ROUND AND ABOUT Stories of the Bible and reminders of a hoary past — welcome to Jordan!
B ucolic scenes where herds of goats have the unofficial right of way, Bedouins swathed in flowing robes… Jordan echoes with stories from the Bible and reminders of the hoary past. This country is mentioned in both the Old and the New Testament as the tribal kingdoms of Edom, Moab and Ammon.
From Amman, we drive down the 5,000-year-old King's highway (one of the oldest roads in the world), which rambles through stunning landscapes. Our first stop is at Madaba the Mosaic Town. Hundreds of mosaic maps are scattered throughout this town where Christians and Muslims live in harmony. Madaba is an archaeologist's delight. The St. George's Greek Orthodox Church is a 19th Century construction, which has on its floors, a fragment of a wonderfully vivid mosaic map dating back to the 6th Century. This is the first cartographic representation of the Holy Land. This map, unearthed in 1896, was once a clear map of all the major Biblical sites from Palestine to Egypt, with over 150 captions in Greek. This map was probably intended to help pilgrims to the Holy Land. Today, this map has helped archaeologists and historians assign modern-day sites to places mentioned in the Bible.
Attention to detail
What makes the map come alive are the details — the fish that swim in the Jordan River turn back when they get to the Dead Sea; the lion that hunts a gazelle in the desert; the palm trees at Jericho... We have a typical Jordanian lunch at Al Saraya, a restaurant situated in Haret Jdoudna, an atmospheric old family home. We are served an astonishing variety of mezze — Arabic salad, tabbouleh, goat cheese, Baba ghanoush, tomato with chillies, fresh, creamy hummus, cheese triangles made of filo pastry, and a variety of breads.
Just a few minutes' drive from Madaba is Mount Nebo, one of the most important Biblical sites in Jordan. It's a page of history we are walking through — having led the Israelites for more than 40 years through the wilderness, this was the place from where Moses saw the Promised Land. . We walk to the edge of a cliff, and look at the bald, rocky hills and olive groves; I imagine a sinewy, sun-tanned Moses looking at the panorama... There's a haze in the air, but on a clear day you can see Jericho and Jerusalem. We see a huge stylised bronze cross in the form of a serpent, designed by an Italian — symbolising the cross and the serpent staff that Moses lifted up. It is said that during the Exodus, God had instructed Moses to erect a bronze serpent on a pole to stop the plague. Those who looked at the serpent were, apparently, not killed.
At the Moses Memorial Church, we get to see the original mosaics — it's a kaleidoscopic array of hunting scenes with wild boars, soldiers lancing a lion, and a Persian with an ostrich. As we drive along the sliver of road above the brilliantly-blue Dead Sea, Salem, our guide, points to what looks like a frozen figure, and Salem says: “That's Lot's wife...” Lot's wife, who disobeyed her husband and God's orders to not look back at the city they were fleeing because of brimstone showers, and was turned into a pillar of salt.
The last on the Bible trail
Our final place on the Bible trail is Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, the site where the foundations of early Christianity were laid. This is also supposed to be the place where Elijah is said to have ascended to heaven in a whirlwind. This site, identified only recently, was cleared of land mines, after a peace treaty with Israel. Remains of over 20 churches, baptism pools and caves were unearthed here. This is close to the sensitive border with Israel and the West Bank, and we see watchtowers, barbed wire and armed guards everywhere. We walk under the merciless afternoon sun through thickets of tamarisk and wild cherry to the Spring of John the Baptistpossibly where Jesus was baptiszed! The Byzantine churches were built here to mark the spot, but all that remains are traces of old mosaic. The trail continues through a modern Greek Orthodox church with gold-plated domes glinting in the sun. The Jordan River is today a stagnant green stream that looks more like a creek. It's interesting to see how the river forms the natural border between the countries. Across the waters, I see the blue-and-white Israeli flag emblazoned with the Star of David fluttering in the wind, and the baptism complex.
History, religion, and the continuity of human life absorb my thoughts...