Jordan’s Mount Nebo: a religious site and major tourist attraction

Visitors can enjoy the Old Baptistery with its ancient mosaic, a large square divided into four strips of scenes of men and animals, surrounded by a chain-style border that dates to 531AD.
Sunday 17/03/2019
A view inside the Moses Memorial Church. (Hassan Tamimi)
A view inside the Moses Memorial Church. (Hassan Tamimi)

MADABA - Abandoned and neglected for centuries, Mount Nebo is among Jordan’s most revered and visited sites, attracting international tourists and Christian pilgrims to the area where, the Bible claims, Moses died and was buried.

Rising majestically more than 700 metres above the Jordan Valley, Mount Nebo was restored by the Franciscans in 1993. The site gained special significance following Pope John Paul II’s visit during his pilgrimage to the region in 2000.

Located 10km west of the Roman Byzantine town of Madaba, Mount Nebo is one of the richest sites historically and the most popular attractions in Jordan. Some 444,000 visitors this past year were drawn to it by  November, about a 155% increase from 2017’s figures for the same period, the Central Bank of Jordan said.

“Today, Mount Nebo is one of the most visited places in Jordan due to its religious and historical significance. It hosts the Moses Memorial Church, which was built around the fourth century, as well as some of the most wonderful mosaics and the Franciscan Archaeological Institute, in addition to the staff of Moses sculpture,” said Lina Khaled, executive director of Jordan Inbound Tour Operators.

Italian artist Giovanni Fantoni, is credited with designing metal decorations of Moses at Nebo as well as the serpentine cross and Jesus’s words in the Bible’s Gospel according to John: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

“The church is the home for a masterpiece mosaic that depicts a hunting and herding scene interspersed with an assortment of African wildlife, including a zebu, lions, tigers, bears, zebras, boars, an ostrich on a leash and a camel-shaped giraffe. This piece of art, which dates to around 530AD, is a feast to the eyes,” Khaled said.

Mount Nebo brought popularity to the region, including Madaba, also known as the “City of Mosaics.” In 2016, Madaba won the World Crafts City title for mosaic, in a competition organised by the World Crafts City, a non-profit NGO that promotes crafts as a vital part of cultural and economic life.

“Definitely, Mount Nebo helped in placing Madaba and the mosaic art on Jordan’s tourism map,” said travel journalist Majdi el-Tell. “Visitors flood Mount Nebo because they can feel the tranquillity of the surroundings and watch with their own eyes the Dome of the Rock and the towers of the churches in Jerusalem. For many it is an emotional experience.”

Visiting Mount Nebo, which was designated by the Vatican as a Millennium 2000 pilgrimage site, is an ultimate historical experience, Tell said.

“We are talking about the days when Moses was shown the Promised Land before he died,” Tell said. “The whole site is a treasure-trove for archaeologists. Excavations are conducted almost everywhere leading to the discovery of ancient mosaic floors.”

Visitors can also enjoy the Old Baptistery with its ancient mosaic, a large square divided into four strips of scenes of men and animals, surrounded by a chain-style border that dates to 531AD. Greek inscriptions reveal the names of the three workers who created it.

Reaching the highest point of the site is Syagha, which holds the remains of a church and a monastery.

“This is truly very exciting! The church which was discovered in 1933 dates to the fourth century to mark the location of Moses’s death. Beneath the mosaic-covered floor of this magnificent church, six tombs were found,” Tell said.

The site hosts La Storia Museum, which offers insight into the history of the region through animated statues and models that represent various historical periods and portray aspects of ancient life in Jordan.

The museum has a section for training on the traditional handicrafts for which Madaba is well-known, such as mosaics, decorating seashells, wood sculpting and embroidery.

Feras Abu Hakam, owner of a mosaic shop near Mount Nebo, said the site has played a big role in promoting tourism in Madaba.

“Tourists who arrive here first go up to Mount Nebo because this site has so many things to offer. For us, the more tourists come to Nebo, the better it is for business. We are happy with the results,” he said.