Archaeology might raise more questions about the Bible than it answers, but that doesn’t stop millions of religious tourists from flocking to the Holy Land every year to try to walk in the footsteps of figures like Jesus and Moses. Here are nine sites of biblical importance beyond the Old City of Jerusalem.
Some apocalyptically minded Christians might head to Megiddo, also known as Armageddon, to see the place where the Book of Revelation says earthly armies will fight their last battle during the end times. But Megiddo has already seen its fair share of action. There are 26 layers of archaeological ruins here—including a Canaanite city, an Egyptian citadel, and a Persian city—and it’s listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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European archaeologists first became interested in the settlement of Qumran, near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, in the 19th century. It has ruins dating back to the Iron Age and hundreds of graves. But the site became world famous in the 1940s after the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in caves carved into the desert cliffs just opposite Qumran. The manuscripts are among the oldest surviving pieces of the Old Testament.
The archaeological record tells us that the Late Bronze Age was a time of great unrest in the Eastern Mediterranean, causing once-powerful cultures like the Hittites and Mycenaeans to suddenly collapse. According to the Old Testament, this period is also the backdrop for Joshua’s conquest of Canaan after the death of Moses. One of his key victories came at Hazor in Upper Galilee, and the Book of Joshua claims that he spared no mercy in sacking the city: “He put to the sword all who were in it, utterly destroying them; there was none left that breathed, and he burned Hazor with fire.” It’s a matter of debate whether layers of burned material at Hazor can be really be attributed to Joshua and the Israelites, or if the battle is largely myth. Excavations are ongoing and the sprawling ruins of the city are now a national park in Israel.
This hilltop fortress in Jordan is famous as the site of a fateful 1st century CE birthday party for Herod Antipas. Princess Salome supposedly danced for her stepfather Herod in the courtyard, and he was so pleased that he promised to give her anything she asked for. Beware of biblical promises: Salome asked for the head of St. John the Baptist, who at the time was already imprisoned in Machaerus, and Herod complied. The story is recounted in the gospel and by the Roman historian Flavius Josephus; the site is also important to Muslims who know St. John the Baptist as Prophet Yahyaibn Zakariyya. Visitors today can walk through the ruins of the Herodian royal castle overlooking the Dead Sea. Over the past decade, Jordanian and Hungarian archaeologists have been uncovering more of the citadel and reconstructing features like columns.
The town of Beersheba in the Negev desert is an important biblical-era “tel,” or an artificial mound that has formed over many generations as old earthen buildings disintegrated and new ones were built. According to the Old Testament, the city was founded when the Jewish patriarch Abraham settled a deal over a well with the Philistine king Abimelech. Visitors to the ruins today might not be able to see Abraham’s well, but they can see the drains and cisterns of the ancient city’s impressive water system which dates back to the Iron Age.
6. MOUNT NEBO
Moses climbed this peak to get a view of the Promised Land, according to the Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah. Some believe this site, which is in modern-day Jordan, is also the place Moses was buried, and it became a place of pilgrimage for early Christians. A group of monks built a church on the mountain in the 4th century, but the ruins of this building were only rediscovered in the 1930s. Some ornate 6th-century mosaics (see the top image) are still preserved there.
Biblical accounts claim Bethlehem, now in the Palestinian West Bank, is the birthplace of Jesus. So it’s no surprise that on Christmas, Christians flock to Manger Square, located near the Church of the Nativity, which was built (and rebuilt) over the cave where Jesus is said to have been born. Jews have also historically made pilgrimages to Bethlehem to see the tomb of the Hebrew matriarch Rachel. Rachel’s Tomb is also considered holy to Christians and Muslims. Access to the site has been a point of political contention between Israel and Palestine.
Ancient Petra is one of the most spectacular sites in the Middle East, famous for its rock-cut facades built by the Nabataeans. Archaeologists are still uncovering new monuments in the city. This location, in modern-day Jordan, also intersects with biblical history. The surrounding valley is called the Valley of Moses, or Wadi Musa, and according to biblical tradition, this is the place where Moses hit a rock and brought forth water for his followers. The supposed tomb of Aaron, Moses’ brother, is located nearby.
9. MOUNT SINAI
In the Book of Exodus, Mount Sinai, in modern-day Egypt, is the place where Moses encounters God in the form of a burning bush and receives the 10 Commandments. St. Catherine’s Monastery was built below the peak, and thanks to its isolation in the desert, the compound has preserved some early Christian treasures, including a house full of monk skeletons.