Photos and text by MATT CHURCHILL
As one drives out of Jerusalem heading northwest, a massive fortress can be seen dominating the skyline. This is the mosque called Nebi Samwil in Arabic, after the biblical prophet Samuel. Its minaret stands almost 3,000 feet above sea level and its rooftop provides one of the most majestic views that the entire holy land has to offer. Nonetheless, the site retains an off-the-beaten-track quality to those who invest time to explore its hidden treasures.
On July 7, 1099 the Crusaders arrived to this hillside in order to plan their attack on Jerusalem, which they would conquer in the following month after receiving reinforcements. But this was the first time that the knights and priests and rabble had set their eyes on the holy city since marching from Europe three years before. Many wept for joy and they appropriately named the site Mons Gaudii or Mount Joy. There are impressive quarries, stables, ramparts, and vaults that stand as a testament to the prolific building projects that the Crusaders took on during the 12th century.
The church and cryptorium were devoted to Samuel who the Bible says was buried in his hometown, Ramah. In fact, there is a fresh water spring on site named after the prophet's mother Hannah. The idea is that during one of the Israelite holidays, Hannah went to Shiloh where the Tabernacle once stood about 20 miles north and prayed for a child. Tradition says she came back her town, Ramah of Benjamin, and gave birth by this spring. But most archeologists think the true location of the ruins of Ramah are at the village Al-Ram which stands 2 miles northeast at a lower elevation on the plateau. So how and when did our site come to be identified as the place where Samuel was born and ultimately buried?
Its minaret stands almost 3,000 feet above sea level and its rooftop provides one of the most majestic views that the entire holy land
It was the Byzantines who first made the connection. They ruled the holy land from 325 to 636 CE, and built all of the original churches marking where biblical events occurred. This was the original age of Christian pilgrimage and believers were being shown how to connect the dots between land and text. Now if you read the first chapter of the Book of Samuel next to the first chapter of Luke, you can see how the gospel is making a literary and theological parallel between the birth of Samuel and that of John the Baptist. Even more, if you stand on the porch of the church you clearly see the village of Ein Karem across the highway, which is the traditional site of where John the Baptist was born. It's as if the lay of the land, the topography itself, is making these connections for us!
The Israeli archeologist, Yitzhak Magen, has made a good case that Nebi Samuel is the ancient site of Mitzpeh in the Bible. Mitzpeh means "overlook" in Hebrew and on a clear day one can see the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv to the west and the hills of Jordan to the east. Indeed, a whole biblical panorama is available from the rooftop of the mosque. Just north of Nebi Samuel is the town El-Jib which is identified with Gibeon. The Gibeonites made a covenant with Joshua and the children of Israel during the conquest of the land. The Book of Chronicles says that King Solomon went to the high place of Gibeon before he built the first Temple in Jerusalem and prayed for wisdom and knowledge on how to govern the nation that his father David united.
So what does all this have to do with the Jewish festival of Hanukkah? In First Maccabees it says that Judah Maccabi gathered the Jewish forces at a place called Mizpah opposite Jerusalem, which had formerly been a place of prayer. This was in the year 165 BCE. The Selucid Greeks who had been ruling Palestine were trying to impose Hellenistic religion and culture upon the Jews, even forcing them to desecrate the Sabbath, banning circumcision, and setting up pagan statues in the Temple precincts. It provoked a revolt among a group of priests know as the Maccabees, which is an acronym in Hebrew for Mi Kamocha Bi Elohim, or, "who is like Thee among the gods?".
So from this place called Mizpah or Mitzpeh, Judah Maccabi rallied his troops successfully against the Selucid army in the famous Battle of Emmaus. After a series of victories, the Jews regained and rededicated the Temple on December 14, 164 BCE. The meaning of Hanukkah is "dedication." The Maccabees became the Hasmonean dynasty that would rule the land of Israel for the next 100 years. The excavations at Nebi Samuel have uncovered a village from the Hasmonean period where you can walk on a street and explore some of the houses and storerooms that date to 164 - 63 BCE. After this era the Romans conquered the country and eventually set up the infamous ethnarch, Herod the Great, as King of the Jews. It was the last moment of Jewish sovereignty in the holy land until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. But that story will be told in the next installment. Until then...Happy Hanukkah!
Matt Churchill is a licensed tour guide and wishes everyone a happy holidays from churchillisraeltours.com
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