Close to heaven
Although I saw only sand and the occasional shepherd tending his flock, I knew I was approaching somewhere special when I heard the sound of water bottles collapsing from my drop in elevation. Bethany Beyond the Jordan is one of the lowest points on earth, but it’s close to heaven, since it is believed that John baptized Jesus there.
“Isn’t this exciting?” asked our enthusiastic and energetic guide, Rustom Mkhjian, as we started walking toward the archaeological site. “It is good to be in physical contact with what happened in the Bible. This site is very much like how it was during the time of Jesus. That is one thing we take care to protect.”
Mkhjian guided me past the site’s excavated chapels, baptismal areas and monastery while explaining the various sources he studied for 13 years to determine that Bethany Beyond the Jordan was indeed the site where Jesus was baptized.
Left mostly untouched by development, the site still has plants mentioned in the Bible that John the Baptist would have eaten. The wilderness surroundings made me feel like I had stepped straight into pages from the Bible.
The muddy waters of the Jordan River slowly rolled by, making it a perfect place for reflection. I sat beside its historic banks listening to the wind move through the reeds, remembering the prophets who had crossed there.
After leaving the baptism site, I saw the same view Moses beheld atop Mount Nebo. The mountain marks the place where Moses saw the Holy Land. Franciscan monks have kept up the site since 1933 by erecting monuments and churches on the mountain.
“When you are talking about Moses, you are talking about 3,200 years ago,” said Jayousi. “Many biblical events happened in Jordan. Reading the Bible makes more sense after coming here.”
I could not believe how far the stunning view extended. With one look, I could take in the Dead Sea and Jerusalem in the distance.
Lost in Petra
Petra was designed with the idea of anticipation. I walked the same route as ancient trade caravans down a long, windy slot canyon called the siq. Along the way, I spent most of my time looking up at the canyon’s swirling colors and occasional carvings in its walls.
Finally a light appeared between the canyon walls, and I spotted the gorgeous facade of the Treasury, shining from the sun’s rays. Built as an elaborate tomb, the monument marks the entrance to the vast city of Petra.
“The location of this monument is significant,” said Jayousi. “I call this idea ‘shock and awe.’ You exit the canyon and encounter this beautiful facade. In Petra, we have 18 natural colors. Sometimes, they look too amazing to be natural, but they are.”
Because of a legend that said the site contained buried treasure, Petra remained purposefully hidden from the world until 1812, when an archaeologist discovered the lost city. Around 2,000 years ago, the mysterious Nabateans carved the 840 registered monuments of Petra, including the amphitheater, Main Street and numerous tomb facades filling Petra’s rock walls.
While marveling at each ancient monument, I climbed up 800 or so steps to see the Monastery. This elaborate tomb impressed me even more than the others with its remoteness at the top of a mountain.
That evening, I sat down to a traditional Jordanian dinner cooked by myself (with a lot of help, of course) at Petra Kitchen. Petra Kitchen teaches visitors local recipes, such as oven-roasted chicken and lentil soup, to take back home with them.
The next day, I left the wondrous United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site to explore the wild Wadi Rum desert. A jeep ride enabled me to see the desert’s colossal rock formations up close with periodic stops to walk on the sand. At sunset, I sat on one of those formations to admire the desert’s changing hues as the sun moved behind the horizon.
Afterward, I arrived at my group’s private campground, whose draped cloth walls resembled traditional Bedouin tents. The camp had private rooms, bathrooms and a traditional Bedouin dinner from meat that had been cooked while buried under the sand.
After I ate more than my fill, the local staff started singing lovely Arabic songs that became livelier as they went on. I gladly joined in the fun as campers were invited to take part in their jovial dance around the fire.
Yet the night sky proved one of the most impressive things about the desert. Stars lit up the sky in a dazzling display that made the Milky Way seem just beyond my grasp.
In the morning I went from a desert landscape to the very blue Red Sea in Aqaba. On my snorkeling excursion to this seawater inlet, I saw colorful butterfly fish, angelfish, puffer fish and many other underwater creatures swimming all around me. I floated past the scenic coral reefs without the need of a life jacket, since the Red Sea has such a high salt content.
The abundant life there contrasted greatly with my next stop at the Dead Sea’s Movenpick Resort. The 27 percent salt content of the Dead Sea keeps most marine life from its waters yet makes a perfect place for skin treatments.
After bobbing up and down like a cork in the salty Dead Sea water, I covered my skin with its healing mud. Although I felt a little skeptical while lathering on mud, when I washed it off, my skin was baby smooth.
“Here, you are breathing in extra oxygen, which makes you more relaxed,” said Nayef H. Al-fayez, managing director of the Jordan Tourism Board. “The air, water and mud can help for cosmetic reasons and for treatment. It is the largest natural spa on earth.”
While absorbing the calming properties of the Dead Sea, I thought how amazing it is that this small corner of the world has so many precious natural and historic sites. I remain thankful for the peace in Jordan that has allowed people like me to visit this country’s vast treasures.
Jordan Tourism Board