It was a great privilege to be able to visit Jordan – not just the river, but the country, where we spent three days. It’s a much different country than Israel, with a totally different culture that is immediately evident once you cross the border. There is a distinctly Arabic feel to it, life is more leisurely, people stand around a good bit, though mostly men. It is not as clean as Israel, driving is more chaotic – neither is it as prosperous-looking as Israel, or as organised, or sophisticated. And yet our guide, Rami, referred to it as “the fruit basket” of the Middle East. And indeed the Jordan Valley is very fertile and seems to be much more cultivated than on the Israeli side (Photo 165).
165 - Jordan Valley
Even though Jordan is the only Muslim country, apart from Egypt, that recognises the State of Israel, there is still tangible tension at the border crossing, which is highly complex and takes a lot of time. We had to show our passports six times, and had to be taken the 300 metres by a special coach. Part of the reason for the intensive security is that Jordan has befriended the Palestinians, many of whom live in Jordan, and Queen Rania is herself Palestinian. On the way back, we were to see one man ahead of us in the queue being quizzed for half an hour, and at the end of it all his passport was withheld. The uneasy peace that the much-loved King Hussein made with Israel through Yitzhak Rabin (who was assassinated for his courage) back in 1994 is holding, however nervously. Water, of course, is a huge bone of contention, with both countries dependent on the Jordan river, which originates in Syria’s Golan Heights. The demarcation line between the two countries dissects the Jordan river.
The country of the Gadarenes
166 - Roman ruins at Gadara
Having the crossed the border (and the Jordan) due east of Haifa at the biblical Beth Shean, we went north as far as the Syrian border to see the ruins of the ancient city of Gadara that overlooks the southern part of the Sea of Galilee. It must have been an amazing city in Greek and Roman times, judging by the remnants of those civilizations that are still evident today (Photo 166). High up on the hill, the city commanded a view of the entire region, and served as a look-out point from which to do business with and gather taxes from the many traders who came from the east on the famous trade route. Our guide told us that the principal goods they brought from the east were frankincense and spices – incense being as precious as gold in our time, and spices as valuable as our oil! Our schooldays friend Pompey was the man who rebuilt Gadara in 63 BC – the amphitheatre is still standing (Photo 167), and the remains of the Temple are impressive, in spite of a major earthquake in 726 AD. Here too (you could have guessed it!) St Helena managed to build a Byzantine church in the fourth century.
167 - Amphitheatre at Gadara
I must say the Gadarenes shot up in my estimation, for I was left with a rather poor view of them from the Gospel incident of the deranged men in the tombs, and the episode of the pigs. With the waters of Galilee barely visible from where we were, this cannot have been the place where the pigs plunged headlong, but the Gospel does speak about “the country of the Gadarenes”, so presumably they had the run of all these hills, part of which are the Golan Heights, “claimed by and recognised as Syria, but under Israeli administration since the 6-day war in 1967” (Photo 168).
Heading south from Gadara, and after a brief stop in Jerasa, another Roman fortification, we set out to find Tishbe, the birthplace of Elijah. What a location! Up winding roads and vast mountains, with stunning views and the magical remnants of recent snow, we came to the remotest of places where the great man is said to have been born and reared. The remnants of two Byzantine churches in his honour from the fifth century mark the elevated area that looks down on Tishbe itself, 500 metres away (Photo 169). Apparently, these ruins were only discovered in the last few years. Prior to that, both the Government and the Patriarch wanted the Order to take over the site, but there were no friars available to go there. A missed opportunity! The Government won’t give it to us now because of its tourist potential.
169 - Tishbe
Tishbe itself is now a deserted village, except for a farmer living in a tent, and seven stray dogs – though there is a mosque nearby. On the site of the churches, you can still see lovely mosaics on the floors (Photo 170).
170 - Byzantine Church Mosaic
A special kind of oak tree, which does not grow tall, is prevalent, with a notice that they are about 400 years old. One tree is growing within the church ruins, covered in small cloths, containing prayers asking for cures through the intercession of “Mar Eliyas”, as he is known in these parts (Photo 171). There is an atmosphere here certainly. “The child is father of the man”. This man had mountains in his blood, with Mount Carmel and Mount Sinai figuring so prominently later in his prophetic life.
171 - Mar Elyas Tree
That was a lot to crowd into one day, and by the time we came to Madaba, towards the south of the country, we must have travelled 300 kilometres and we were ready to hit the hay in a modest hotel called “Salome”.
Madaba indeed has its own bit of history. It is known as the “City of Mosaics”, and the following morning we visited a Greek Orthodox church, famous for its “Mosaic floor map of the Holy Land”. It goes back to the sixth century, and it is just that: a map on the floor of the church in mosaic (two and a half million pieces!), showing all the main holy sites in Israel, Jordan and Egypt – and very accurate (Photo 172).
172 - Madaba Floor Mosaic
The church and the map lay hidden for centuries after a severe earthquake in 749, and were only rediscovered in 1884. We were also able to visit a warehouse to see how mosaic painting is done – the staff were anxious to assure us that the mosaic of our choice could be mailed to us, but with one modest piece depicting the Little Flower going for $2000 dollars, we weren’t tempted!
173 - Jericho from Mt Nebo
Our next goal was Mount Nebo, an emotional place to go to – and considered an essential stop for the two recent Popes. You’d have to admire Moses’ “unimpaired vigour” at 120 years of age! 2,500 feet up, with an awe-inspiring view of the plains of Moab below. The day we were there, though beautifully sunny, was very chilly because of the strong wind. It was also quite hazy, so visibility was limited (Photo 173). We could make out Jericho in front of us, and guess at the Dead Sea to the south, and the Jordan Valley to the north, but even on a clear day, and “with undimmed eye”, it would be very difficult to see “as far as the Western Sea”, or “as far as Dan in the north”! A large cross depicting the bronze serpent crowns the summit (Photo 174).
174 - Bronze Serpent Mt Nebo
A new church is being built over the ruins of a Byzantine church, but work has stalled because the steel is corroding, due to exposure to the chemicals of the Dead Sea nearby. We had Mass (in honour of Moses) in the little Catholic church, which is administered by an Italian Franciscan. The Franciscans, as official custodians of the holy places, have a huge investment of personnel in this task, and it cannot be easy for them, but they do it graciously and with dedication.
Amman is the capital of Jordan, and the residence of King Abdullah II, son of King Hussein. It is a bubbling city of 2.3 million inhabitants, sprawled over hilly terrain. A new centre for the city is being built which will have 16 high-rise tower buildings. It has an air of prosperity about it.
175 - Roman Temple Amman
It has a long history, of course – reminiscent of Jerusalem in the way various civilizations have fought for control of its strategic position. The evidence remains, especially in the Old City, fortified by walls and impregnable defences high up (Photo 175). Back in King David’s time, this was the stronghold of the Ammonites (hence the name, though the biblical name is Rabbath), and it was here David won a crucial victory which consolidated his kingdom in Jerusalem. In the process, of course, he had Uriah killed just under the city walls (where he was a sitting duck from archers above, especially when the others “drew back”) – a major blot on David’s character, tempered in history because of his subsequent repentance.
176 - Amman Amphitheatre
The Greeks under Alexander captured Amman in 332 BC, and the Romans were here three centuries later. The impressive remains of a Temple to Hercules still stand atop the fortress, and down below there is a wonderful stone amphitheatre, almost intact, with seating capacity for 6000 (Photo 176). Oh, and of course there was a Byzantine church on top alongside where the Temple used to be!
On our way to the Baptism site the following day, we went again by Mount Nebo, which means we went from 2,500 feet above sea level to 1000 feet below! The topography of the terrain along the way was wonderful: huge, sandy-coloured mountains, bare to the very top, not a sprig of growth Photo 177). In the lowlands, there were farmers living in tents (not Bedouins), surrounded by sheep and goats, but not a blade of grass in sight.
177 - Mountains of Jordan
Near the Baptism site, we made a stop at the place where Elijah is supposed to have been taken up into heaven, observed by an astonished Elisha. The site is isolated and unpretentious, though there are the remains of a few churches and monuments – always an indication of a holy place (Photo 178). So we had seen the birthplace of Elijah, and the place where he finished his earthly sojourn, and many places in between: Mount Carmel, Muhraqa, the Kishon river, Jezre’el, Mount Sinai. Later, the area of the brook Cherith would be pointed out to us in the Gilead mountains, and that only left Zarephath, which is ’way up in Lebanon.
178 - Place of Ascent of Elijah
Then, on to the Baptism site. Drawing on St John’s Gospel, it has been accurately placed at “Bethany beyond the Jordan”. This is not to be confused with the Bethany of Mary and Martha, which is on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Disappointingly, the identified site is now a stagnant pool – the reason being that the Jordan now takes a different course 200 yards away, having eroded the muddy banks on the western side over the intervening centuries (Photo 179).
179 - Site of Jesus Baptism
There is a proliferation of churches in this general area, including an exquisitely beautiful Greek Orthodox church, with wonderful icons (Photo 180).
180 - Greek Orthodox Church
We had Mass nearby in the open air under a hot sun on the banks of a fast-flowing Jordan. It was almost in spate, and very muddy, because of recent floods. The Mass was an evocative experience (Photo 181).
181 - Mass at Baptism Site
On our way back up country to the border crossing, we saw the full extent of the fertility of the Jordan Valley – no longer just milk and honey, but vast farms of fruit and vegetables the full length of the valley. Along the way, we passed landmarks whose names were familiar from the Bible: Gilead, Succoth, Meholah. We stopped at the Jabbok stream that feeds the Jordan river, called after Jacob who crossed it after his struggle with the angel (Photo 182).
182 - Jabbok Stream
Our only struggle was the long delay crossing the border back into Israel, and on to Mount Carmel, which was for the moment our Promised Land.