There’s more to Jordan than the Rose City of Petra and this was reiterated spectacularly by Pope Francis last month, when he became the fourth pope to visit the Holy Land: Paul VI visited in 1964, John Paul II in 2000, and Benedict XVI in 2009. The Muslim-majority nation of Jordan — less than 6% of its population is Christian — has 34 biblical sites, five of which have been recognised by The Vatican as Christian pilgrimage sites.
Bethany Beyond the Jordan
Many of the buried treasures are still being excavated, as in ‘Bethany Beyond the Jordan”, where John the Baptist lived and baptised Christ. Along with Jerusalem and Bethlehem it is one of the three holiest sites of Christianity. Excavations began here as recently as 1996, following Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel in 1994. On most days, visitors can spot archaeologists hard at work active digs.
Using some pre-1948 studies and the early pilgrim accounts as reference, archaeologists uncovered an astonishing 21 ancient sites. These include five baptismal pools from the Roman and Byzantine periods; a Byzantine monastery; 11 Byzantine churches (many with mosaics and Greek inscriptions); caves of monks and hermits; and lodgings for pilgrims.
Less than 90 km south of Amman, Madaba has been inhabited for at least 4,500 years, and is mentioned in the Bible as the Moabite town of Medeba. The town is best known for its Mosaic Map of the Holy Lands from before 570 CE, which is part of the 6th century Byzantine St George’s Greek Orthodox Church. The remarkably detailed mosaic map depicts the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon in the north, to Egypt to the south, and from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Arabian Desert in the east.
The mosaic was discovered in 1897 when construction workers stumbled upon the foundations of a 6th century church with a large mosaic floor. Apart from Jerusalem being depicted in exquisite detail in the centre of the map, the mosaic includes the Jordanian towns of Karak and Madaba, where it was made. It displays all the major cities and features in the Holy Land with such remarkable accuracy that archeologists have used it to identify excavations of Biblical sites.
Just a ten minutes drive west of Madaba, Mount Nebo is the final station in Moses’ historic flight from Egypt to the Holy Land. It was here that Moses was given a vision of the Promised Land for the Hebrews at Mount Nebo, where he is also believed to be buried by God himself, though his final resting place is unknown. Islamic belief holds that Musa (Moses) was buried not on the mountain but a few kilometres to the west, somewhere beyond the River Jordan. The mountain became a place of pilgrimage for early Christians from Jerusalem.A small church was built there in the 4th century to commemorate the end of Moses’ life.
(The writer’s trip was sponsored by The Jordan Tourism Board)
SEA WATER SPA
The deep blue of the Dead Sea against the dramatic browns of the Jordan Rift Valley take your breath away, as does the knowledge that you are at the lowest surface on Earth: over 400m (1,312 feet) below sea level.
The super salty water of the Dead Sea is packed with chloride salts. They make the water unusually buoyant – go thigh deep and the sea will throw you up and make it impossible for you to stand on the sea floor.
Lathering on some Dead Sea mud on your body and floating on your back while soaking up the healthy minerals is one of highs of the visit, as is shopping for the wide variety of Dead Sea products and mosaics.
Warning: Do not let the sea water into your eyes, it stings like crazy.