Shrine to Moses not what it used to be Muslim pilgrims are fewer now

March 26, 1992|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Staff Writer

JERICHO, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- As custodian of a Muslim shrine to Moses, Mohammed al-Jamal could be excused for spending part of each day pondering the respect his position would have brought a century ago.

Mr. Jamal, his wife and their three children are the only full-time residents of a shrine that for centuries attracted pilgrims in the tens of thousands. From the road winding along the edge of the Judean desert, it looks like a leftover fortress from a long-forgotten war or a government outpost established to punish those assigned to it.

His home is Nebi Musa -- the "Prophet Moses" -- the shrine to the figure known to Muslims from the Koran, and to Jews and Christians from the Hebrew Scriptures. Muslim tradition says that this is his grave.

Mr. Jamal has his doubts.

No question that this is someone's burial place. A large sarcophagus, covered by several dozen layers of green silk, lies under the highest of Nebi Musa's six domes and has been an object of veneration since the 12th century -- and perhaps much earlier.

Maybe it is Moses, Mr. Jamal ventures. And maybe it is not.

"The old persons believe, not the educated," he said diplomatically. "Proof we don't have. But if it is not the prophet Moses who is here, it must be a good man."

In the Old Testament account,Moses never reached this side of the Jordan River. After leading the Israelites out of Egypt and their 40 years of wandering, Moses was said to have gone only as far as the plains of Moab, on the river's eastern bank.

Moses was allowed to look upon the lands his people would conquer but not to set foot on them. He climbed from the plains to Mount Nebo, from where he could see the palm trees of Jericho, the desert and the distant sea. The book of Deuteronomy says he died in Moab at age 120 -- "but no man knows the place of his burial to this day."

Local traditions, as told by Bedouin to early explorers, have added several chapters to the story. In one account, Moses knew his end was near and rushed across the river to avoid being buried near Mount Nebo. On the west side of the river, he saw angels digging a grave. He stepped in to check its size -- and was unable to get out.

In another version, Moses was buried at Mount Nebo but came to dislike the place. After lying in his grave for a time, he rolled himself underground, and under the river, to the outskirts of Jericho. Hence the location of his shrine.

Tradition further relates that Mohammed, the founding prophet of Islam, prayed at Moses' tomb during an ascent to heaven from Jerusalem and described the tomb as "the mound of the red sand."

The setting here fits the description given by Mohammed. Nebi Musa reaches across a hill of coarse reddish earth about 5 miles west of the northern tip of the Dead Sea. Surrounding the building are more hills of the same reddish earth.

Nebi Musa owes its existence to Saladin, the Kurdish warrior of the 12th century who defeated the Christian armies of the Crusaders and returned Palestine to Islamic control.

Nomads were already frequenting this area to worship at a grave that they considered holy. A less confident leader might have declared their worship paganism and tried to stop it. Saladin resolved the issue by building a mosque around the grave and declaring it a Muslim holy place.

Many additions were made in the next three centuries (although the process of expansion and renovations has never entirely stopped). Stables and entire wings were added, creating a complex of courtyards and several dozen rooms.

Many people came to believe that it was Moses' tomb. Even if it was not, it had the virtue of offering a view of Mount Nebo. And Nebi Musa became the destination for pilgrims who camped on the reddish hills.

Muslim authorities invented the annual pilgrimage, and they considered it good government because the pilgrimage kept Muslims and Christians apart every Easter, when religious fervor in Jerusalem reached its annual peak.

Travelers' accounts from the 19th century describe a procession a dozen miles long that was part religious rite, part letting off steam.

Dervishes led the procession, each man with a sword suspended from his neck and carrying a spear in his hand. Some in the procession played drums and tambourines, and others carryied banners embroidered with verses from the Koran. At the shrine, they would dispute who would have the honor of entering first.

A whole city was waiting for them. Merchants lined the perimeter of the courtyards with carts selling food and household goods. Authorities added a police post and a clinic. Nebi Musa became known as the place where Bedouin or the poor could count on being given a meal.

A lot of the enthusiasm disappeared in the 1940s. Mr. Jamal blames Jordan's King Abdullah, grandfather of Jordan's current

monarch, King Hussein.

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