The sun set behind the glowing amber hills of Wadi Rum in Jordan. It’s a vast and ancient desert that stretches across the Arabian Peninsula. We rounded a mountain-sized outcropping of stone that thrust skyward from the desert as if in defiance of the shifting sand. We soon arrived at the
Bedouin-style camp. Our group was tired and a little dusty. We explored all day a strange and otherworldly landscape seemingly designed from the musings of a 19th century astronomer who dreamed of life on Mars.
Our hosts for the night had created a path of shimmering candles that seemed to whisper “welcome, here you shall find rest.” The flames danced, seamlessly blending with the stars above. They were placed on ledges of the almost vertical face of the mountainside looming above our tents.Dozens of tapestries and rugs with intricate Arab designs encircled the camp. They were hung to provide an outer wall that corralled the campfire’s light and vanquished the cold desert shadows. Soft music greeted our ears, and the aroma of a Bedouin feast tempted our appetites.
As our hosts greeted us and led us into the camp, our weariness drained away. The peaceful atmosphere rejuvenated our souls and bodies alike.They say that the Bedouin community is the most welcoming culture in the world, where no family knows a stranger and no stranger is without friends on a journey. It was true in that camp, and it is true for this little country called Jordan.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
I’ve traveled to the Middle East on numerous occasions but not beyond Israel until I ventured to Jordan. I eagerly welcomed the opportunity to explore Jordan, as a guest of the Jordanian government, and see biblical sites I thought were available to me only through magazines and the Internet. Founded in 1946, Jordan is the most westernized Arab nation in the Middle East. More than at any time in its history, the country stands at a crossroads. It proudly sees itself galvanized in westernized values common in the United States and Europe. This all results from the Kingdom’s aggressive efforts to promote education over conflict, and use of technology, medicine and industry to empower its people and avoid the turmoil in other regional powers.
Today, the country remains a land of contrasts, a must-see destination on the travel itinerary of millions of tourists, including many Americans. Travel from the United State is easy, not much more expensive than traveling to Hawaii, and best of all — safe. Unlike most nations in the area, Jordan finds itself at peace with Israel and realizes that fact is a key to its economic future.
TREASURES OF HISTORY
This peace enables archeological discovery and preservation. The Hashemite Kingdom, now ruled by King Abdullah II, has become a destination for travelers eager to see “the other Holy Land”, as tour guides refer to the country’s rich religious heritage. In a private meeting, Jordanian Senate President Tahir Masri described tourism as the country’s “lifeblood”, a commodity every bit as important as its gulf neighbors’ oil exports.
Like Israel, Jordan allows all three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. After conquering the Ammonites and Moabites, the ancient Hebrew tribes ruled over what is now northwestern Jordan all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. Here in northwestern Jordan, the tribes of Manasseh, Gad and Reuben made their homes. In Roman times Jesus’ ministry also crossed east of the Jordan.
On our first full day, we visited this area where Jordan, Israel and Syria share a border and where we saw some of the best-preserved Decapolis cities of Rome. Decapolis, meaning “Ten cities,” included Gadara, which is modern-day Umm Qais. Matthew records that, “… there followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis and from Judea and from beyond the Jordan” (Matthew 4:25).With beautiful vistas and panoramic views of the Sea of Galilee and Israel, Umm Qais towers over the landscape below. You can stand on lush green hills and imagine Jesus climbing toward you, crowds following in excited anticipation.
Matthew 8 says it was here that Jesus performed the miracle of the Gadarene swine. There, he cast demons from two men into a herd of swine, which then ran into the Sea of Galilee.
In the 1980s, a rare Fourth Century five-aisle basilica was excavated here. Built over an even older tomb that held a skeleton bound with ankle chains, we find the Gospels do mention another possessed man who “lived among the tombs” and who was kept under guard, bound in chains. The site is a popular photo opportunity.
But photos cannot capture the splendor of imperial Rome once you reach ancient Gerasa– modern day Jerash– perhaps Jordan’s most prized Roman site. Archeologists consider this one of the best-preserved and most complete Greco-Roman cities in the Middle East. I found an extravagant array of splendid structures and remains from early Byzantine Christianity.
Two thousand years of wind, sand, war and pillaging may have worn away much of Rome’s imperial glory, but standing at Hadrian’s Arch, the impressive entrance to the ancient city, you know it had the full faith, backing and credit of the Roman Empire! Built in A.D. 129 to commemorate the emperor’s visit, it compares favorably to anything you might see in Rome. I was dwarfed by its size as I traced the steps of Hadrian’s arrival. But don’t exhaust your wonder and awe here. Beyond lie more examples of why Rome ruled the world for centuries. They built roads that stretched from England to Syria and Egypt while its armies marched on three continents.The complex includes a hippodrome for chariot races. Upon entering, actors entertained us in period costumes giving chariot rides and the sounding of Roman trumpets. Beyond is the Oval Precinct, an aptly named plaza whose size was difficult to comprehend until I viewed it from an ancient temple on a nearby hill. Lined by a row of ionic columns, we walked on original stone pavement that marks the beginning of the “Cardo”, a wide boulevard that stretches for more than a half-mile. Along the Cardo, I saw one of the most beautiful and best preserved amphitheaters in existence. Climbing the steps to reach the highest seats, I paused to listen to the band of musicians below who, on this day, played Scottish bagpipes! Ruins of Roman shops and markets abound, and a Greek temple to Zeus towers over visitors below.
FOUNDATIONS OF THE FAITH
Today, although no one worships the gods those temples were built to honor, all across Jordan stand Byzantine churches that spread the Gospel of Christ across the Middle East.
One church discovered in the Red Sea port city of Aqaba is considered the oldest “purpose-built” church in the world. It dates to the Third Century–older even than the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.
In central Jordan lies “The City of Mosaics”, Madaba , the ancient Moabite city mentioned in Numbers 21:30 and Joshua 13:9. We shopped in the market then enjoyed lunch at Haret J’doudna, one of Jordan’s best restaurants.
Nearby sits the Greek Orthodox church of St. George, built above an older Byzantine church from the Fifth Century. Here we saw the original Byzantine church floor with the oldest existing map of the Holy Land in the world. Made of intricately laid mosaic tiles, the map features Jerusalem, complete with the Damascus Gate, the church of the Holy Sepulchre and several names of Israel’s tribes.
In Umm ar-Rasas, mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments, resides the Church of St. Stephen and an early Christian city.
In the shade of a huge roof built over the sprawling site, we studied rare Christian mosaics. They are famous for what they don’t depict. Looking closely, I spotted human figures of fishermen, priests and villagers defaced the mosaic tiles which formed their heads. They’ve since been removed or replaced by iconoclast church leaders who took control of the early church and believed that depicting human form in art was a sin. A tremendous amount of early Christian art from that period was destroyed. Thankfully, what remains is still impressive and gave me a view into early Christian culture.
A short drive away is Mukawer, site of the “Citadel of Gallows”. What does gallows imply? Exactly what you think. This was the fortress built by King Herod to impress dignitaries. Here, with a view of the Dead Sea in the distance, Herod Antipas, son of Herod, gave in to his daughter Salome, who asked for the head of John the Baptist to please her mother Herodias.
I stood in the palace courtyard and dining hall, where the executioner had returned with John’s head on a platter. While not inspiring, it is emotional knowing that here, on the actual floor of the palace, the earthly ministry of John the Baptist ended.
Not far from Herod’s fortress, on the edge of the desert just east of the Dead Sea and just off of the King’s Highway, the oldest continuously used transportation route in the world, hovers Mount Nebo. For generations, this was the main attraction for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, who looked for historical accounts of Moses. On a clear day, not only is the Dead Sea visible but also the hills surrounding Jerusalem and beyond.
For me this was the most significant stop on the trip. Here on the pinnacle of a mountain, I saw what Moses saw, a view that ended forty years of wandering in the desert for the Jews. Moses beheld the Promised Land, a land God said Moses would see but never enter. Breathtaking views stirred my heart.
Deuteronomy gives us the details in 34:1-8: “Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah (the mountain range) which is across from Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land of Gidead as far as Dan. All Naphtali and the land of Ephraim and Manassas (northern Jordan), all the land of Judah. Then the Lord said to him, this is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying ˜I will give it to your descendants. I have caused you to see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.'” Moses died soon after.
During the sixth century, Christians built a church at Mount Nebo. Eventually, the area attracted many early believers and remains of a huge monastic compound are still visible. Standing at the top of Mount Nebo made me question the stubbornness and grumbling that I, like the Hebrews, sometimes exhibit. I felt determined to always seek to be right with God so that, unlike Moses, I might actually enter into the “lands” God would show me.
For the Hebrews, God used forty years of wandering to refine their hearts and prepare them for entrance to the land. Physically crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land became an outward act that signaled God had accomplished in their hearts what He had intended.
BETHANY BEYOND THE JORDAN
The significance of the Jordan River abounds in scripture. Here John baptized new believers and also Jesus himself. That outward sign marked the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Nearby, the chariot caught Elijah up into heaven, and it gave me chills to see how closely these men were who prophesied about the Messiah.
I looked forward to the baptism site with great anticipation. Rustom Mkhjian, an older gentleman whose weathered face was witness to his 13 years of diggingÂ in the sun, greeted us. “You are welcome to Bethany Beyond the Jordan,” he said, “It is the lowest point on Earth and the closest to heaven.” He was right!
His giddiness matched the pace he led us down the well-worn trail. We passed locust trees, from which John the Baptist would have eaten carob pods and sweet tree sap, often referred to as honey in Jesus’ days. Rustom, spoke proudly of how he had personally given Pope John Paul II a tour. He brought us to the fruits of his work — the excavated monastery, chapels, baptismal site and early churches, built, only generations after Jesus’ baptism, to commemorate the significance of the area.
It isn’t only oral history that points to this as the actual baptismal site of Jesus. I saw the evidence in plain sight! Passages in the Bible and other texts, as well as ancient mosaic tile maps and geology, add to its authenticity. Ancient earthquakes have changed the course of the river, moving it away from the original site. But the first church here had been built on stilts to avoid flooding. In 2012, a new baptismal site for modern-day pilgrims will open and, through modern engineering that can change the course of rivers, the Jordan once again will flow within its ancient banks, allowing new believers to be baptized here.
IN THE WILDERNESS
After being baptized, Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the Judean desert. During this time, the devil appeared to Jesus and tempted him. John the Baptist also lived in that wilderness. Israel wandered in that desert for forty years.
So what is it with the wilderness? Why couldn’t the Hebrews have wandered in the lush green pastures beyond the Jordan? Why couldn’t John have lived on the streets of an urban area, which can often be just as lonely as any wasteland?
It was here that Yahweh “God” created the covenant with His people at Mount Sinai. Moses, speaking on behalf of Yahweh, said to Pharaoh, “Let my people go, to worship Me in the desert'” (Ex 7:16). God’s people trekked to Sinai to learn to worship and serve Him. God used the desert to teach and hone faithfulness and devotion.
Traveling through Jordan, which is 90 percent desert, you see the significance of the landscape and its relation to humans. Today, writers often speak of a “wilderness experience” about growing in faith. Of course, they are not talking about a literal visit to Death Valley but a
place of utter dependence on God, a place to hear His “still, small voice crying to you in the wilderness”.
The nature preserve of Wadi Rum is an excellent place to hear that voice. Made up of breathtaking vistas, these mountain ranges are made of striking red sandstone and, of course, plenty of sand.
There we rested overnight and enjoyed fellowship, Bedouin-style. After a day of exploring hidden treasures and following the path of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), we enjoyed a “Zarq”, which is a feast of traditional lamb with rice and vegetables cooked in a sand pit. Our hosts entertained us with dancing, and we had an opportunity to join in. I retired to my tent while several of our group slept in the open. The next morning, four of us awoke before dawn to ride camels to the main camp, breakfast, and our departing bus. As the sun rose the camels carried us across the desert and we watched the face of the mountains change from purple to red to orange. Above, a striking deep- blue sky and setting moon, saddened me to leave the peace that Wadi Rum’s wilderness offered.
JEWEL OF THE DESERT
If Wadi Rum is breathtaking for its natural wonders, Petra is startling. Carved by the hands of men, it’s one of those places that just about everyone has seen somewhere, most likely in a Hollywood blockbuster.
Built by the Nabateans over 2,000 years ago, Petra is utterly enchanting. We took a long hike from the hotel (or you can catch a buggy pulled by a donkey if you’re brave) through the narrow passageway called the Siq. Even after passing countless tombs, I was not prepared to take the last corner and come out of the shadows.
The Siq narrows as, overhead, the sides of the rock lean in to provide a roof and cutting off what little sky remained to see. But up ahead, a glow illuminated the shadows and thenâ€¦ there it was: The Treasury. One of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Its rose color gives everything an unearthly reddish hue. Debate rages whether this magnificent faÃ§ade was a temple, tomb or library. It was named The Treasury in antiquity, because people dreamed it held treasures from ancient Egypt.
The Nabateans developed from a nomadic tribe to become the rulers of an independent state that wasn’t conquered by Rome until A.D.106. Petra was the New York City of its day, serving as the center of trade, commerce and finance between the Far East and Rome. A major stop on the spice route, most likely the three wise men who brought frankincense and myrrh to Jesus, passed through these canyon walls.
Advanced irrigation technology that allowed the Nabateans to channel precious water for their 30,000 residents also impressed me. The clay pipes remain visible along the Siq.
Beyond The Treasury there are countless tombs and the remains of extensive Roman colonnades, a Cardo and plazas. Further yet is The Monastery, a structure even grander than The Treasury. After the spread of Christianity in the first and second centuries, the Nabateans converted to Christianity and the area became an important outpost for the fledgling Christian faith.
Though Nabatean culture is lost to history, their memory remains, as well as some of their descendents. For centuries the local Bedouins have been called the Bdoul, meaning “change of thought”, for having abandoned their pagan ways and accepted Christ.
Jordan’s importance to the Christian faith is well established, although unknown to most people. If I had not had the honor to travel to Jordan, I would not, or could not have adequately understood its significance to Christians.
On the night we spent in the Wadi Rum Desert, several of our group sat together in the cool sand a distance from our camp. The sky looked coal black. Under the light of a billion stars, where the Milky Way is so bright it alone can light your steps through the desert, we listened to our guide Kamel Jayousi sing a song whose words echo for today.
Egyptian-born Fayrouz, the legendary Arab singer from the 1950s, wrote “My Sweetheart Wants the Moon.” It remains a popular song today. The mournful lyrics tell the story of a young woman who turns down her suitor. “My sweetheart asked for the moon and the moon is far, and the sky is too high and I can’t reach it with my hand.”
As the coolness of the night flooded in like waves in the Arabian desert, I thought of all the turmoil in the region. I think that, unlike that young couple in Fayouz’s song, Jordan, with considerable help from Israel, is actually grasping the moon — a future that was thought to be just out of reach. I will always treasure a wondrous visit, new friends and an appreciation of this, the other Holy Land, to prove it.
For more information about traveling to “the other Holy Land”, please visit www.visitjordan.com.