Jordan: Holy waters flow through barren land

By Graham Reid

Graham Reid visits one of the most famous sites in Christianity's history.

Children on the banks of the River Jordan, which today is a trickle compared to the mighty waterway it was said to be in Moses' time.
Children on the banks of the River Jordan, which today is a trickle compared to the mighty waterway it was said to be in Moses' time.

On this bright morning when a barely visible film of rain evaporates before it hits the dry desert floor, the River Jordan - down the long path past the empty Pepsi stand - is an unremarkable sight.

Today, this river - which runs between Israel and Palestine to the west, Jordan to the east, and through the pages of religious history - is little more than a muddy creek about 4m wide.

Just beyond this bend in the river is an even less edifying site. It's where, according to legend, John baptised Jesus. Only the moist mud, cracking under the flat sun, gives any hint water was ever here at all.

We take a few dull photos and move on through the arid, rocky landscape in this part of Jordan. We didn't know what to expect of the baptism site, but we certainly expected ... something?

Perhaps we should have taken our cues early when our guide - mandatory in this tetchy borderland - has the battered bus pull over so he can point out a mound in the distance.

"And that, my friends, is the site where Elijah ascended to Heaven on a chariot of fire," he says with no discernible interest in his subject.

Ironically, he's also our "guard", but if shots are fired the only way he'd take a bullet for us would be because he's too wide and slow to get out of the way. He waddles ahead of us through this ancient land freighted with religious history and metaphors.

Around the small hills are churches of many Christian denominations, each reflecting its origins in the design of cupolas or artwork, and at the baptism site known as Bethabara or Bethany are the ruins of an ancient church. It was here the late Pope John Paul II came in 2000 - commemorated by an unflattering mosaic - and had the place's significance explained to him.

A mosaic commemorates a Papal visit to Bethany in the year 2000. Photo / Graham Reid
A mosaic commemorates a Papal visit to Bethany in the year 2000. Photo / Graham Reid

In more ancient, wetter times, the River Jordan was more impressive than it appears now. According to Biblical researchers it was around 60m wide where today is the border between Jordan and the West Bank.

Here, the river is so narrow I could throw a tennis ball and hit pilgrims on the other side, the difference between Jordan - whose economy relies on tourism and international assistance - and its neighbour is stark.

We few stand on a bare wooden platform. On the opposite bank pilgrims in printed shirts bought from a large new store enter the water on well-built stone steps in the shade of carefully tended palms.

Yet, while the elated pilgrims ululate as they are baptised, something so unprepossessing about the Jordanian landscape is quite moving.

If we believe the ancient texts, it was through this unforgiving landscape - one might even say Godforsaken in places - that prophets and pilgrims walked.

Elijah is an acknowledged figure in Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths. Just south of here is the desert wilderness where Jesus, after baptism by John, wandered for 40 days and was tempted by the Devil.

At nearby Mt Nebo, Moses was shown the Promised Land. It would have been a fertile valley then, a stark contrast to the bleached-bare rock-strewn hills and valleys he and his followers had trekked through.

When God told Moses he'd never reach the Promised Land in the distance he might have been relieved. At 120, he was probably done with walking through these unforgiving valleys.

Whether you believe any of this is irrelevant. Others do. Millions and millions of them over two millennia.

For some reason, as I dip my hand in the water, I instinctively say a short prayer asking someone or something to look after my children.

Christ's baptism site on the Jordan River.
Christ's baptism site on the Jordan River.

Later, as we wait for the bus to pick us up we are encouraged to enjoy the cool shade of the gift shop. There are shelves of hideously carved images of the Last Supper (after Leonardo Da Vinci), the Virgin Mary and praying hands "made from genuine olive wood", wall hangings of crucifixes, a painting of a handsome Christ ("Jesus 90210" I whisper), out-of-focus postcards of local wildlife...

"This is the only shop I've been in where I don't want to buy a single thing," I say to my wife.

But we'd already bought anyway.

Back in the impressive, gold-domed Greek Orthodox St John the Baptist Church near the border, we have admired murals of vivid, Disney-like colour. I've been especially taken with a ragged John the Baptist - bearded and wild-eyed - placing his hand on the forehead of a muscular Christ while halo-wearing faithful look on.

Here, Megan bought a little box containing Holy Water, Holy Soil, Holy Oil and Holy Incense, which comes with a metal Jesus on an olive wood cross and a DVD. It is certified as "authentic" in six languages.

As the bus wheezes through this parched, scrubby desert - where an opulent hotel is to be built - I wonder what it was like for those souls who wandered this land long ago. And how the heat might have affected their senses: would Jesus have shopped here for cheap memorabilia. Or would he have overturned the tables?

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates' daily flights out of Auckland reach Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan after connecting via Dubai.

Further information: See visitjordan.com.

Graham Reid flew to Europe with assistance from Emirates.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n2 at 23 Jul 2014 12:01:28 Processing Time: 818ms