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Saturday July 14, 2012

A land out of the Bible

Jordan is a land so rich with historical and religious sites that it’s practically an open-air museum.

A TRIP to Jordan is a journey back in time – to biblical days and the early periods of the Roman and Ottoman empires.

Jordanians claim that their country, which shares the Dead Sea with Israel, is an open-air museum. And it’s hard to dispute this, for it is said that some 800,000 historical sites, big and small, dot this ancient land. Some date back to nearly 12,000 years ago.

In fact, traces of human settlement from the Paleolithic period (90,000BC) have been found. And so, as I moved the hour hand on my wristwatch five hours back to synchronise with the local time, I also mentally time-switched to the days of the Old Testament.

A cruise boat parked near a jetty in the Gulf of Aqaba.

The Jordan Tourism Board lists numerous must-see religious sites for tourists, and there is no lack of historical, cultural and architectural attractions either.

To be in Jordan is to undertake an amazing journey, and I am not just talking about the spectacular desert landscape, the awesome Roman ruins or the warm Jordanian hospitality.

You see, the very notion of setting foot in a place where Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus once roamed is overwhelming. A highlight of my tour was a 45-minute walk along a winding trail shaded by thorny bushes to the very spot at the Jordan River where Jesus, at the age of about 30, was baptised by John the Baptist.

A small signboard outside the King Hussein Talal Convention Centre, perched on the Jordanian shore of the Dead Sea, says simply: “Baptism Site – 14km”. One could easily miss it.

Christians from around the world fly thousands of miles here just to see the humble site that once hosted one of the most significant events that led to the founding of Jesus’ ministry. The trail starts from the Spring of John the Baptist and a little stream (also named after him). Both have dried up at this time of year.

The trail leads to a brand new John the Baptist Church that glitters under the sun and, further down, the Jordan River and the spot where the baptism took place.

Baptism site: Jordanians say this is where Jesus Christ was baptised by John the Baptist.

People may feel disappointed if they expect a mighty river and an awesome site. Yes, I was expecting more myself when I looked out and saw... a mere puddle of water surrounded by stony ruins with broken steps leading up to the old wooden John the Baptist Church. The Jordan River at this spot has shrunk into a stream, and this the Jordanians blame on Israel for “stealing” the water upstream.

It is an on-going dispute between the two neighbours.

There were about 50 people milling at the location that hot afternoon when there was a stir and the cameras started clicking as a few white-robed Palestinian Christians came down from the Palestinian side of the river to be baptised. There was nothing breath-taking about the scene, owing to the condition of the river, but just being here in this spot where Jesus was baptised before going on a 40-day praying and fasting experience was awesome.

It was also in the vicinity of this area near the Dead Sea that Prophet EIijah was believed to have ascended to heaven. Here, too, Jesus gathered his first batch of disciples – Simon, Peter, James and John.

Another must-see location around the Dead Sea is Mt Nebo, the most revered holy site in Jordan where God showed Moses the “promised land” after he had led his people out of Egypt and crossed the Red Sea. Even the late Pope John Paul II, despite his failing health, did not give the spot a miss when he visited Jordan in 2000.

Waters of baptism: Palestinian Christians being baptised at the Jordan River.

The drive up to Mt Nebo is a breeze nowadays. At the viewing point atop the mountain, I could see the lush valley stretching out under the haze of the mid-day sun. There was the Dead Sea on my left, then the Jordan River valley and, to my right, the ancient city of Jericho with its clusters of greyish buildings.

The distant hills of Israel form the hazy skyline beyond the valley, and up the mountain are Bethlehem, Jerusalem and the other ancient cities of Israel. From that vantage point, one fancies one could almost feel the jubilation Moses must have felt as he surveyed the “Promised Land”.

Having spent his last 40 years wandering in the desert leading thousands of whining and complaining people to the very doorstep of the “land of milk and honey”, Moses must have had mixed feelings as he stood on Mt Nebo. Alas, he was not to enter the coveted land. That job was passed on to Joshua.

Moses was said to have been buried here, but his remains were never found. Today, the old Moses Memorial Church and the Serpentine Cross, which is now the symbol of the pharmaceutical industry, stand nearby as mute testaments to another significant event in Christian history.

A short drive away from Mt Nebo is Madaba (or “Medeba” in the Old Testament), which features in narratives relating to the exodus from Egypt, David’s war against the Moabites, Isaiah’s oracle against Moab, and the rebellion of King Mesha of Moab against Israel.

Serpentine cross: This structure was erected in 2000 .

Some of the finest mosaics of early Christianity have been preserved here, including a veritable masterpiece, a 6th century mosaic map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, said to be the oldest of its kind, kept in the old Orthodox Church of St George.

Those interested in the biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah would be excited to know that excavations have found what could be Lot’s Cave, where he hid with his two daughters after fleeing the fiery destruction of the two cities. Lot’s wife, who disobeyed God’s order not to look back at the burning city, was turned into a pillar of salt.

Jordanians believe that this pillar of salt still stands today. The rock formation standing near the Dead Sea in what is now the city of As Salt, about 20km north-west of Amman, is said to be it.

But Jordan is not all about religious relics. Those who like adventure can take a desert ride, either on camels or four-wheel drive jeeps, to soak in the raw beauty of Wadi Rum.

It is the largest and most magnificent of Jordan’s desert landscapes with its clusters of sandstone outcrops, the highest of which, the Jebel Rum, soars to a 1,750m. Wadi Rum, which covers an area of 510sqkm, is the home to some 5,000 Bedouins who still live in the traditional way.

Hercules’s hand at the Citadel of Amman.

The desolate landscape is beautiful and promising, with rock formations jutting out into cloudless blue sky. caves hiding ancient rock drawings and canyons and sand dunes waiting to be explored. The night sky in the desert is great for star-gazing.

Skydiving, hot-air ballooning, rock climbing, mountain trekking, even big bike racing, are the other options.

A 325km-drive south of Amman will take you to the coastal city of Aqaba, at the tip of the Aqaba Gulf which leads to the pristine Red Sea. It’s a nice change from the rose-coloured Wadi Rum and the miles upon miles of deserts in the north. Multi-million dollar resort projects mushroom here along the sandy beach, offering the most luxurious of lifestyles.

Aqaba boasts not only of its association with the Exodus and Moses’ crossing of the Red Sea – recent excavations here reveal what could be the world’s oldest purpose-built church.

However, Aqaba is possibly even more famous for its rich corals and marine life. It is a haven for scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing and sailing.

We took a short cruise in the Gulf of Aqaba, and when the ship stopped to allow for a dip in the sea, I found myself wishing I was a good swimmer!

Being in Jordan is like being caught in a time warp, except one gets to be transported into the past with all the trappings of the 21st century, including a Royal Jordanian Airbus.

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