On our way out of Amman, we were bus-toured through the newest and wealthiest part of the city. Many of the homes in that area are worth over $1 000 000 US. Mingled among the homes are a number of embassies from around the globe. The American embassy is especially large, and especially guarded as well. Several blocks away, an even larger embassy is being constructed by Saudi Arabia. Then it was highway time. An hour south on the King’s Highway, the world’s oldest and most continuously used communication route (first mentioned in Genesis 14), would deliver us to Mount Nebo.
A classmate pulled up alongside me today and asked me if I thought of myself as more of a tourist or a pilgrim. His question was tied to a line that Charles has offered up several times: “A tourist goes to the place, but the place goes through the pilgrim.” The implication, of course, is that there are very different ways to travel, particularly with “holy sites”. “Pilgrimage” is not a phrase that Protestants use with much comfort. For some, it’s associated more with Islam and Mecca. In Christian circles, it can certainly seem limited to the Catholics or the Orthodox. Myself, I certainly don’t approach it in the same way that I witness those groups going about it. I’m not kissing anything or rubbing for good luck. I don’t get much from relics, or even icons (though I’m growing to appreciate the latter). Church buildings, even centuries-old ones, at special spots seldom interest me that much. Yet to my friend, I replied, “More tourist than I’d like to be, but with enough pilgrim moments to be impacted heavily.” That led us into a brief but valuable dialog.
Mount Nebo summed up the discussion well. What a staggering thought to stand atop that peak and to gaze over the land of Israel, and to consider Moses standing right there doing just the same! Are you kidding me?! One could read that text and linger in that spot all day. But the crowds don’t allow it. In fact, they hardly allow a clear photo. One must pick up his “pilgrim moment” on the fly. Tuck it away, and bring it out in a later moment. The thing with a trip like this is that my pockets are already fairly full with such moments. And we’re nowhere near done! And that’s fine by me. I’ll stretch my pockets. The view from here allowed us to see the north end of the Dead Sea, Jericho, Qumran, and even Jerusalem with a straining of the eyes. Yes, things are close together over here—close enough to blow any Canadian’s mind!
The area around Nebo has a long and rich heritage of mosaic-making. Numerous sites have been excavated in the area, showing exquisite mosaics which once formed the floors of churches or wealthy homes. Even today, there are schools that teach this art form, to see it continued and promoted. We were given a tour of such a place and walked through the mosaic-making process from beginning to end. I love that kind of stuff! Then, we were deposited in the joined shop and encouraged to “cut loose” with our cash! I bought my first couple souvenirs here.
The city of Madaba (biblical Medeba) was nearby and our next stop. Madeba is known for producing some of the finest Christian mosaic art still seen today. The Madeba map, a large mosaic made in the 6th century and once used to guide ancient pilgrims through the Holy Land, is famous for being the first map of Jerusalem. It’s also renowned for its accuracy of the area, having even guided archaeologists to significant discoveries through the ages. We viewed this mosaic’s remains in the floor of the Madeba Orthodox Church. On the way out of town, we picked up sandwiches to eat on the bus.
A short drive south of Madaba is the awe-inspiring site of Mechaerus (modern Mukawir), where John the Baptist was beheaded after Salome’s infamous dance (Matthew 14). Rebuilt by Herod the Great, it provided decent aerobic activity for the afternoon. Charles referred to it as the “Jordanian Masada”, though admitted that to be a touch of exaggeration. Ironically, we could see Masada across the stunning display of the Dead Sea. Thus far, we’ve had ideal weather nearly everyday, and today was no exception. The skies were clear, making for great views of the landscape beyond the Jordan Valley.
A quick roadside stop let us stretch our legs while enjoying another beautiful view, this time of the Amon Gorge. This is where the Israelites camped before battling and defeating the Amorite King Sihon. From where I stood a half-hour ago, I could see it—once again, I shook my head!
Typing “Amorite” reminded me of something. Our route from Amman to Petra today is taking us through the lands of three ancient kingdoms. Amman belonged to the Ammonites, Madeba is located in what was once the land of the Moabites (think of the story of Ruth), and Petra is found in a place once ruled by the Edomites. These three names pop up in all sorts of Old Testament stories, though they are fuzzy at best for most of us. Today served as notice to me of just how closely packed together this neighbourhood of kingdoms was. As well, a story like Ruth’s, bring another thought to light. She goes with Naomi from Moab to Bethlehem, the return half of a trip her in-laws had made earlier due to famine. In fact, there are numerous stories in Scripture where people moved around due to famine or drought. Today’s drive helped me see that many of the distances in these stories are not that great. Tied to that is the realization that the lines between lands of plenty and lands of famine were often very thin. Oases can be surrounded by desert, and the land of plenty can be right next door to the land of none. In a few hours of driving today, we have gone from green and fertile to “stone deserts” to “sand deserts”. Tomorrow, we’ll explore the former kingdom of the Nabateans, the oh-so-impressive city of Petra.