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Mount Nebo
  an introduction


© Michele Piccirillo

The presence of the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land on Mount Nebo was made possible thanks to the enthusiasm and enterprise of brother Jerome Mihaic, a Croatian. Besides being responsible for the upkeep of the gardens the Custody had at Jericho, was also a friend and benefactor of the Bedouin families living both to the east and west of the Jordan River. In 1932, with the consent and collaboration of the Emir Abdallah ben al-Hussein, the Custody of the Holy Land acquired the summit of Siyagha on Mount Nebo, in Transjordan opposite Jericho and Jerusalem. Thanks to the rediscovery of the Itinerarium of Egeria, the ruins of the Memorial of Moses were identified on this summit, and the village of Nebo identified on the summit of al-Mukhayyat.

For the past sixty years the Franciscans have castled themselves on the windy summit of this mountain, isolated from the high transjordanian plateau. It was here that the Christian community of the IV century had built a sanctuary in honour of Moses recalling the Deuteronomy text regarding the Prophet's death (chapter 34). Fr. Sylvester Saller, an archaeologist of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum of Jerusalem, arrived for the first time in December 1933. Notwithstanding the gusts of wind, that did not give him any peace, he remained definitively infected by the place and by the enthusiasm of brother Jerome Mihaic who had pushed him up to the site for a quick survey of the area. The archaeologist realised that the rubble dumb of Siyagha, which was only reachable on foot by a path up the mountain slope, could really be the site where the Memorial of Moses once stood. This Memorial was visited by daring pilgrims who, after reaching Jericho, were not afraid to cross the Jordan River and venture into Arabia. An excavation which brought back to light a Byzantine sanctuary would have definitively cleared any doubts.

Brother Jerome did not loose any time. He had already planned in advance what needed to be done to get hold of the ruins on Mount Nebo and to convince the superiors of the Custody of the Holy Land that it was a worth bringing back to life the sanctuary of Moses to the East of the Jordan. Through the collaboration of the Christian community of nearby Madaba, on the fourth of October 1932, feast of St. Francis of Assisi, thirteen members of the Wukhyan tribe transferred their property on the summit of Siyagha to the Franciscans. On the same day, with extraordinary rapidity, the Director of the Department of Antiquities and the Prime Minister approved and signed the project for the excavation of the ruins.

On the thirteenth July 1933 a convoy of three truckloads led by Brother Jerome left Jerusalem. They stopped at Jericho, in the Friary of the Custody of the Holy Land, and from there they managed to climb up to Siyagha, inaugurating the new stretch of road on the mountain slope. All was organised in a way as to give the impression of maximum efficiency so much so that on that same day, after the ritual photographs, in the presence of the bursar of the custody, the excavations were begun. Furthermore the friars could also spend the night in the house planned by Father Jaime Llull and built in just over a month by Brother Jerome, even if without doors and windows, which had just been unloaded from one of the trucks.

At the end of this first campaign the eastern wind (sharqiyah) easily blew the metal sheet roof down the mountain slope. The wars interrupted periodically the work at the site but never drenched the enthusiasm of the friars, whether archaeologists or not, for this summit and for the sanctuary of Moses which Fathers Saller and Bagatti brought to light in the first three campaigns before the outbreak of World War II.

The works carried out between 1933 and 1937 on the summit of Siyagha brought to light the basilica of Moses and the monastery which surrounded it. At the same time on the summit of al-Mukhayyat three mosaiced churches were unearthed. The three long archaeological campaigns, carried out in somewhat precarious conditions, were not the only undertakings. The two designated archaeologists, Fr. Sylvester Saller and Fr. Bellarmino Bagatti, who had joined the expedition in 1935, took advantage of their isolation to conduct an archaeological survey of the surface of most of the mountain.

The problem of the protection of the unearthed mosaic floors was handled by Brother Jerome with good sense and speed. The mosaics of the Memorial of Moses were covered up again with soil as were those of the Church of St. George and of the Priest John at Mukhayyat, after blocking the degrading edges with cement mortar. On the best preserved mosaic unearthed, that of the Church of Saints Lot and Procopius a stone structure with concrete roofing was built. This covered the whole area of the church and exposed the mosaic in its entirety (16.25 x 8.65 m). This was an ambitious and a costly decision for Brother Jerome, especially if one keeps in mind also the precarious conditions in which he worked. Notwithstanding, this structure remains the first ever construction built to protect a mosaic in Jordan. The building of a road joining Siyagha to the Jordan Valley was yet another of Brother Jerome's ideas which was realised. This work, carried out through the economic co-operation between the Custody of the Holy Land and the government of Transjordan, provided work and bread for the hard hit Bedouin families, after the long drought period and the prolonged interruption of the excavation.

The forced stoppage during World War Two was useful for the preparation of the publication of the excavation of Siyagha (1941), followed by the publication of the mosaics of the churches at Mukhayyat in 1949, at the end of the first Arab-Jewish war of 1948. The sporadic visits to Siyagha during the turbulent periods, served Brother Jerome and his successors to commence the project of afforestation of the area. In 1953 Brother Jerome was replaced by Brother Joseph Consiglio. In 1957 the sanctuary was entrusted to Brother Giordano Furtwangler and Brother Hugh Jansen. In 1962 Brother Nazzareno Moretti, director of the metalwork workshop at St. Saviour's joined Brother Giordano and directed the works for the shelter built upon the basilica. Following the 1967 war the friars at Terra Santa College of Amman undertook the upkeep of the mountain.

A second period was inaugurated in the sixties. The Custody of the Holy Land decided to upgrade the area to cater for those who visited the site. The work was entrusted to Father Virgilio Corbo. A big metallic structure was placed upon the perimeter walls of the basilica, raised to about three metres. This structure was covered with both asbestos and transparent sheets, the latter to allow the light to filter through. This covering of the basilica and the side chapels offered the possibility to expose the mosaics of the sanctuary and at the same time offer a sheltered place for the visitors who wished to stop to pray at the site. In 1965 the mosaics of the basilica where removed to be placed back on a new bed. This permitted the continuation of the archaeological research under the mosaic floor with the discovery of new mosaiced areas and a better knowledge of the construction history of the sanctuary.

During the same years architect Julio Ripamonti of the University of Caracas undertook the archaeological research at the necropolis of Mukhayyat in collaboration with the archaeologists of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum who published the results. This second phase of works was interrupted by the consequences of the Arab-Jewish war of 1967 with Mount Nebo being declared a military zone. In 1973, following a pressing request by the Jordanian Government, a rescue mission was sent to Mount Nebo by the Custody of the Holy Land to remedy the serious swelling which was seriously jeopardising some parts of the mosaic in the Church of Saints Lot and Procopius at Mukhayyat

A third lease of life for Mount Nebo started during the Summer of 1976. The summit of Siyagha was finally opened for the friars, pilgrims and visitors alike thus allowing the resumption of work there. The continuation of the restoration work in the northern sector of the basilica brought about the discovery of the ancient baptistery of the sanctuary with the splendid mosaic which decorated it, at a depth of one metre. More than ten years of work have given the monument its actual physiognomy, which remains precarious in the expectation that a solution for its definite protection will mature

Once the basilica was settled the attention turned to the exterior. This led to a systematic and programmed intervention at the ruins of the Byzantine monastery. It also meant the upgrade of the logistic amenities for visitors and for the community of friars and collaborators who work and live on the mountain. The first drastic decision regarded the delimitation of the area which was to be left open for visitors. Being the basilica and the Byzantine monastery located on the highest spot of the mountain, the focal areas of visitors, the area reserved for them was limited to the western enclosure wall of the atrium in front of the basilica from where one can admire the view of the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea and the mountains of Judea and Samaria facing Jericho and Jerusalem..

Keeping in mind that the visitors arrive from the eastern side, it was decided to place at that end all the necessary service areas of the sanctuary (caretaker's dwelling, parking lot, rest-house and museum). All this near the entry gate and on the space in front of the eastern enclosure wall of the Byzantine monastery. The private area, reserved for the friars, almost hidden by the difference in levels, extends on the southern terrace of the mountain. This evolved around the original house built by Brother Jerome in June 1933 and today it has been transformed into a cosy small friary with the annexed chapel of St. Michael.

One of the constant preoccupations in the recent decades has been the afforestation of the summit of Siyagha by planting trees in the areas with no ruins. Pine, cypress and carob trees were planted to create shaded spots while olive trees, especially on the northern slopes of the mountain, were planted to recreate the agricultural habitat which we suppose existed during the Byzantine monks' stay on the mountain. The continuous and active presence on the mountain in the last twenty years, the result of a relative tranquillity in the region, has thus given renewed life to a famous Christian sanctuary of the Byzantine epoch.

At Mukhayyat, the mosaic in the Church of St. George on the acropolis, was removed and placed on a new bed in 1977/78. During the operation, it was temporarily transferred to Siyagha and placed on display in the basilica of Moses. The removal of the upper mosaic of the Chapel of the Priest John in 1985 led to the discovery of the lower mosaic dating back to the end of the fifth century. This also permitted the continuation of the indepth archaeological research which reached the mountain rock bed. The archaeological campaigns between 1984 and 1987 were primarily dedicated to the excavation of the two small sacred complexes identified in the valley of 'Uyun Mousa, while the campaigns of 1994 and 1995 centred on the excavation of the monastery of the Theotokos in the 'Ayn al-Kanisah valley.

Living and working on the mountain, we could anticipate the serious threatening dangers for the natural habitat of the mountain; the opening up of new roads, the arrival of water and electricity services in the region, the increasing number of visitors. To avoid the most grievous damages we alerted, many years back, the local Authorities even at a very high level. We asked for legislation to safeguard the mountain from indiscriminate building and agricultural development thus preserving the natural setting, rich of historical and suggestive sites together with its emerging archaeological remains. To date we have lost our battle on all fronts and this preoccupies us more and more. The opening of the new road towards the Jordan Valley in September 1989 has indelibly scarred the mountain by demolishing the western slope of Siyagha. This has irremediably upset its physiognomy.

We have suggested to the Jordanian Government the setting up of the Archaeological Park of Mount Nebo. To expedite the decision as well as to present to the Government a detailed archaeological plan of Mount Nebo, two weeks were dedicated, during the 1989 campaign, for the topographical relief of the mountain carried out by surveyor Guglielminotti from Aosta. In 1991 a mission from the Vorhistorisk Museum of Moesgaard - Aahrus in Denmark led by Peder Mortensen, funded by the Palaestinafondet took up once more the survey of the mountain, giving particular attention to the systematic study of the monuments and artefacts of the prehistoric periods.

The sixtieth anniversary since the beginning of the works which had almost completely realised Brother Jerome's dream at Siyagha, was celebrated in 1993 with the blessing by the Custodian of the Holy Land, Fr. Giuseppe Nazzaro, of the new friary. Prince Hassan, brother of King Hussein, sent an augural message: "In recent years, through publications, conferences and exhibitions, the work of the Franciscans at Mount Nebo/Madaba and the rich patrimony of the archaeological heritage of Jordan are better and more apprecaited throughout the world. In the name of the people and the government of Jordan I wish to congratulate the Franciscans of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum for their scientific research, cooperation and friendship and wish to reitaerate once more our wish to continue to work together for the aims we have in common, namely the research of historic truth and the promotion of the common moral ideals as the bases for a world of freindship, justice and peace".

Brother Jerome can rest in peace and serenely keep watch from his tomb, kept in honour at the centre of his house that gradually has become the friary and at the same time a study and research centre. For years now it is here that the group of archaeologists, architects, and students meet to work and render the Franciscan presence on the mountain more stable and at the same time collaborate with the Jordanian government in the study and conservation of a heritage of art and faith in the Madaba region.

....we wish to remember all those who have preceded us and those who have helped us in this endeavour to bring back to life a sanctuary to which millions scattered around the world look upon, millions brought together by their unifying faith in the God of Abraham.

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