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Nabi Musa ( , meaning the "Prophet Moses", also transliterated Nebi Musa) is the name of a site in the Judeanmarker desert that popular Palestinian folklore associates with Moses. It is also the name of a seven-day long religious festival that was celebrated annually by Palestinian Muslims, beginning on the Friday before Good Friday in the old Orthodox Greek calendar. Considered "the most important Muslim pilgrimage in Palestine," the festival centered around a collective pilgrimage from Jerusalemmarker to what was understood to be the Tomb of Moses, near Jerichomarker.


The Jerusalem-Jericho road was one of the primary routes used by Mediterraneanmarker Arabs to make a pilgrimage to Meccamarker. The great, many-domed building which marks the Mausoleum of Moses was located at what would be have marked the end of the first day's march in that direction. Originally, it was simply a point from which pilgrims could look across the Jordan Valley and catch a glimpse of Mount Nebomarker where the tomb of Moses was thought to be located. It appears to have become a fixed point in the local Muslim calendar from the time of Saladin. In 1269 the Mamluk sultan Baibars al-Bunduqdari built a small shrine here, as part of a general policy he adopted after conquering towns and rural areas from Lebanonmarker down to Hebronmarker from the Crusaders. The shrines were mostly dedicated to biblical prophets and the companions of Mohammed, and their maintenance was funded by an awqaf, an endowment from properties that formerly belonged to the Latin Church. In the case of Nabi Musa, the waqf fund was secured from ecclesiastical assets expropriated in nearby Jericho.

Baibars al-Bunduqdari's constructive piety set a precedent for others. Over the late medieval period, hostels for travellers were built on adjacent to the shrine, and the hospice in its present form was completed in the decade between 1470 and 1480. Gradually, the lookout point for Moses' distant gravesite beyond the Jordan was confused with Moses' tomb itself, laying the ground for the cultic importance Nabi Musa was to acquire in the Palestinian worship of saints (walis).

Ottoman Turks, around 1820, restored the buildings, which had, over the previous centuries, fallen into a state of dilapidated disrepair. In addition, they promoted a festive pilgrimage to the shrine, coinciding with the Christian celebration of Easter. This 'invention of tradition', as such imaginative constructs are called, made the pageantry of the Nabi Musa pilgrimage a potent symbol of both political and religious identity among Muslims from the outset of the modern period. Over the nineteenth century, thousands of Muslims would assemble in Jerusalem, trek to Nabi Musa, and pass three days in feasting, prayer, games and visits to the large tomb two kilometres south, identified as that of Moses' shepherd, Hasan er-Rai, They were then entertained, as guests of the waqf, before returning on the seventh day triumphantly back to Jerusalem.

In the late nineteenth century, the Ottomans appointed the al-Husayni clan as official custodians of the shrine and hosts of the festival, though their connection with the cult may date back to the previous century. According to Yehoshua Ben-Aryeh, the governor of Jerusalem Rauf Pasha (1876-1888), was the first to attempt to exploit the festival to incite Muslims against Christians. Ilan Pappé offers a different view:
'It is more likely, however, that the governor and his government were rather apprehensive of such an anti-Christian uprising as it could stir instability and disorder at a time when the central government was trying to pacify the Empire.
This had been indeed the impression of the engineer (founder of the Palestine Exploration Fund) Claude Conder.
The Hebrew paper, Ha-havazelet, at the time blessed the Ottoman government for imposing law and order in the Nabi Musa affair.
The travelogues of Francis Newton testify as well to a peaceful execution of the ceremonies.
Indeed, the Turkish government must have acted here against popular feelings, shared by the Husaynis as the masters of the ceremony that Nabi Musa was celebrated in the most unfavourable conditions for the Muslims.
It was the iron fist imposed by the Turks that prevented the situation form deteriorating into an all out riot.'
The procession moved off from Jerusalem under a distinctive Nabi Musa banner which the Husaynis conserved for the annual occasion in their Dar al-Kabira. On arriving at the shrine, the al-Husaynis and another rising Jerusalem family of notables (A'ayan), the Yunis clan, were required to provide two meals a day over the week for all worshippers. Once their vows were taken, or vows previously taken were renewed, they were offered to the festival. The priestly family conducting events would provide about twelve lambs, together with rice, bread, and Arab butter, for a communal meal every day.

Writing in the early twentieth century, Samuel Curtiss recorded that an estimated 15,000 people from all over the country attended the Nabi Musa festival every year.. For some years from 1919, pilgrims made their trek back from Jericho to Jerusalem to the sound of English military music. The festival was suppressed when Jordanmarker assumed administration over the West Bank in the aftermath of 1948 Arab-Israeli war, because of its symbolic value as a vehicle for potential expressions of political protest. Since 1995, control over the tomb of Nabi Musa has been allocated to the Palestinian National Authority.


Nabi Musa festival, Jerusalem, 1920.
The journalist Philip Perceval Graves, the brother of the poet and mythographer Robert Graves, who had achieved recent fame for his exposure of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a forgery (1921) within a year of its English-language publication, gave a vivid description of the colorful re-entry of worshipers back from the countryside into Jerusalem as they passed through the Jaffamarker gates:

As they entered the old city, the enthusiasm of the crowds reached its highest intensity.
Men with the set blank stare of extreme excitement danced round and round, bareheaded, their long locks flying wildly as they revolved.
Last came the green banner of Hebronmarker surrounded by a guard of ten wiry swordsmen.
Proudly they walked with their flag, till they came to where the narrow Street of David plunges down into the labyrinth of the old city.
For the last time they whirled their bright blades above their heads and disappeared into the shadows of the streets.

A photo of one stage of the procession may be seen in George Aaron Barton's A Year's Wandering in Bible Lands, Ferris & Leach, 1904 p.200

In Letters from Jerusalem: During the Palestine Mandate, Eunice Holliday describes the procession to the Tomb of Moses in a letter to her mother as follows:
"The procession was the queerest thing I have ever seen, a more disorganised affair you could not imagine, but then that is typical of the country.
The people came along in batches, just a crowd with banner of silk, of all colours, then a crowd dancing - Arabic dancing is a joke - then a crowd singing and waving swords or sticks and, interspersed, groups of mounted police and soldiers to see there was no fighting.
Quite the nicest part of the day was to see all the fellaheen (peasants from the villages) in their new clothes.
The colours were wonderful, bright pink, purple or blue velvet coats, yellow dresses with embroideries in red and green et cetera, and all wore a white veil.
It was a gorgeous site [...]"

Moses rocks

Negev Bedouin tribes produced oil from the bituminous shale rocks found in the area around the shrine to Moses which they called "Moses rocks" ( , ihjar Mousa). The Bedouin not only shared in the belief surrounding the sanctity of the site, but further believed that God had blessed this place where Moses was buried with 'fire rocks' and water wells. Tawfiq Canaan, in his work Mohammedan Saints and Sanctuaries (1927), noted that the black rocks around the shrine would burn when placed in fire and were also used as amulets after being cut into square and triangular forms and inscribed with protective talismans.


  1. For Moses as nabi in Islamic holy scripture see Quran 19:51 (glossed by rasul ‘messenger’). For 'nabi’ in the Hebrew Scriptures see, for example, Numbers 12:6-8. The word comes from a Semitic root meaning 'to gush forth'. For a survey of the philological evidence see G Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, Heinz-Josef Fabry, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing 1998 pp.135ff.140f.
  2. Originally published by Fleming H. Revell 1902 pp.163-4
  3. Rivka Gonen, Contested Holiness: Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Perspectives on the Temple,KTAV Publishing House 2003 p.138
  4. Jerome Murphy-O’Conner, The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700, Oxford University Press 1998 p.369
  5. Uri M. Kupferschmidt. The Supreme Muslim Council: Islam Under the British Mandate for Palestine, Brill, 1987 p.231
  6. Yehoshua Frenkel,’The Impact of the Crusades on Rural Society and Religious Endowments: The Case of Medieval Syria (Bilad al-Sham),’ in Yaacov Lev (ed.) War and Society in the Eastern Mediterranean,7th.-15th Centuries, (The Medieval Mediterranean:Peoples, Economies and Cultures,400-1453, vol.9) Brill,1997 pp237-248 p.246
  7. Eric Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger (eds) The Invention of Tradition Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York 1983 pp.1-14
  8. Jerome Murphy-O’Conner, The Holy Land ibid. pp.369-370
  9. Ilan Pappé, The Rise and Fall of the Husainis (Part 1), Autumn 2000, Issue 10, Jerusalem Quarterly
  10. Ted Swedenburg, ‘The Role of the Palestinian Peasantry in the Great Revolt (1936-1939)' Chapter 7 pp.129-167 in Ilan Pappé (ed.), The Israel/Palestine Question, Routledge, London 1999 pp.137-138
  11. The Nabi Musa festival numbers compare well with similar popular events in a much more populous country like Egypt. There some 12,000 Arabs would trudge over the desert south of Cairo to visit, a regional saint’s birthday festival (mulid) in the 1880s. See Elizabeth Longford, A Pilgrimage of Passion, Alfred Knopf, New York 1980 p.240
  12. Henry Laurens, La Question de Palestine, vol.1, Fayard, Paris, 2002 p.507
  13. Michael Dumper, The Politics of Sacred Space: The Old City of Jerusalem in the Middle East, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002 p.147
  14. Philip Perceval Graves, Palestine:The Land of Three Faiths, Jonathan Cape, London 1923, cited in Hunt Janin, Four Paths to Jerusalem: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Secular Pilgrimages: 1000 BCE to 2001 CE, McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina 2002 p.193
A detailed account of the Nabi Musa festival is to be found, in Arabic, in Kamil al-‘Asali's Mawsim al-Nabi Musa fi Filastin: Tarikh al-mawsim wal-maqam (The Nabi Musa Festival in Palestine: The history of the festival and the shrine) Ammanmarker, Dar al-Karmil, 1990

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