Burial place of a prophet?

 ​​Kever Shmuel and/or Nebi Samwil is one of the sites that includes within its stories the long and controversial history of this place, as well as ongoing disputes about who did what, and its justification or suitability for moral condemnation.   The place is the highest point in the area of Jerusalem, about 30 minutes by car west of our neighborhood. It‘s an impressive structure, surrounded by what archaeologists have uncovered from pre-Biblical, Biblical, and/or Byzantine structures, nearby what remains of an Arab village, with spectacular views of Jerusalem on one horizon, Ramallah on another horizon, and numerous smaller Jewish and Arab communities.

Kever Shmuel refers the the tomb of the Prophet Samuel, relegated to the basement sometime during Christian or Muslim control. Currently it‘s the only tomb accessible, in what‘s become an ultra-Orthodox synagogue/study room.

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At one time what was called Shmuel‘s tomb was in the center of the basement room, now divided between a room for men and a room for women. And it was possible to enter a mosque on an upper level, and see a similar tomb (Nebi Samwil), but currently that section is behind a locked door. 

Two tombs of Samuel, one the real and the other make believe, or neither? It was more than a thousand years after his death, ostensibly in a nearby village, that travelers began telling stories about the resting place of Shmuel/Samwil/Samuel at the present site. If any bones or dust are in one or both tombs, they may be those of the Hebrew/Muslim Prophet, a Crusader Knight, a Muslim Sheikh, or lesser persons whose bodies were chosen for the purpose. 

The site has passed through periods of being a village said to be biblical by some archaeologists and denied as such by others, with the central structure built as a Byzantine church, then used as a Crusader fortress, refurbished as a mosque with minaret, then after 1948 a Jordanian army position from which artillery shells were fired on Jerusalem, and most recently a synagogue within an Israeli development called the Nebi Samuel National Park. 

The locale is controversial. Googling produces pages promoting Israeli and Biblical tourism in several languages, and others with assertions that Israelis violated the writer‘s morality or international law by bulldozing most of what was an Arab village and sending away residents on short notice. The names of army archaeologists who excavated old ruins were kept secret in order to protect them from international sanctions. 

The checkered history of Nebi Samuel reflects several elements of modern Israel. There are historical layers of contending communities and military forces on a strategic high point, each with their own sense of something deeply spiritual along with armed might. At various periods there was a tolerant co-existence, with each religious community having the place it considered sacred as the true tomb, and at other times one has relegated the other to the basement, or behind a locked door. Scholars quarrel as to what is likely to have happened in the distant past when records are incomplete, unreliable, and whose stones do not talk. 

There‘s also what may variously be called an indeterminate location, against the reality that possession is 100 percent of what is. The site is on a seam between the outskirts of what Israel says is Jerusalem, and an area of the West Bank left to Israeli control in the Oslo Accords of 1993 (Area C). No government other than Israel recognizes that Jerusalem includes the nearby neighborhood of Ramot, even though its substantial population of 50,000, many of them Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox, are not inclined to move elsewhere.

We see Nebi Samuel from our daily walks around French Hill. From that vantage point the main structure and its minaret resemble a ship on a distant hilltop sea.

​On our recent visit, our first encounter was with a horse tethered​ across the road from the small Arab village that continues to function. ​
Then we passed on a bridge erected above uncovered remnants of structures, and a booth inviting us to light candles.​

The entrance to the main building is an arched doorway topped with an Arabic inscription.

The site currently in use is downstairs. One room faces half a tomb said to be that of Samuel, with the rest of that room a small study hall used by ultra-Orthodox men. On the other side of the tomb, walled off from the men, is a smaller prayer site for women and their children.


​ The rooftop has 360 degrees of views, with Jerusalem to the south 

 

and Ramallah to the north.  What we see explains why the Jordanians positioned their artillery on the site, and why the IDF has taken it for Israel.

The closest Israeli neighborhood prior to 1967 was within five kilometers of Nebi Samuel. It was an easy shot for artillery from the high point, especially when the Jordanians were not concerned about civilian casualties.

The center of Ramallah is about the same distance from Nebi Samuel. There is not currently an IDF post at Nebi Samuel, but you can bet what would happen if the need arises.

The same kind of people who accuse Israel of war crimes for using gun fire against the threat of thousands of Gazans–some of them throwing fire bombs and hand grenades–motivated by their leaders to reach Israel accuse Israel of violating international law for turning a Jordanian military post into an ultra-Orthodox synagogue.

Here as elsewhere near us, we see competing views of justice, and the wiggle room provided by what‘s called international law.

Comments welcome ​​ — 
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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