The Jordanian government on Aug. 1 closed a shrine dedicated to the prophet Aaron near the ancient Nabataean city of Petra. The move followed a burst of public outrage sparked by videos and photos circulating on the internet showing a group of Jewish tourists praying at the site.
Awqaf and Islamic Affairs Minister Abdul Nasser Abul Bassal ordered the tomb of Aaron closed, barring access to it without official permission. His ministry announced that it would be launching an investigation into the incident.
The Jordan Times reported that Suleiman Farajat, commissioner of the Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority (PDTRA), had said in an Aug. 2 statement that the photos shared online date to 2013, but that the videos of Jewish men praying were more recent. Farajat remarked that the PDTRA had closed the site after learning that some 300 Israeli tourists had been planning to visit the shrine. At least five Israelis were able to enter the tomb, having been permitted access by guards. Farajat stressed that the authority will not allow non-Islamic religious ceremonies at the site. He asserted in his statement that the tomb has nothing to do with Judaism historically or archaeologically.
Aaron is the brother of Moses, who together led the Jews from exile in Egypt. Muslims also recognize Aaron as a prophet of God. To them, he is Haroun, who is believed by some to have died and been buried in the Petra region, although no one can say with certainty where. According to Petra's official website, a mosque was built on Jabal Haroun, the highest geographical spot in the area, over his tomb in the 14th century to commemorate him. The site has long been a place of pilgrimage for people in the area.
As for the Israeli visits, after tens of photos and at least one video went viral, Jordanians expressed anger on social media, blaming the government for failing to prevent the incidents. The Times of Israel reported on Aug. 2 that an Israeli tour guide for one visit had denied that any of the tourists had prayed and said the trip had been coordinated with Jordanian authorities. He complained that the Jordanians, without provocation, had treated the tourists in a humiliating fashion from the start, at the border.
These events have come to light in the wake of a public build-up of suspicion and hostility toward Israel over the nebulous, US-sponsored peace plan dubbed the “deal of the century,” which most Jordanians view as a threat to their country. Jordanians have also been critical of the agreement signed in 2016 for Israel to provide Jordan with natural gas over a 10-year period. Lawmakers, led by the Islamist bloc Al-Islah, have been pressuring the government to cancel the deal.
On Aug. 3, the Anti-Normalization Committee of the Professional Associations issued a statement denouncing what it described as the “performance of Talmudic rituals by Zionists at the Haroun shrine in the clear absence of security and official parties that had failed to prevent that which threatens the sovereignty and history of Jordan.”
Khairieh Amr, a Jordanian archaeologist, explained to Al-Monitor, “The small Muslim shrine on top of the high peak at Jabal an-Nabi Harun was constructed in 1330 by the Mamluk Sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad.” She added, “There is a tomb inside the shrine, but there is no evidence whatsoever that it actually belongs to Aaron. Such shrines to prophets and virtuous men were built at many places by the Ayyubids, Mamluks and Ottomans to enforce the Muslim identity of the state and to vent political discontent by the local populations.
She also remarked, “Annual [religious] festivals at the shrine were carried out by the local people but ceased in the early 1980s due to increased religious awareness.”
Adding to the public's ire was the revelation that in July the Royal Film Commission in Jordan had approved the shooting in Petra of “Jaber,” a controversial, fictional film whose storyline has Jews settling in the city after the Exodus from Egypt. Jordanians railed that the “Zionist script” fabricates an Israeli claim to the ancient city. Under public pressure, a number of Jordanian actors withdrew from the project, and on Aug. 3, the director, the Jordanian-born US national Mohydeen Izzat Quandour, announced the cancellation of the shooting.
Writing in Al-Ghad on Aug. 5, the columnist Nidal Mansour accused the Israelis of using religious pretexts to “lie and create false historical narratives. … This is what they did in Palestine and will do in Petra.”
In the Jordan Times on Aug. 8, political columnist Daoud Kuttab (who also writes for Al-Monitor) wrote, “The reality is that the current leaders in Tel Aviv and Washington have done little to calm jittery Jordanians and Palestinians, who are concerned about the growth of [a] messianic Jewish ideology that tries to connect biblical history with modern day politics.”
Kuttab noted, “The attempt by zealous religious Israeli Jews to sing and pray at a mosque dedicated to prophet Aaron, captured on video, infuriated Jordanians and led to the closure of the site.”
He concluded, “Religious sites should be respected, and freedom of worship and visit should not be interfered in, but the problem that faces political leaders and government officials is how to deal with the genuine worry that what appears to be a crazy notion by a few zealous individuals could one day become a political reality.”
Public reaction to the Petra incident and the planned shooting of Quandour's film have underlined the deep-seated unease felt by a majority of Jordanians about Israeli intentions toward the kingdom in light of increasing tensions between Jordan and Israel over the Haram al-Sharif and the demise of the two-state solution.