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Petra: The Definitive Guide

Aaron's Tomb View in Photo Gallery
"Pilgrimage to Aaron's Shrine" from "Petra Book" by Jane Taylor

Of the mountains that encircle the great bowl of Petra, none is more commanding than Jabal Haroun, Aaron's Mountain. At 1,350 metres above sea-level it is the highest peak in the area; and it is a place of great sanctity to the local people for here, it is believed, Moses' brother Aaron died and was buried.

Biblical scholars and archaeologists may question whether Jabal Haroun is the Mount Hor of the Old Testament, but for those for whom niceties of scholarship need not overawe the spirit of a place, the story of Aaron's death fits potently with this mountain. Around it lies the turbulent beauty of the eastern escarpment of the rift valley, and from it we look westwards across Wadi Araba to the pitiless Negev Desert and the biblical Wilderness of Zin.

According to the Bible, '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 top of the mountain.' (Num. 20: 23-28)

Local accounts of Aaron's death are more colorful. The Liyathna told Dr Tawfik Canaan that Haroun died far from Petra, in the desert west of Wadi Araba, and there he was buried; but camels, grumbling and rumbling from thirst as they passed his tomb, disturbed his spirit, which fled to a large rock. In pity for the camels he caused a spring to flow from the vacated tomb; but they still grumbled and rumbled as they passed his new resting place, and the vexed spirit of Haroun fled once more, this time in the form of a green bird. Again he endowed the place he left with a spring to ease the camels. As the green bird fluttered above Petra, seeking rest, the very mountains trembled and broke apart, for none felt worthy to be the guardian of the holy man's spirit. Only Mount Hor did not break apart, and so it was in a cave here that Haroun's spirit finally found its rest. When Moses saw where the spirit of his brother had settled, he climbed Mount Hor and built a cenotaph in his memory. It was a place where no camels could reach.

According to the Bdoul bedouin, on the other hand, after Moses and Haroun had defeated the people of Petra, Haroun felt that his death was near. He asked Moses to bury him at the place where the she-camel he was riding took her rest; but so severely did the mountains shake as he rode by that the camel could not stop until she reached Mount Hor, which alone stood firm. Here the prophet dismounted and climbed to the top of the mountain, where Moses buried him according to his wishes.

Any expedition to Jabal Haroun should be undertaken in the spirit of a pilgrimage, for this is holy ground to the people of Petra. Past the enigmatic Snake Monument, the path crosses the open, rolling and slightly rising ground. This was as far as Burckhardt was able to come, and here he sacrificed his goat in sight of the prophet's shrine, just after sunset. He wrote:

'While I was in the act of slaying the animal, my guide exclaimed aloud, 'O Haroun, look upon us! it is for you we slaughter this victim. O Haroun, protect us and forgive us! O Haroun, be content with our good intentions, for it is but a lean goat! O Haroun, smooth our paths; and praise be to the Lord of all creatures!' This he repeated several times, after which he covered the blood that had fallen on the ground with a heap of stones; we then dressed the best part of the flesh for our supper, as expeditiously as possible, for the guide was afraid of the fire being seen.'

Nowadays there are no constraints to venturing further than Burckhardt along the pilgrim path, which forms a wide arc around the foot of the mountain to approach the ascent from the less precipitous south-western side.