Faculty Reflection: St. Bernard's in the Holy Land
Sep 6, 2022
Charles Huges Huff, Ph.D.
Over the summer, St. Bernard's sponsored a six-week trip to Jordan for faculty member, Dr. Charles Hughes-Huff, and one of our students to experience an archaeological dig in the Holy Land. Below is Dr. Hughes Huff’s reflection on his time there.
Jordan is a beautiful country that takes its name from the Jordan River — it was, for many centuries, known as "Transjordan," or “the other side of the Jordan.” Christians, Jews, and Muslims have for millennia called western Jordan, along with Israel, Palestine, and parts of Syria and Lebanon, the Holy Land. The oldest cartographic depiction of the Holy Land, a beautiful, 6th century, early Byzantine mosaic, is the Madaba Map, which can be seen at St. George’s Church in Madaba, Jordan, a Christian town near Mt. Nebo where Moses looked over the Promised Land and was buried. Franciscan archeologists excavated a 4th-century Byzantine church and monastery on Mt. Nebo, founded to support early pilgrims to the site, and Franciscan monks still maintain archeological excavation, presentation, and all visitation to Mt. Nebo today.
Archeology in Jordan goes beyond ancient Christianity. The region saw early Islamic architecture as well, and before that had Roman and Greek-style cities like the city of Jerash, “the Pompeii of the Middle East,” Nabatean Petra, “the Rose City” — one of the New 7 Wonders of the World — ancient cities of Edom, Moab, and Ammon, Israel’s ancient neighbors, and many Bronze Age and even earlier sites as well. St. Bernard’s sponsors the Balu‘a Regional Archeological Project (BRAP), which digs at Khirbat al-Balu‘a, the ruins of an ancient Iron Age Moabite city.
The ancient Moabites were sometimes enemies (see for example 2 Kings 3), sometimes friends (for example, Ruth) of ancient Israel, just across the Jordan River. They spoke a language almost identical to ancient Hebrew. The longest inscription from Iron Age Moab is the Mesha Stele, in which King Mesha of Dhiban describes the relationship between his father and King Omri of Israel, and the back-and-forth victories for YHWH and the Moabite god, Chemosh. The Moabites were thus intimately familiar with Israel and shared many ancient Israelite cultural practices and ideas about the world.
Balu‘a sits on the Wadi Baluʿa, a tertiary tributary to the Wadi Mujib. The Wadi Mujib, also known as the River Arnon, empties into the Dead Sea, a border between Israel and Jordan. In this location, about 20 miles north of Karak, Baluʿa was able to control a major north-south route and guard access from the north to the Karak Plateau. The city was about 20 hectares (= about 49 acres) and was surrounded by large casemate walls built from the abundant basalt boulders in the area. The ruins of a large Qasr (pictured below) — an Arabic term meaning “castle” or “palace” or merely “large important building” — overlooks the Wadi Bal ‘a. The city was thus a major Moabite city — perhaps the capital of Moab in an era after King Mesha, who ruled further north in Dhiban. Much about the ancient Moabites could be learned from a full excavation of Baluʿa.