“Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho.”
— Deuteronomy 34:1
Mount Nebo was the final station in Moses’ historic flight from Egypt. Moses and his people camped “in the valley near Beth-peor,” a place long associated with the site known today as Ayun Musa (Springs of Moses), a small lush valley northeast of Mount Nebo. Another name for Mount Nebo is Pisgah (Syagha in Arabic).
The Bible account says it was on this hilltop that the Lord showed Moses the Promised Land that he would never enter. Moses died and was buried here in Moab, “in the valley opposite Beth-peor,” but to this day his grave remains unknown.
Mount Nebo became a place of pilgrimage for early Christians and a small church was built there in the 4th century to commemorate the end of Moses’ life. Some of the stones from that church remain in their original place in the wall around the apse. The church was subsequently expanded in the 5th and 6th centuries into a basilica with a remarkable collection of Byzantine mosaics.
The Serpentine Cross, a modern statue which stands just outside the sanctuary, is symbolic of the bronze (or brazen) serpent taken by Moses in the desert and the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.
In the year 2000, St. Pope John Paul II commemorated the beginning of the new millennium with a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, starting his visit with prayers in the basilica at Mount Nebo. He then stood on the promontory and took in the same view that Moses saw more than 3,000 years ago. The viewing platform erected for the pope’s visit remains and is used by pilgrims to enjoy the same panoramic view of the Holy Land around the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea and the distant hills of Jerusalem.
In 2016, the Memorial of Moses was reopened after nearly a decade of restoration. “This is meant to be a place of prayer first and a place to visit because of the artistic mosaics that have been preserved inside,” according to Father Eugenio Alliata, professor of archaeology at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem. He said the site is still yielding archaeological finds. While the mosaics were being restored, he explained, “a tomb possibly never used, lined with beautiful alabaster stones, was discovered in the middle of the basilica.”
Visitors to Mount Nebo now find a church structure of limestone and pale wood housing more than 8,600 square feet of mosaics depicting a braided cross, flowers and fauna.
“The restoration has given new life and new colors to the most precious mosaics of the region,” said Italian mosaicist Franco Sciorilli. Sciorilli served as the director of final works for the reopening of the Memorial of Moses.
Mount Nebo is also an active Franciscan monastery and the headquarters of the Franciscan Archaeological Institute. It is a popular setting for Christmas and Easter Masses. A new organ now graces the Memorial of Moses.