The most common question I got from people when they learned that I was traveling to Jordan was, “Do you think it is safe?” My response was, “I don’t think the Jordanian government would invite us unless they thought it was safe. They last thing they would want is a group of American editors injured under their watch.”
Now that I have begun the journey home, I can say with absolute certainty that there was nothing to be concerned about. Not only did we not experience any violence, we didn’t receive even a hint of rudeness from any of the many Jordanian citizens with whom we came in contact. The Jordanian government proclaims itself to be a friend of America, and their citizens prove the assertion to be true.
It would be fair to say that though I was impressed by the biblical and archaeological sites, what impressed me even more were the people.
That said, the sites are incredible. Since Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension took place in Israel, it is only natural for Christians who want to visit the Holy Land to begin there. After all, Jerusalem and the Galilee region are the settings of the vast majority of Gospel narrative.
Still, Jordan lays claim to Bethany beyond the Jordan, where Jesus and his disciples were staying at the time of Lazarus’ death, and where it is believed John the Baptist lived in the wilderness, subsisting on locusts and wild honey. And it was there that Jesus was baptized.
Because his baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Jordan claims to be the birthplace of Christianity. While that point is disputable, there is little dispute about the authenticity of the Jordanian site.
The associate director of the baptism site, himself a Jordanian Christian, emphasized that biblical information, descriptive accounts by early Christian pilgrims, archaeological evidence and a fifth-century mosaic map of Madaba point to this site as the place of Jesus’ baptism.
The Madaba map itself is a significant archaeological treasure. Discovered by chance in 1896 by builders, the “map” is a mosaic depicting the locations of most cities from Egypt to Syria in the floor of a sixth-century church. Because Jerusalem is shown in detail, it confirms the presence and location of early churches there.
Mount Nebo, from whose lofty heights Moses viewed the Promised Land, provides a panoramic view of the Dead Sea, Jericho and the Jordan River. On a clear day, from that summit, one can see Amman, the capital of Jordan to the northeast, and Jeru-salem, the de facto capital of Israel to the west. A new museum will soon be finished on the site.
Wadi Rum is a sand desert accented by enormous granite and sandstone mountains. Although no scriptural evidence exists for the claim, it is imagined that Moses led the Children of Israel through this desert during their 40 years of wilderness wanderings.
No matter what time of day one visits, sunlight and shadows play upon the multicolored rock to produce a panoply of beauty. Local guides truck their guests through the sands where one is apt to come face to face with a herd of camels. Ancient caravans hauled their freight through these sands, refreshing both man and beasts at a spring where their pictographic messages to one another can still be seen chiseled into the rocks. This wadi (dry river bed) was made famous when Laurence of Arabia was filmed there.
As in many other parts of the world, ancient ruins abound in Jordan. Pella is only partially excavated, but is widely recognized as one of the oldest continuously in-habited cities on earth. Neo-lithic cave-dwellers settled there with successive civilizations from many cultures building atop what their predecessors left behind.
Um Quays provides an inspiring view of the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights and, according to Jordanian tradition, was where the man filled with legions of demons was healed when Jesus cast them into a herd of swine. A well-preserved Roman theater from the second century A.D. gives mute testimony to the civilization that once thrived there.
Among Roman ruins in Jordan, however, Jerash is the crown jewel. Grooves in the ancient paving stones of the cardo, worn by chariot wheels, are clearly visible. An entire city is outlined in stone remains, giving the visitor a sense of the magnitude of commerce and community life the ancients knew there. Like many other such cities, it was so devastated by a great earthquake in 747 A.D. that it was never rebuilt.
But for sheer awe-inspiring beauty, Petra stands alone. In my mind, it occupies a place where the sublime beauty of God’s creation and the sublime accomplishments of human effort intersect. Solid sandstone mounts of varied rose-colored hues are streaked with unique geologic formations and form a wilderness of innumerable passageways. Of these, the most famous knives its way through the towering stone for a mile to emerge opposite a columned building facade carved into the face of the sandstone bluff. Although the elements of weather and the destruction of vandals have dulled the intricate carvings, it remains one of the most impressive of human endeavors.
Although called the Treas-ury because the crowning orb was thought by Bedouins to contain gold, it was carved into the solid rock as tombs. And by no means is the Treasury alone. Impressive rock carvings and tombs, a few rivaling the Treasury’s size, stretch for three miles or more along the passageway (called a siq) and into the valley beyond. Petra is one of the truly remarkable places on earth and is deserving of being included in the new list of the world’s seven wonders.
Jim White ([email protected]) is executive editor of the Religious Herald.
Photo: Jim White