Baptismal Site, Bethany beyond the Jordan, Dead Sea, Holy Land, Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, Jordan, Mukawir
The following morning, we woke early to take photographs on the shore of the Dead Sea. The hotel had the requisite pots of mud for smearing on oneself before swimming, but neither of us had any intention of either smearing or indeed swimming. The day was looking considerably more stormy than the previous one, which made for a very different set of photographs than those taken on the more southern shores on the way to the hotel.
Following a mostly mediocre hotel breakfast, we set out to see sights. Our return flight was not until ten o’clock that evening, so we were in no rush, and the roads were not busy, apart from occasional roadside camels.
We managed to find petrol at a nearby filling station, a place which showed the importance of using an actual interpreter when writing signs rather than relying on an internet translation. I assume that when accessing a computer network in Arabic, you ‘enter’ with your username and password…
First stop, Bethany beyond the Jordan. Not far from the bridge to Israel, this site is the purported (and there is much Biblical evidence in the guide leaflet to support the assertion) site of the baptism of Christ. It is not possible to tour the site in anything other than a guided group, so we awaited the bus that would carry us to the fabled River Jordan.
Fabled it may indeed be. Overwhelming it certainly isn’t; the river is little more than a greenish-brown stream with the opposite bank within spitting distance. This opposite bank was, the guide informed us, Palestine. And in my book, he was absolutely right, despite the Israeli flags flying over it. The actual site of what is believed to be the baptism pool is firmly on the Jordanian side. It doesn’t look particularly spectacular, but even a complete athiest-agnostic-mythologist like myself felt the weight of history. Or mythology. Or something. The incredibly noisy Korean group ahead of us seemed more to feel the weight of the opportunity to take selfies. TB, being Brazilian and not confined by pointless British ‘decorum’, shushed them in no uncertain terms. Never have I more wished that I weren’t British. (Edit – the Brexit vote a month later would soon surpass this).
By the banks of the river itself, there is a baptismal font (replete with heavily armed guard) and steps down to the water.
It is possible, on purchasing a cotton gown, to swim in the river. We didn’t. On the opposite bank, in occupied Palestine, things are more developed. Dare I say, commercialised. Groups of Christians from all over the world (or at least, from all over the southern states of the USA, from the volume and accenture of their voices) travel to be baptised in the holy, if slightly muddy, water. And there was much wailing and speaking in tongues. And, from me at least, a fair amount of giggling too.
Still, snarkiness and unbelief aside, Bethany beyond the Jordan is quite an incredible place and I would strongly recommend a visit.
Next on our list was Mount Nebo, the mountain top from which god revealed to Moses the extent of all the lands that would belong to his ancestors, thus condemning the region to millennia of internecine struggle. The road between Bethany and Mount Nebo is (much like the selfsame god of the old testament) both awe-inspiring and terrifying.
The hire car was simply not powerful enough to get up some of the hills, resulting in us chugging along in first gear, threatening to stall, at 15 mph with drops of several hundred feet and frequent 180 degree switchbacks every few hundred yards. Exhilarating in a Ferrari, perhaps. Considerably less so in a Kia Picanto.
And when we got there, there wasn’t all that much to see. A monastery that was out of bounds. A dusty, ill-explained exhibition. A flock of very religious Americans. Oh, and the view. Yes. The view did indeed make up for the journey. And the Americans. Even without god telling me that it was my right to claim everything I could see for my ancestors, I could still see why Moses got so excited. And the names on the viewing post – Bethlehem. Jericho. Mount of Olives. They made me really want to explore the Holy Land. Except, y’know, it’s ‘Israel’. One day, perhaps.
As time was running down and TB was getting hangry, we decided against Mukawir. I had been before on my previous visit, and for the sake of the blog, it is worth the side trip if you can get to it. Although it is not far as the crow (or indeed, holy spirit) flies, the topography means it is a two hour round trip from the Dead Sea resorts. A long, narrow, meandering road (unusual for Jordan!) takes you eventually to a stony car park. A further walk up a dusty path and you emerge into the grounds of a ruined castle. On the face of it, not much to see. It is far enough out of the way and the ruins are not spectacular enough for it to be busy. There is no museum. There are no guides. There is not even a guide book. The ruins are little more than a tumble of stones. The view is, however, incredible. The remains of the castle are at the end of a headland towering over the shore of the Dead Sea. And it is the combination of the views, the loneliness and isolation and, of course, the weight of history (again) that make Mukawir special. Mukawir is, you see, also known as Machaerus, the domain of one Herod Antipas and the place where John the Baptist was imprisoned, where Salome danced and where, consequently, the voice that cried out in the wilderness was finally silenced by way of decapitation. Some history.
Instead, we made a beeline (necessary, thanks to the roads) for Madaba, the main town in the area. I had stayed here before, and I knew there was a restaurant catering almost entirely for relatively wealthy tourists that would lift TB’s mood. Madaba was nearly empty. The few people that were on the streets watched us closely as we passed. It had the feel of a Western at high noon. I am certain there was no malice intended, but nevertheless, it was not particularly comfortable. The restaurant, Haret Jdoudna, however, was. It was exactly as I remembered it; a warren of rooms on different levels based around a courtyard. It seemed a pure tourist trap, and I am sure there was an element of this to it, but the few other patrons (it was that awkward time between lunch and dinner) were all better-off locals. The food was very, very good. And cheap (to Dubai eyes). And there was plenty of it. Too much of it, if anything. Still, we had nothing if not time…
As we finally rolled out of Madaba, TB mentioned that is was nice that a little village like Madaba had such a good restaurant. Madaba, it turns out, is the 8th biggest city in Jordan.
Despite the leisurely meal, we made it to the airport with nearly four hours to spare. And yet still contrived to almost miss the plane. How? As we walked past the business lounge, the diminutive hostess mentioned that holders of Gulf-based Mastercards were accorded free entry. As we both possessed the requisite cards, we entered for free. And ate for free. And, in my case, drank rather a lot of Smirnoff Black for free. We arrived at the gate two minutes (literally) before it shut. And yet two hours before the plane took off. Why? An older Emirati lady in business class was feeling unwell. Rather than deplaning and go to hospital, her daughter insisted we wait until she felt better. There was much arguing and to-ing and fro-ing and, amidst increasing hostility from the rest of the passengers, the two women were finally ‘escorted’ from the plane. I will admit to this being the first and hopefully only time I have ever applauded on an aeroplane.
The rest of the journey was a dream. Literally. I can rarely sleep on aeroplanes, but this time, Mr. Smirnoff helped me along just fine.
All in all, Jordan is an incredible place and everyone should go at some point in their lives. Everyone. There is so much to see that a week or more would be ideal. But if you are pressed for time, it is indeed possible to experience the best of it in a weekend.
Wade Ogletree said:
I appreciate the honesty of your account. I’m writing a first-century mystery set in Machaerus, Beyond Jordan, and Jerusalem. I’m jealous of the trip.