Jordan’s only sea port and beach resort is the city of Aqaba on the Gulf of Aqaba at the country’s most southern point. Jordan shares the gulf’s northern coast with Israel and Egypt. These waters have been vital for regional trade for millennia and are also known to divers for their clear water, coral reefs and great variety of sea life, including many endemic species. Located within a 2-hour drive from Wadi Rum and Petra, Aqaba is a great spot for a few days of R & R after a full touring itinerary.
These caves are named for the ancient settlement just below. They’re located in the Judean Desert, about a mile from the Dead Sea and about an hour’s drive from Jerusalem. In 1947, a local Bedouin boy found a cache of ancient scrolls in one of the caves while searching for a wayward goat. Subsequent excavations yielded nearly 900 scrolls in 11 caves. Scholars are still studying the manuscripts, many in fragments, today. Some of the scrolls can be seen at the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.
Jews have lived in Morocco for thousands of years, at least since the 6th-century BCE, after the Babylonian Exile of the Jews from Israel. In the 1st century, after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE, many Jews fled to Morocco. Their numbers increased significantly after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, as part of the Spanish Inquisition.
Bethlehem is located in the West Bank, about 6 miles south of Jerusalem in the Judean Mountains. It’s home to one of the largest Arab Christian communities, now about 40% of the population, but once around 85%. It’s a small city of about 25,000, with tourism as the main industry.
Besides being the traditional birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem is the birthplace of King David and the site of the tomb of Rachel. Rachel’s tomb, on the edge of town, attracts Jewish and Muslim pilgrims, but Bethlehem’s star attraction, by far, is the Church of Nativity in Manger Square, in the center of town.
The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
The original church was built upon orders from the Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena around the year 327. The emperor Justinian rebuilt the church a couple hundred years later, and that church still stands, the oldest church still in use in the Holy Land. Beneath the church is a cave believed to be the actual spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. The earliest written accounts of Jesus being born in a cave date from the 2nd century, but the oral tradition is likely much older. Many houses in the area are built up against caves, which were used for storage and animal shelter.
The very spot upon which Jesus was born, according to tradition. This is in a cave under the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.
Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem? Most scholars think not. Two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, place the nativity in Bethlehem, although the details differ. The other two Gospels, Mark and John, don’t address Jesus’ birth at all. According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah would be descended from King David, and David was born and raised in Bethlehem. Accordingly, the prophet Micah foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. It could be that the writers of Matthew and Luke symbolically placed Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem in reference to that prophecy. Journalistic accuracy was not intended or expected.
Personally, I don’t think it matters where exactly Jesus was born, but I do find it interesting to think about the context in which the Gospels were written and their intended audiences. Although they carry an eternal message, the form that message takes tells us a lot about the world of the first Christians. Matthew cites the genealogy of Jesus back through David and ultimately to Abraham. That would have been meaningful to a Jewish audience. Luke’s genealogy goes right back to Adam to encompass all of humanity and he exults the newborn Jesus as savior of the whole world, not only of the Jews. Luke was writing for a Greek, gentile audience.
Getting to Bethlehem is easy, just a short drive from Jerusalem. Tourists pass through an Israeli check-point from Israel to the West Bank Palestinian Territories. Israelis are not allowed to enter, so if you’re on a guided tour, a Palestinian guide will meet you on the other side.
Christmas Eve Midnight Mass is held on December 24-25 at the Roman Catholic St. Catherine’s, next door to the Church of Nativity. Tickets (no charge) are required to attend the service. Christmas is celebrated in Bethlehem on January 6-7 for the Greek, Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Churches and on January 18-19 for the Armenian Orthodox Church.
As our guide Jacob will tell you, Beit She’an (aka Scythopolis) is one of the world’s most extensively excavated Greco-Roman sites. Blessed with fertile land and abundant water, this strategic location at the convergence of the Jordan and Jezreel Valleys has been occupied at least since the 5th millennium BCE and holds remains from Canaanites, Egyptians, Philistines, Israelites, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines in 18 distinct layers. At its peak, as the main Roman Decapolis city, Beit She’an had a population of 40,000.
Birds near Eilat, Israel, photo by Dafna Tal, courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism
Just as Israel has historically been a thoroughfare for human traffic and a meeting point of diverse cultures, it is a superhighway and home for a vast array of birds. 530 species have been recorded.
As a geographical bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa, Israel hosts 500 million migrating birds each spring and fall. Winters in Israel are mild enough that some European and Asian birds winter there instead of traveling all the way to Africa.
A wide range of habitats makes Israel home to numerous year-round, resident species, including European, African and Asian species living on the fringes of their natural habitats.
Cranes in the Hula Valley of northern Israel, photo by Itamar Grinberg, courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism
photo by Dafna Tal, courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism
Any time of year is good for birding but especially November-May, which encompasses both fall and spring migrations and wintering birds. March is best, with spring migration underway, many of the wintering birds still around, and mating season making local birds particularly active and showy.
The prime places to see birds are in the Hula Valley in the north and around Eilat in the far south. Two birding festivals happen each year during migration season, in Eilat in the spring and in the Hula Valley in the fall.
The inland sea pictured above forms part of the border between Israel and Jordan. This sea lies at the lowest elevation on earth, over 1,300 feet below sea level at the surface. Due to a unique mineral content, the sea water and mud are prized for their therapeutic qualities. The extreme salinity of the water makes it very difficult to sink. Bathers bob on the surface effortlessly. Atmospheric conditions here also have health benefits. High levels of oxygen are both invigorating and relaxing. It’s really a magical place. The sea is centrally located and makes an easy stopover between visits to other top tourist attractions. It also makes a good base for visiting a number of tourist sites.
Can you name that body of water?
See below for answers.
This is one of some 800 Bell Caves in the Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park in the central part of our mystery. The caves were chalk mines dug in the 7th-11th centuries, during the country’s Islamic period. Miners would first dig a shaft and then cut blocks out of the soft chalk walls and haul it up through the shaft with ropes. Chalk was used in construction.
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
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
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
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.