Sacred for three faiths
The Hellenistic/Hasmonean excavation at Nebi Samwil. (photo by Anthony Bale)
Just over 10 kilometres north of the Temple Mount, the Old City and east Jerusalem, where terrorist attacks continue, Muslims and Jews both go up to Nebi Samwil, to what they consider to be the holy burial place of Samuel the Prophet.
On the Thursday between Yom Kippur and Sukkot and the first day of Eid al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, I visited this archeology site located in the West Bank. It was quite a scene.
A young Muslim family in Western holiday dress entered the Muslim part of the joint prayer site. They were followed by a young ultra-Orthodox couple who climbed to the roof for photo-taking. Close on their heels, a group of young adult Chassidic males piled out of a mini-van.
Walking by the Muslim cemetery, along the northern perimeter of the archeology site in the direction of the spring, I nearly bumped into a glitzy-dressed bridegroom, clad from head (kippah) to toe (pointy shoes) in silvery white. Continuing on my way, I glimpsed Bratslav Chassidim scurrying into the trees on their way to hitbodedut or seclusion. At the edge of the spring named after the Prophet Samuel’s mother, Chana, North American yeshivah students were drying off following immersion in this natural mikvah, ritual bath. (If you visit, consider equipping yourself with a bullhorn or whistle to announce your upcoming presence to anyone who might be in this open mikvah.)
Special religious experiences are not new to the site. For example, some 500 years earlier, Christians were having mystical experiences at Nebi Samwil. In 1413, Margery Kempe, an English mystic, traveled from the coastal plain toward Jerusalem. When she passed Nebi Samwil, she was so overjoyed by the view and by her reported heavenly contact, she nearly fell from her donkey. Two German pilgrims broke her fall. “One of them was a priest, and he put spices in her mouth to comfort her, believing her to have been ill. And so they helped her onwards to Jerusalem.” (The Book of Margery Kempe)
And, speaking of “joy,” earlier on when the Crusaders first looked south to Jerusalem from this point, they were so enthralled that they named the area Mount of Joy or, in French, Mont de Joie. In between combating those they considered pagan, heretical or politically inexpedient, the Crusaders happily settled in at Mont de Joie. They established a cistern, church, monastery (apparently commemorating Samuel the Prophet), pilgrims hostel, stable, quarry (drinking troughs and hewn stones are clearly visible today) and a fort. Before they began construction, they razed the area upon which they built. Crusader joy was relatively short-lived, however, as a generation later, in 1187, Salah ad-Din pushed them out and ushered in the Mamelukes. Curiously, the remains of one Mameluke building have an arch displaying a Star of David. While it looks like a Magen David, back then it was not a Jewish symbol.
Like the earlier Umayyads and Abbasids (638-1099), the Mamelukes went into pottery production. Archeologists have uncovered the large kilns they used, as well as pottery with place-identifying Arabic seals. Oddly enough, during this same period, the site became a holy place for Jews from Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and elsewhere. In 1730, however, Jerusalem’s Mufti Sheikh Muhammad al-Khalili called a halt to Jewish pilgrimage, by what Yitzhak Magen terms “appropriating the tomb from the Jews” and forbidding Jews to pray there. The mufti erected a mosque at the site.
Some Jewish sources have identified Nebi Samwil as the biblical Rama, the burial place of Samuel. Others have identified it with Mitzpah, a site connected to Samuel, and later to the Hasmoneans.
Speaking of the Hasmoneans, the well-built structures from the Hellenistic period were not destroyed by natural disaster or by fighting. It appears that the community was simply abandoned. One theory maintains that the Hasmoneans did not want competing places of worship, as there apparently was a tradition of worship at both Mitzpah and neighboring Givon (see Maccabees I: 3,46 and Kings I: 3,4). That is, they wanted to centralize worship and power in Jerusalem.
In being at the site, you see how people have protected their holdings. One way has been to build a fortress, equipping it with soldiers and weaponry. Another way has been to declare a place a holy site. While we cannot actually prove that Samuel the Prophet was buried at this site, neither can we totally disprove it. So the tradition stands for Jews, Muslims and Christians. Today, the site houses both a Wakf-run mosque with its tomb of the Prophet Samuel and an Orthodox synagogue with its separate tomb for the Prophet Samuel.
If you visit Nebi Samwil, don’t be fooled into thinking that you are going to the original citadel and mosque. The British destroyed it while fighting to take Jerusalem from the Ottoman Turks. During the Mandate, however, they rebuilt the structures.
The visiting hours for the archeology site are 8 a.m.-4 p.m. (winter) and 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (summer). Visiting hours for the prayer sites are Sunday-Wednesday continuously, with the exception of two hours between 2-4 a.m.; and Thursday-Friday, from 4 a.m. until an hour before Shabbat begins. More on the site, including a map, can be found at parks.org.il/sigalit/DAFDAFOT/nabi-samuel_eng.pdf.
At the time of my visit, there was no checkpoint, and apparently only one guard on the premises. Originally located among the archeology ruins, Israeli authorities moved the village called Nebi Samwil to its current setting in 1971, with some controversy. (For example, see alt-arch.org/en/nabi-samuel-national-park.)
Nebi Samwil is partially accessible to wheelchair users. If readers wish to get further details on the subject, they can contact the park curator, Avivit Gara, at 972-2-586-3281.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.