Why a 15th Century BC Biblical Site Took My Breath Away

Donna Wichelman Church, Middle East

I didn’t expect it. As my husband and I walked the path lined with olive trees and other native plants from the parking lot to the 1,000-meter (3280-foot) ridge at Mount Nebo in Jordan, I felt fortunate to visit the holy site. I stepped up to the platform overlooking the Jordan Valley with the Dead Sea and Hebron to my left, Jerico to my right, and Jerusalem and the mountains of the Promised Land straight ahead, and then it happened. It took my breath away.

Walkway to the Terrace, Mount Nebo, Jordan: Donna’s Gallery

The Dead Sea from Mount Nebo: Donna’s Gallery

Jim and Donna on the Terrace Near the Platform, Mount Nebo: Donna’s Gallery

Rarely have I been given the sense that I’ve encountered something so profound that it left me breathless. Not because the grand view is a sight to behold; it is. Not because the vista is beautiful, though one can appreciate the beauty of the arid landscape. Not because the climb to the top of the ridge caused me to be winded.

No. What washed over me was an overwhelming knowledge that I was experiencing the same view Moses saw when the Lord led him to Mount Nebo and showed him the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 34:1–4 of the Bible. The encounter remains with me as a unique time I felt God’s presence assuring me of His faithfulness throughout the generations.

Jericho across the Jordan Valley from Mount Nebo: Donna’s Gallery

Mount Nebo may not affect everyone the same way, but the historical site has much to offer students of archaeology and Church history, even if they are not religious. It’s a pilgrimage site for the world’s three major faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and was the last place Moses walked before his death.

Mount Nebo has been a pilgrimage site since the third to fourth centuries A.D. By the late fourth century A.D., Egyptian Monks built a modest church on the summit of Siyagh—the highest point on the site—to commemorate the death of Moses. Over the next two centuries, the church grew into a monastery and basilica with numerous stunning mosaics gracing its walls and floors. However, by the sixteenth century, the site was abandoned.

It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that archaeologists rediscovered the site using ancient travelogues from the third and fourth centuries A.D., and modern exploration began. The Franciscans bought the site in 1932 from the Wukhyan tribe and excavated the ruins, including extensive chapels, annexes, and colorful mosaics. For a time, archaeologists covered the mosaics again with soil to preserve them, and a metal shelter was also erected to protect other ruins.

Modern-day Bedouin near Mount Nebo: Donna’s Gallery

The 1967 Arab-Israeli War halted the project until 1976 – 1984, when archaeologists found a new mosaic and began restoration of the basilica once more.

The Franciscans began the restoration of the rest of the mosaics in 1993. Six tombs were also excavated in the rock beneath the church. Tradition says that Moses is buried somewhere close by, but no one knows with certainty where Moses was laid to rest. Today, the modern Moses’ Memorial Church sits alongside what remains of the basilica and houses the mosaics.

An imposing bronze sculpture—a Nehushtan (Brazen Serpent) fashioned by Italian artist Paolo Fantoni—also stands on the terrace before the overlook. The statue depicts the intertwining of the bronze serpent on a pole God told Moses to erect to protect the people from poisonous snakes, which God himself had sent as punishment, and the crucified Christ on the cross. The sculpture is a reminder of God’s mercy and grace to redeem humanity from the power of sin that enslaves us.

Bronze Sculpture, Mount Nebo Terrace: Donna’s Gallery