Sunday, May 25, 2014

Jordan beckons on religious tourists

By Jimoh Babatunde
Jordan holds different experience for different tourists.  The country has long been a destination not only for leisure, but also those interested in biblical and Middle Eastern history.
The kingdom itself is so steeped in histories that to visit Jordan and ignore them is impossible. As part of a team that visited Jordan recently, I discovered that tourist sites like Madaba, Mount Nebo Bethany and Dead Sea apart from having religious significance also happen to be quite beautiful, and at times inspiring, regardless of your beliefs.
The trip South from Amman along the 5,000 year old Kings Highway is one of the most memorable journeys in the holy Land, passing through a string of ancient sites.
The first city to encounter is Madaba, “the City of Mosaics.”  The city is charming, quiet and has an interesting history. Arriving in Madaba, the first point of call was the church of St George which houses the oldest known map of the holy land.
The Madaba mosaic map is considered the oldest known geographic floor mosaic in art history as it is considered a remarkable example of the Byzantine Christian art.
The map, which happens to be a 6th century Byzantine mosaic, was said to have been found while locals were building the church in 1894. The city itself is known for its mosaics, both ancient and modern.
Since its discovery, the mosaic map has been protected by the patriarchate of Jerusalem, which also invited scholars to study and document it.
With two million pieces of coloured stone, the map depicts hills and valleys, villages and towns as far as the Nile Delta. A significant aspects of the map is the inclusion of the areas East of Jordan River and particularly Madaba, although almost part of the map no longer exist today.
It was discovered that the Christian identity of Madaba was and still part of the national identity of Jordan. The belfry of the church of Saint George amongst others and the minarets of the city’s mosques together adorn the skyline of Madaba today.

The journey moved to Mount Nebo, literally minutes from Madaba, whose fame is derived from the Biblical event in Deuteronomy 34, the death of Moses. It is believed to be the very spot where the Prophet Moses viewed the Promised Land in the moments before his death.
It is today the most revered holy site in the country as it was blessed by the Pope in 2000 as one of the sites for Christian pilgrimage. I joined other tourists atop the mountains trying to see as Moses did the vast panorama that encompasses the Jordan Valley.
Due to poor visibility on the day of the visit, it was impossible to see clearly the Dead Sea, Jericho and Jerusalem in the distance.  The Moses Memorial Church at Mount Nebo displays a large number of beautiful mosaics.
Of interest also was the Serpentine Cross, which stands just outside the sanctuary, symbolizing the brass serpent taken by Moses into the desert and the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.
Baptism site of Jesus
Looking at the small and brownish water at the baptism pool, I was forced to ask the Tour Guide if it is true that Jesus Christ was baptized there. Muhammed Kadheer answered in the affirmative that that was the point where John who lived East of the River Jordan opposite Jericho met Jesus and baptized him.
“River Jordan during the time of Jesus was 60m wide, it became 40m wide  when the land was captured  by the Israelis and the water diverted but today, it is just 2m wide.” He said .
The site is Bethany also referred to as the ‘Baptism Site’. It is believed, and some say archaeologically-proven, to be the baptism site of Jesus Christ. This is where John the Baptist is said to have done most of his work and the area has now become a Vatican-sanctified site that pilgrims visit each year.
The area known as “Bethany Beyond the Jordan” has been discovered between the River Jordan and St. Elijah’s Hill. The Jordan River—or River Jordan, as it is commonly called—is one of the most sacred places, both historically and symbolically, for Christians throughout the world.
 Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, and John the Baptist and Jesus Christ all crossed it during their lifetimes, and it is associated with some of the most important events in the Bible.  
The river today is the natural boarder between the state of Israel and Jordan. Stationed on the other side of the river were Israeli soldiers.
One of the focal point of the baptism site is the St. Elijah’s Hill, where it was said that he ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire. Findings from the early 1st century AD is said to have confirmed the site was inhabited during the times of Jesus and John the Baptist.
Moving round the sites, the tour guide was glad to draw attentions to the churches dotting the area now. There are the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church, the Armenian Church, the Coptic Church and the Russian pilgrims’ house. He added that most of the churches organize events at the holy sites  yearly like the Day of Epiphany.

As the night was during nearer, we proceeded to the Dead Sea, which is reported to be the  lowest point on earth lying some 400 meters below sea level. In addition to the historical significance of the "Salt Sea," as it was referred to in the Bible, the Dead Sea is today an important and rich source of minerals essential for agricultural and industrial development, as well as for the treatment of various medical conditions such as psoriasis.
With the reported healing power of the sea,  very early the following morning, I joined other friends to take a deep in the water, that deep became an unforgettable swimming experience, as the high density of the water makes sinking virtually impossible.
The Dead Sea is 75 kilometers long and from 6 to 16 kilometers wide. It is fed by the Jordan River, but it has no outlet. As its name suggests, the Dead Sea is entirely devoid of plant and animal life. This is due to an extremely high content of salt and other minerals—350 grams of salt per kilogram of water, as compared to about 40 grams in the world’s oceans.
This concentration is caused by a rapid rate of evaporation. These natural elements give the waters of the Dead Sea certain curative properties, recognized since the days of Herod the Great over 2000 years ago.