Known locally as Siyagha, Mount Nebo is the highest point in this part of the ancient kingdom of Moab. On a clear day there is a magnificent panoramic view over the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley to the hills on the other side of the rift, with the towers of Jerusalem visible on the skyline.
The hilltop is identified as the place from which Moses looked out over the promised land of Canaan which God had forbidden him to enter; and here, it is said, he died and was buried (Deut. 32:49; 34:1-6). Rather more dubiously, a reference in the apocryphal book of Maccabaeus suggests that Mount Nebo was the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant (2 Macc. 2:2-8).
Around AD 384 Egeria, an intrepid lady from an unnamed part of Western Europe, visited Mount Nebo in the course of an extensive Christian pilgrimage, and wrote an account of it in her journal. Traveling from Jerusalem on a donkey, she crossed the Jordan River and then climbed this hill, mostly riding though she had to scramble up the steeper parts on foot. At the summit she found a church, ‘not a very big one’, cared for by some ‘holy men’ who assured her that ‘Holy Moses was buried here’ and that ‘this tradition came from their predecessors’.
Less than 100 years later another pilgrim, Peter the Tberian, Bishop of Gaza, wrote of ‘a venerable and very large temple’ with ‘many monasteries’ around it – but archaeological evidence suggests it was the same church that Egeria saw, the difference in size merely a matter of perception. The ruins at Siyagha were visited in 1864 by the French Duc de Luynes, whose description of them in his (Voyage d’exploration a la Mer Morte, a Petra et sur la rive gaucbe du Jourdain) encouraged more travelers to follow in his footsteps. Interest in the site increased still further after the discovery in 1886 of Egeria’s journal, and its publication in the following year; this was followed in 1895 by the rediscovery of the biography of Peter the Tberian. As a result of this interest, in 1932 the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land purchased the site of Mount Nebo, and under their auspices archaeological investigation began a year later.
Excavations have uncovered a cluster of monastic buildings surrounding a 6th-century basilica which had been enlarged in the 7th century. Within the church are remains of a 4th-century chapel (probably that seen by Egeria and Peter the Iberian), adapted from an earlier structure which may have been a mausoleum, the site appears to have been abandoned in the 9th century. Since 1976, under the direction of Father Michele Piccirillo, several more mosaics have been found, in particular a magnificent and very large pavement dating to the 6th century with vivid representations both of people and animals -its extraordinarily good state of preservation can doubtless be attributed to the fact that it had lain buried for centuries beneath a later mosaic.