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Prophet Eliyah and Tall Mar Eliyas

 

ELI' AH whose name means "my God is YAH (WEH) ," is one of the  greatest Israelite prophets after Moses. He is frequently associated with the area of Transjordan and specifically the mountainous region of Ajloun to the north of the modern capital city of Amman. However, his ministry takes place, for the most part, in northern Israel and the area of what is now generally referred to as Samaria on the west bank of the Jordan River.­

 

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Eliyah, a ninth-century-nc prophet, was active in the time of Ahab (reigned between ca. 875-850 BC) and his son Ahaziah (who reigned little more than a year), kings of the northern state ofIsrael. In I Kings 17-19, Eliyah is presented as the champion of the LORD against the royally patronized worship of Baal. For this reason, Ahab refers to him as "you troubler of Israel" (I Kings 18.17).­

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During the time of Ahab and his Phoenician queen, Jezebel ofTyre, the religion of the LORD is persecuted, while that of Baal is promoted. Eliyah, in this situation, is the one who speaks the word of the true God. He is the new Moses who withstands royal oppression and keeps the faith alive. Eliyah speaks a word of power to withhold rainfall. Thus, he is a threat to Baal, the god of storms and fertility. As a result, the beginning and end of the drought, which is referred to in I Kings 17.1, 7 and 18.41-45, is traced to Eliyah. The contest between the LORD and Baal on Mount Carmel is intended to prove who is the greatest, the LORD or Baal (I Kings 18.17-40). Eliyah represents the LORD; the prophets of Baal stand in for their god. The LORD wins a resounding victory and the assembled Israelites help in Eliyah's execution of the 450 prophets of Baal.­­

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In Judaism, Eliyah is often identified as a precursor of the Messiah (see below). He is associated with combating social ills by caring for the poor and punishing the unjust. He is identified with the "Wandering Jew" of medieval folklore, and a place is always set for him at the Seder table. He is protector of the newborn, and the "Chair of Eliyah" is a fixture at circumcisions.

Eliyah is listed in the Koran among the "righteous ones" , Moreover, the Koran recalls his mission as a staunch opponent of the cult of Baal .In the Hebrew Bible, Eliyah is referred to as the "messenger" (Malachip). He is the one who would precede the coming of the Messiah (Malachi 4.5-6). In two accounts of the Gospel the belief is expressed that John the Baptist was Eliyah (Matthew 17.10-13; Mark 9·Il-13; and see also Luke 1.17). Moreover, in the story of the "Transfiguration" (Matthew 17.1-8; Mark 9.2-8; Luke 9.28-36), Moses and Eliyah talk with Jesus. This incident shows the continuity of Jesus and his teaching with Israel's preeminent lawgiver and prophet, respectively.­­

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SPECIFIC BIBLICAL TEXTS ON ELIYAH THE TISHBITE, OF TISHBE IN GIlEAD

While references to Eliyah appear throughout both the Old Testament/ Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, what is of interest here are those texts that deal with Eliyah and his relation to Tishbe in Gilead. In the next chapter, which introduces Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the biblical texts that deal with Eliyah's departure from this earth will be considered.

Now Eliyah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, "As the LORD the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word:' The word of the LORD came to him, saying, "Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there:' So he went and did according to the word of the LORD; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi. But after a while the Wadi dried up  because there was no rain in the land.­

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In six biblical passages, Eliyah is identified as "the Tishbite" (I Kings 17.1, 21.17, 21.28; 2 Kings 1.3, 1.8, 9.36). In addition, the first of these texts informs us that he comes from "Tishbe in Gilead." However, some commentators follow the Hebrew Text and read "Toshbite," that is, "the settler" or "the sojourner" in Gilead. We will locate Gilead first, then turn our attention to Tishbe, and finally consider the location of Wadi Cherith, which the text states is also "east of the Jordan."

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What appears to be evident is that Eliyah comes from Gilead, east of the Jordan. However, it is not easy to locate the region of Gilead with great precision, since the biblical texts refer to "Gilead," "the hill country of Gilead," and "the land of Gilead." These terms can have both a narrow and a broad meaning depending on the context. Moreover, there are places called Jabesh-Gilead, Mizpah-gilead, and Ramoth-gilead in the texts. This indicates that Jabesh, Mizpah, and Ramoth were located in Gilead, wherever it may be (MacDonald 2000: 199-204).

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The term "Gilead" sometimes refers to the land north or south of the Jabbok River (modern Wadi az-Zarqa). In the Jephthah story (Judges 11.1-12.6), "Gilead" signifies an autonomous entity in the mountain zone of the western segment of the Transjordanian plateau to the north of asSalt and south of the Jabbok. However, during the time of Saul, the term "Gilead" included territory north of the Jabbok, since reference is made to­ jabesh-Gilead (see I Samuel n.r, 31.Il), traditionally located north of this river. In the list of Solomon's administrative districts (I Kings 4.7-19), an administrator has his "residence" in Ramoth-gilead (I Kings 4.13), which is also located north of the Jabbok. There are many other texts that can be cited to show that the term is used both in a narrow and a broad sense (MacDonald 2000: 195-99). Thus, in I Kings 17.1 there is no certainty whether land north or south of the Jabbok is meant.

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In any case, Gilead is described as a hill country. The regions both north and south of the Jabbok fulfill this topographical requirement. In addition, Numbers 32.1-5 describes the land of Gilead as a desirous place that is good for cattle. No town called Tishbe, in the area of Gilead, is attested in ancient sources. However, early Christian tradition sanctified the site of Listib/al-Istib, 13 km north of the Jabbok in the northwest Ajloun mountains, as the location of the hometown of Eliyah. Some see such an identification as possible, based on the suggestion of the metathesis between the Hebrew Tishbe and the Arabic al-Istib (MacDonald 2000: 204).­

One difficulty with locating Tishbe at Listib/al-Istib is that the site was not occupied before the Roman-Byzantine period and thus long after the time of Eliyah. However, some suggest that the name could have moved to Listib/al-Istib from Khirbat Umm al-Hedamus, 2 km to the east. This latter site was occupied in the ninth century Bc.

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EXTRA-BIBLICAL VISITS AND ATTEMPTS TO LOCATE THE SITE

In the late fourth century AD, Egeria visited Tishbe, which she calls the town of Eliyah. She saw there the cave in which the prophet is said to have dwelt: We traveled through the Jordan valley for a little, and at times the road took us along the river-bank itself. Then Tishbe came in sight, the city from which the holy prophet Eliyah gets his name "the Tishbite" To this day they have there the cave in which he lived, and also the tomb of Jephthah of whom we read in the Book of Judges. So we gave thanks to God there in our usual way, and set off once more (Travels, ch. 16:1-2; Wilkinson 1999: 128).

Egeria also indicates that Jephthah's tomb (Judges 12.6) was located in Tishbe, which would identify it with Mizpah of Gilead (Judges 11.34)· However, this appears unlikely, since, as indicated previously, the site of Tishbe (Listib/al-Istib) was not occupied at such an early date. The best that Eusebius and Jerome can do in the Onomastic on and Book on the Sites and Names of Places of the Hebrews is to state, respectively: Thesba (1 Kgs. 1]:1). Where Eliyah the Tishbite was (102); and Thesba. Where the Prophet Eliyah the Thesbite came from (103) (Taylor etal. 2003: 59)·

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I Kings 17·3 indicates that Wadi Cherith is located "east of the Jordan." It was to this wadi that the ravens brought Eliyah bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening. And Eliyah drank from the wadi, until it dried up.

The wadi in question, with its name meaning "cutting," has been located at many places. One suggested location is Wadi Yabis, an imposing watercourse to the north of Listib/al-Istib in northern Gilead. However, most commentators can do no better than repeat the generalized location of the verse itself. In this case, Eliyah, a Gileadite, returned to what was for him familiar territory.­

The place shown as the "Cherith" to Egeria is thought to have been Wadi Yabis, one of the wadis that flows westward from the hills of Gilead towards the Jordan Valley. The reason for this is that after leaving Tishbe, Egeria continued her journey and writes:

So we gave thanks to God there in our usual way, and set off once more. As we went on we saw a very well-kept valley coming down towards us on the left. It was very large, and had a good-sized stream in it which ran down into the Jordan.

In this valley was the cell of a brother, a monk. You know how inquisitive I am, and I asked what there was about this valley to make this holy monk build his cell there. I knew there must be some special reason, and this is what I was told by the holy men with us who knew the district: "This is the valley of Cherith. The holy prophet Eliyah the Tishbite stayed here in the reign of King Ahab; and at the time of the famine, when God sent a raven to bring him food, he drank water from this brook. For Cherith is the watercourse you can see running down the valley to the Jordan:' So we set off again - as indeed we did every single day - giving renewed thanks to God for his goodness in showing us all the things we wanted to see, and so much more than we deserved (Travels, ch. 16:2-4; Wilkinson 1999: 128).­­

Eusebius, Onomasticon, and Jerome, Book on the Sites and Names of Places of the Hebrews, are not much help in locating Wadi Cherith. They state, respectively:

Chorra (1 Kgs. 1]:3). A torrent on the other side of the Jordan (174); Chorath. A torrent on the other side of the Jordan. Eliyah hid in the region of that river (175) (Taylor et al. 2003: 97).

Eusebius and Jerome's location of the wadi in question is very general and thus not very helpful. For, indeed, there are many "torrents" (wadis) on the east side of the Jordan River.

John Moschus, however, is evidently not thinking of Wadi Yabis when he says that the wadi is located "to the left of Sapsas," probably indicating Wadi al-Kharra (Wilkinson 2002: 293). Thus, the location of Wadi Cherith will be considered again when dealing with "Bethany Beyond the Jordan" and the place of Eliyah's being taken up into heaven. In conclusion, the story of Eliyah's flight from Ahab seems to indicate that he fled out of the king's jutisdiction. An area to the east of the Jordan River would be suitable for one fleeing the king's wrath.

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THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF TALL MAR ELYAS

The village of Listib/al-Istib and the nearby archaeological site of Tall Mar Eliyas ("Tall of Saint Eliyah") have long been identified with Tishbe, mentioned in the Bible as the home town or region of the prophet Eliyah. The village of Listib is the site of a mosque dating from the Ayyubid-Mamluk­ period. However, archaeological remains at the site date mostly to the Roman-Byzantine period; thus, the site was likely a village dating to that time. Tall Mar-Elyas (fig. 4.1) is located around one-half kilometer to the east of the village and ca. 9 km to the northwest of the town of Ajloun. Because of its elevated location and the preservation of trees on the site, it is an especially lovely place to visit.­

Personnel from the Department of Antiquities of the Ajloun region began excavations at the site in 1999. They have uncovered the remains of two churches, a number of tombs associated with each, a baptistery, and a series of rooms, especially along the south side and to the southwest of the larger of the two churches (fig. 4.2).­­

The smaller of the two churches (fig. 4.3), excavated in 2003, is located close to the entrance of the restored site (UTM coordinates: 0756172 E/3484038 N; elev. 922 m). It is at a lower elevation than the larger one and to the southwest of it. Its apse is now its most distinctive feature. The excavators think that it is the older of the two and that it probably dates to the sixth century. Moreover, they posit that the tombs along its West side are from the same date. A niche in the center of the apse­­­ shows signs of burning, probably from candles placed there by pilgrims. There is a rectangular room associated with the church off its north side. A newly-constructed stairway to the north of the small church leads to a courtyard/atrium measuring 30 m long by 3.50 m wide. A well-pre-served cistern, 9 m deep and 7 m wide at its bottom, is located within the courtyard. Under the floor of the courtyard are pipes that bring water to the cistern.

Continuing to the east, one approaches a raised area. Here are located the two main entrances to the church. The remnants of a Roman period winepress are found near the church's southwest entrance.­­

The main church (UTM coordinates: 0756223E/3584035N; elev. 946 m) at the site is at a still higher elevation to the east (fig. 4.4). It is a cruciform, or cross-shaped, structure that stands on the summit of a high hill overlooking the mountains of northern Gilead and the hills and plains that lead down to the Jordan Valley to the west. The hill itself has been revered for centuries as a holy place by local inhabitants of the area as well as by pilgrims; people come to this area to pray, especially on July 21, Eliyah's annual commemoration day. The large church is now known in Arabic as Kneeset Mar Eliyas, or the "Church of Saint Eliyah."­

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The church measures 33 x 32 m and has one apse with columns dividing it into three aisles. Some of the column bases and drums are still in their original positions. The floor of the church was completely covered by a multi-colored mosaic of floral and geometric designs. Rooms­­ to the north and south of the apse are also covered with mosaics. Parts of the marble chancel screen that separated the sanctuary from the nave are still visible. One of the square rooms, immediately to the north of the apse, appears to be from an earlier phase of the site's use. It is now linked to it, but its mosaic floor is made of large, white stone cubes that are different from the mosaic­­

floor within the main body of the church. The Roman pottery associated with this room probably indicates that it predates the church.

An inscription on the mosaic floor of the church faces its west entrances (fig. 4.5). It is in white letters on a red background and displays an invocation to Saint Eliyah. It asks the saint to bless Saba, the presbyter, and his wife. The year of the dedication of the church is AD 622, which indicates that the mosaic floor was put down at this time. Such a date for the dedication is of interest, since it was during a turbulent time in the area. The Byzantine Empire was retreating from the region, the Persian invasion of Jordan had just occurred in 614, and it was just before the arrival of the Islamic armies from the south. Another mosaic floor lies below the one of the inscription. This suggests an even earlier date for the building of the church, possibly dating to the sixth century.

A small room off the northwest of the main church is a well-preserved baptistery (fig. 4.6). Its floor is completely covered with mosaics. A Greek inscription is located on the mosaic floor immediately below and to the west of the baptismal font (fig. 4.7). The inscription indicates that the child (being baptized) is an offering to God for the absolution of sins and for a long life (on earth). The excavators believe that the baptistery is dated later than the main church. The reason for this conclusion is that the walls of the baptistery are not bonded to the north wall of the church.­

Several plastered, stone-built water channels have been excavated around the church. Moreover, a total of seven wells and cisterns have been identified to date in its immediate vicinity; the church and its associated buildings would have depended on cisterns for their water supply.­

The excavators uncovered a total of seven graves just outside the main church, towards the southwest. Three of the graves are reached by a staircase consisting of nine steps. The stairs are cut from the bedrock and the graves were covered with stone slabs. Found additional graves were located in a subterranean chamber or cave immediately to the west.

The church appears to have been used for around two centuries. An earthquake may have been responsible, at least in part, for its abandonment. Repairs to the floor mosaic indicate that it may have undergone refurbishment during its lifetime.­

The main church building was surrounded by other structures besides the cisterns, graves, and the courtyard. Wall remains identified to its north, east, and south probably belonged to structures associated with the­ church. Rooms to the southwest of the main church have mosaic floors. Did these rooms at one time belong to a monastery associated with the church? Even before the church was identified and excavated, local lore always identified the area around the church as the residence of "the nuns."­

The Tombs at Tall Mar Eliyas and Pilgrimage

As indicated above, several tombs have been excavated in the area of both the small and the large church at Tall Mar Elyas (fig. 4.8). In light of what we know about the goals of pilgrims, one of the places they would have visited would have been the tombs of martyrs and/or holy persons. Such seems to have been the case at Gadara/Umm Qays (see Chapter 3)·

Although the archaeological evidence has not been presented to date, one can only wonder whether the two sets of tombs at Tall Mar Elyas were those of holy men and/or women. Did these tombs playa role in bringing people to the site? This, of course, does not deny the fact that many people came to the site to honor and to pray to Eliyah; but there are often multiple motives that bring people to pilgrimage sites.

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LOCAL TRADITION AND THE SACRED NATURE OF TALL MAR ELYAS

Local traditions attest to the sacred nature of the site. They include stories of shepherds bringing sick goats and sheep to it. The shepherds then walked the animals around Tall Mar Elyas, shot guns in the air, prayed to God and Eliyah, and asked them for healing and rain. Shortly thereafter, the animal were, allegedly, always cured.

Another example of the sacred nature of the site relates to tribal justice practices in the Ajloun area. Local residents say that if two people had a dispute, the aggrieved party would take the accused to Tall Mar Elyas and ask her or him to swear by the Prophet Eliyah that they did not commit the crime of which they were accused. If the accused swore to Eliyah that he or she did not commit the crime, then that was sufficient proof of the person's innocence.­­­

To this day, people of the area visit Tall Mar Elyas to pray, light candles, sacrifice animals, and tie strips of cloth to the branches of nearby trees (fig. 4.9). Thus, the many pieces of cloth tied to the site's trees have been left by pilgrims who came to the site to ask for the assistance of God and Eliyah."­

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Suggestions for getting to Tall Mar Eliyas

Tall Mar Elyas is located around 80 km to the northwest of Amman and around 9 km from Ajloun. To get to the site from Amman, take the Jerash-Irbid highway north. A short distance south of Jerash turn north, following the signs to Ajloun. Once in Ajloun, follow the signs for Ajloun Castle. About I km south of the castle turn right at the sign for Tall Mar Elyas.