high-place of Gibeon – the biblical city of Gibeon is only 1.5 km north of the site, today the Palestinian village of el-Jib, behind the separation wall. Excavations, still ongoing, have uncovered the remains of settlements from both the First Temple (7th century BCE) and Second Temple (Hasmonean) periods.

Nebi Samuel, Second Temple

According to the Biblical text I Samuel 25:1 it says that “Samuel died and all Israel gathered and lamented him and buried him in his home(town) in Ramah”. If this site is Mizpeh, then there would be a problem. In the Byzantine period (6th century), Christian tradition said that the prophet’s bones were relocated here and a monastery was built at the site to honor Samuel. In 1099, during the First Crusade, the Crusaders saw Jerusalem for the first time from here and named the mountain, Mons Gaudi (Mountain of Joy). There is still a great view of Jerusalem but of course a much different view than what the Crusaders saw. As part of the fortress that they built there in the 12th century, was a Romanesque style church over the burial cave and a hostel for Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. When the Crusaders were defeated by the Arabs under Salah a-Din in 1187 the fortifications were destroyed. In the 14th century the Mamelukes converted the church to a mosque. The building and minaret we see today is neither Mameluke nor Ottoman (though the lovely inscription over the door is) but rebuilt by the British after WWI – in the heavy fighting between the Turks and British and aerial bombardment by the British for the strategic hill damaged the building. Jewish armies fought here, from forces led by Judah the Maccabi against the Seleucid-Greeks in 165 BCE to the Harel Brigade who failed to capture the mountain during the War of Independence (1948) but were successful in the Six-Day War (1967).

Preparation of moat

On the western side you can see a section of the moat that was never completed, the large blocks of limestone stand detached ready to be quarried. The path continues past a small Muslim cemetery through an orchard of old olive and fig trees to a spring, named for Hannah, Samuel’s mother, that flows out of a cave in the bedrock.

Hannah's Spring

Euthemius, Judean Desert Monastery

The history of the third monastery of Euthemius, which bears his name, illustrates the history of Christian monasticism in the Judean desert. Young monks were drawn to the holy Euthemius and the monastery became the most important and central among the Byzantine monasteries in the 5th century CE.

Northern wall Euthemius

Euthemius came to the Holy Land as a pilgrim in 406 from Armenia and stayed at the laura of Faran, founded by the monk Chariton at Wadi Qelt. A laura is a cluster of caves or cells where monks live in seclusion and meditation. They gathered centrally once a week, generally on Sunday, for prayer. After five years, he and a fellow hermit, Theoktistus, moved to a cave on the cliffs of Nahal Og. With additional monks attracted to Euthemius, the site became the first coenobium in the Judean desert. A coenobium is a communal monastery where the monks live together with a strict daily schedule of work and prayer, a walled complex that consists of living quarters, refectory and church.

Inside Euthemius monasteryTo continue in solitude, Euthemius and a fellow hermit, left the monastery and moved to the ruins of Masada. In 428 CE he returned to the monastery of Theoktistus but preferring solitude went to live in a cave to the west of the monastery off the main Jericho-Jerusalem road. When other monks joined him, it grew into a laura. In 475, after a full life, Euthemius died at the age of 97.  After his death, the laura became a coenobium and a crypt was built in the center of the monastery around the same cave where the monastery had begun and his bones re-interred there. Pilgrims came to visit the monastery to pay their respects to Euthemius and a tradition arose to pour wine down a chute to the crypt which poured over his bones – the wine was collected as a keepsake.

By the end of the fifth century many important monasteries were established, including Mar Saba, Martyrius, Gerasimus and St. George – all of which can be visited on a tour of monasteries in the northern Judean desert, also called the desert of Jerusalem because of its proximity to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Unlike most Christian sites, the monastery was not damaged by the Islamic conquest of 638. However, it was severely damaged in the 659 earthquake – the ruins of the church that we see today are from after the earthquake, the mosaic floor is from the Byzantine period.

Mosaic floorThe monasteries in the Judean desert were frequently attacked during the Islamic period and in 809 the monastery was plundered and destroyed in the 12th century. The main arched gate on the northern wall and the eastern wall and the opus sectile floor in the church are from the Crusader period.

Crusader opus sectileThe other important aspect of the Judean desert monasteries are their water systems, for little rainfall falls in the region and water had to be accumulated or it would be impossible to live there. Four tremendous cisterns were discovered in the monastery. You can enter the largest one (12 meters by 18 meters and 12 meters deep that would hold 3000 cubic meters) which is outside the eastern wall. Channels bring water from runoff to a collecting pool and then to the covered cistern.

Large cistern Euthemius

Monumental enough for Herod the Great?

My article with Bonna Devora Haberman in Jerusalem Post:

So they went eight furlongs [a mile, per day] to Herodium; for there by his own command he was to be buried. And thus did Herod end his life.  Josephus, Antiquities, XVII, 8.3.

Herodium

From 37 B.C.E. until his grisly demise in 4 B.C.E., Herod the Great ruled over Judea. World history has anointed few with the epithet “the Great”. He masterminded and engineered the Jerusalem Temple – among the magnificent temples in the ancient world, the fortress-complex at Masada – the most-visited site in Israel, Caesarea – in its day, the largest all-weather harbor built in the open sea, imposing cities, aqueducts, and finally, Herodium – the most spacious palace known to us in the Greco-Roman world before the common era. A giant who moved mountains, Herod was respected, feared, and despised. Reckoning with Herod is indispensable to interpreting the historical and material landscape of Israel.

Herod’s passion lives on. Herod proved to be archaeology professor Ehud Netzer’s nemesis. The Israel Museum staff have been toiling for three years to present Netzer’s discoveries in the first exhibit in the world dedicated to Herod. Commensurate with his life and work, “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” is unprecedented in grandeur and expense – displayed in 900 square meters, approximately 250 artifacts related to Herod are exhibited, many for the first time. To show even this tiny sampling of his massive production, Herod fittingly required the museum to reinforce its very foundations.

The Jewish Roman historian Josephus Flavius records extensive narrative about Herod – nearly a century after the events. Though he describes in precise detail Herod’s majestic funeral procession to Herodium – performed according to Herod’s own orders – Josephus mysteriously neglects to mention the location of Herod’s tomb. [Read more]


For an in-depth day with Herod – at Herodium and the Israel Museum and/or personalized guided tours of Herod’s other sites and more, please contact Shmuel.

Archaeology in Israel Tour

I’m delighted to announce that Dan McLerran at Popular Archaeology and I are creating a phenomenal tour of archaeological sites in Israel that I will be guiding October 2013.
I invite you to join us on this adventure, 12 days of touring in Israel, where we’ll cover the famous sites like Megiddo and Hazor and uncover some of the less well-known gems like Sussita-Hippos, one of the Decapolis cities overlooking the Sea of Galilee that was destroyed in the earthquake of 749CE and never rebuilt.

Sussita excavation

We’ll start by going back 6500 years to the Chalcolithic period and tour up on the Golan Heights to learn about burial at that time. We’ll see dolmens, the megalithic tombs consisting of a flat rock resting on two vertical rocks that mark a grave. We’ll hike to the cultic site of Rujm el Hiri – is it a site that is connected to the calendar or to burial? At Ein Gedi we’ll see the ruins of a Chalcolithic temple. We’ll see artifacts at the Israel museum, examples of clay ossuaries and fine bronze castings of ritual objects.

We’ll follow in the path of the Kings from 1000BCE to 586BCE by traveling from Dan where a piece of a basalt victory stella in Aramaic was found mentioning the kings of Israel and the house of David. We will explore the City of David, the walled Jebusite city on the ridge between the Kidron and Tyropean valleys. We’ll walk through Hezekiah’s tunnel that brought the water of the Gihon spring to the Siloam pool inside the walls. From there we will follow in the steps of pilgrims to the Temple mount. Part of the 650m distance will be in Jerusalem’s drainage channel until we come out right under Robinson’s Arch. We’ll see the Broad wall, the remains of an 8 meter high wall that protected Jerusalem from the north in the time of the Kings.

Khirbet Qeiyafa

We’ll explore the walled Judean city of Khirbet Qeiyafa, with two gates and hence identified as Shaarayim, situated on the border of Judea facing the Phillistines.

We’ll learn about the Second Temple Period, specifically the time of the Hasmoneans and King Herod who ruled under the auspices of the Romans. We’ll check out Herod’s impressive building projects. At Caesarea, we have the temple to Augustus, the protected harbor, the palace as well as a theater and a hippodrome later used as an amphitheater. At Sebaste there is another temple to Augustus. Josephus writes that Herod built a third temple at Banias. It’s unclear whether the temple was at Banias or nearby, perhaps at Omrit. We’ll visit Herod’s palaces at Masada, the Western palace and the 3 tier hanging palace on the northern end of the site. We’ll explore the palace and administrative complex at Lower Herodium and the palace/fortress on the top of a manmade mountain where the base of a mausoleum was discovered by Prof. Ehud Netzer in 2007.

Herodium Palace:fortress

We’ll visit the newly opened exhibit at the Israel museum Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey, artifacts from Herodium on display for the first time. We’ll also visit the Second Temple period model that displays Jerusalem at its peak just before its destruction at the hand of the Romans. We’ll visit the Shrine of the Book that houses the Dead Sea scrolls and other artifacts and combine that with the archaeological site of Qumran by the Dead Sea where the scrolls were found.

We’ll focus on the architecture of sacred space and check out various churches, in the basilica and martyrium form from the Byzantine period (4th to 7th century) and synagogues from the same period. We’ll see some amazing mosaics by visiting the  museum at the Inn of Good Samaritan, the archaeological sites of Sepphoris/Tzippori, and the synagogue at Beit Alfa. We’ll visit sites off the beaten path like the Kathisma church on the way to Bethlehem and Samaritan site on Mount Gerizim.

Synagogue mosaic floor at Israel Museum

Besides the Western wall, Judaism’s holy site, we will visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the holiest site to Christianity and go up onto the Haram el-Sharif to see the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site to Islam.

We’ll travel around the Sea of Galilee stopping at sites important to Christianity like Kursi, Capernaum and Magdala. We’ll even go up to the Golan Heights to the Jewish city of Gamla, the Masada of the north.

Gamla

For anyone who enjoys taking photographs, there will be plenty of opportunities and as an special incentive to join the tour, participants will be able to submit their best photographs from the tour to a special Pinterest site and will have a chance to win up to $1000. for the “best photo”.

If you’re interested in participating in an archaeological tour of the Holy Land, contact  me.

Photo of the Week – Mystical Tzfat

With the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, many prominent rabbis found their way to Safed (in Hebrew, Tzfat), among them the Kabbalists Isaac Luria and Moshe Kordovero; Joseph Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch and Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, composer of the Sabbath hymn Lecha Dodi. They are buried in the cemetery, their graves traditionally painted sky-blue, at the foot of the mountain south of the city.

Safed came to be regarded as one of the four holy cities along with Jerusalem, Hebron and Tiberias. Safed is associated with the element of air, a reference to the mystical/spiritual branch of Judaism, Kabbalah that flourished there.

Mystical TzfatYou can click on the image for a larger view (which may take some time to load depending on your Internet connection). Please share this post with your friends by clicking on the icons at the end of this message.

The technical details – the photo was taken with a Nikon D90 digital camera in May (ISO 3200, 29mm, F13 at 1/800 sec).

Photographs on this website are © Shmuel Browns (unless marked otherwise) – if you are interested in purchasing one of my photos or using one of my photos for your own project please contact me.

Roman Mausoleum

Because our son Amitai is training new recruits for the Border Police I attended the swearing-in ceremony at Tel Hadid. Hadid is mentioned in Nehemiah 7 in the list of cities to which Jews returned from the Babylonian exile. In excavations at Tel Hadid archaeologists found a typical four room house,  numerous potsherds from the Iron Age (9th-8th centuries BCE) and two complete tablets, written in cuneiform, Assyrian legal documents one recording the sale of land dating from 698BCE and the other a promissory note from 664BCE. The tablets are evidence that with the conquest of Judea by Sargon II foreigners from Babylonia were settled at Hadid.

Continuing north past Tel Hadid along highway 444 (which follows the route of the Via Maris) is a small stone building, a Roman mausoleum, amazingly intact and graced with a magnificent temple-like façade in classical style, two columns with Corinthian capitals framing a single entrance (closed originally with a stone door, note the recesses on the doorposts for a mezuza).

According to the style of the building and the remnants of two sarcophagi (stone coffins) in the floor of the main chamber, archaeologists conclude that it was built in the beginning of the 4th century CE for a wealthy landowner and his wife, although their identities remain a mystery.

A second chamber to the left is a columbarium with about 60 “pigeonholes” where doves were raised for sacrifice to Aphrodite. Of interest is a cantilevered stone staircase leading up to the opening at ceiling level.

Later the Muslims added a michrab, a niche in the southern wall signifying the direction of Mecca, and dedicated the site to Nebi Yihya, associated by local tradition with John the Baptist. In this way, the building was preserved through the ages.