So close, and yet so far away. That is how Moses might have felt after God showed him the Promised Land his descendants would inherit, and then discovered he would never enter it himself (Deuteronomy 34:1–4).
That mountain where Moses could see the Promised Land but was not permitted to cross over into it over 3,000 years ago, is called Mount Nebo, a name that means “prophet.” It no doubt left Moses the prophet speechless when he heard the disappointing news; today, it leaves modern-day visitors and pilgrims speechless, albeit for very different reasons.
The view from Mount Nebo in Jordan, more accurately an elevated ridge that is part of a mountain range called Abarim, is spectacular. From the top of the hill, visitors can see the valley of the River Jordan, the Dead Sea, the West Bank (the city of Jericho), Bethlehem, and on a clear day, the city of Jerusalem.
A walk up the mountain is a breeze (literally, since the air is rarely still) with the sight of olive trees—a symbol of beauty and abundance in the Bible—dotting the landscape. Fortunately, getting to the top is also a breeze; Mount Nebo is just .62 miles high, which means the base of the mountain can be reached within 15 minutes by car from the center of Madaba.
But there is a lot more to see here than olive trees and a view of the Promised Land. On top of Mount Nebo lies the Moses Memorial Church. Originally built in the 4th century AD, the church was built on Siyagha—one of the two peaks on Mount Nebo—to pay homage to the “left behind” prophet, Moses. In 2016, the church underwent a major reconstruction and houses some of the most stunning mosaics in Jordan, dating from around 530.
The masterpiece mosaic features a hunting and herding scene interspersed with an assortment of African fauna, including a zebu (humped ox) as well as lions, tigers, and bears. Visiting wine aficionados will no doubt appreciate the mosaic’s depiction of winemaking, a time-honored tradition in many ancient monasteries.
Unlike some of the more large and stately houses of worship tourists may visit throughout the Middle East and Europe, the Moses Memorial Church arguably feels more intimate. This is likely owing to its airy and light-filled modern aesthetic. As a reminder that it is a holy site, however, outside stands an exquisite sculpture of the Serpentine Cross, a symbolic combination of the bronze serpent created by Moses and the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.
Today, Mount Nebo is the property of the Franciscans who restored the site in 1932, then promptly reinstated it as an active monastery open to modern-day pilgrims and tourists. Between the monastery, the Moses Memorial Church, and other chapels on site and in the nearby ancient town of Mount Nebo (called Khirbet al-Mukhayyat today), visitors can experience the holy mountain as the first stop on the King’s Highway on a journey from Amman to Petra. It remains one of the more inspirational biblical sites.
Experience a mountaintop moment standing where Moses stood atop Mount
Nebo, overlooking the Promised Land.