Where the spirit moves them

Thousands visit Nebi Samwil on Jerusalem Day, which is also the anniversary of Samuel the prophet’s death.

The mosque and Samuel’s tomb (photo credit: Amis Tal)
The mosque and Samuel’s tomb
(photo credit: Amis Tal)
Most people associate 28 Iyar with Jerusalem Day, but that Hebrew date was also, according to tradition, the day of the Prophet Samuel’s death, about 3,000 years before the Six Day War and the unification of the capital. For that reason, some 60,000 people flock to Nebi Samwil, where the prophet is buried, every Jerusalem Day.
“In addition to the importance of the site for prayer, it has symbolism for Israel’s independence and statehood,” says Amos Tal, director of the site, which has been operated by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority since 2009.
Extending over the slopes of Mount Samuel at a height of 885 meters, Nebi Samwil is of strategic value for Jerusalem. Israel captured the area on 28 Iyar during the Six Day War, following a short battle by the Harel Brigade.
“The success in capturing Nebi Samwil on this day is not coincidental,” says Tal, a lieutenant-colonel in the reserves. “Zionism and the beginning of Jewish statehood started with biblical figures like Joshua, who conquered the land, and Samuel, who anointed the first two kings of the Jewish people, Saul and David.”
Located just north of Jerusalem, the site combines archeology, recent military history, agricultural terraces and orchards and is an example of coexistence among religions. The site commands a panoramic view of the capital and the southern Binyamin region, toward Givat Ze’ev and beyond Ramallah. Clear days afford a view of the coastal region.
Before Samuel, it was the Judges who led the Israelites in a transition period from when they settled the land until the construction of the Temple. Shiloh was the political and spiritual center, with the Tabernacle stationed there for 369 years. It was in Shiloh that Hannah, the barren wife of Elkanah, cried out her prayer for a child, vowing that she would give the child to God.
Eli, the high priest, thought Hannah was drunk. After being assured of her motivation, he told her that her prayer would be answered. The Hebrew name she gave her child, Shmuel, means “God heard.” After Samuel was weaned, his mother sent him to Eli to serve God.
“Hannah’s prayer is the mother of all prayers, and the laws of prayer are learned from her,” says Tal. “Every day when I come to the site, I look at the prayer embroidered in large letters at the entrance to the tomb. Her prayer [I Samuel 2:1010] always moves me, especially her warning to avoid arrogant talk, and about how the fate of people can be reversed.”
Hannah is commemorated in Hannah’s Spring, located at Nebi Samwil near a First Temple burial site.
The custom to pray at the tomb on 28 Iyar is based on a longstanding tradition, mentioned as early as 1489 in a letter that Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura sent to his brother.
“Since the Six Day War, most of the prime ministers and chiefs of staff have visited the place. It’s on the seam line, so it interests them, but I believe they also come to the site to pray,” states Tal.
“Before choosing the recent chief of staff, four generals who were candidates came to the site. Current Chief of Staff [Lt.-Gen.] Benny Gantz came afterward, too. Although they come for its strategic location, I think many come to pray here. I believe that prayers said at the tomb are eventually answered.”
Former British prime minister Tony Blair, now EU envoy to the Middle East, has visited as well.
IN 1917, the British captured Nebi Samwil from the Turks. In 1948, the Harel Brigade tried – unsuccessfully – to capture the site.
“The battle here was part of Operation Yevusi, which aimed to liberate the capital and take over key positions before the British Army left,” relates Tal. “Operation Yevusi was planned by Ben- Gurion for the eve of Passover – to mark liberation. The battle failed, with one of the companies ambushed and forced to retreat with heavy losses... Discussion of the battle at Nebi Samwil was avoided until historian Uri Milstein published his book on the battle recently.”
Octogenarian Palmahniks who participated in the battle still visit Nebi Samwil. Visitors can see trenches used during the War of Independence near the main path. IDF soldiers visit the site as part of their officers’ course, and all battalion commanders’ training includes a reenactment of the battle, starting from Radar Mountain.
Archeological excavations uncovered remains of settlements from both the First and Second Temple periods, reinforcing that this place was probably Mizpah, where Samuel judged Israel. Two rows of buildings there were part of a large residential district from the Hasmonean period (160–137 BCE). The remains of these buildings were preserved to a height of about four meters.
Judah the Maccabee gathered his forces at Mizpah in 165 BCE, prior to the battle with the Greek general Gorgias. Judah deceived Gorgias: While the main Greek forces were out searching at night for the Jewish warriors, Judah continued to Emmaus, near the present-day site of Latrun, and destroyed the Greek camp.
Nebi Samwil has importance for Christians and Muslims as well. During Byzantine times (the sixth century CE), a monastery was constructed there in honor of Samuel, and during the Early Arab period it was known as Deir Samwil (Samuel’s Monastery).
In 1099, during the First Crusade, the Crusaders expressed their joy at seeing Jerusalem for the first time from the mountain’s summit by naming the spot Mons Gaudi (Mountain of Joy). They used an ancient quarry with slabs of smooth stone for building at the site.
The building at the center of the site is part of the fortress church, built in the 12th century.
The entrance hall features the original architectural vaults and massive walls characteristic of the Crusaders’ early Romanesque style of construction. The church was incorporated into a 14th-century Mameluke-period mosque, and the entire building underwent comprehensive renovations at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Muslim prayer area is in a hall beyond the entrance, while the Jewish area is in the cave where the marker for Samuel’s tomb is visible.
The Jewish area is accessible via two stairways leading down from the side of the entrance area, one for men and the other for women.
“Muslims come to the mosque at the site to pray,” says Tal. “The mosque is closed for all other visitors. Many Christians and Muslims, especially from India, come to the synagogue built near the tomb of Samuel. Overall, it is an example of coexistence, especially with the kiosk run by the local imam, who orders only mehadrin food for the Jewish visitors.” •