From Babylon to the Holy Land

After a year of second-guessing our decisions, I can definitively say we recently got one very right: our trip to Jordan over the Christmas and New Year holidays was really, really good.

Winter break is a long one at my kids’ school, with a few extra days’ padding for long-distance travel on either end; on top of this long period, many families take students out early and return them late, basically taking nearly a month off school to go home. Even if we had the funds for airfare to the US, I would probably not take this option. It would fatigue everyone, us and our hosts, at a demanding time of year. We spent the first week “staycationing” around Dubai, and the second week in Jordan.

Our original plan was a week in Turkey; but since we’re in the habit of second-guessing, we did just that and changed our tickets. We flew into Amman, rented a car and stayed at a resort on the Dead Sea. Of course, the chilly weather of the mountains came as a bit of a shock, but we’d stocked up on long sleeves and packed cold-weather clothes, and beside the Dead Sea, it was much milder.

The landscapes were lovely, and everyone was much more relaxed than our day-to-day experience in Dubai. Traffic moved at an easy pace with very little honking and no discernible aggression. Cops at the (many, many) traffic checkpoints were pleasant and polite.

We’re not really the type of family to hole up for a week at a resort, but it served as a cozy home base, where we could relax every night and fuel up with breakfast every morning before heading out on our adventures.

Two awesome kids check out the view of the Promised Land

Our first full day took us to the top of Mount Nebo, where tradition holds that the Maker showed Moses* the promised land, and where some believe Moses may have died and been buried. There is no grave. No bones. But you can stand atop the mountain and look out over the Dead Sea and see all the way to Jerusalem. And it’s incredibly peaceful. There’s a church there, and it’s currently under construction, so the looks weren’t perfect. Until you stepped out to the platform to look over the land as Moses might have.

That afternoon, we visited the Jordan River and the site of Jesus’* baptism by John the Baptist*. This area is politically sensitive, and so visitors are only allowed in guided groups, which are advised to stick close together. Our guide, Ghazi, was outstanding. First, his knowledge of the history of the area, the traditions and collaborated history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, was amazing. Second, based on his presentation of the information, you would be hard-pressed to guess his own faith. Incredibly respectful, and an earnest believer. He helped me understand what John’s baptisms were all about. The whole thing was…spine-tingling.

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There were a few dips in the Dead Sea waters, some mud-slathering, a ride on a camel, and some visits with people my husband needed to see. One such visit included an outing to Umm Qais, the ancient city of Gadara. This, after climbing the heights with a view to Syria, the Golan Heights and Lebanon–including the last checkpoint, where they kept my husband’s passport while we visited the village. Just in case, I suppose.

Noah could have spent days wandering the ruins of Gadara.

The ruins offered more spectacular views of the heights and Lake Tiberias, formerly known as the Sea of Galilee. The whole visit, the wandering up and down the hills, relying on the hospitality of so many local people, felt apt for the season. The sprinkling of churches throughout the area, the visiting Maronite priests at the resort, the cool weather and the heavy presence of so many holy bones was just what our souls needed as an antidote to the hustle-bustle and material focus that is life in Dubai.

Another thought-provoking stop for us was the Cave of the Seven Sleepers, which lies on the outskirts of Amman. For something so revered in Islamic tradition (Surat Al Kahf is a constant reference), it was not made easy to find, and this was further complicated by ongoing road construction and detours, as well as Jordanians’ tendency to give directions by telling you to “keep going straight.” But we found it (after finally asking a woman, after having asked two men for directions), just in time to catch a presentation before the keeper locked up for midday break. The Cave is under supervision, as relic-thieves have in the past stolen things from it.

Taking a few moments with the bones of the Sleepers

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to visit several families in the country, and of course each household presented the national meal, mansaf. The visits were friendly and relaxed, and it was apparent by these examples that in Jordan, family is incredibly important.

Our last day took us up along the borders back to the area of Wadi Shu’aib to the tomb of Prophet Shu’aib*. There is a lovely mosque with a courtyard and gardens, and the tomb is in an adjacent room. A busload of visitors from Syria and Turkey was getting ready to leave as we arrived. We spent a bit of time contemplating the story of this prophet and his people.

It is said in Islamic tradition that it is best not to visit the Dead Sea unless one is weeping or at least remembering the life of Lot* and the demise of the people who refused to listen to the prophets. To me, between the constant visual reminders of not only the prophets but the One who sends them, and the contrast between the peace of those places and steady streams of conflict all around, I could not help but vacillate between the weeping and the remembering.

*Peace and blessings be upon them all.

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4 responses to “From Babylon to the Holy Land

  • sarah - the hedonista

    Lovely post – have bookmarked it for my own trip to Jordan – hopefully this April. It’s nice to read something that is not mainly about Petra.

    • Old Mucker

      Sarah, I highly recommend the baptism site if you can make it there. It’s just so interesting if your guide is good, and something about being in the wilderness of John the Baptist is so thought-provoking. I have this wild-man image of him that I love, and this experience was transporting.

  • Nicole

    Jo, I have to laugh at the Jordanians’ tendency to give directions by ‘just keep going straight.’ Israelis do the same thing…”yashar, yashar, yashar” (straight straight straight!). I guess some Middle Eastern mannerisms cross national boundaries. 🙂

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