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The Sanctuary of Nabi Musa

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.02.2006:

This Week in Palestine

December 2005

By Emma Boltanski

Since the Middle Ages, each year in April, the Moslems of Palestine celebrate the mawsim of Nabi Musa (pilgrimage of the prophet Moses). To reach the sanctuary, it is necessary to leave the principal axis connecting Jerusalem to Jericho and to get on a narrow, sinuous road that runs between the sand dunes. With the turning of a hill, at the horizon an encircled imposing building of a cemetery of white tombs appears suddenly. The holy place knew periods of abandonment, restoration, ruin and enlargement between the XIII and the XIX centuries. It took its current form only in 1885, following the restoration work ordered by the mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Taher Al-Husayni. The building, which is spread out over 5,000 m², is entirely built of beige limestone. It is organized around a central court surrounded by a hundred rooms. A multitude of domes painted in white covers the entire complex and offers a sharp contrast against the ground of black flagstones cut in the bituminous rock of the area called the “stone of the prophet Moses.” The room containing the tomb is in the centre of the sanctuary.

Built in 1268 on orders of the Mamluk sultan Zahir Baybars, it forms the oldest part around which, in the course of the centuries, the building grew.

Only faithful Moslems attend this sanctuary because the Old Testament locates the death of the prophet Moses on other side of the Jordan river, on Mt. Nebo, in a place unknown to man. The popular festival that takes place there is an occasion for the excessively pious to form intimate and singular bonds with the prophet and, through him, with God. The legislator of the Hebrews holds an important place in Islam: he is regarded both as the precursor and the model of Muhammad whose arrival he was to announce. According to the Quran, God spoke to him directly; this is why the epithet “interlocutor of God” is added to his name. The faithful who come to this sanctuary addressing their prayers to him and give him gifts are mainly women.

Prayers at this sanctuary are believed to be particularly effective in curing problems of sterility. Women who have problems to bear children caress the fabric that covers the tomb and repeat the supplication addressed to God: “My lord! Widened my chest; facilitate my task; untie the node of my language so that they understand my word” (Quran, XX, 25-28). They gather in the desert surrounding the sanctuary a plant which they drink as an infusion. These practices, which are largely condemned by orthodox Moslems, always take place discreetly.

During the mawsim of Nabi Musa, pilgrims celebrate a second character that, contrary to Moses, has warlike and political attributes: Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyubi. According to a widespread myth in Palestine, the defeater of the Crusaders and the conqueror of Jerusalem in 1187 founded the pilgrimage to protect the Holy Land against new intrusions. Its objective was to protect Jerusalem at the critical time of the Christian Easter celebrations. The many pilgrims who flocked to celebrate the Passion of Christ were suspected of wanting to carry out a new crusade against the Holy City. The Moslems who took part in the mawsim were to ensure its protection. This account, though, is more of a myth since it is not documented anywhere.

The important role of the mawsim of Nabi Musa in the formation of the Palestinian national identity, though, was underlined by many historians. The festival, which attracted each year faithful Moslems from all over Palestine, made it possible to weave bonds between the various areas of the country and contributed in forging a common identity. This role of a nationalist catalyst was reinforced by the fact that Jerusalem, the third holiest place of Islam and a point of reference for the Palestinians, occupied a central role in the festivities. Before the Nakba, the mawsim took place in three successive stages. Initially, the pilgrims converged on the Holy City. They left it then to go to the sanctuary of Nabi Musa, which is 27 kilometres away. They then returned to Jerusalem to close the festivities. Jerusalem played such a central role that the pilgrimage was sometimes called “Hajj Al-Quds.” It was in 1920 that the mawsim became an important nationalist event. That year, during the festivities, the first anti-Jewish and anti-British Arab riots broke out in the Old City of Jerusalem, causing several deaths. Consequently, the mawsim, which until then attracted mainly the inhabitants of the areas of Nablus, Hebron and Jerusalem, started to attract pilgrims from the whole of Mandatory Palestine, including Palestinian Christians who came to lend their support to the nationalist cause.

The riots of Nabi Musa propelled the young Hajj Amin Al-Husayni to the forefront of the Palestinian nationalism scene. The British, by designating him as the principal instigator of the disorders, contributed to increasing his popularity among the Arab population. One year later, they facilitated his accession at the post of mufti of Jerusalem, with the objective of making him an ally able to maintain order. The immense procession that crossed right through the city of Jerusalem on the day of departure towards the sanctuary of Nabi Musa constituted the strong moment of the nationalist pilgrimage. Carried out by the mufti riding on a white horse and surrounded by the prestigious banners of the Holy City, it coursed through the Via Dolorosa, exited the Old City through Lions’ Gate and climbed the Mount of Olives. The notables of the city were accompanied by scouts. The crowds followed while singing, dancing and proclaiming the glory of Hajj Amin, which was invariably compared to the famous warrior Salah Al-Din. With the exile of the mufti in 1937 and the repression of the revolt during 1936-1939, the mawsim lost its political dimension. The festivities continued, but on a lesser scale. In 1951, shortly after the assassination King Abdallah, the Jordanians decided to suspend the celebrations in Jerusalem. The faithful continued to celebrate the mawsim in April, but only at the sanctuary in the desert.

Since 1997, the Palestinian Authority, through the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Waqf, took over the organization of the pilgrimage. The objective is to give again a nationalist and political character to the celebration, while preserving its religious and traditional character. During the festivities, the sanctuary of Nabi Musa becomes a centre on which the Palestinian nation converges to celebrate its unity through its ancestral traditions and its various national symbols: the portrait of the President, the flag and the national anthem. It is particularly the scouts from various towns of the West Bank who are the honour of the ceremonies.

The “young soldiers” in uniforms and badges that recall the Palestinian flag parade at length in the sanctuary to the rhythm of their trumpets, percussion and bagpipes, stirring an intense emotion among the public. But the pilgrimage is limited in scope. Only Palestinians of the West Bank and Israel can make it to the sanctuary. Moreover, contrary to the past, the ceremonies are limited to the narrow perimeter of the sanctuary; Jerusalem does not form any more part of the pilgrimage and the Israeli army limits the circulation in the desert surrounding the sanctuary. However, the sanctuary of Nabi Musa continues to occupy an important place of the collective memory of the Palestinians.

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