We know there are questions around travel amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Read our note here.
When exploring historical sites linked to the Bible, many people instantly think of making a trip to Jerusalem and the Galilee region — and for good reason. These locations are home to a great many sites of religious significance, including the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Mount of Olives.
However, many places mentioned in the Bible extended far beyond what we typically think of as the Holy Land. While scholars have long debated the modern-day locations of some of these famous biblical events, what’s clear is that many parts of Northern Africa and the Middle East, connected by major trade routes, also played prominent roles in biblical times. From farther afield in Israel, to Iraq and Ethiopia, read on to learn about some of the more surprising possible sites of biblical events.
The Garden of Eden (Iraq)
It all began in the Garden of Eden, and although some experts claim that the Old Testament paradise is simply a myth, the Bible gives a fairly detailed location. In the Book of Genesis, Eden’s location is said to be connected to four rivers. Two of the rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, flow through Turkey and Iraq, eventually emptying into the Persian Gulf. Scholars do not know the locations of the other two rivers, the Gihon and the Pison, which may have dried up or changed course. Since there were no monuments or temples, there is nothing to be uncovered by archaeological excavation. Therefore, the exact location of the Garden of Eden, while likely to have been somewhere in modern-day Iraq, will likely never be identified.
Noah’s Ark (Mount Ararat, Turkey)
The legend of an all-engulfing flood appears in several ancient cultures, as well as in the Book of Genesis. In the biblical tale, Noah and his family built the ark where they stored two of each creature on Earth until the flood waters subsided. Scholars debate the existence of both the flood and the ark, but if it did exist, where might it have landed?
Among various stories about the fate of the ark, the one that has recently gained traction is that it was found on Turkey’s Mount Ararat. Armenians have claimed a connection between Ararat and the ark since the 11th century. In the 2000s, a group of explorers alleged that they found evidence of a large ship beneath the mountain’s layers of ice and snow. They further claim that radiocarbon testing showed the wood to be about 4,800 years old, the same age as the ark would supposedly be. Others have debunked the claim as pseudo-archaeology, so the search for the true location of Noah’s Ark continues.
In the Book of Kings, the Queen of Sheba came to see King Solomon, accompanied “with a very great caravan — with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones.” (1 Kings 10:2). She then tested the King’s wisdom with a series of riddles. Historians say that this event shows how important trade routes were between Israel and other points throughout the Middle East, but where exactly was the Queen of Sheba from? Also known as Makeda, she was a prominent figure in Ethiopian history. According to Ethiopian tradition, she was tricked into Solomon’s bed and became pregnant. She also converted to Solomon’s religion, which she brought with her when she returned to Ethiopia. There she bore a son, Menilek, whose line ruled until Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974.
On the other hand, Yemen also lays claim to the Queen of Sheba. According to Islamic tradition, she was known as Bilqis and hailed from Southern Arabia, now Yemen. When her gifts to King Solomon were unacknowledged, she visited him in person. Several alternative stories follow. One claims that a djinn warned Solomon that the queen had cloven hooves and hairy legs. Some tales result in Solomon giving her in marriage to another tribe. Still others say that Solomon married her and that she returned to Yemen with his son. Today, a temple dedicated to Bilqis stands, with other archaeological treasures, just outside the city of Marib.
Nineveh (Mosul, Iraq)
Until around 600 B.C., Nineveh was the largest city in ancient Mesopotamia. Its founding is mentioned in Genesis, and it features prominently in the books by several of the prophets, including Nahum and Zephaniah. But it is Jonah who is most remembered for his connections to Ninevah; by his time, it was a city of 120,000 people, known for its wickedness and destined for destruction. Jonah is sent to try to convince the people to change their ways; eventually, God spared the city in a show of mercy.
By the 13th century, the once-great city had been abandoned, its buildings left to fall into ruin. So, where was it? As it faded from memory, so did its location, until the 19th century, when European diplomats in Mosul, Iraq, began to excavate the giant mounds outside the city. Decades of exploration uncovered clay tablets, artifacts, ancient gateways, and palaces. Some have been transferred to museums overseas for safekeeping, but other remains have been destroyed in recent conflicts.
Mount Nebo (Jordan)
After leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, Moses climbed Mount Nebo and lived there the remainder of his days. From the top, he could gaze out across the Holy Land. Some scholars believe he may also have been buried here. Christians began making pilgrimages to the site in the 4th century. A church and a monastery built by Byzantine monks once stood there, but by the 16th century, the monks had left the site and the buildings had fallen into ruin. Fortunately, the elaborate floor mosaics were preserved, and a Franciscan monastery, built in 1993, remains active. Visitors might be able to catch a glimpse of Jerusalem in the distance on a clear day.
Armageddon (Tel Megiddo, Israel)
The name Tel Megiddo may not mean much to the average reader. However, its Greek name is instantly recognizable: Armageddon. According to the Book of Revelation, this may be the site of the end times. Tel Megiddo is a real place in Israel, about 19 miles southeast of the port city, Haifa. Archaeologists have uncovered 26 layers of history that provide evidence of different eras of human occupation, including an Iron Age water-supply system. In the Bronze Age, it was a major Canaanite settlement. Later it became a royal city of Israel. Today, it is a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site.