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Prophet on the Mount

The devout pay respects to Aaron

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For at least a millennium, it was Jebel Haroun, not Petra, that attracted visitors. A two-hour donkey ride south of Petra, Jebel Haroun is a rugged mountain crowned by a small white dome. The building is a shrine to Aaron, a brother of Moses and the mouthpiece for the stuttering prophet. The Old Testament relates that, at God's command, Aaron was left naked to die of exposure at the top of a mountain for a lack of deference to the Lord. Age-old tradition says this desolate spot—"Jebel Haroun" is Arabic for Mount Aaron—is where he died. Today, Jewish Hasidim, Muslim villagers and Christian tourists make the arduous trek up the steep mountainside out of reverence to Aaron, who, like his brother, is regarded as a prophet by all three religions. At the top, the view to the west is of the shimmering Negev Desert in Israel.

When my guide and I arrive, the shrine is locked and deserted. But soon a lanky man named Nimet Defala arrives with his wife and mother. "This is my 47th birthday," he explains. "My mother lost her previous child, and she vowed that if I lived, we would visit the shrine every year." They had walked from their village, a couple of dozen miles away. "When we come here, we feel our heart. Aaron was close to God." Defala fishes out a key borrowed from a caretaker, opens the small metal door and invites us into the shadowy space. We go inside, light candles and creep down the worn stone stairs to pay our respects to Aaron. Carvings of Christian crosses, Koranic verse and Hebrew prayers are interspersed across the cool stone walls.

Here is the Middle East in all its sacred and profane complexity. The simple building dedicated to a Jewish prophet is a fourth-century Christian sanctuary renovated by a 13th-century Egyptian sultan. On the plateau just below the shrine are the remains of a Byzantine monastery used between the fourth and seventh centuries A.D. (and excavated since the late 1990s by Finnish archaeologists). The prophet Muhammad himself is said to have visited Jebel Haroun as a child. One of the Byzantine monks living there at the time proclaimed that Muhammad was destined to change the world.

Yet the bitter animosities that cleave the region are present too. Christians living here in the 12th century appealed for help to the Crusaders, who built a string of forts in the vicinity. The Muslim conqueror Saladin expelled the invaders, and non-Muslims were not welcome at this holy site until the 1990s. The very morning I make my pilgrimage, in July 2006, the latest war begins, in Israel and Lebanon. The one-month conflict will take 1,000 lives.

My guide and I come out of Aaron's temple blinking in the bright sun, say goodbye to Defala and untether our grazing donkeys. We gallop down the bare mountain, raising dust and whooping like movie cowboys.

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