My trip today took me to two very important Biblical sites; the fortress of Machaerus which was the place where John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod Antipas and Mount Nebo, the place where Moses gazed at the Promised Land but never entered.
Machaerus which means “black fortress” was one of a series of hilltop strongholds established by Herod the great, the father of Herod Antipas. Built along the edge of the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea it is perched on top of the mountain, more than 1100 metres above the Dead Sea , The fortress is protected on three sides by deep ravines. In addition to its natural defensible position on a rocky hilltop, Machaerus served as the first line of defence and warning against any eastern invaders.
Herod the great erected a fortress wall with high corner towers. In the centre he built a palace that was “breath-taking in size and beauty”, according to Josephus. Numerous cisterns were dug to collect rainwater one of which is visible even today.
But this fortress also served as a lavish palace for Herod and his guests. It is here that John the Baptist was beheaded because he opposed Herod Antipas who had divorced his wife Phasaelis, daughter of King Aretas of Nabatea in favour of Herodias, his brother’s wife.
Our next visit took us to the Mount Nebo and this was the highlight of my day. Nebo, which means the mountain of the prophet is associated with the last days of Moses and is described in moving words in Deuteromony (34:1-7).
The site’s other name is Pisgah: “And Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah which is opposite Jericho”. From the mountaintop, which is the highest point in the Moabite range, rising to about 800 meters at its apex, you can admire the dazzling view across the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea, to the rooftops of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Mount Nebo’s first church was constructed in the 2nd half of the 4th century to commemorate the place of Moses’ death. It had three apses and was preceded by a vestibule paved with plain white mosaic. In the courtyard of the Church, overlooking the valley is Serpentine Cross (The Brazen Serpent Monument) by the Italian artist, Giovanni Fantoni. These are symbolic of the bronze serpent set up by Moses in the desert as protection for the people from snake bites, and the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.
Unfortunately this site was abandoned in 1564 and remained neglected for few centuries. It was the Franciscans who identified this place as the burial place of Moses and purchased this site in 1993. As part of the sale agreement from the Jordanian family they were obliged to employ only members of this family and their descendants to work on this plot for posterity.
Pope John Paul II visited the spot on 19th of March, 2000, during his journey to the Holy Land and planted an olive tree right next to the Byzantine chapel as a symbol of peace. A few years later, Pope Benedict XVI also visited the site.
While praying here I remembered in a special way my parish of St Jude in Malad East. We too like Moses wandered in the desert of hope for as many as 42 years for no suitable land was found to build a Church. We are now on the verge of completing a new building and I bowed my head in prayer with the wish that God would be merciful on me and permit me to see its completion next year.
Fr. Warner D'Souza is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Bombay. He has served in the parishes of St Michael's, Mahim, St Paul's, Dadar East, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Bandra and at present is the priest in charge of St Jude Church, Malad East. He is also the Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum and is the co-ordinator of the Committee for the Promotion and Preservation of the Artistic and Historic Patrimony of the Church.