Along route 436, near the northernmost point of Jerusalem, is Shmuel HaNavi, the place of Samuel the Prophet. For many years it was better known by its Arabic name, Nebi Samuil. There is a tradition that Samuel was buried here, but like most traditions regarding ancient tombs, that tradition is probably mistaken. Nonetheless, it is venerated by Christians, Muslims, and Jews as a holy site, appropriate for prayer.
As Meir Eisenman, our guide that day, pointed out, although Samuel is not buried here, he definitely visited. In the Bible, Samuel goes to Mitzpe several times. A mitzpe is an observation point, a high place from which one can see much of the land around. Shmuel HaNavi is the highest point in the Mountains of Judea. The building on its peak has a distinctive silhouette– rectangle with a tower on one side and an umbrella-shaped tree on the other. It can be recognized from anywhere in the center of the country with an unobstructed viewMeir stood beside the building and pointed out landmarks from Gush Etzion and Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, in the south, to the Mountains of Moav in Jordan, and north towards Psagot. The buildings closest to us were those of Ramallah and Kalandia. On the other side of the building, Meir directed our attention to nearby Givat Ze’ev and Modi’in. Between the mountains to our west, we could see a pale gray area, which he identified as the coastal plain. Samuel, with his view unobstructed by tall buildings or air pollution, would have thus been able to see mountainous territory occupied by the tribes Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim. He would also have been able to glimpse the flat land of Philistines on the coastal plain.
The hill is an archeological as well as religious site. First and Second Temple period remains have been found here, as well as houses from the Byzantine period. The Byzantines built a monastery on the mountain in honor of Saint Samuel and later the Crusaders built a fortress on the site, complete with moat. They called the place Mount Joy, because from this spot they could see Jerusalem. The straight walls of the Crusader quarry and stables are still visible. The Ottomans later added a minaret and mithrab, a niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca towards which Muslims pray, converting the building to a mosque.
In 1948, the Jordanian Legion occupied the hill and from here shelled much of Jerusalem. Our friend Shalom has told us about the shells from Nebi Samuel landing in our neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe daily, for weeks on end. Standing in front of the building, I could identify the white spire of the light rail bridge in Kiryat Moshe and a tall building in Givat Shaul. Although neither the bridge nor the building existed in 1948, most of the trees and other buildings that stand today between Nebi Samuel and Jerusalem did not exist either. Standing where the Jordanians stood, even I could probably have aimed a cannon to hit Kiryat Moshe, five miles away.
Although I have visited Shmuel HaNavi before, this was the first
time I went inside the building, all that remains of the Crusader fortress. The room on the ground floor was a large empty square, devoid of decoration. Directly opposite the entrance is a locked door to an inner chamber. The sign above it reads in Arabic and English, Islamic Waqf, Mosque of the Prophet Samuel. Next to the doorway is a rack where those who come to pray can put their shoes.
We walked through the main room and down more stairs to the tomb itself. The room is white and brightly lit. It is tiny compared to other tombs I’ve visited, with room for only a few people to stand around the catafalque marking the grave.
Meir offered to take us down to the spring on the hill below the tomb building. He said it would be about a seven minute walk, an easy distance but fairly steep. While some of the women in our group stayed at the tomb to say Psalms, Meir led six of us down the hill to Maayan Chana, named for Samuel’s mother. The mountains in Binyamin are blessed with many natural springs. This one feeds several pools carved into the side of the hill which are used as a mikve, a ritual bath, by Breslover Hasidim who pray here.
We could see the outermost pools as we approached. My first impression was, Yuck! Green algae and weeds floated on the surface of the pool and the rocks. Beyond them, the water in the inner pools looked black and uninviting. Meir assured us that the algae was only outside, in the sun, and the water further in was fresh and clear. He walked across the uneven rocks and stooped down to scoop water up in his hand, and then splashed it on his face.
I carefully stepped across the rocks, following Meir. The caves went back into the hill for a distance I could not see. Looking down into the nearest one, I could see its bottom. The water was clear. It was a hot day—I was almost tempted to take a dip. Lacking a bathing suit, I satisfied myself with taking some photos.
The wet rocks looked slippery. There were no steps chiseled into the rock, no ladders, not even a rope. I wondered how the men who use the pools as a mikve manage to get in and out safely. Using a mikve to purify yourself requires you to be naked, so I was just as glad that no one was there to demonstrate.
Maayan Chana was an unexpected treat on that warm late summer afternoon. I may never actually plunge in to the pools, but next time, I’ll take my shoes off and dangle my feet in its cold clear water.
In his memoirs, For Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek writes about Shmuel Hanavi in 1967. Teddy was elected mayor of Jerusalem in 1965, and re-elected to that office five times, serving until 1993. In 1967, after the reunification of Jerusalem, many people–rich, influential people such as retired government officials and university professors– wanted to build large homes near Samuel’s Tomb. As Teddy points out, the view from the hill is “breathtaking….Who would not want to live with Jerusalem at his feet!”
But Teddy wanted to keep this space between Ramallah and Jerusalem open. It was important to him and his colleagues that the familiar silhouette of Nebi Samuel remain visible. Adding homes to the area would do nothing to help protect the security of the city, and would limit the view of the countryside from the mitzpe.
This week, I stood on the rooftop of the building at Shmuel Hanavi. We had gingerly walked up the very steep narrow stairway. Standing in the middle of the roof, we could to see the compete horizon. The land spread out–green and brown forests and farms, buff colored towns with pink tile roofs, gray blue distant mountains, a bright blue sky above.
Teddy Kollek had been right. Keeping Nebi Samuel free of individual homes and accessible to all who want to visit added to the treasures of Israel.
Location of Samuel’s Tomb