Biblical Jordan / CIEE Sponsored Day Trip

After a painless taxi ride to the university my roommates and I met with our fellow program participants. Essentially a big group of Americans gathered in front of the university. We garnered stares from the locals as usual. Sometimes I wonder if I stare a lot at foreigners back home. I suppose it’s something to think about once I’m back at home. I bid my roommates a good day (They were going on the other trip to the Eastern Desert) and joined the group going on the Biblical Jordan excursion.

Once I got on the bus I already knew it was going to be a good trip since we got assigned the more entertaining CIEE interns (Greg and Alisha). Once we were all on the bus Greg got on the intercom (never one to turn down a microphone) and proclaimed that we were going to have a lot more fun because the other trip is boring. Joining us on our trip was a friend of Greg’s who was previously in the CIEE program with him. He was a very interesting guy from Philadelphia who now was living in Jerusalem working for a human rights organization (I feel really bad about it but I can’t remember his name now). I made sure I sat by the interns on the bus because they have the most entertaining stories plus they have experienced so many things that I want to experience and peak my curiosity. It’s also a plus that Greg is hilarious.

We got underway and made a stop at Piggly Wiggly (Y’all come back now ya hear!) to buy some breakfast items for the bus trip. Breakfast consisted of little pizzas (Apparently a popular Arab breakfast?) some cheese filled pastries, and some zatr (bread with oil and spices on it). I passed on breakfast since I wasn’t feeling that well (Probably contributing to the fact that I’ve lost 10 pounds since I’ve been here). We had to surrender our ID’s to the guide in order to pass through a bunch of police and military checkpoints. It’s par for the course when you’re so close to the border with Israel. We were on our way to some of the lowest points on Earth and it was steadily getting hotter.

Our first stop was at Bethany Beyond the Jordan where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and also where Elijah ascended to heaven on a chariot of fire (because a normal chariot would be too worldly) just a few kilometers north of the Dead Sea. In addition to our own tour guide we were graced with a personal tour from the man in charge of the site. The first stop was at the spring of John the Baptist. The water was clear and cool to the touch and the site was tranquil. It provided a stark contrast considering the violence that has plagued this area for thousands of years. It was soothing just to stand there and listen to the trickling of the water from the spring.

After viewing the spring our guide led us to the site which scholars and Pope John Paul II proclaim is the site of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. The site now is basically a muddy ditch. The site guide explained that the water of the Jordan River diverted from this location to its current location so there no longer is any water here. There were the remains of some Byzantine churches close to the site but they had since been destroyed by earthquakes. All that remains was the tops of a few columns and some mosaic pieces. Nearby, there was also a hilarious mosaic portraying the King, Queen, and the Pope on a golf cart (the picture is on my Facebook page if you want to see it). There was also a pavilion housing a pool which can be filled for modern baptisms. Greg called it the party house and his friend proclaimed it as the site of the first Christian Loo-ow (sp?).
Next we were led to the Jordan River in its current location. Near the river there was a beautiful Greek Orthodox Church with a gold roof. It might have been the church of Saint John, but I’m not sure. Inside the church there were beautiful paintings (frescos?) on the wall and the ceiling. There was also a skull and bones in a glass box but unfortunately I can’t read Greek so I couldn’t read the description. After taking some pictures I descended down the wooden stairs to the Jordan River.

The stairs led to a small platform with a small pool for the baptism of babies and a small stairway down to the river itself. All of this is under the watchful eye of a Jordanian soldier who looked all of 18 years of age. At this point we were maybe 15 feet away from Israel and the Palestinian Territories. I could see two Israeli soldiers guarding their side of the border. Also on the other side there were some Russian Orthodox who appeared to be preparing for a baptism. There was a sense of calm over the site yet you could feel a strange tension about the whole situation. It’s interesting how such a holy place for the Christian religion is kept under such a watchful eye of Jewish and Muslim soldiers to prevent any border incidents in their respective countries. Sometimes I wonder if the third religion is lost and forgotten in all the regional tensions. It’s truly sad that such holy places for the three major monotheistic religions need to be “owned” or controlled by anyone (food for thought). Moving past such intellectual tidbits, the river actually had quite a bit of water in it due to the winter rains. This was not the stagnant ditch I had read about and was expecting. The water was muddy and smelled like oil or some other combination of chemicals. Despite this, I placed my hand in it to experience the cool holy waters of the Jordan River firsthand.

After our time at the Jordan River came to a close we boarded our bus and headed for Mount Nebo. Mount Nebo is the mountain where Moses is said to have seen the Promised Land and also where he died at age 120. The views from this location were absolutely amazing. From here you could see Amman, the Dead Sea, and if it wasn’t hazy Jerusalem as well. In fact, I would argue that the view towards Amman was the most breathtaking. On the mountain top a new church is in the process of being built so the mosaics are all housed in tents. The mosaics depicted the various stages of men and the introduction of Christianity into their lives (they are apparently interpreted in many different ways so there is much debate as usual). While in one of the tents there was a curator giving an explanation of the mosaics in what sounded like Danish to a bunch of tourists from Denmark (they all had matching blue hats that had Denmark printed on them). I believe he might have been from the original excavation of the site since he looked a lot like one of the archeologists in the photos of the excavation. Once we finished at Mount Nebo it was back on the bus and off to the City of Madaba.

When we arrived in Madaba I couldn’t help but be reminded of a town in the southwest of the United States. In fact, our tour guide said that he hears many Americans compare Madaba to towns in Mexico. One third of Madaba’s population is Christian and it is the home of many Byzantine mosaics. Our destination was the home of one of those mosaics, St. George’s Church. St. George is the home of the oldest map of Palestine in existence. This map was one of the tools used by scholars in identifying the location of the baptism of Jesus previously discussed. According to my tour guide, during the Ottoman Empire, when Christians wanted to build churches they had to use a site where a previous church was built. This started a search for Byzantine era churches. When St. George’s Church was being built in the 1880’s the mosaic was discovered. The map has been damaged and much has been lost but there remains enough to imagine how the original looked. The areas around the Dead Sea, Palestine, and Jordan remain but the areas depicting Egypt and Syria have mostly been lost. It was truly an amazing sight to behold. Also it seemed somewhat alien to hear Christian church bells once again. After our time at the church it was time for lunch. We ate lunch at a restaurant called Haret Jdoudna. We were served a variety of dishes including fattoush, salat, hummus, baba ghanouj, fuul, kibbeh, chicken, and lamb. We tasted all this local fare in a covered courtyard on a beautiful warm Jordanian sunny afternoon. After lunch we boarded a bus and departed for Machaerus, our final destination for the day.

Machaerus was the castle of Herod the Great and his successor Herod Antipas. This site is notorious for the fact that Herod Antipas beheaded John the Baptist there at the request of his step-daughter, the dancer Salome. The castle is separated from the parking area by a stone staircase and a path which leads up the mountain clockwise. It was actually a somewhat difficult climb as the footing was loose and the grade quite steep in places. Once on top of the hill all that remains of the castle are some columns which mark a part of the palace where Salome danced for Herod. There were also some remains of the walls as well as some chambers below the surface. I was told that we were actually on the second floor of the castle and that the lower levels had been completely covered by dust over the passage of time but I’m not sure of the accuracy of this claim. The views from this mountaintop palace were breathtaking. The surrounding hills were eerily quiet and all you could hear was the whispering of the wind through the valleys. The Dead Sea was also visible and was actually sparkling in the sunset. I could have sat on that hilltop for hours lost in my thoughts. After spending about two hours on the mountaintop we had reached the end of our day trip. We boarded our bus and headed back to Amman.

I hope this has provided a window into my trip to some of the biblical sites in Jordan. I have photo albums of the trip on my Facebook page and you’re welcome to view it. If you don’t have access please contact me and I will grant you access.


Published in: on February 26, 2011 at 6:48 pm  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That sounds so cool. I almost wish I was there. I bet it was hot though. I’m sure you could almost imagine me complaining. 😉

  2. What an experience! It is so cool that you get to be in the places that all this amazing history happened! I am so jealous~one of these days I am going to Jordan and Isreal.

  3. That sounds awesome, John! I can’t wait to see your pictures 🙂 Moving over to facebook now…. Miss you!

  4. Would love to see come accompanying photos John!!!

    • Julie unfortunately with the spotty internet situation here it’s very difficult to attach pictures to my blog. I try to upload them to facebook as much as possible but my chances are limited due to bandwidth limits. I’ll do my best though and I will also turn over all my pictures to you once I return.

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