On the biblical trail under the Jordanian sun

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Jordan offers sights to delight pilgrims and explorers alike.
“If there’s only one nation in the sky, shouldn’t all passports be valid for it?” The answer to this question posed by Yann Martel in his bestselling novel Life of Pi came to us from our Jordanian tour guide Salah. Proudly sporting a shirt that says, ‘No use for a Name.’ Salahuddin aka Salah is a testament to Jordan’s reputation as a harmonious melting pot of religions and cultures. He tells us that his father is a Muslim, while his grandfather, a Jew.

Armed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of this region’s religious history, he has his work cut out for him – taking us nine scribes on a four-day whirlwind tour through some of Jordan’s most revered Biblical sites, culminating in a Mass presided over by Pope Francis at the Amman International Stadium. The first leg of our journey kicked off in Mount Nebo, about 50 km from Amman, the capital of Jordan.

This is the place, according to the Bible, where Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land but which he would never enter. Moses is said to have been buried here as well, and there’s a plaque dedicated to his memory at the entrance to the mountain. The vantage point at the summit overlooks the Holy Land to the north, and the view from here is breathtaking, to say the least.

Mount Nebo is also home to the Brazen Serpent Monument, a serpentine cross sculpture which bears an uncanny resemblance to Caduceus, a staff carried by Hermes in Greek mythology, which erroneously ended up becoming the symbol of modern day medical practitioners. It was here while discussing the iconography of the region that our ears perked up to the sounds of a familiar tongue, not too far from where we stood.

As it turned out, it was a congregation of about 25 Malayali Christians from a church in Kochi, led by their church pastor listening attentively to their tour guide describing the religious significance of the region.

Our next stop for the day was Madaba, known the world over as the City of Mosaics. One of the most important sites here is the Roman Orthodox Church, which houses a large Byzantine era mosaic map of the Holy Land. The mosaic has been instrumental in historians’ understanding of Byzantine Jerusalem, the earliest geographic representation of which is contained in this map. For those who’d like to have a first hand experience of the creative process that goes into the making of these exquisite works of mosaic art, there’s The Institute of Mosaic Art and Restoration, which is just a stone’s throw from the Madaba Archaeological Park.

The next destination on our itinerary was one of immense historical importance - The Baptism Site of Jesus Christ at Bethany beyond the Jordan, a relatively new discovery in the annals of biblical archaeology. Excavations began here just around 1996.

It is one of the three holiest sites of Christianity along with Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

As we headed from St John the Baptist’s Church to the river Jordan, we found ourselves in the midst of a surreal setting. Sitting on the Jordan’s bank, we gazed at the Israeli side of the river, where a group of Christian pilgrims from Korea with a priest in tow were cheering a young man getting baptised. In a way, it set the scene for the following day when we saw Pope Francis arrive at the stadium to a rousing welcome worthy of a rock star.

Rula Samain, a freelance reporter with The Jordan Times, who attended the Mass, says, “This is what I love about Jordan. We’re multicultural in every sense of the word. Everyone’s free to follow their faith and live their life the way they want, no questions asked.”

On the final day of our journey, we drove to downtown Amman, which in itself is a hotbed of civilisation. The Amman Citadel, a magnificent symbol of the birth of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is the definitive sight to see here, along with the Jordan Archaeological Museum, built within the expanse of the Citadel and the Roman theatre. Driving back to the airport, it dawned on us that we had barely scratched the surface of this land, for there is so much more to see, hear, taste and experience.

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By Bijoy Bharathan