This is the first point along our trip when we have stayed in the same spot for two consecutive nights—there’s something luxurious about that simple detail. That meant we had fewer miles to cover today, and a less-demanding-than-usual itinerary.
With breakfast finished, we departed at 8:00 AM. An hour on the bus, and we arrived at “Bethany Beyond the Jordan”. Yes, that’s the name on the maps. The tradition of this as the site of Jesus’ baptism is very strong. A short hike from our bus down a brush-surrounded path led us to the Jordan River. Most of us were shocked at what an exaggeration the word “river” is of the current trickle of water. As populations have risen, both Israel and Jordan, along with the Palestinian territories have drawn increasing amounts of water of off the Jordan River as it flows down from the Golan Heights all the way through the valley to the Dead Sea. The result? The flow of the river has been radically reduced, which in turn has led to a further “dying” of the Dead Sea, shrinking annually at an alarming rate. Currently, an international plan is being developed by Jordan, Israel, and Palestine to rescue the Dead Sea by connecting it with the Red Sea. This would be a massive project, with a difficult-to-predict range of environmental consequences. For the moment, it has not proceeded. But it is possible that we may see its beginning within the next year.
While at this site, Dr. Paul shared some thoughts on the ministry of John the Baptist, he of the prophetic call. Hardly a “pleasant pastor”, he came in the mould of Elijah, calling people to repentance in preparation for the coming Kingdom of God. Out of the crowd came Jesus, and once out of the water, the Spirit confirmed (maybe to Jesus alone, maybe to John, maybe to any who had “eyes to see”) that he was indeed the Messiah. This portion of the Jordan River is right on the fringe of the wilderness, which is one part of why it’s believed to be the place of Jesus’ baptism. From this point, he was led by the Spirit more deeply into the deserted places. Charles pointed out that at least one gospel writer uses the Greek verb for “driven out” to describe this leading. This is the same word used to speak of Jesus “driving out” demons. There is a forcefulness and an intensity to it. And the gap between Jesus’ baptism and his public ministry is filled with a solitary, desert experience wrapped in just that sort of intensity. Further down our road, we will visit the Mount of Temptation. I’ll pick up more of this thread at that point.
Another reality of travel within the Holy Land was exposed today at this site. Charles had planned to have us tour the solitary church at this baptism site, an Orthodox Church. Much to his shock, the past two years have seen at least a half dozen more churches begin construction nearby. The site is holy, or it MIGHT be holy. And now we see hands rising up, eager to grab what they can of this place. This is one aspect of the Holy Land that tires my soul a bit. That said, I joined the pilgrim parade today, dipping my feet into the Jordan River for my photo op, and pressing myself to imagine what that biblical scene might have looked and felt like so many years ago.
After a quick tour of the aforementioned Orthodox Church, we headed back towards Amman for a tour of the city’s two primary attractions.
The first was the Citadel, which sits on the highest hill in Amman. The ancient city here, dating back thousands of years, was called Rabbath-Ammon, home to the Old Testament’s Ammonites. Over that time, it has been rebuilt several times over by every successive empire. I confess to visiting this site with few expectations. Not intended as a knock of any kind, we’ve simply seen a couple Citadels already in various cities—I expected little new from this one. Wrong!
Atop the peak is the National Archaeological Museum, which had received barely passing mention. We were given fifteen minutes to browse before heading back down to the bus—wow! Some of the exhibits featured shockingly old artifacts, and best of all, the museum allowed photographs. Most museums here don’t, for fear of flashes doing damage to ancient pieces. This place still insisted on no flashes, but we happily complied. I’ve got pictures (translated “memories”) of ancient skulls and buried skeletons, a tablet with a Moabite peace treaty inscribed on it, and some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, among still more! It was truly remarkable.
The other highlight atop the Citadel was the ruins of an ancient temple of Hercules, built during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD). The remaining pillars had an extraordinary look against the background of modern and not-so-modern Amman. A brief stop at the local Roman theater led us to lunch at an absolutely wonderful BBQ restaurant. It was very traditional Jordanian food, served in a sort of outdoor tent. We ate, drank, and were merry.
And much to our shock, we returned to our hotel by 3:30 PM! With the early return, some are napping, others went exploring, while at least of one of us is updating his journal and doing some email as he watches Lawrence of Arabia on his laptop. (In two days, we’ll be in Wadi Rum, where much of the film was shot. Advised to view it before we arrived, I’m only now “doing my homework”.)
But the rest is sweet, before tomorrow heading down the King’s Highway towards Petra.