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The "Mesha" Stele

In 1868 a German missionary travelling between Salt and Kerak was shown a large basalt stone inscribed with strange characters. He informed the German consul of his discovery, who made discreet arrangements for obtaining the stele. Word of this reached the French diplomats in Jerusalem, who travelled to Dhiban, and offered the locals a large sum of money for it.

The Bedouin refused this offer and decided that there was an easy way to make more money from the stele. They managed to break it into small pieces and offered them for sale to any foreigners passing. Finally the (largely) reconstructed stele found its way to the Louvre in Paris. Since it is considered as reflecting the history of Jordan, copies of it are to be found in most museums in Jordan and photos of it in many history text books.

It proved to be a record, 34 lines in all, of the reign of King Mesha in Moab at about 850BC.  At that time the land of Moab was prey to even more anarchy than usual, and subject to repeated invasions from the Israelites. It was definitely the moment for a strong leader to declare himself, and from what we know of him, Mesha was just that.

The Bible (2 Kings 3) tells us that "Mesha, king of Moab, was a sheepmaster, and rendered unto the king of Israel a hundred thousand lambs and a hundred thousand rams with the wool. But it came to pass, when Ahab was dead , that the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel".

With this sort of tribute being exacted, one is not surprised at a rebellion!

A punitive force was immediately dispatched to persuade the king of Moab to change his mind, and it "beat down the cities, and on every good piece of land cast every man his stone and filled it: and they stopped all the wells of water, and felled all the good trees: only in Kir-Haraseh left they the stones thereof".

At the end of this apparently highly successful campaign, the Israelites "departed from him and returned to their own land". No mention is made of the renewal of any tribute, any prisoners or any triumph. Strange, perhaps?

The Mesha stele gives us the other side of the story!

"I am Mesha, son of Chemosh, king of Moab... My father was king of Moab for thirty years and I became king after my father: and I built this sanctuary to Chemosh in Qerihoh, a sanctuary of refuge: for he saved me from all my oppressors and gave me dominion over all my enemies. Omri was king of Israel and oppressed Moab many days, for Chemosh was angry with his land. And his son succeeded him and he also said I will oppress Moab. In my days he said this, but I got the upper hand of him and his house: and Israel perished for ever.... I have had the ditches of Qerihoh dug by Israelite prisoners..."

Mesha's hand was thorough. The dynasty of Omri was killed to the last member, not one of the ruling house of Israel was left alive ("Israel perished for ever"). By doing this, although it was perhaps not his original intention, Mesha put an end to the disgusting worship of Baal in Israel, brought there through Ahab's marriage to Jezebel, the Phoenician princess.

Qerihoh has been identified as the capital of Moab and also as Kir-Haraseh of the Bible. So that's why the stones were left in Kir-Haraseh!

Mesha was not satisfied with repelling the invasion from Israel, but attacked them all the way through Moab in all the territories that had previously been captured by them. His stele lists some twelve towns "in the land of Medeba" all of them mentioned in the Old Testament, and claims to have added a hundred towns to his territory with his faithful men from Dhiban "the men of Dhiban were fitted out for war because all Dibon was obedient." Apparently this was worthy of comment.

The site of Kir-Haraseh is close to the village of Dhiban, on the Kings' Highway. Dhiban, the place where the stele was originally found, is now a poor village and one is not surprised that the Bedouin living there in 1868 looked to gain a maximum amount of money from its discovery. One is even inclined to wonder if something similar might not happen today!

The "tell" there is imposing, but in fact there is little to be seen apart from a heap of stones. Since the discovery of the stele, which as, announced by Mesha, was placed in the sanctuary of Chemosh in Kir-Haraseh, thousands upon thousands of local men must have sifted the rubble hoping for another major find.

The remains of the temple Dhiban from the east

In fact, Qerihoh was very probably the royal fortress in Kir-Haraseh : "I built Qeriho: the wall of the parkland and the wall of the acropolis; and I built its gates, and I built its towers; and I built the king's house; and I made banks for the water reservoir inside the town; and there was no cistern inside the town, in Qeriho, and I said to all the people: "Make yourself each a cistern in his house"; and I dug the ditches for Qeriho with prisoners of Israel."

The American School of Oriental Research in Amman dug here in 1950-57 but discovered nothing of lasting interest. A city wall and gateway were found, as well as a large podium which the excavators believe supported the royal quarter constructed by Mesha. In addition, a text from around the time of Mesha was found which refers to the "temple of Chemosh]," and nearly 100 cisterns were found on the site and in the surrounding area, no doubt made in response to Mesha's directive to "make yourself each a cistern in his house"

The town was abandoned towards the end of the seventh century BC (between 733 and 701). These dates coincide with the sweeping campaigns of the Assyrian Kings in Palestine, when so many were carried away as slaves and many towns were depopulated. It is extremely probable that the descendants of King Mesha were unable to defend themselves against the Assyrians, who were the equivalent of professional soldiers facing peasantry.

Resettled under the Nabateans, Dhiban came successively under the rule of the Romans, the Byzantines and finally the Arabs.

Besides his warlike exploits, on his stele Mesha boasted of his construction of the ford in Wadi Mujib, probably the ford mentioned in the Bible as the "Arnon ford" (the Hebrew name for Wadi Mujib is "Nahal Arnon"). He also laid out a road for his soldiers ("with the help of the prisoners of Israel"), crossing the Wadi from Dhiban to Ara'ir, where he built a fortress measuring 50m by 50m overlooking Wadi Mujib - undoubtedly to watch for any further Israelite incursion. Logically, following his insistence on a water supply, a large cistern to capture rainwater was built on the northwestern side of the fortress. 

Ara'ir lies about 5kms east of the Kings' Highway between Dhiban and Ariha on the northern rim of Wadi Mujib. The remains of the fortress and of the Moabite village beside it can still be seen if you can find a way to get there! A Spanish mission explored the ruins in 1964-65, uncovering the walls and a fortified gate with a ramp leading up to it. But most certainly only specialists would be interested in what is to be seen.

Dhiban is reachable by bus from Madaba but all buses stop here.  No public transport is available on this stretch, but the villagers of Dhiban are always ready to "ferry" you to Ariha, where you can find a  bus to continue south.

 

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Revised February 2009

©Ruth Caswell 2002