Today was an odd mix of contrast and contemplation for us coupled with a bit of pampering. We enjoyed a leisurely morning, there was no need to rush today so we had a late breakfast; all our visits are not too far from the Dead Sea so we could take our time.
First we headed into the Abarim mountains in search of Mount Nebo. Considered a most holy place, this is where Moses was finally granted sight of the Promised Land before his death; it is also said that it is within these lands where he was subsequently buried. As such, the site is of great importance to many faiths.
We drove up into the hills, surrounded by an arid landscape, at first gently sloping but then rising more sharply. Across the hills we spotted Bedouin tents, with makeshift fences securing flocks of sheep and scattered across the hills the shepherd’s did indeed watch their flocks. We wondered how they managed to find grazing, the hills looks so dry and baked, with only the occasional green patch. On and up we continued, passing a long abandoned check point, serving as a reminder of more recent troubles. We passed more tents, more flocks and the occasional camel. It felt like we were a million miles away from the fancy resort hotels beside the sea.
As we drove we spotted dead sheep, a dead horse and the odd dog that would run alongside the car. Shepherd’s, many still only boys and often followed by a donkey, waved and smiled as we drove onwards. It was a thought provoking drive. We have so much. Seriously we take so much for granted. We can’t imagine how hard life must be for some of the people living here on the edge. We talked. I asked Gerry if he felt as guilty as I did. He did.
We arrived at Mount Nebo, almost 1000m high but more if you consider that the Dead Sea is actually 400m below sea level.
The visit isn’t covered by our Jordan Pass because it’s owned and managed by Franciscan’s and not Jordan. There is something just awe inspiring about being in this place, knowing the history and the significance. We had no words really. Regardless of faith, or in spite of faith, the history of this region is just so immense.
We wandered the remains of an ancient monastery and inside a more modern church, which contains amazingly well preserved mosaics dating from the 4th century. Then we just sat and looked out at the view. The Promised Land. It was hazy today but nonetheless… gosh it was pretty special. We also considered how the land will have changed. This was the Promised Land. A land rich in natural resources, with the Jordan river, huge and wide and offering water and fish and life. There were forests and wild animals and everything needed to sustain life. A very different land from the scorched earth we see today.
Our next stop was to be a little known site called Bethany Beyond the Jordan. I knew this place but Gerry said he had no idea and never heard of it. It was here that a man called John lived. John continued the path of faith and the messages from Moses and he began to baptize people in the Jordan River and its surrounding springs. And it was here at Bethany Beyond the Jordan where he baptised Jesus.
So protected and disputed is this place that you can’t visit alone. Indeed we tried, because we didn’t realise. We followed the road but came to a check point where armed soldiers politely told us to turn around and return to the visitors centre. We did. We parked 4km from the site. Our passes and passports were checked. Then we boarded a tourist bus with our guide, an archaeologist who was fabulous and had actually worked on the digs here. The bus took us back through the check point and a little further along to a large car park. Then we walked with our guide to the Baptism site and further still to the river. The actual site of the baptism is no longer fed by the Jordan, or if it is, it’s not a flow but just a trickle of water. The river has been dammed and diverted by Lebanon, Syria and Israel and today the river Jordan no longer flows in the country that bears its name. Instead special concessions have been made so that in this place, at Bethany Beyond Jordan, Jordanians can indeed come and bathe in the River Jordan.
It was quite sobering to discover that we were just a few feet apart from the visitors on the other side of the river, with armed Israeli and Jordanian guards on both sides watching us and each other. A few brave souls donned white robes and submerged their heads into this ancient river, two of our group included.
One person asked the Jordanian soldier if it was Israel across the river and he replied with a shake of his head; it is Palestine he replied… to which a dozen tourists cheered and gave him a thumbs up… and he smiled back at us.
It’s very hard not to consider politics and religion when you’re sat in this place. Its the first day of Lent tomorrow, 40 days of abstinence in recognition of the days Jesus was tempted in the desert. Rather aptly because today we sat, looking across with Jericho in the distance and the Mount of Temptation beyond… but we can’t visit Jericho or the Mount from here because we’re on the wrong side of this divided land.
I, like everyone else had a phone and camera with me. Everyone took photos. I decided to stand away from the group and moved to a little wooden platform away from the group to get a better view for my photos. It was a good move. The others had their phones checked before leaving and had to delete photos which included any guards, my phone stayed out of sight in my back pocket and was ignored.
Rather ironically, the only church we could visit today at Bethany, was a Russian Orthodox Church. Gosh what a thought provoking day.
With our visits over we headed back to the glitz of our resort. Its hot and we felt we really should go and find the sea that we’re here for. We changed into our swimming things and headed down. I’m a bit nervous about dunking my arms.. its been 5 weeks since my operation and I’m sure it’s fine but I decided that I’d test them out with the hotel pool first and if that proved OK I’ll try the salty sea tomorrow.
And so here we are, lounging by the pool, which is heated to a blissful 28c, gazing across at the bougainvillea fence with the Dead Sea and the Judean hills that lay between us and Jerusalem beyond.
Welcome to this very beautiful Holy Land.