These days a largely unregarded village, in the past Dhiban was an important city, capital of Moab and mentioned many times in the Old Testament. In around 850 BC, a man named Mesha, described as a “shepherd king”, liberated Moab from Israelite aggression, built a palace in Dhiban and set about refortifying the King’s Highway against future attack.

Almost three thousand years later, in 1868, a German missionary travelling in the wild country between Salt and Karak was shown by Dhibani bedouin a large basalt stone inscribed with strange characters. Unaware of its significance, he informed the German consul of his discovery, who then made quiet arrangements to obtain the stele on behalf of the Berlin Museum. However, a French diplomat in Jerusalem who heard of the discovery was less subtle; he travelled to Dhiban, took an imprint of the stele’s text and there and then offered the locals a large sum of money. Suddenly finding themselves at the centre of an international furore over a seemingly very desirable lump of rock, the bedouin refused his offer and sent him packing; they then did the obvious thing and devised a way to make more money. By heating the stone over a fire, then pouring cold water on it, they successfully managed to shatter it, and thus sell off each valuable fragment to the covetous foreigners one by one. Meanwhile, scholars in Europe were studying and translating the imprint of the text, which turned out to be Mesha’s own record of his achievements, significant as the longest inscription in the Moabite language and one of the longest and most detailed original inscriptions from the biblical period yet discovered. The mostly reconstructed stele now sits in the Louvre in Paris; having become something of a symbol of national pride, copies of it are displayed in museums all over Jordan.

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