The Hashemite Kingdom is dotted with churches for the country was part of the Holy Land, as tales from the Bible live on in Bethany, Madaba and Mount Nebo
Words, photographs and videos: Ambica Gulati
It was surprising to know that Jordan has been home to some of the oldest Christian communities. Since early 1st century AD, after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Christians have been residing in Jordan and make up about four per cent of the population. And most of them follow the path of the Greek Orthodox Church, as we saw in the three holy sites.
St George Church, Madaba
Our trail began from St George Church in Madaba. This houses the oldest mosaic map of the Holy Land. Though a lot has corroded with time, but a lot remains to feast your eyes upon. Most mosaics were created between the fourth and eighth centuries during the Byzantine era. The map in this church was made between 542 and 570 and as you gaze at the floor, you figure out many naturalistic features such as animals, palm trees, fishing. This map was rediscovered in 1894 and shows an area from Lebanon in the north to the Nile Delta in the south and from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Eastern Desert. And at the centre is Jerusalem. This church also houses a souvenir shop and the guide will first take you to the interpretation centre and explain the map before you see the floor in the church. Lighting a candle to take away the darkness within and outside, I gazed at the beautiful scenes from Bible, shown in the multiple works of art on the wall. The chandelier was another eye catcher.
Now that we were introduced to the Holy Land, we headed to Bethany Beyond the Jordan (Al Might’s) and here the mosaic of scene of the baptism of Jesus was excavated after 1994. With the wind rustling in our ears, we sat down gazing at the clear water of the site, this little pond giving life to the stark sands in the area. The River Jordan is nothing but a little stream which separates Israel from Jordan here. But once upon a time, as per some version of the New Testament, this is where John the Baptist preached and performed baptisms. Here he met with a group of priests and Levites sent by the Pharisees to investigate his ministry and baptised Jesus. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was known as Bethabara or house of the ford, place of crossing and even the Madaba Map calls it by this name. Awed and curious, we walked ahead towards the church and eventually sat at the steps by the river. On the other side in Israel, we could see tourists taking a holy bath. Actually we could have all waded through and touched the shores of Israel, but we didn’t have the visa! The beauty of Bethany lies in its silence and the peace.
An elevated ridge, approximately 817 m (2,680 ft) above sea level, this is where Moses got a view of the Promised Land, as mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Crossing a lovely monument, a museum and seeing two mosaics in a covered tent discovered by Bedouins, we walked up to the summit. On a clear day, Jerusalem can be seen from here. Watching the desert stretch into the neighbouring country of Israel, you can actually fall into a reverie at this place. The West Bank city of Jericho is also visible a clear day. Some say Moses was also buried here but the burial place is not specified. Even though Jordan is known for its olives, the tree here is special as Pope John Paul II visited the site during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land and planted this on March 20, 2000. Pope Benedict XVI also visited the site in 2009. We could not enter the Byzantine church and monastery that were discovered in 1933, as they were being restored. But something which the eyes can’t miss is the serpentine cross sculpture (the Brazen Serpent Monument) created by Italian artist Giovanni Fantoni. It symbolizes the bronze serpent created by Moses in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4–9) and the cross upon which Jesus was crucified (John 3:14).
While we saw these sites, Salah our guide told us that there were more churches and sites too, but I guess that would be another time. And maybe next time, we too could bathe in the holy waters of the river Jordan, as these people did on the shores of Israel and we watched from the shores of Jordan.