Monday, February 13, 2012

Jordan Challenge 25: Visit a Biblical Site (or Two)

In one sense, it’s hard not to be a Biblical tourist in Jordan because parts of the country have been travelled by lots of the Old Testament prophets and by Jesus and his disciples in the New Testament. But I did want to make more of a concerted effort to deliberately go to two fairly prominent destinations of Christian Pilgrims who come to the area, and given that they are less than an hour’s drive from each other, it made sense to combine the trips. Happily, my friend and fellow Fulbrighter Elizabeth K. (not to be confused with Elizabeth R. who is off doing the Indiana Jones thing at an archeological dig at the Dead Sea), also had this trip high on her own to-do list. In no time at all we recruited two other friends, Christina and Ben and -- taxi nicely filled to capacity – we were on our way.

Our first destination was Mount Nebo – not much as mountains go, measuring in at a whopping 800 meters high, but very significant from a Biblical standpoint – according to the book of Deuteronomy, this is the place where God spoke to Moses and showed him the Promised Land that he would never be able to enter. It is also said that Moses climbed back up the mountain to die (a pretty major feat considering that he was 120 years old at the time of his climb), though no one knows the exact spot where he met his end.
Elixabeth K. was clearly once a Girl Scout who took her Be Prepared training seriously.  As soon as we got to Mount Nebo, she whipped out her Bible and read the pertinent passages to those of us, like Ben, who were Not-So Prepared.
In case you were wondering what the Promised Land looks like from the top of Mount Nebo: this is it.
After reading up on the various saints and religious orders that have visited and maintained Mount Nebo over the centuries and taking a look at some impressive mosaics on the floor of the to-be-reconstructed Church on the site, it was time for Phase Two of our religious tour, and we hopped back in Yousef’s cab to make our way to the Bethany Beyond the Jordan tourist center. There we each parted with 12 JD (about $18), which entitled us to a tour guide, an electronic device that narrated our tour when we pointed at spots on a card with our special pointers, and a short ride on a tour bus closer in to the River.
Despite being sorely tempted, I did not buy a t-shirt to commemorate my visit.  But I could have, and that's the reassuring part.
I have to say that if Jesus was to return and feel like chiding us humans on our poor environmental stewardship, the Jordan River would be a good place to start. The songs I learned in Sunday school as a kid said that “the River Jordan is deep and wide” but now it’s neither. Our guide told us that the river used to be 140 meters across – now it’s ten. And it’s incredibly polluted.
Christina, Ben and Elizabeth, standing in front of the muddy-but-no-longer-mighty River Jordan.

One of my all-time favorite non-governmental organizations, Friends of the Earth Middle East,(about which I raved in a blog post last summer) have taken on the monumental challenge of rehabilitating the River and I feel like the rest of us owe them a whole lot of support and gratitude. Despite the environmental issues, it’s hard not to use your imagination and try to think about what it must have been like when John the Baptist was living here and baptizing people in the much cleaner and more plentiful water.
Before the waters receeded so enormously, this used to be the place where religious pilgrims would be baptized... shown in the right side of the fork in the river in this mosaic at the site.

I think one of the most interesting experiences of being a grown-up is seeing things you learned about (and envisioned in your head) when you were a little kid. So far, from what I’ve seen of the Middle East, the mountains are lower and the rivers more shallow than the ones in my mind’s eye. But it’s still an amazing thing to be able to put an actual physical place together with the names and stories I’ve been carrying around in my head since preschool. Just one more reason to be grateful for this opportunity to spend a year in Jordan.
Couldn't resist -- pullution or no, just had to dip my fingers in the first river I ever learned about as a child.

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