Religious harmony reigns at prophets resting place

In a land where religious conflicts occur with depressing frequency, Nebi Samwil stands out as an island of tranquility.

According to tradition, this site northwest of Jerusalem marks the resting place of the prophet Samuel.

The main existing structure, once a mosque that was closed to Jews, now includes both a Moslem prayer area and a yeshiva, with no apparent tension.

Perhaps even more astounding is that the entire area has recently been the subject of an ambitious archeological excavation, with no opposition from the haredi (fervently religious) public that regularly frequents it.

At 908 meters above sea level, Nebi Samwil commands a view of Jerusalem and the entire countryside. It is steeped in history.

Excavations conducted by the civil administration's archeology officer have uncovered remains from both the First and Second Temple period. During the Byzantine era the spot became identified as burial site of the prophet.

Major excavations date to the Crusaders, who attached considerable spiritual importance to the site. Said to have first camped here one evening in 1099, they found in the morning that they could see Jerusalem before them.

Another story relates that in 1192, Richard the Lion-Hearted stood on the spot and wept. Holding his shield before his face, he said that he was unworthy to look at the Holy City, which he was unable to capture.

Medieval travelers, including Benjamin of Tudela, tell of a synagogue at the site, and that the scores of Jewish pilgrims who flocked there on special occasions sometimes behaved so badly that the rabbis had to enact special regulations forbidding the drinking of wine there.

In 1730, Jews were evicted from the site and the mosque was built. During the War of Independence, Nebi Samwil was the scene of a battle in which the Haganah failed to capture the hill.

Today, the casual visitor cannot help but be impressed by the extensive excavations, which clearly show the Crusader fortress and give a hint of the Hasmonean remains. A doorway with a keystone engraved with what appears to be a Magen David is of Arab, rather than Jewish, origin.

The building dominates the hillcrest. Flocks of birds fly back and forth in an imposing central entrance hall. Behind a locked wire grille is the Moslem prayer hall, with a cenotaph in the center, surrounded by carpets.

From the main hall, a steep and uneven flight of stairs leads to the roof, where you can see all of the city — old and new — spread out before you. These days, it is the modern buildings such as the YMCA, the Holiday Inn, and the apartment houses of French Hill that seem to stand out. But far in the distance, shimmering above the horizon, is the gold Dome of the Rock.

To visit Nebi Samwil, simply drive out from Jerusalem on the Ramot road. From Tel Aviv, take the alternate Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, via Maccabim, past Givat Ze'ev and Givon Hahadasha. An orange tourist-attraction sign indicates the turnoff to the site.