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Israel Travels

Explore the Medieval shrines left behind by a ruling class of warriors

The Israeli landscape is dotted with architecture from the Mamelukes, a group of slaves who were taught the art of war before turning on their masters and ruling the region

  • The Nabi Akasha shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Nabi Akasha shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Nabi Akasha shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Nabi Akasha shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The tomb across from Nabi Yamin. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The tomb across from Nabi Yamin. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Inside the Sheih Awad shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Inside the Sheih Awad shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The shrine of Rabban ben Gamliel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The shrine of Rabban ben Gamliel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The goblet symbol of Tankiz on the inscription at the Nabi Yamin shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The goblet symbol of Tankiz on the inscription at the Nabi Yamin shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Nabi Yamin shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Nabi Yamin shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Jewish worshipers gather outside the Nabi Rubin shrine. (Eran Ziv)
    Jewish worshipers gather outside the Nabi Rubin shrine. (Eran Ziv)
  • A man rides his bicycle towards the Nabi Musa shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A man rides his bicycle towards the Nabi Musa shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Exterior front of the Nabi Musa shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Exterior front of the Nabi Musa shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Camels sit outside the Nabi Musa shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Camels sit outside the Nabi Musa shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Nabi Musa shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Nabi Musa shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Sheikh Awad tomb on the Ashkelon promenade. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Sheikh Awad tomb on the Ashkelon promenade. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Sometime in the 9th century, the caliphs who ruled Baghdad created a monster. They began seizing promising young teens from nomadic Turkish tribes, converting them to Islam, and training them in the art of war. So successful were the young Mamelukes (meaning “belonging to others”) that they were given positions of power both in the royal world and in the army.

From there, it wasn’t difficult to turn the tables on the despots who had kidnapped them from their homes and turned them into fighting machines.

As time went on, the Mameluke military elite seized control of Egypt, and by 1260, after devastating the Mongol army in the Land of Israel, the Mamelukes were unstoppable.

Mamelukes would rule this entire region for over 250 years. Their reign coalesced under the leadership of the commander Baybars, who had been sold as a slave at the age of 19 to the sultan of Egypt and trained in military warfare.

Aside from being power-hungry, cruel and ruthless, the Mamelukes were disciplined, smart, and prolific. When they disappeared from the pages of history, they left behind buildings so splendid that even the ravages of time haven’t dimmed their beauty.

Leaving an Islamic stamp on the country was just as important to the Mamelukes as the construction of impressive structures. That is why mosques, Islamic schools and a wide variety of Mameluke tombs, topped by white domes, are part and parcel of the Israeli landscape.

The Sheikh Awad tomb on the Ashkelon promenade. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Sheikh Awad

One such tomb stands on a hill in Ashkelon above the Mediterranean Sea. It is the traditional gravesite of Sheikh Awad, a dignitary about whom nothing is known except for his name. Built in two phases during the Mameluke era, it was one of a number of holy sites erected along the coast in order to strengthen defenses on the western border.

Inside, a mahrab (prayer recess) along the southern wall faces the holy city of Mecca in a chamber that is crowned by a large white dome. Two rooms added in the second stage were meant for the use of pilgrims. Look for the site on the northern end of Ashkelon’s unusual, and very accessible, sea promenade.

Prophets and more

Many a narrative found in the Hebrew Bible is reflected in the 7th century Muslim Quran. The traditional burial sites of at least half a dozen figures who feature in both these holy books, as well as later Jewish and Muslim writings, are scattered around the country (and abroad, as well).

The Nabi Musa shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Nabi Musa

No one knows where Moses is buried, and neither the Bible nor the Quran gives a specific description of Moses’s final resting place. The Bible states that “Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah. . . and died there in Moab. . .” (Deut 34:1-5). The Quran tells us nothing at all about Moses’s passing or the site of his grave.

Yet despite no knowledge of the actual venue, in 1269, Baybars, who reigned as Sultan over most of the Middle East from 1260 to 1277, erected an elaborate shrine called Nabi (prophet, or messenger) Musa. Located south of Jericho and east of Jerusalem in the Judean desert, it is an extensive complex that seems more of a mausoleum than an actual tomb.

The complex fell into disrepair as the centuries rolled by, but the Ottoman Turks restored the site during the first part of the 19th century. Afterward, thousands of pilgrims began gathering in the Old City around Easter time, from which they began a joyful procession to the burial site to celebrate the holiday also called Nabi Musa. They would camp there for a week of prayer, dance and food. It is believed that Baybars chose this site both because it was on the route to Mecca, but also because from here pilgrims could view Mount Nebo.

Abandoned after Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Nabi Musa was renovated in 2019. Alone out there in the desert, surrounded by Bedouin graves hundreds of years old, it is a fascinating place to visit.

Jewish worshipers gather outside the Nabi Rubin shrine. (Eran Ziv)

Nabi Rubin

Built by the Mamelukes in the 15th century at the tomb of an Arab sheikh in the southern coastal plains, Nabi Rubin (Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son) became a popular pilgrimage site for the next 600 years. A contemporary Muslim Judge wrote about visits to Nabi Rubin, noting that people would remain there for several days, reading the Quran, and “spending a lot of money.”

In the 17th century, however, the tomb began hosting annual month-long celebrations in which throngs of Muslims from all over the region began taking part. These pilgrimages ceased when the area became part of the State of Israel in 1948.

After many decades of desolation, during which time the tall minaret collapsed, the site has begun to show signs of life: Jewish prayer books, a few rickety chairs, and three candle holders indicate that there are worshipers who take the hike to Nabi Rubin.

So do nature lovers, who walk in the sand about 45 minutes each way to and from the site. There, you can rest under an enormous mulberry tree and enjoy a very special ambiance.

Access is from Nabi Rubin National Park, which features a large parking lot and an extensive picnic area. On one side of the picnic area there is a low metal fence; climb over it to take the sandy trail to the tomb. Like all hiking trails in Israel, this one is marked as well — two white stripes with a blue stripe in the middle. On the opposite side of the picnic site, a black-marked trail leads to the mouth of the Sorek River.

The Nabi Yamin shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Nabi Yamin

Sayf ad-Din Tankiz ibn Abdullah al-Husami an-Nasiri, or Tankiz for short, became Viceroy of Syria in 1312 (and was executed for treason in 1340). While Damascus underwent a huge facelift during his rule, Tankiz was also responsible for renovating both the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Some of the most beautiful Mameluke architecture in Jerusalem’s Old City resulted from his projects there.

At the site in which he believed that Jacob’s youngest son, Benjamin, was buried, Tankiz put up a shrine known as Nabi Yamin. We know that this was his work because his symbol — a goblet — appears on the inscription. The shrine stands along Route 55 between Kfar Saba and Qalqilya.

The tomb across from Nabi Yamin. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

On a visit there last week we were appalled to find it full of broken chairs, garbage, and people stretching out their hands as they asked for charity. One man, who sat on a chair facing the men’s entrance to the tomb, told me he worshiped at Nabi Yamin whenever he got a heavenly call to do so. In sharp contrast, there is a contemporary tomb across the highway that was either rebuilt or remains in remarkably good shape.

The Nabi Akasha shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Nabi Akasha

If you live in the Jerusalem area and wish to pray at the tomb of Benjamin the son of Jacob, you don’t have to go far. Someone has put up signs on a Muslim tomb from the 12th century, located in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, announcing that Benjamin is buried within!

Actually, an inscription on the tomb names its occupant as Akasha, companion of the Messenger of Allah (Mohammed). One of a group of friends that hung out with Mohammed, Akasha’s full name was Akasha Ben Mohasin. The tomb was renovated by the Mamelukes in the 13th century, and, according to Islamic tradition, they buried three of Saladan’s soldiers within.

During the British Mandate in Palestine, high commissioner John Chancellor apparently heard an oft-repeated tradition that Moses, Jesus and Muhammad are also buried in this area. That has been cited as the reason that Chancellor named the road off which it is located “Street of the Prophets.”

The shrine of Rabban ben Gamliel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Rabban ben Gamliel

Another of Muhammed’s comrades was Abu Hurairah, a very important figure who expounded frequently on Muslim prophetic traditions (hadith). Although he was almost certainly buried in Saudi Arabia, a shrine that bears his name (which translates as “father of the kitten”) is located in Yavne, about 10 miles south of Nabi Rubin.

Originally a much simpler structure, believed by its founders to have been Abu Hurairah’s gravesite, the tomb was greatly embellished under Baybars’s orders in 1274. The triple portico and additional domes that were added turned the tomb into a stunning mausoleum, one of the most beautiful in the country.

But Jews who come to the site to pray, or to celebrate a milestone in Jewish life, are convinced that this is the tomb of Raban Gamliel II, president of the Sanhedrin (Jewish rabbinical tribunal) after the fall of the Second Temple (70 CE). That’s because of a tradition dating back to the 13th century, when a Jewish traveller wrote that Rabban Gamliel’s tomb was being used for Muslim prayer. (Entries in several internet sites suggest that this is the final resting place of neither Abu Hurairah or Raban Gamliel II).

Kever Dan – Dan’s tomb

It is amazingly easy to start a tradition. In 1909, a high school teacher declares that a bunch of tombs belong to the Maccabees and voila! Today virtually everyone in Israel “knows” exactly where the Maccabees are buried.

Even stranger is the sighting of the Tomb of Dan, Jacob’s fifth oldest son. At least half a dozen legends concerning the location of Dan’s grave have made the rounds, from a complete invention by a respected historian and author (Zeev Vilnai), to a similar tale fabricated by the driver of a tour bus. Incredibly, an abandoned Muslim tomb near Beit Shemesh has become a site of Jewish worship and sometimes evening hilulot, or rejoicing with processions, feasting, and music.

For directions to any of the sites in the article look on Google or Waze or feel free to write to us at israeltravels@gmail.com.

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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