by Tamás Arany
Jabal Haroun (Aaron’s mountain) is the highest peak in the mountains few kilometres south-west from the ancient city of Petra. The local tradition believes this is the place where Aaron (in Arabic Haroun) the brother of Moses (Mousa) died and was buried as the Lord commanded at the times of the desert wandering of the Israelite.
Due to this strong association with the story told in the Old Testament, Jabal Haroun is identified with the Biblical Mount Hor where the event is described to have taken place.
“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor, on the border of the land of Edom… “Take Aaron and Eleazar his son and bring them up to Mount Hor; and strip Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron shall be gathered to his people, and shall die there.” Moses did as the Lord commanded; and they went up Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation… and Aaron died there on the top of the mountain." (Num. 20:23-28)
Some Biblical scholars and archaeologists argue if Jabal Haroun was really equal with Mount Hor and pointing on few real historical and Biblical-geographical reasons they suggest other places for the “real” one. However this is the only place for the event referred by later ancient historical accounts and remembered by the tradition over long centuries.
One of the first historical accounts comes from the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius in the 1st century AD who places the final resting place of Aaron on the mountaintop near Petra. Later this information is repeated and confirmed by the Greek church historian Eusebius.
From the 5th century AD there is evidence of a Byzantine monastic complex dedicated to St. Aaron which is mentioned in the so called Petra Papyri as well as “The sacred house of our Lord the Saint High Priest Aaron”.
According to Islamic tradition, the young Prophet Mohammed at the age of 10 first climbed Jabal Haroun with his uncle. A few decades later, with the coming of Islam it became a holy place for Muslims, escpecially since Haroun is recognized as one of the previous prophets of the only God, Allah.
By the time, of the Crusaders in the 12th century and later pilgrimages, the place was lived in by a few Greek monks. However, in 1276 when Sultan Baibars passed by heading to Damascus from Cairo he noted the mountain to be uninhabited by then.
The small Islamic white-washed mosque (weli) still can be seen on the top of the mountain is from the mid-14th century originally said to be built above the tomb of Aaron and most probably on an earlier structure. A tablet with Arabic inscription over the entrance states that the shrine was built by Mohammad, son of Calaon, Sultan of Egypt at his father’s command, in the year 739 of the Hegira (about 1363) and that it was restored later around 1495.
As Petra, Jabal Haroun became hidden and unknown after the Crusaders’ era for the western world for over 600 years.
Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, the Swiss “rediscoverer” of Petra reached the mountain in 1812 but he couldn’t make it to the top. The first western visitors of Aaron’s shrine were two early explorers, the Englishmen Irby and Mangles in 1818.
Although Aaron and his final resting place is holy for all the three monotheistic religions of the Jewish, Christians and Islam, till the last decades of the 20th century it was real hard for non-Muslims to pay a visit on the mountain. For its great sanctity for the local people they used to keep a suspicious eye on every foreigner attempting to get there. However nowadays, with a necessary amount of respect and an open mind in a cultural-religious way will help one for sure to gain their trust and they will give their famous natural hospitality and caring help in advance. This trip actually has to be undertaken in a spirit of a pilgrimage and a spiritual journey through history and tradition.
The pilgrimage to Aaron’s shrine
The path begins in the centre of Petra next to the Qasr al-Bint heading southwards after the great ruins. It’s about 11 km walk to the mountain and an easy ascension followed by a little climbing on steps to the top. The whole by walk can be made about 3 - 3 ½ hours and allow as much time on your way back.
The road leads first up to the isolated column called the “Pillar of the Pharaoh” where a modern but slant tablet warns you: venturing from the regular route is not advisable and that it would be highly recommended to take a local guide with you… From one hand the warning has to be taken seriously. Notably, it becomes more rarity that Bedouins came by with their donkeys and camels to offer your tired legs some help on the long way. A guide on the other hand is not really necessary: if you have enough water and some companion with you (recommended!)
Besides good health and physical fitness you cannot really miss the way. However, after the road takes down through the colourful valley of Wadi Thugra on the right side leaving the rocky hill of Al-Habis and the towering massif of Umm al-Biyara with handful facades carved in its side you will realize, from this point you are on your own. But not entirely alone. As you are passing next to the mysterious Snake Monument there are some Bedouin homes carved in the rock, built, or simple tents. It shows the idea of the real Bedouin way of life around Petra. Their small children often run to greet foreign travelers by saying “hello, hi, how are you, where are you from, where you go” and of course ask for some bonbons, chocolate or money actually either on sweet way never too much disturbing. If you encounter adults as well on your way just keep always in mind: this is their territory, their home, and that you are heading right to their most holy place! They might invite you for a cup of refreshing tea and a small talk and offer help to lead you to Haroun. You can always trust them and accept it, if you need any. In case you don’t, just continue your way gentle and enjoy the nice scenery of this the deserted wilderness of stones!
After leaving the mountains of al-Barra on your right you get to see the towering Jabal Haroun in front of you with the white-domed shrine on the top just like a small glittering piece of diamond from the far. By the way, near here is the place as far as Johann Ludwig Burckhardt could reach and sacrificed a goat in the sight of the Prophet’s tomb. If the journey is undertaken in springtime the traveller is fascinated by the pink-coloured flowers of oleanders as the road is snaking up and down on an open rocky ground. Getting closer to the mountain the path is ascending slowly and sometimes getting hard to track because of the debris of small rocks. Looking up after a while you can get an uncomfortable feeling when the small white building of Aaron’s shrine, which until now served as some kind of a road sign towards the right way so far, suddenly disappears from your eyes’ view. Don’t worry for any second, just follow the path on the south-east side of the mountain. The climb is never difficult, rather a walk upwards. You might also encounter one more kind of inhabitants of the area. Small lizards called Agama Sinaita are famous for their colour which they are able to change from the brilliant blue to the same brown-like ones of the rocks around. For this marvelous ability and their shy nature the one who can observe them for longer time and take good photos can feel really lucky. In the meantime once you see the top of the white mosque again your faith will definitely return that you will actually make it! You have to make a short climb on step-like large rocks in order to reach the plateau right below the summit where you can see the ruins of the Byzantine monastic complex, but once you got there you will easily reach the carved-built steps leading to the really top. The way up is passing first at a barely-vaulted ancient cistern worth having a look. The steps are taking you through narrow passages between the walls of the mountainside and the growing heights on your other side until a breathtaking viewpoint appears to the northern part of the Petra-mountains. At this point you might already discover the silhouette of the Monastery in the far. Once you took delight in the sight of the top of the famous facade and just turn in the direction where the steps lead further up you will see how close you are now: the shining white dome of Aaron’s tomb is now visible on the really summit where a golden crescent moon, the holy sign of Islam reflects the sunbeams into your eyes from its top.
Even despite this holy scenery after taking few breaths in and out and realizing that you finally reached your destination the first feeling you might have is a slightly piece of disappointment as you stand in front of the building commemorating the death of Aaron. Taking a walk around the tomb, it is indeed just a simple, unadorned small stone-built squared structure with the whitewashed dome on top. But it will be definitely all gone when you take the few steps leading to the dome and at last by then you will understand what this place is all about. The ultimate prize of all efforts you have made to get here is the fascinating view of turning 360 degrees around: the deserted deep valley of Wadi Araba in the west, the northern mountains hiding the Monastery, the area of the ancient Nabataean capital with the village of Wadi Mousa in the east and the rocky wilderness in direction south. You are all alone on the highest and most commanding mountaintop of the area far and wide; having silence, peace and sanctity you have never and nowhere had before. You can sit in the shades of the dome and meditate on the sacred events told to have taken place here, or pray or just think about your life - what you need the most.
In order to be able to see the building from the inside you might need two things: either a permission to enter (and a guide with the key) or a bunch of luck to encounter the guardian of the shrine who may come if he sees you around. For your shown respect and admiration for his most sacred place and of course for some baksheesh in addition the guardian will open for you the door and show you the interior. The room looks like a smaller mosque. From the old times you can explore a mosaic pavement on the floor in the middle - while from the new times there are few carpets for the Muslim pilgrims to pray; an exercise book for the tourist to sign their names and few thoughts as a memory of their visit; and interestingly also there is a clock on the wall nowadays. However, the most significant part is the monument of Haroun which can be seen just in front of you stepping inside. It’s a traditional Islamic shrine made of marble and covered by an Arabic text and interestingly also some later Jewish inscriptions were found. The structure, actually the cenotaph of the Prophet, is sometimes covered also by a green cloth depicting the holy Ka’aba stone at Mecca. Few stairs on the left side take down into the small place where, as it is said, the very tomb of Haroun lies. However, when the holy darkness is broken by our slight candle lights, we face only a pair of grilled metal doors guarding the burial itself. In reality, if anybody was buried there behind in the past, today it is well protected by a strong cover of white cement letting curious eyes actually nothing to see.
Considering that Aaron and his final resting place are holy not only for local Muslims but also for Jewish and Christians, the most important message of this commanding mountaintop is that we all are successors of the same heritage regardless of nationality or religion. This is the idea which really can lead towards a more peaceful future especially in this area of the world. But this is only one conclusion we can come to in this place. This one day pilgrimage to Aaron’s shrine has the ability to enrich everyone with thoughts, notions and experiences unforgettable for all life.
by Tamás Arany