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Mount Nebo: New Archaeological Excavations

By Michele Piccirillo and Eugenio Alliata
Studium Biblicum Franciscanum
Jerusalem, 634 pp., illustrated
2 volumes (text and plates)

by Rami G. Khouri

PERHAPS IT is due to the academic tradition of their Franciscan order; or the important place of the Prophet Moses in biblical tradition and the three Abrahamic faiths; or the very dramatic and always moving setting and views at Mount Nebo... Whatever may be the reason, the authors.., of, this large and impressive piece of scholarship have produced a work of nearly biblical proportions, in all senses of the word. The large physical size, the comprehensive sweep of the material covered, the temporal and spiritual nature of the subject matter, and the profound, definitive quality of the scholarship, all make this a most fitting second volume in the series that was inaugurated a few years ago with the single volume on the Franciscan excavations at Umm er-Rasas (biblical Mepha'a).

group photo of the early seventies

Fr. Bagatti (standing far left) with Fr Piccirillo seated (first from right)
in a picture of the early seventies at Mount Nebo

...... The summit of Siyagha, as Mount Nebo is known in Arabic, was granted into the perpetual care of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land in 1932 by the late King Abdullah, thanks to the enterprising efforts of brother Jerome Mihaic, a Croatian who was based in Jericho. Father Sylvester Saller, an archaeologist, first visited the site in late 1931 and recognised that it could be the site of the Memorial to Moses that had been described by early Christian. pilgrims starting in the 4th century AD.

The first excavations were inaugurated in July 1933. For the past 65 years, excavations, surveys and scholarly and theological studies of the site of Mt. Nebo have taken place, almost without interruption. This publication represents the latest manifestation of the tremendous amount of work that has gone into the scholarly investigations of this holy mountain,, made famous primarily by the account in Deuteronomy 34 of Moses' death on the summit of Mt. Nebo and his burial in a nearby valley. This volume on the 1967-97 excavations will be followed up with a second book on the large monastery on the summit, and a third volume on the regional survey that has been carried out by a Danish team. The authors mention "the windy summit of this mountain" in their preface, and some 640 pages later the reader is left dazzled by a tour-de-force of new information and analysis on the many different dimensions of this famous peak. The book starts with a few valuable background chapters on the exploration of the mountain in the past two centuries, its place in biblical traditionion (including non-biblical references, the Mesha Inscription from Dhiban, the historicity of the Moses traditions and their theological significance), the question of the grave of Moses in Jewish literature, and early pilgrims' texts starting from the 3rd and 4th Centuries AD.

The next three chapters commence the more technical archaeological analysis, reviewing the prehistoric periods; the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, the edifice at Rujm el-Mukhayyat, and one of the most fascinating chapters for the general reader the rediscovery and documentation of the Roman road between Esbus and Livias (Hesban and the south Jordan Valley).

The bulk of the book reports on the excavations of the Memorial of Moses. This comprises the complex of churches and chapels that developed on and near the main site throughout the early Christian centuries, the associated monastery, and related sites in the vicinity. The successive monastic complexes in the area are systematically reviewed, from the 4th to the 10th centuries AD, giving us a more comprehensive perception of the revered nature of this site throughout the first Christian millennium.

Churches and mosaics

Mt. Nebo's churches, mosaics, funerary practices, and liturgical installations and furniture are reported on in depth in the next six chapters, including a fascinating short study of iconoclastic and iconophobic traditions that are visible today in the scrambled or defaced images of human and animal forms in Byzantine or Umayyad era floor mosaics. More than one third of the 149 churches in Jordan with ancient mosaic floors show signs of intentional iconoclastic damage.

mosaics at A'in Mousa Valley

Cleaning mosaic remains in the 'Uyyun Mousa Valley

The combination of concise, well organised text, many black and white and colour photographs, fine drawings and plates, and an especially valuable collection of aerial photographs make these central chapters of the book useful for both scholars who want technical details and laypeople who may be more interested in a tourist visit to this holy mountain.

The section of colour photographs, of the. rnosaics is particularly valuable, because it is comprehensive, up-to-date, and beautifully reproduced, allows readers to enjoy some stunning mosaic floors that are not otherwise accessible because they have been re-buried or removed for storage. The full-page close-ups of the Persian, Negro and other hunters and their animals are almost 'most haunting' in their capacity to connect us with human beings who lived in this land nearly a Millennium and a half ago. I, or one, have never been an enthusiastic mosaics fan, tending to' subscribe to the "you've-seen - one - you've - seen - them - all" school of thought; but the, combination of textual description and photographs in this volume have started to change even my rather set views in this department.

Readers interested primarily in the religious and, liturgical dimension of Mt. Nebo will find plenty to keep them reading, especially in the details of the liturgical installations and furniture excavated in the many churches (such as altars, relics and reliquaries, pulpits, and benches and seats, among others).

A relatively long and richly illustrated chapter on the Greek inscriptions also provides a glimpse into one aspect of the excitement of archaeological research, as scholars use individual words (and sometimes single letters or numbers) to try to piece together the facts of the past. The book ends with several chapters of detailed information and many photographs and drawings of and objects and coins excavated at Mt. Nebo, and a chapter on the new architectural surveys at Siyagha. The, last brief chapter appropriately offers ideas on how to protect the entire area around Mt. Nebo, which is so rich in antiquities and religious significance - for followers of the three monotheistic faiths.

copying a just discovered inscription

Copying a just discovered mosaic inscription at A'in al-Kaniseh

Only one aspect of this publication occasionally falls slightly short of the very high quality of the overall work, and this is the smoothness of the English language. The work was rightly translated from Italian into English, making it accessibE to a far wider audience than would have read the Italian version only. The scholarly dimension and quality of the translation are very high, but in various places it could have benefited from an editor's review to smooth out some of the phrasings in English.

Large, useful plates

The separate volume of plates (many large maps. folded into two pockets) is valuable for both the scholar and the lay person. The large size of the plates, for one thing, makes it easy to study individual monuments, in many cases showing individual stones in walls and other structures. In addition, some of the plates help us to appreciate, the evolution of the site over the centuries. The colour Plate showing the development of Mt. Nebo from the 4th to the 8th centuries AD is a gem, as is the plan of the Memorial of Moses today. The publishers should consider making these plans available to visitors in a slightly smaller form, and selling them on site to raise money for the maintanance of the memorial.

On the point of money, one of the many impressive aspects of this publication is that it was financed by several Italian private sector companies, whose donations were tax deductible according to Italian law (Jordanian parliamentarians, please take note of how the private sector and the government can work together to protect antiquities and make them more easily understandable by the public). The sponsors of this publication are Ballestra SpA; Brevitours, Nebo Tourism, Testco; Massolini SpA; Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi; and Salini Costruttori, whose generous and thoughtful contributions should be acknowledged with thanks.

This volume emphasises the varied spiritual, archaeological, tourist and natural dimensions of the region of Mt. Nebo, and the wise decision that the late King Abdullah made decades ago to entrust its study and care to the Franciscan brothers. One looks forward with anticipation to the volumes to follow.


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