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at Mount Nebo

    by Rami Khouri published in the Jordan Times

    A NEW interpretation centre for visitors was opened at Mount Nebo on Thursday by Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, in the presence of Jordanian officials and members of the Franciscan community who have excavated and maintained this holy site since the 1930s.

    The new centre is a beautiful and pioneering work of art in itself. It sets a standard of excellence for other such centres that may be established around the country. It comprises a series of glass showcases, wall panels, reproductions of ancient mosaics and inscriptions, and free-standing original antiquities that together provide visitors with a splendid overview and appreciation of the Mount Nebo monastery/sanctuary and the surrounding landscape.

    The interpretative and informational materials are housed in a specially designed stone building that is flooded with natural daylight. Visitors entering the Mount Nebo site are guided through the centre on their way from the parking lot to the main church. Even residents of Jordan who have been to Mt. Nebo many times would benefit from a walk through the centre, which would certainly expand their appreciation of this important site.

    The centre was designed, built and equipped by the Franciscan Custody of Terra Sancta who have custody of the area and was dedicated to the memory of Gian Battista Massolini (1940-1996).

    The centre was developed with contributions by Vito Sonzogni and Giovanni Wagner, with funding from the Massolini Group of companies, Italian Cooperation (Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs), the Canadian Fund, and Conferenza Episcopale Italiana and Guido Crippa.

    Mount Nebo was inhabited at least 6,000 years ago, but is best known as the place from where Moses viewed the Promised Land before he died and was buried somewhere in an adjacent valley, as described in the Book of Deuteronomy 34: "Then Moses went up from the lowlands of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, eastwards from Jericho. And the Lord showed him the whole land.... There in the land of Moab Moses the servant of the Lord died, as the Lord had said. He was buried in a valley in Moab opposite Beth-Peor, but to this day no one knows his burial place."

    Mt. Nebo reaches an altitude of some 800 metres above sea level, and its two most important peaks are the western peak of Siyagha with the Memorial Church of Moses, and the southeastern peak of Al Mukhayyat, which is identified with the town of Nebo.

    The Franciscan excavations since the 1930s have revealed that the earliest memorial church to Moses was built at Mt. Nebo probably in the second half of the Fourth Century AD. The large braided mosaic cross inside the church today dates from the original church, and some of the large stones on the external face of the apse are also from the 4th Century church. The church was subsequently expanded and rebuilt in the 6th and early 7th centuries, leaving us the three-nave basilica that stands today with its beautiful collection of exhibited floor mosaics. The earliest church was visited by pilgrims such as Egeria and Peter the Iberian in the late 4th Century.

    Peter the Iberian wrote that: "All the inhabitants of that region together hurriedly brought building material. This temple was built in the name of the great Prophet and Lawgiver, and he proclaims publicly to every man, and so that no doubt is possible, his goodness and power by means of signs and wonders and cures, which since that time have occurred at this place without interruption. For it is a place of cure both for the souls and for the bodies, and a place of refuge for all those, who come here from all places and are afflicted in soul and affected with many kinds of sufferings of the body."

    The panels, photographs and exhibited antiquities in the interpretation centre provide visitors with a comprehensive yet succinct and visually pleasing explanation of the sacred nature of the entire mountain and its several adjacent sites, including the pilgrims' road from the Jordan River area. The Sixth Milestone of the Roman Esbous-Livias Road is on display in the centre, and the accompanying panel explains that the road was used by pilgrims who came from Jerusalem, via Jericho and the Jordan River, to reach the sanctuary of Moses on Mount Nebo. The Sixth Milestone was located near the Roman fortress of Al Mahattah, halfway between Esbus (Hisban) and Livias (Tell Al Ramah). At that point, travellers could turn off to visit the Springs of Moses ('Ayun Musa) in the valley north of Mt. Nebo. This milestone was erected upon completion of works to upgrade this part of the Roman road, carried out by order of the governor Furnius Iulianus in 213 AD at the time of Emperor Caracalla.

    Large photographs help visitors appreciate this route that linked Jerusalem with Mt. Nebo. Other helpful photographs show Mt. Nebo itself and the start of excavations in the 1930s, the 'Uyun Musa valley, Early Bronze Age pottery and Iron Age Moabite figurines, Roman pottery, Byzantine glass vessels and an Umayyad jar, the three main phases of the Memorial of Moses and some of its mosaic floors, Greek and Palestino-Aramaic inscriptions from churches in the area, and mosaics from sites around the Mt. Nebo region. One Palestino-Aramaic inscription found in the lower mosaic floor of the Church of Kayanos in 'Uyun Musa reads: "The reader will keep the memory of the benefits of our master Gayanos the Priest, and of his heirs who have provided the furnishings of the church..."

    The new centre also provides information about the survey that was conducted in the entire region of the holy mountain, with the purpose of documenting the archaeological richness of the area and protecting it as an archaeological park. In cooperation with Danish archaeologists sponsored by the Danish Palestine Foundation, a detailed archaeological survey was conducted and a map of the Mount Nebo region was prepared, listing more than 700 ancient sites and monuments. The panels explain the importance of some of these sites that date back to the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age periods.

    The town of Nebo in the Bible is identified with Khirbat Al Mukhayyat, just to the south-east of Mt. Nebo and easily accessible by road. According to biblical tradition, Nebo was given to the tribe of Reuben (Num 32:38), but it was also listed among the cities of the land of Madaba on the high plateau of Moab in Isaiah 15:2 and Jeremiah 48:22.

    King Mesha of Moab recaptured the region of Madaba from the king of Israel in the 9th Century BC, conquered Nebo town, killed its inhabitants, and removed the vessels of the sanctuary. This is mentioned in the Dhiban Stele (or Moabite Stone) that was found in Dhiban in 1868; a photograph of the stele is on display in the new centre, and helps visitors appreciate the wider history and archaeological context of the Mt. Nebo site and its surrounding region.

    (Our Note: this is another achievment of the Franciscans at Mount Nebo. Two other daring projects are still in the offing: the setting up of a protected area to preserve the beauty and historic heritage of the mountian and a new covering for the Sanctuary... )


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