The Other Holy Land

I recently traveled to the Middle East at the invitation of the Jordanian Tourist Board. In return, I promised to write a story detailing all Jordan has to offer and encouraging our readers to consider Jordan when planning their upcoming vacations. It was not a hard assignment. This land is full of biblical history, sacred sites and wonderfully kind, peace-loving people.

The middle of the desert
While you probably know that Jordan is located in the Middle East, you may not know that it is bordered by some of the world’s most … ahem … “interesting” countries: Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. (Don’t worry: You don’t have to go anywhere near the Iraqi border in order to see some truly spectacular sites.)

Three seas also form part of Jordan’s borders. They include the Red Sea, the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee.
Did you know that Jordan is only the size of Virginia but has four distinct climates? Amman, the capital city, is 2,400 feet above sea level, but the area around the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth.

Balm of Gilead
Gilead, a forest-filled area located east of the River Jordan, was the one of the first places we visited and the scene of the battle between Gideon and the Midianites. It was also the home of the prophet Elijah.

Gilead is probably best known for the “balm of Gilead” which is mentioned in the Bible. Nobody knows for sure what that is, but they think it’s something that comes from a plant in this region. When Joseph was sold into slavery, the Ishmaelites who bought him were from Gilead, and they were carrying spices, balm and myrrh (Genesis 37:25).
We crossed the Jabbok River, which is near where Jacob wrestled with the Angel and where David sought refuge during his son Absalom’s rebellion.

Next we saw the infamous hill where Jesus cast a legion of demons out of a man and sent them into a herd of swine. The pigs then threw themselves off a cliff and drowned in the sea (Mark 5:9).

The Promised Land
You might remember Mt. Nebo, another location in Jordan, as a bittersweet destination for Moses. Mt. Nebo is where he arrived after his 40-year journey in the wilderness with the children of Israel. It is where he was finally able to view the Promised Land, but he died before stepping foot on it. 

Often we make jokes about the Israelites being lost for 40 years, but when I saw how vast this desert is, I realized how it easy it would be to stay lost. I’m pretty sure I never would have survived!

The Rock
The ancient city of Petra, which means “rock,” is entirely carved out of high, rose-colored rocks. Called one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and featured in the first “Indiana Jones” film, this city was built in the first century BC. The site remained unknown to the Western world until 1812 when it was discovered by a Swiss archeologist.

Our tour guide said that only about five percent of it has been restored; the rest is original. According to Arab tradition, Petra is the spot where Moses struck a rock with his staff and water came forth, and it’s also where Moses’ brother, Aaron, is buried.

Tall cavernous cliffs kept the city – home to 40,000 people – hidden from possible invasions. A few miles in through the rock, you reach this magnificent building called the Treasury, although it is thought to be a burial place for kings.

God’s masterpiece
Wadi Rum, located in southwest Jordan, is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. This was the location for the film “Lawrence of Arabia” and was described by T.E. Lawrence as “vast, echoing and god-like.”

First we had lunch in a Bedouin tent. The meal (rice and shish-ka-bobs) was cooked and served by Bedouins, who are a group of nomadic people who usually live in tents.

Afterwards, the Bedouins took us by jeep deep into the desert where we watched the sunset and the moon rise above the Arabian Desert. It was spectacular.

The lowest one can go
At 1,378 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth. As we drove down to this sea from the mountains surrounding Amman, I could feel my ears popping.

The Dead Sea is absolutely beautiful. From afar, it is clear blue tranquility. Up close, it is almost gel-like. As we approached the water from the beach, the sand quickly turned to big, sharp rocks. I wished I had brought water shoes, but luckily I had a spa pedicure arranged for shortly after my dip. (Dead Sea spas are all the rage in this region.)

About 20 feet out into the water, you finally get to a drop-off where you can no longer touch bottom. But no worries, the salt content is so high in the Dead Sea that you can’t drown even if you want to. In fact, it is one-third salt. So imagine a glass of water filled a third of the way with salt, and you’d have a miniature Dead Sea!

Lot’s wife
Remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah?

God said he was going to destroy these cities, and Lot’s family was instructed to run for their lives and not look back.

Sadly for Lot, his wife did not obey and was turned into a pillar of salt. In Jordan, there many interesting rock formations, and they’ve named one after this rebellious biblical figure.

Based on the pillar that Jordanians call “Lot’s wife,” I’d have to conclude that she was quite a large woman!

O Little Town of Bethlehem
I had that popular Christmas carol running through my head after visiting the Dead Sea. One of the interesting things about the Dead Sea is that just across the water is Israel. During the day, I had no idea there were even any cities over there because it was so hazy. But when it became dark, I could see the lights of two cities across the Sea. A local told me that these lights were coming from Bethlehem and Jerusalem! What a wonderful surprise!

The Sunrise of Christianity
A highlight of my trip was when our group visited a place described as “The Sunrise of Christianity,” the place of Jesus’ Baptism – the place that inaugurated His earthly Life .

This area, called Bethany beyond the Jordan, was a military site filled with hundreds of landmines up until quite recently. In 1994 Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel, and in 1997 they started archeological studies of this site. They were thrilled with what they found.

Previously it was thought that the place of Jesus’ baptism was in Israel, but many newly-found clues point to this location. Even Pope John Paul declared that this was, indeed, the site of Jesus’ baptism. Israel still disputes this, but most archeologists agree on this Jordanian site.

This is also within walking distance of the spot where Elijah is said to have ascended into heaven.
If you read the very last few sentences in the Old Testament, the prophet Malachi talks about the return of Elijah (Malachi 4: 5).

Then the book of John opens with John the Baptist out in the wilderness, and the priests and Levites ask him if he is Elijah. You know where this wilderness was? The exact spot where Elijah had ascended!

It was no wonder they thought John was Elijah. This is literally a five-minute walk from this area called Bethany “on the other side of the Jordan,” or as it is called today, “Bethany beyond the Jordan.” (John 1:19-28).

Our tour guide told us that the U.S. has given $7 million to preserve these sites, and as he well-noted, it is probably some of the best used funds the U.S. has spent overseas.

As archaeologists have done excavations of these sites, they have found three different churches that were built over the site that is believed to be the place of Jesus’ baptism. The first church was built in the 5th or 6th century AD, so it is very likely that those remembered this exact location.

The River Jordan has since been re-routed, so water does not actually flow at this point anymore, but you can see the remains of steps that led down to the river.

One of the most meaningful moments of my life was when my friend Russ Jones, a seminary grad and a Christian newspaper publisher in Kansas, offered to baptize me. I was actually baptized once before when I was about 12 years old, but I really wanted to be re-baptized to publicly proclaim my faith as an adult.

The water is brown and quite murky, but it was totally worth it. I said a few words about my faith in Jesus and how I believed He had died on the cross to pay the penalty for my sins, had risen from the dead and how I wanted to publicly proclaim Him as my Savior. It was extra special because there was quite a crowd gathered, and I was able to testify of Jesus to Muslims, Asian tourists and even Jordanian and Israeli soldiers who were all within hearing distance.

Salam Alaykum
This Arabic greeting is common in the Middle East among Muslims, Christians and Jews. It means “Peace to you.”
In a part of the world where peace is often a rare commodity, the greeting means all the more.

My experience in Jordan revealed to me a group of people who truly desire what this greeting offers. Jordan is considered the most moderate of the Arab countries and is often referred to as a “big brother to the Middle East.”
While traveling to an Islamic country may seem dangerous to some or showing support for terrorism, I disagree.
One of the best ways we can fight terrorism and incorrect stereotypes is to talk with the perceived enemy and educate ourselves about people we don’t understand.

In doing so, you may just make some new friends, be captivated by a country thousands of miles away and fall in love with the Bible all over again.

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