Tradition and Reality of Holy Tombs
in the Madaba Map

by Khalid Nashef

The Madaba map incorporates elements of what one may call popular as opposed to official religion. These may derive from earlier works, or they may be considered as indigenous to the map reflecting popular beliefs during its time of composition at the end of the sixth century. 1 Thus the map can be viewed as one of the sources for understanding the development of such beliefs in Palestine, with the spread of Islam not long afterwards. By presenting some examples, I wish to illustrate this point, which may, in turn, be a contribution towards establishing the continuity of Palestinian traditions and perhaps restoring them.

A Palestinian weli (holy tomb) in the mountains of Ephraim

It should be stated at the outset that the same observation applies to the Old and New Testament as sources of the map. With this in mind, I mention the first example, Joseph's Tomb. The map, as in other similar cases, simply states "of Joseph", nowadays in the area of modern Nablus (see Canaan 1927: 195). The Onomasticon of Eusebius (54:20) refers clearly to a tomb. Already the Old Testament (Gen 33:18-20) betrays an aspect of popular religion in stating that Jacob erected on the parcel of land that he bought from the Canaanites an altar with the name "El, the god of Israel". 2 This implies that the spot, whether it contained a temple or an oak-tree, was already sacred, and was taken over by the Israelites or transmitted to them as such. In the Book of Joshua (24: 32) we read that the bones of Joseph were buried there. Again there is an element of popular religion involved, since the burial took place near a shrine or a holy place. The New Testament (John 4: 5-6) mentions the place only in connection with the episode when Jesus rested at Jacob's Well. It is not a tomb but a village that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. The veneration of Joseph and Jacob, and ultimately David and Abraham, can perhaps be seen in the genealogy of Jesus introducing the Book of Matthew. The map shows the presumed tomb of Joseph as a building, which does not seem to be a misrepresentation of the mosaicist. The building shown in its facade only is divided into three parts, the lowest of which has a pediment in the middle. The two other similar structures of Elisha and Jonah have a dome instead of the pediment and one is identified as a church. One could imagine that Joseph had already become a holy figure by then, and deserving a monument of his own. As has been observed before, the title "saint" was used earlier by Theodosius (Wilkinson 1977:63). 3 The Palestinians continued to venerate Joseph as a saint in the same place as the Madaba map, as well as in other locations such as Bayt Idjza, northwest of Jerusalem, 4 and as a shrine in the Haram el-Khalil in Hebron. 5 The main site, called Qabr en-Nabi Yusif represents a simple domed structure enshrining the tomb. It is typical of the many Moslem sanctuaries in Palestine where mainly Biblical characters are venerated.
The veneration of holy figures is not restricted to their places of burial. Such is the case with "Jacob's Well" associated with Joseph's Tomb. On the map to the south of Joseph's Tomb there is a representation of a church with an inscription referring to Jacob's Well. I mention this example like many others in the map, though not tombs, because among the Palestinians the holy spot is designated as Bir en-Nabi Ya'qub. A biblical figure is transformed into a prophet by local tradition. This transformation had already occured, and was taken over as part of the Palestinian popular tradition.
Moving southward on the map, one encounters Armathem or Arimathea. Arimathea has Old Testament associations (I Sam 1:1, 1 Macc 11:34) and was the home-town of the wealthy Joseph, who gave his tomb in Jerusalem for the burial of Jesus (Math 27:57, Mark 15:43, Luke 23:53, John 19:38). If one accepts its identification with the Ramatha, Arabic Rama(t), as Mujir al-Din (2:423) maintains, or Armathem (as by Arculf, Wilkinson 1977: 100), mentioned first by Theodosius (Wilkinson 1977: 65) as the burial place of the Prophet Samuel with en-Nabi Samwil, this could be another reference to a holy tomb of a Biblical character in the village bearing the same name. The mosque enshrining the cenotaph incorporates a church from the Crusader period. An old drawing depicts a tomb of Samuel as a typical maqam of a Muslim saint (SWP 3: 149-150).
Rachel's Tomb is yet another shrine, to which the Madaba map seems to refer. However the tomb is not mentioned directly, since there is only an inscription with the toponym Ephratha without an accompanying structure. The association of Rachel with Ephratha goes back to the Old Testament (Gen 35:19-20; cf Gen 48:7), where it is said that "Rachel died and was buried in the way to Ephratha, which is Bethlehem. Jacob set a pillar upon her grave. That is the pillar Rachel's grave unto this day". Popular religion is evident here. Somewhere near Bethlehem there was a tombstone of some sort, which has been explained at an earlier stage as Rachel's tomb. It is mute question to search for an actual tomb of Rachel north of Jerusalem in the tribal area of Benjamin depending on Old Testament passages (1 Sam 10:2-5, Jer 31:15) where there is an association to Rama. Lombardi (1971:87ff) refers to those five stone monuments north of Hizma, that is, Qubur Beni Isra'in "The tombs of the descendants of Israel". The largest so-called tomb of the group, the function of which is obscure, has the name Qabr Umm beni Isra'in, that is, "The tomb of the mother of the descendants of Isra'in". Also in this instance popular religion is involved. There is no way of connecting the large structure north of Hizma or the tomb near Bethlehem with any historical Rachel, apart from the strong possibility of an aetiology in both cases.
The northern Rachel's Tomb tradition should be sought not far from Rama (modern er-Ram), which is mentioned in the map, and Gibea (= Tell el-Ful). A good candidate would be en-Nabi Ya'qub, that is, Prophet Jacob, a hill just between er-Ram and Tell el-Ful. I am not aware of a connection with a mosque of the same name located within the former Jordanian military camp.
Rachel's Tomb is domed like any other maqam in the country of a weli or shaykh, and as such is first reported by al-Idrisi in the 12th century and later by Mujir al-Din (Marmadji 1951: 163). Just as Joseph was buried near an ancient sacred spot, the Ta'amra tribe used to bury their dead near Rachel's shrine.
The Madaba map, however, adds after Ephratha the sentence "A voice was heard in Rama". Assuming here a New Testament tradition, the phrase would be a quotation from the Book of Matthew (2:16-18) after Jeremiah (31:15), where it represents a reference, already alluded to before, of Rachel lamenting in her tomb. The Piacenza Pilgrim about 570 A. D. has the following; "On the way to Bethlehem, ... lies the body of Rachel, on the edge of the area called Ramah" (Wilkinson 1977:85). Regardless of the connection to a place or area called Rama near Bethlehem, the Onomasticon associated Bethlehem with the passage from Matthew. Perhaps Rachel, who has been already related to Bethlehem, stands symbolically for the women of Bethlehem, the next site shown southward on the map. As has been observed before, this brings an association to Mary. There are remains of a church where Rama has been localized by the map. The place is called in Arabic Khirbet Salih or Khirbet Abu Brek, and has to be kept apart from the artificial Ramat Rahel. The church first mentioned by the middle of the 5th century commemorates Mary's rest on her way to Bethlehem. However Palestinian tradition locates the place where Mary sat and rested in the monastery of Mar Elyas, where there is a cistern called Bir Qadisma, the latter being an exact correspondence to the Greek Kathisma. Remains of a Byzantine church were uncovered during a salvage excavation conducted in 1992 (and resumed in 1997) at a spot 300 m north of the Monastery. Palestinian tradition knows of another spot where Mary was supposed to have rested, that is, in 'Ayn Karim southwest of Jerusalem.
Much like a modern study guide to the Holy Land, the Madaba Map includes sites, the significance of which is rooted in popular religion. At that time as of today, it is not a problem to have more than one tomb or site commemorating the same person or event. Perhaps one can see in the omission of a structure in the case of Ephratha and "A voice was heard in Rama" as a scholarly attempt to solve that problem on part of the author or authors of the map, who knew of the village Rama north of Jerusalem. The making of popular religion reflects a continuous formation process going back to very ancient traditions. It is preserved today mainly in the veneration of Biblical characters. Popular religion is an outcome of a traditional society. This society is now changing dramatically, and if popular religion, following the footsteps of the Palestinian scholar Tawfiq Canaan, is not studied in its context, it will be lost for ever.


1 Note for example the addition or omission of the title "saint" (agios, sanctus). Characters explicitly identified as saints on the map include Lot, John, Elisha, Philip, Victor, and Zacharias.

2 The name of the temple: el elohe yisra'el. Noth (1956:88-89) supposes the existence of an oracle terebinth in the area of Sichem.

3 Wilkinson (1977: 38), remarks, "In the modern world, we do not think it strange that in the same region there should be several memorials dedicated to the same person, and we should allow the word "tomb" in this context to have much the same extension of meaning as our "memorial". Tombs of this kind which were venerated in the period bore the names not only of prophets (Zacharias, Jonah, Elisha, Obadiah, Ezekiel (with others) and Isaiah) ..."

4 Cited by Canaan (1927:294-295) as neglected in his day.

5 Canaan 1927:295.

This contribution was first published in: The Madaba Map Centenary, Jerusalem 1999, 234-235.

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Created Saturday, December 16, 2000 at 11:22:38
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