The View from Nebo

Tracing legendary footsteps up Jordan's most sacred mountain

By / October 2013

I was thinking about Moses as I maneuvered the car up the winding road to Mount Nebo, located some 30 miles from our home in Amman. One of the great perks of living in the Middle East is having opportunities to retrace the footsteps of great historical figures. My wife and I were looking forward to standing on the same mountain where Moses had first glimpsed the Promised Land, a region that roughly corresponds to present-day Israel, Palestine, and parts of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

I first encountered Moses as a child in the stories of the exodus, the golden calf, and the stone tablets. After watching Cecil B. DeMille’s film The Ten Commandments a little later, my portrait of the legend looked a lot like a white-bearded Charlton Heston telling Pharaoh in a deep booming voice, “Let my people go!”

According to religious tradition, Moses was born to a Hebrew slave in Egypt and yet raised in the house of Pharaoh, the Egyptian king. After killing an Egyptian he caught beating a Hebrew slave, Moses fled. Forty years later, he returned and freed the slaves. He led them another 40 years until they reached their destination. However, Moses—because of a fit of unrighteous anger—was not allowed to cross the threshold. He had to settle for climbing Mount Nebo and looking down at the land he’d never enter. So close and yet so far.

No one knows for sure which mountain is the actual Mount Nebo but  many Jewish, Muslim, and Christian scholars accept the current site’s authenticity—and consider it one of Jordan’s most sacred landmarks.

When we stepped from the car, the 100-degree temperature hit us immediately. Seeing the parched land from this high vantage point was shocking as well. It hadn’t rained in months, and the surviving vegetation was brown and crunchy under our feet. Scraggly bushes and twisted olive trees were coated with dust. But still, I was exhilarated at the prospect of standing in the footsteps of this great religious figure.

After paying our $3 entry fee, an elderly gentleman wearing a blue button down, brown dress pants, and the traditional Arab head scarf offered to give us a tour of the site. He said if we liked the tour we could give him $15, but if we didn’t it was free. I knew there was no way he would give us a free, guided tour and we were on a tight budget, so we politely declined. I think he was glad that we had turned him down, so he could escape the heat and retreat to the shade with a group of other idle tour guides. We walked 300 yards along a paved pathway to the top.

Nebo consists of two peaks standing about 2,600 feet above sea level. In the 4th Century AD, monks from Egypt built a chapel on one of the peaks named Sihagha. Byzantine monks discovered the chapel in the 6th century and constructed a monastery on the same site. In 1932, a Catholic order known as the Franciscan Fathers purchased the site and eventually opened the site for tourism. A  modern chapel known as the Memorial Church of Moses has been constructed on the site for Christian worshippers and visitors of all faiths.

Moses is highly revered by all three monotheistic religions as a great leader, prophet, and author of the Torah. Jews consider Moshe to be their greatest prophet. The Quran mentions the prophet Musa more than any other person. Christians admire and study Moses’ example of faith, courage, and leadership.

On Nebo, I heard discussions in English, Italian Spanish, Dutch, Chinese, and Arabic. When I asked people what they thought of the mountain, responses ranged from casually curious to deeply spiritual. “It is an interesting place,” said Ibrahim from Israel. “But it is a dead place now. I can’t imagine how people lived here, how they could travel all the way from Egypt with Musa to live here!”

For Alexandro and Semona, two Roman Catholics from Italy, standing on Mount Nebo was a moving spiritual experience. “It’s quite different for us than for a normal tourist,” said Alexandro. “This was a milestone for Christianity. Everyone must come here once in their life.  We get a good sensation standing here knowing so much of our religion started here.”

When we finally reached the main viewing platform, built back in 2000 for Pope John Paul II’s visit, my excitement reached fever pitch. I was about to see the promised land from the same vantage as Moses had all those millennia before. But as I stared down from the platform, I experienced two seemingly conflicting emotions—both awe and “ugh.”

Awe because of the vastness of the view. We were able to look down into the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth’s surface. Our 180-degree panoramic view also allowed us to see sights as far away as 50 km, from the Dead Sea on the left to the tall buildings of Amman on the right. We were told that on a clear day you can see the rooftops of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. If Moses wanted to get a big picture of the sheer size of the territory, Mount Nebo was certainly the right choice.

But the ugh came from the absence of anything green. It was as if all the green had been scraped off, and all that was left was scorched earth punctuated by rocks. Where was the fertile valley “flowing with milk and honey”? When I asked the old tour guide about the disparity, he shrugged and replied that the climate had changed a lot over 3,500 years. Moses must have seen an entirely different eco-system.

Returning to the comfort of our air-conditioned car, my wife and I reflected on our Mount Nebo experience. Neither of us felt particularly inspired by the historical site, but the trip cemented one idea for me. According to ancient scriptures, Moses died at the age of 120 not long after he ascended Nebo. If that’s true, he must have been one spry old dude to climb that mountain at his age!


Danny Wright is an EthnoTraveler contributor. He lives in Amman.