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Going Biblical


GOD ALMIGHTY! (Clockwise from far left) Mt Nebo, from where Moses is said to have been shown the promised land;Petra and the Dead Sea - Jordan's most recognised spots - and Bethany beyond the Jordan, where it is said Jesus was baptised

There's more to Jordan than Petra and the Dead Sea. Places mentioned in the Bible are strewn across this ancient land.

"Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him"
(Matthew 3:13)

One of the most important milestones in the life of Jesus, as narrated by the gospels, is undoubtedly his baptism. In fact, it is one of the two certain facts of his life (along with the crucifixion) that scholars point to vis-a-vis the historical Jesus. It is strange therefore that we should be standing at the same spot where more than 2, 000 years ago, one of humanity's most important religious figures stood, breathed and began his public life.

Think Jordan and everyone assumes that you'll be going to Petra, that stunning "pink" city carved in stone in a mountain gorge. Or to one of those plush resorts by the therapeutic Dead Sea - said to be losing water so fast that it will vanish in another 50 years. But really there is another side to this beautiful country. Standing by the Biblicallyimportant river Jordan (reduced to a sluggish stream), with the Israel-occupied Left Bank literally a stone's throw away, you can't help but feel a sense of quiet spiritualism even if you are not usually religious.

Christian pilgrims on Old and New Testament circuits follow certain set trails - through Egypt into the old Palestine (modern Israel). And the baptism site that they usually get to see is one in Israel. We see that site too - but from across the river and wave out to the pilgrims cheerfully, belying the severity of being in a military zone. Jordon has taken some pains to establish the veracity of its site on the eastern (not western) bank of the river as the genuine, historically correct baptism site.

While all the gospels except John mention that Jesus was baptised by the Jordan river; they don't specify a site. John's Gospel, however, mentions that John the Baptist (who baptised Jesus) would baptise people in "Bethany beyond the Jordan" - which, seen from the perspective of Jerusalem, has been held to mean the east bank of the river: Right here in Bethany, Jordan, where we now stand.

There are ruins of ancient basilicas near the baptismal pool, a staircase to the water and remains of the massive pillars that used to hold a church above the site. There are also ruins of monks' caves dating back to the 5th century. These used to be stopovers for pilgrims on ancient trails. The accounts of these pilgrims, excavations and finally pope John Paul's visit in 2000 have been used to establish that this indeed is the authentic baptism site.

The baptism site is surrounded by reeds and dry grass. It must have looked pretty much the same in Jesus' time, is a thought that flashes across my mind even as I walk in an area surprisingly quiet and non-touristy. I dip my feet into the river and feel a little more blessed.

Though this is perhaps the most important of all Biblical sites in this country, it is certainly not the only one. Salah, or Salaheddin Abu Jaffa, as our charming guide is called, is full of anecdotes. He fills us in on all Old and New Testament references, which you can't help but encounter in this country, home to more than 100 sites of Biblical importance. From Abraham to Moses and John the Baptist to Christ, the landscape is littered with spiritual heavyweights.

One of the most important Christian sites in this part of the world is Mt Nebo, the place where Moses apparently died after being given a glimpse of the "promised land". According to the Jewish tradition, God himself buried the prophet here and though efforts have been made to locate the tomb, it has never been found.

From the Dead Sea to Mt Nebo is just a 15-minute drive but the difference in altitude is startling. As the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea is 1, 388 ft below sea level. Mt Nebo, on the other hand, is 2680 ft above sea level. It's a spectacular drive up as we reach the remains of a fourth century church, built to commemorate the place of Moses's death.

Madaba, the "mosaic town" is nearby and full of even more ancient churches. An ancient town dating back to the Neolithic period, this is famous for its Byzantine mosaics, including a stunning though incomplete map of the Christian "Holy land" on the floor of the Greek Orthodox Basilica of Saint George. The map dates back to the sixth century and is made up of two million pieces of coloured stone. We eat lunch in a charming medieval home restored and turned into an al fresco restaurant and then head down to the Dead Sea - to cleanse both body and soul.

You can wrap yourself up in the black slush of the Dead Sea and float on its water with a glass of juice or beer intact. But even as you take in the haze and the salty sides of this incredible lake, you must pause to take in some more Biblical references. This is the geography of those infamous villages Gomorrah and Sodom (sodomy comes from the reference) ostensibly destroyed by a wrathful Old Testament god for their gay populace! This is also the place where the same god turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt for her sinful ways and one of the Biblical sites that you could visit should you be interested is Lot's Cave, where the Old Testament character and his daughters stayed after the wife had been turned into salt.

Nothing prepares you for Petra, the city founded amidst towering rocks, secretive and accessed only by a narrow cleft. It's magnificent and still quite a challenge to walk through from end to end as you take in the carved tombs and the plain homes of the Nabateans, the ancient tribe that made this its stronghold. But on your way to seeing the wonder, you could stop by a nonedescript building to see fresh water gush out of a rock - ostensibly the place where Moses once struck it to get aqua vitae, so elusive in the desert. The fresh taste lingers on in our mouths as we head back into the desert.

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