Crossing Jordan

By Jim Eagles

Buoyed by a dip in the Dead Sea, Jim Eagles explores a country rich in biblical history.

Columns from the ancient Roman city of Jerash, which is amazingly well preserved. Photo / Alan Gibson
Columns from the ancient Roman city of Jerash, which is amazingly well preserved. Photo / Alan Gibson

I suppose the Dead Sea was the low point of our trip to Jordan.

But then again it was also one of the high points. This is, after all, the lowest point on the face of the earth, 410m below sea level and falling fast.

It is also one of the most fascinating places on earth, and one I've wanted to visit since I saw a wartime photo of my father and a lot of other Kiwi soldiers floating in its amazingly buoyant waters with their arms and legs improbably in the air.

Needless to say, I got my photo taken doing the same thing.

My father apparently dived into the sea and nearly injured himself because it is so dense. I didn't make that mistake, but I did find it very hard to swim because the water is so buoyant your legs float too high.

Amid the kerfuffle of trying to get into position for the photograph I managed to splash some water on to my lips and it was incredibly salty - seven times more salty than the sea, apparently - and I gather it is not at all pleasant if you get it in your eyes or if you have any cuts.

It is also extremely warm - 30C when we were there - and there's no risk of sharks because the sea is indeed dead (apart from 11 species of bacteria).

The Dead Sea is the culmination of the storied River of Jordan, which flows from its origin in the mountains of Lebanon and Syria, through the biblical Sea of Galilee, now better known as Lake Tiberias, and down the Jordan Valley, a part of the Great African Rift Valley, before running out of anywhere to go.

There the river water evaporates in the desert sun which concentrates its chemical content.

There are some fancy resorts on its shores these days, most with artificial beaches plus showers and freshwater pools for getting rid of the salt, as Israel and Jordan seek to take advantage of its uniqueness.

But the level of the sea is falling because both neighbours also take increasing amounts of river water for irrigation and sea water to extract the chemicals, reducing the flow to a trickle.

Indeed, Yousef Hilo, our Jordanian guide, observed mournfully, "I fear the next war will be fought over water."

The land where the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan now lies has certainly seen more than its share of wars.

This is a place at the crossroads of history where Amorites and Israelites, Greeks and Persians, Jews and Romans, Crusaders and Muslims, Ottoman Turks and British have all left their marks (not forgetting the Nabateans whose amazing stone city of Petra will be the subject of another article).

Among the earliest invaders were the Israelites, under Moses, who passed through during their Exodus from Egypt.

It was from Mount Nebo, in Jordan, that Moses first viewed the Promised Land, but learned from Jehovah that he would not be allowed to enter it himself. After his death he was buried nearby, though his grave has never been found.

From the mountaintop today there are still spectacular views across the Jordan Valley to Jerusalem, although when we visited the air was hazy with heat and pollution.

Some striking green patches in a nearby valley are said to be caused by springs created when Moses struck a rock to draw forth water for his thirsty people. They must have been grateful, for this is a parched landscape where little grows.

It's a lonely place, with a few souvenir stalls selling mainly small fossilised sea creatures, a huge bronze sculpture combining the cross of Jesus and a serpent lifted up by Moses, and the remains of the places of worship which have stood there for thousands of years.

The church there now is basically the repaired basilica of a monastery built towards the end of the sixth century. Its most interesting feature is the extraordinary display of ancient mosaics, layers of them, discovered in recent excavations.

Jordan is a great place for mosaics. There's another fascinating example, a sixth-century map of the Holy Land, in the Church of St George in the town of Madaba. There are several more in the nearby Madaba Archaeological Museum, including Jordan's oldest mosaic, a 2000-year-old floor from the palace of the Herods at Macherus.

As part of a campaign to revive this ancient art, Jordan has set up a mosaic school, and you can see some of the graduates painstakingly creating pictures with individual pieces of coloured stone at the Madaba Craft Centre, just outside the town.

Many other biblical figures strode across what is now Jordan, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and King David. Although the grave of Moses has never been identified you can visit the reputed tombs of Noah (near Karak), Job (at the city of Salt) and Aaron (near Petra).

But probably the most significant area from a biblical point of view is Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan.

When we visited this parched area on the banks of the River Jordan, security was tight, because of a terrorist incident in Egypt, and we had to get a special security permit.

A dusty hillock with a few Byzantine remains turns out to be Elijah's Hill, from whence the prophet ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire, giving the English rugby supporters their song "Swing low, sweet chariot."

The cave of John the Baptist is said to be nearby, though we didn't get to see it.

What looks like a dried waterhole - though apparently it fills up in the rainy season - is the spot where tradition has it that John baptised Jesus, and it is surrounded by the remains of least five churches, plus one nearly new one.

Close by is the river itself, disappointingly small, dirty and stagnant given the huge shadow it casts in history, its significance nevertheless emphasised by the Jordanian flag fluttering beside the baptism site and, just across the other side, the flag of Israel flying above an Army observation post.

There are steps to allow people to be baptised in the river and a small stone font near the river bank is for children to be baptised in water pumped from the river.

I took the risk of having a sip of Jordan water from a drinking fountain - though no one else dared - and escaped without a stomach upset ... a miracle!

I may joke, but it's a strange feeling to walk in these sacred places I've been hearing about since my childhood, which have been revered by so many people for so long.

The combination of a desolate landscape where such extraordinary events occurred, the numerous signs of worship but the complete absence of people (because of the security concerns), made for an uncanny atmosphere.

It is, apparently, very different on January 7 each year, traditionally the anniversary of when Jesus was baptised, when 40,000 people come to be annointed with the water of the Jordan.

John, of course, was subsequently arrested by the Jewish King Herod Antipas, taken to his hilltop stronghold of Mukawir - of which little remains today - and beheaded. And Jesus crossed the Jordan and went to meet his destiny in Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans.

But the Romans did more in the Middle East than unwittingly help to create a new religion. They also built roads and cities which have stood the test of time.

At Jerash, for instance, you can wander through an amazingly well-preserved 2000-year-old city, with temples, theatres, baths, arches, a 15,000-seater hippodrome, roads still bearing the marks of chariot wheels and, intriguingly, an ancient sewage system complete with manholes.

"The Romans were very advanced," guide Yousef said wryly. "Modern Jerash got its infrastructure only a year ago."

Even if you've seen a lot of Roman ruins, Jerash is still a striking place to visit, especially if you go at sunset, when its silhouetted rows of majestic columns and magnificent buildings seem to shake off the centuries and look again as they did when the city was young and bustling with life.

After the Romans came the Byzantines, who built many of the old churches, including the basilica at Mt Nebo and St George's in Madaba.

Then came successive dynasties of Islamic rulers from Medina, Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Istanbul - interrupted for a century or so by the Crusaders - leading to the present monarchy descended from the Sherifs of the Muslim holy city of Mecca.

The Crusaders left some spectacular reminders of their reign in the form of huge, strategically placed castles.

One of the most impressive is at Karak, its huge walls and towers squatting impregnably on top of a steep rocky crag, with the present-day township of stone houses cuddling up against its flanks.

It has a chequered history, having been built by Baldwin I, first Crusader King of Jerusalem; owned at one point by Reynald de Chatillon, possibly the vilest Crusader of them all; and finally conquered by the great Salah-ad-Din himself.

Although some of its stone has been quarried by locals to build their houses, a surprising amount of the castle remains, including the magnificent stables, appallingly cramped barracks and the wall down which Reynald delighted in throwing his victims, heightening the experience by enclosing their heads in a protective box.

The Islamic legacy, of course, is far deeper than that, as is signalled by the universal presence of mosques and their distinctive towers.

Probably the best to visit is the distinctive blue-domed King Abdullah Mosque in Amman, which although very modern is very accessible. Visitors are actively welcomed, and it has a small Islamic museum.

Although the remains of its turbulent history are what makes Jordan so interesting, its stable present is another huge plus as a tourist destination.

I felt more secure there than anywhere else in the Middle East - though I didn't actually feel at risk anywhere - not least because the locals seem genuinely well-disposed towards foreigners and do not instantly demand baksheesh.

And the food, especially the national dish, mensaf - lamb cooked in yoghurt and served on a bed of rice with pine nuts and salads - is just superb.

After eating it I tried to buy a Jordanian cook book so I could repeat the dish at home. And, guess what, the first shop I went to tried to offer me the Woman's Weekly Middle Eastern Cookbook. Unfortunately it didn't have a recipe for mensaf. But it's no wonder I felt at home.

CHECKLIST

Visas: New Zealand passport holders require a visa.

Currency: The Jordanian currency is the dinar which is divided into 1000 fils. Credit cards, traveller's cheques and United States dollars are widely accepted.

Tipping: Tipping is fairly common in Jordan and it's a good idea to keep a supply of small denomination notes, or US$1 and $5 notes, for the purpose.

Getting there: United Travel offers return flights from Auckland to Amman.

Getting around: Ancient Kingdoms Holidays has a range of touring options in Jordan, all available through United Travel.

Jim Eagles and Alan Gibson travelled to Jordan as guests of United Travel and Ancient Kingdoms Holidays.

- NZ Herald

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