3 Religious Sites in Jordan: Mt Nebo, Madaba, Bethany Beyond the Jordan

Mt. Nebo

Mt. Nebo

Everyone knows about Petra in Jordan; it’s the headliner, and for good reason. But Jordan is also home to some very important religious sites. It’s just across the Jordan River from Israel and very much part of the Holy Land.

Mt.Nebo is traditionally believed to be the site where Moses died and was buried. After wandering in the desert for 40 years, he was denied entrance into the Promised Land but he was allowed to look upon it from Mt.Nebo. As the story goes, Moses and the Israelites had been wandering in the desert for many years. It was hard on everyone. There was a great deal of kvetching and little gratitude, faith or loyalty among the Israelites. When he went out to get water for this mob of moaners, Moses was on his last nerve. “Fine,” he said, “we’ll get you your gosh darn water!” He struck a stone three times and water poured out. In that moment, Moses committed at least three sins and his fate was sealed. He failed in his responsibility as leader by losing his temper. He disobeyed the Lord by striking the stone rather than speaking to it as instructed. And, probably worst of all, he failed to properly credit the Lord for the miracle. His punishment was to never set foot in the Promised Land. It seems a harsh penalty. The poor guy left a life of royal luxury and accepted a thankless mission of extreme hardship. Why not give him some latitude, for pity’s sake? On the other hand, he fell short in his assignment of obedience to the Lord and leadership of the Israelites.

view from Mt. Nebo

view from Mt. Nebo

There’s plenty to ponder while standing on Mt.Nebo looking out over the Jordan Valley. If conditions are right, you can see Jericho and beyond to Jerusalem. Remains of a Byzantine church are incorporated into the modern church on site, which houses some very nice mosaics and the soaring serpentine cross sculpture at the edge of the summit seems to hang from the sky. It’s all very moving.

6th-century Holy Land map in Madaba

6th-century Holy Land map in Madaba

Just down the road about 5 miles is Madaba, famous for mosaics. They’re still excavating Byzantine remains all over town. The Basilica of St. George is the main attraction, where you can see the famous 6th-century map of the holy land in a mosaic floor.

the Jordan River at Bethany Beyond the Jordan

the Jordan River at Bethany Beyond the Jordan

possible (likely?) site of the baptism of Jesus, with remains of a Byzantine church

possible (likely?) site of the baptism of Jesus, with remains of a Byzantine church

About a 20 minute drive from Madaba at the very southern end of the Jordan River is Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site widely believed to be where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. There’s very strong archaeological evidence to support that belief. After the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, this border area had to be cleared of mines. Excavations began in 1996 and have uncovered Roman and Byzantine remains of baptismal pools, churches, pilgrim lodgings, hermit caves, a monastery and a prayer hall. This is also believed to be the site from which the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire.

I’m not at all religious but I was affected by the serenity of this place. Just thinking about it now is calming. My secular being has been similarly moved to the core at Mt. Nebo, Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall… Is there some inherent power in these places that is deeper than their associated spiritual traditions? Or does centuries-of-pilgrim-ardor hang so thick that even casual visitors are swept up in it? Or is it just the suggestion of emotional response that makes it so?

While these are interesting questions to consider, perhaps why we respond the way we do is far less important than the response itself. Aspire to faith in experience and acceptance of the unexplained. Ultimately, no matter our system of belief, the source of the feelings inspired by these places is the same for all of us. What differs is how we explain those feelings.

Visit Mt. Nebo, Madaba and Bethany Beyond the Jordan and feel for yourself: www.yallatours.com/jordan

Wadi Rum

 

In southeast Jordan, Wadi Rum is three hundred square miles of protected desert, where you’ll find red sand dunes, mountains, and narrow canyons snaking between sheer towers of granite and sandstone. A small population of Bedouins live much as their ancestors have done for millennia. Tens of thousands of petroglyphs and inscriptions in the wadi are evidence of human habitation going back 12,000 years.

petroglyphs

petroglyphs

Spend a few hours exploring Wadi Rum by 4X4 with a local guide or stay over night, or for several days, sleeping in a Bedouin camp. There are countless opportunities for hiking and rock climbing in this vast, wild place.

Ronen at a Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum.

Ronen at a Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum.

NAME THAT COUNTRY

Shobak is the Arabic name for the 12th century crusader fortress of Montreal. It sprawls across a lonely hilltop in the southwest of the country, the area known as Edom in the Bible. The castle was built in 1115 by King Baldwin I, the first king of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. Like Kerak, its sister fortress to the north, Shobak was built to guard the King’s Highway, an ancient trade route used by crusader armies and pilgrims traveling between Damascus and Egypt. The castle fell to the army of Saladin in 1189 after a 2-year siege.

 

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NAME THAT COUNTRY

The so-called Monastery is just one of the monuments to be seen at the most visited (and most famous) attraction in our mystery country, a fabulously wealthy Nabatean trading city, which flourished from about 200 BCE to 200 CE. It’s well worth the climb to see this rock-cut temple up close, not to mention the gorgeous views.

 

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NAME THAT CITY & COUNTRY

This 2nd-century Roman theater is carved into a hillside in the middle of a lively national capital. Known as Philadelphia when the theater was built, the city was a member of the Decapolis, a group of 10 culturally-similar cities in the eastern Roman Empire. The theater seats 6,000 and is still used for concerts and other performances.

 

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Machaerus Desert Fortress

The fortified mountain palace of Machaerus is infamous as the place where Salome danced for the head of John the Baptist, whom her step father Herod Antipas had imprisoned there for two years.

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. (Matthew 14:1-12)

Machaerus is one of three fortified desert retreats built by Herod the Great (father to Herod Antipas); the others being Masada and Herodium. It’s the only one east of the Jordan river, today in the country of Jordan, 40km south of Madaba, near the village of Mukawir. The stronghold at Machaerus was first built by the Maccabees, the Jewish dynasty that ruled the region for about 100 years before the Roman client-King Herod the Great launched his dynasty in 37 BCE. Machaerus was destroyed by the Romans in 57 BCE and restored by Herod around 30 BCE.

There’s little excavation and restoration and no signage at Machaerus, so bring your imagination and a guide. Aside from the historical context, the serene atmosphere and 180-degree views of the Dead Sea and rugged, deeply etched desert are well worth the climb, especially at sunset. The walk from the parking area to the top looks more daunting than it is. A moderately fit person can do it in 15-20 minutes. Wear sturdy walking shoes, carry water and avoid midday heat.