Heshbon (also Hesebon, Esebon, Esbous, Esebus; Arabic: حشبون, Latin: Esebus, Hebrew: חשבון) were at least two different ancient towns located east of the Jordan River in what is now the Kingdom of Jordan, historically within the territories of ancient Ammon.
Bronze Age Heshbon of biblical King Sihon has not been identified. The town of Esbus from the Roman and Byzantine period has been identified with a tell (archaeological mound) known in Arabic as Tell Hisban or Tell Ḥesbān.
Location of Tell Hisban
The Roman and Byzantine town is believed to have been located at the ruin called Hesbân or Hisban, about 20 km (12 mi) southwest of Amman, and 9 kilometers (5.6 mi) to the north of Madaba, on one of the highest summits of the mountains of Moab. A large ruined reservoir14 April 2021 is located east of the place, and below the town there is a fountain.
Biblical reference to Heshbon
Ancient Heshbon was beyond, i.e. east of, the Jordan. The city was where the Israelites passed by on their entry to the Promised Land, and was assigned to the tribe of Reuben; afterwards it was given to the Tribe of Gad and became a Levitical city for the Merarites.
Heshbon is mentioned in the Tanakh in the Books of Numbers and Deuteronomy as the capital of Amorite king, Sihon (also known as Sehon). The biblical narrative records the story of the Israelite victory over Sihon during the time of the Exodus under the leadership of Moses. Heshbon is highlighted due to its importance as the capital of Sihon, King of the Amorites:
- "For Heshbon was the city of Sihon, king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab and had taken all his land out of his hand, as far as the Arnon."
Similar passages appear in Deuteronomy and Joshua, with the primary emphasis being the victory of the Israelites over King Sihon at the site of Heshbon. Moses died soon after the victory, after viewing the "promised land" from the top of Mount Nebo.
Following the death of Moses, Heshbon became a town at the border between the lands allocated to the Tribe of Reuben and the Tribe of Gad. Further biblical evidence suggests that the town later came under Moabite control, as mentioned by Isaiah and Jeremiah in their denunciations of Moab.
Historical reference to classical towns
Herodian Es(e)bonitis/Sebonitis: possibly elsewhere
The name occurs in Josephus very often under the form Esbonitis or Sebonitis. According to Josephus, Heshbon was in the possession of the Judeans since Alexander Jannaeus the Maccabee (106–79 B.C.) took it and made it a Jewish town. Herod the Great is also said to have had jurisdiction over the town and established a fort there. However, this town might not be identical with Tell Hesban: Josephus tell us that Pheroras, the younger brother of Herod the Great and tetrarch of Perea, had his residence at Esebonitis. This Esebonitis, described as a strongly fortified garrison town, has not been firmly identified and might be identical with either Machaerus, a site well researched by archaeologists and closely resembling Josephus's description of Esebonitis, with Amathus, or with Gadora, the later placed by researchers at Tell Jadur near Salt.
Late Roman Esebon, Esboús
After the Great Revolt (A.D. 68–70) the country was invaded by the tribe that Pliny calls Arabes Esbonitae, meaning "Arabs of (H)esebon". Restored under the name of Esboús or Esboúta, it is mentioned among the towns of the Roman Arabia Petraea by Ptolemy.
Under the Byzantines, as learned from Eusebius' Onomasticon, it grew to be a town of note in the province of Arabia; George of Cyprus refers to it in the seventh century and it was from Hesebon that the milestones on the Roman road to Jericho were numbered.
Early Arab period
At the beginning of the Early Arab period, Hesebon was still the chief town of the Belka, a territory corresponding to the old kingdom of Sihon. It seems never to have been taken by the Crusaders.
History of excavation
In 1968, archaeological excavations were undertaken at the site of Tell Hesban (alternatively spelled Tall Hisban). This excavation was the beginning of what became called the "Heshbon Expedition". This archaeological work was sponsored by Andrews University and under the authority of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR). The Heshbon Expedition continued with excavation seasons through 1976. Following the cessation of Heshbon Expedition excavations, archaeological work at the site continued in 1996 under the Madaba Plains Project consortium. The site continues to be excavated into the 2010s; work is also ongoing to support archaeological tourism at the site.
Not the Bronze Age Heshbon
Classical period remains, however, confirmed its status as the Roman-period city of Esbus.
Two churches have been discovered from the Byzantine era, and both churches produced impressive remains of mosaic floors. Particularly interesting is the nilotic (using motifs originating in the environs of the river Nile) mosaic of the presbytery of the North Church where the mosaicists have created a motif of a turtledove set on a nest made of an imaginary flower.
Christianity took root there at an early period. Michel Le Quien (Oriens christianus II, 863-64), and Pius Bonifacius Gams (Series Episcoporum, 435) mention three bishops between the fourth and seventh centuries:
- Gennadius, present at the Council of Nicaea (Heinrich Gelzer, Patrum Nicaen. Nomina, p. lxi)
- Zosys of Esbusa signature of the Council of Ephesus in 431.
- Zosius, whose name occurs in the lists of Chalcedon
- Theodore, champion of orthodoxy against monothelism, who received (c. 649) from Pope Martin I a letter congratulating him on his resistance to the heresy and exhorting him to continue the struggle in conjunction with John of Philadelphia. To the latter the pope had entrusted the government of the patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem.
Konrad Eubel (Hierarchia Catholica, II, 168) mentions two Latin titulars of Hesebon in the latter part of the fifteenth century.
- Numbers 32:37
- Joshua 21:37; 1 Chronicles 6:81
- Numbers 21:21–35, Deuteronomy 2:24 and Deuteronomy 29:7
- Numbers 21:26
- Isaiah 15:4, 16:8–9
- Jeremiah 48:2, 48:34, 48:45
- Song of Sol 7:4
- Antq., XIII, xv, 4., XII, iv, 11; Bell, Jud., II, xviii, 1.
- Josephus, Ant., XV, viii, 5.
- Rocca, Samuel (2015). Herod's Judaea: A Mediterranean State in the Classic World. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism / Texte Und Studien Zum Antiken Judentum, Volume 122 (reprint of 2008 Mohr Siebeck ed.). Wipf and Stock. p. 188. ISBN 9781498224543. ISSN 0721-8753. Retrieved 5 June 2020.
- Hist. Nat., V, xii, 1.
- Geogr. V, xvi.
- "Tall Hisban overview". Madaba Plains Project. Retrieved 21 November 2014.
- Preservation and Restoration Archived December 1, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
- Basema Hamarneh, "The River Nile and Egypt in the Mosaics of the Middle East" Archived 2014-12-21 at the Wayback Machine christusrex.org