My first sign that I was approaching somewhere special was the sound of crushing water bottles as the van descended in elevation.
“Isn’t this exciting?” our enthusiastic and energetic guide, Rustom Mkhjian, said as I stepped onto the desert sand from the van. “You are welcomed to the Bethany Beyond the Jordan. It is the lowest point on Earth and the closest to heaven.”
Since Mkhjian has worked to excavate the site for the past 13 years, he was proud to explain how the passages from the Bible and other historic texts perfectly matched up with archaeological discoveries. He then led the way to the excavated chapels, baptismal areas and monastery that were built in the Byzantine era to commemorate the hallowed site. At a small cave where it is believed John lived, I tried to wrap my brain around my nearness to such holiness.
“It’s good to be in physical contact with what happened in the Bible,” said Mkhjian. “This place has a message of love and peace. That’s what we want to preach here.”
After leaving the river, I beheld one of the sources used for discovering Bethany Beyond the Jordan: the mosaic map of the Holy Land in St. George Greek Orthodox Church. Created in the sixth century, it is the oldest map of the Holy Land yet discovered.
“Why a map in the church?” asked Jayousi. “Some people believe it was for those who couldn’t travel to feel close to the Holy Land. Some think it was to record the sites of the Holy Land. Whatever the reason, this mosaic is a masterpiece.”
Only one-third of the original mosaic remains, but even that amount is still quite extensive. I enjoyed finding lions, swimming fish and religious cities like Jerusalem by examining this ancient treasure.
Once I left the Madaba church, I saw the Holy Land with my own eyes from the top of Mount Nebo. Situated about 2,680 feet above sea level, the mountain overlooks the same panoramic view of the Promised Land that Moses saw before his death.
The Old Testament story about Moses never reaching the Holy Land had always seemed so heartbreaking to me. However, as I stood looking across the Dead Sea to Jerusalem in the distance, the sight felt more hopeful and inspiring than anything else.