Mount Nebo is a 1,000m (3,300ft) high mountain located 10km/6 mi NW of Madaba in Jordan, opposite the northern end of the Dead Sea. According to ancient tradition, this is the mountain from which Moses saw the Promised Land before he died.
Because of its connection to Moses, Mt. Nebo has long been an important place of Christian pilgrimage. Excavations led by the Franciscans, who own the site, have uncovered significant remains of the early church and its magnificent Byzantine mosaics. A simple modern shelter dedicated to Moses has been built over them.
In the Bible
Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land…. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendents.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”
And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day on one knows where his grave is. –Deuteronomy 34:1-6
In the 4th century AD a sanctuary, mentioned by the pilgrim nun Egeria, was built on Mount Nebo (Fasaliyyeh in Arabic) to honor Moses, possibly on the site of an even older structure. The church was finished by 394 AD and had three east apses flanked by funerary chapels on the north and south sides.
In the 6th century, the church was enlarged and transformed into a basilica with a sacristy and new baptistery (whose surviving floor mosaics date from c.530 AD). Soon the church was the heart of a large monastery and pilgrimage center that would thrive for nearly six centuries.
The site was abandoned by 1564 and remained mostly neglected for several centuries more. Finally, in 1993, the site was purchased by the Franciscans, who excavated and restored the area. On March 19, 2000, Pope John Paul II visited the site during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, planting an olive tree next to the Byzantine chapel for peace.
Today, Mount Nebo is an active Franciscan monastery, the headquarters of the Franciscan Archaeological Institute, and a popular stop for pilgrims and tourists alike.
What to See
Rising over 700m above the Jordan Valley, Mount Nebo offers spectacular views of the Promised Land as seen by Moses. On the platform at the summit is a modern sculpture by an Italian artist representing Moses’ staff and Jesus’ words in John 3: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
Elements of a triple-apse Byzantine basilica were uncovered by archaeologists in the 1930s, and have been incorporated into the structure of the modern church building, known as the Memorial Church of Moses. The modern additions to the church are very simple, consisting of little more than a shelter over the fascinating excavations and ancient mosaic floors.
Just inside the entrance to the left is the excavated Old Baptistery, which has one of the most interesting ancient mosaics in Jordan. The baptistery and the mosaic can be precisely dated to August 531 thanks to a Greek inscription, which also names the three workers who created it and the bishop at the time (Elias).
The Old Baptistery mosaic is in remarkably pristine condition because another one was laid over it just a few decades later in 597. The underlying mosaic remained hidden for nearly 1,400 years until it was discovered in 1976 when the one on top was removed for restoration (it now hangs on a wall).
The mosaic of 531 is a large square divided into four strips of scenes of men and animals, surrounded by a chain-style border. The top two sections depict fierce hunting scenes: a shepherd fighting a lion, a soldier fighting a lioness, and two horseback hunters defeating a bear and wild boar.
The lower scenes are pastoral but with a touch of the exotic: a shepherd watching his goat and sheep graze in the shade of trees; an ostrich on a leash held by a dark-skinned man; and a boy holding the leashes of a zebra and a spotted animal that looks very much like a camel but might be intended to represent a giraffe.
There are more mosaics in the nave and side aisles of the church, including some fragments of the 597 mosaic pavement. The oldest mosaic in the church is a braided cross displayed on the south wall.
Also hanging here are mosaics of animals from the Church of George in Mukhayyat. One of these is from 536 and has an inscription that some believe is the earliest example of Arabic script in Jordan (others argue it is old Aramaic).
In the far right-hand corner of the church is the New Baptistery (597 AD), which was previously a funerary chapel. It includes a small mosaic originally from the threshold bearing the greeting, “Peace to all.”
Next to the New Baptistry, a lovely mosaic cross from the original 4th-century church stands on a modern altar in its original location. A photograph of the Pope praying at the same altar is proudly displayed.
Next to the exit door is the Theotokos Chapel, added in the 7th century where three rooms of the monastery previously stood. Its apse has a mosaic of a square object that may be a ciborium (vessel for the Eucharist) or altar canopy, accompanied by bulls and gazelles. The floor of the chapel is paved with mosaics of plants and flowers.
Foundations of the ancient monastery are visible outside
@Drive along the same route prophet Moses (pbuh) was forbidden to travel on by the King of Edom (Numbers 20), and picture yourself standing where Moses was laid to rest, and where the late Pope John Paul II tread on his first pilgrimage of the millennium.
Visit the Sanctuary at Nebo: the memorial of Moses (pbuh), the presumed site of his death and burial place, and a center for pilgrimages since earliest Christian times. You’ll be inspired by the biblical feel from start to finish as you experience this divine tour.
Mount Nebo is one of the most revered holy sites of Jordan, located 10 km west of the Roman Byzantine town of Madaba, for this is where Moses (pbuh) was buried. The site’s association with the last days of Moses is described in moving words in Deuteromony (34:1-7). The episode of Balak and Balam (2:13-26) also took place here.
The site’s other name is Pisgah: “And Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah which is opposite Jericho“. From the mountaintop, which is the highest point in the Moabite range, rising to about 800 meters at its apex, you can admire the dazzling view across the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea, to the rooftops of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Centuries ago, pilgrims flocked to Mount Nebo on their final destination to visit the sanctuary. These pilgrims left behind vivid accounts of their travels, which helped archaeologists identify this sanctuary.
In the summer of 1933, excavations at Syagha, one of the highest peaks at Nebo, began under the direction of the Jerusalemite Franciscan Fathers. Three long archaeological campaigns had previously resulted in the discovery of the Basilica and of a large monastery, which had continued to expand through the 6th century.
Mount Nebo’s first church was constructed in the 2nd half of the 4th century to commemorate the place of Moses’ death. It had three apses and was preceded by a vestibule paved with plain white mosaic; two funeral chapels stood to the north and south of the lateral apses.
Six tombs have been found hollowed from the natural rock beneath the mosaic-covered floor of the church. In the present presbytery you can see remnants of mosaic floors from different periods. The earliest of these is a panel with a braided cross presently placed on the east end of the south wall.
The Old Diaconicon Baptistery
The three apsed cella (cella trichola) was preceded by a courtyard. In August 531 AD a Diaconicon Baptistery was built to the north of the courtyard against one of the funeral chapels. It was reached by a short flight of stairs, as it was one meter lower than the floor of the courtyard.
This rectangular room contained the baptismal stone fountain fashioned in the form of a cross and coated with a thick layer of time plaster. Two Greek inscriptions show the date of the mosaic floor (August 531), the name of the mosaicists, Soel, Kaium, and Elias, and the name of the Bishop of Madaba, Elias.
In its decorative scheme, the mosaic floor is divided into three distinct panels in floor registers depicting pastoral and hunting scenes.
The 5th 7th Century Basilica
In the latter half of the 6th century the monks decided to enlarge their sanctuary. When removing the facade, the primitive church became the presbytery and the three naves were constructed on the site of the old vestibule and courtyard.
The mosaic work decorating the new basilica was integrated into a single large design or composition centered on a grapevine, with a swastika motif running along the perimeter of the interior of the building. Of this large composition, all that remains today are some geometric designs from the two lateral naves, a large section of the panels that adorned the intervals between the columns, and two fragments from the central nave.
The New Diaconicon
After the funeral chapel and the Diaconicon Baptistery were dismantled, the floor was adjusted to level with the rest of the basilica, making a single large chapel divided by stairs and railing into two separate rooms. The eastern room was decorated with mosaic depicting animals and flowers inserted in a geometrical frame; the western room was graced with geometrical motifs.
The elongated chapel might have been used as the Diaconicon of the basilica and as a chapter room for the monks.
Perhaps during the same period in which the Diaconicon was altered and embellished, the ancient funeral chapel was destroyed, and a new room, replete with mosaics, was built instead. This was replaced by a new baptistery with its own mosaics in 597-598 AD. Over the threshold at the entrance of the baptistery, was a welcoming inscription, “Peace to All”, placed to greet visitors entering the chapel.
The Theotokos Chapel
During the first decade of the 7th century, the western door to the baptistery was walled up, three rooms of the monastery were destroyed, and the floor was leveled with the rest of the basilica. This provided the basis and foundation for the construction of the Theotokos (Mother of God) chapel.
This chapel had its own apse and was divided by a railing into two distinct rooms. The floor decoration received special attention with rich geometric multi-color designs encompassing pictures of flowers, animals as well as a ciborium above an altar flanked by two bulls and gazelles.
While the sanctuary was undergoing various stages of architectural development, a parallel series of improvements and changes were taking place in the adjacent monastery. From its primitive nucleus of cells discovered by the archaeologists just outside the basilica on the northern side of the mountain, the complex gradually expanded into a monastic community of a respectable size in that very monastic Byzantine world.
The restoration work preserved for future generations this extraordinary Monument of the Faith and brought new life to a sanctuary constructed in ancient times to honor Moses, the Prophet and man of God. Since September 4, 1976, the annual feast of Moses is celebrated and the Christian community join with the Franciscan Fathers in this solemnity.
The Italian artist, Giovanni Fantoni, is credited with designing the metal decorations inside the sanctuary as well as the Serpentine Cross (The Brazen Serpent Monument) on the exterior. These are symbolic of the bronze serpent taken by Moses (pbuh) into the desert, and the cross upon which Jesus (pbuh) was crucified.
About 1 km east of Mount Nebo, you can see the spring of Moses, mentioned by Egeria, Peter the Iberian, and Theodosius. In the springtime, this area is dotted by Eucalyptus trees, which grow close to two churches built in the 6th century, with enchanting mosaics: the churches of Deacon Thomas and Kayanos which were adorned with another mosaic pavement in the seventh Century. The churches were destroyed by a powerful earthquake which hit the region in AD 749.