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Jordan: Of Sandstone and Sanctuary

Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River at a place a few yards wide. There isn’t much sunlight because the banks are shaded by tamarisk trees. The shallows are lined with grasses. There is little current, and the water isn’t clear. Nothing remarkable meets the eye.

Yet songs have been written about this place for centuries. Popes and kings have made pilgrimages there. Prophets were drawn to it. Today, regardless of one’s beliefs, a fact remains: When John lifted Jesus from this water, the world’s largest faith was born.

This is Bethany Beyond the Jordan, and in May, Pope Francis became the fourth pontiff to visit Jordan to see it. Five months later, a small group of travel planners and I did the same.

The planners came at the invitation of the Jordan Tourism Board (JTB) through a program co-sponsored by this magazine. Royal Jordanian Airlines provided air service for our group.

We began in Jordan’s capital of Amman, where we gathered for an introductory dinner at Sufrah restaurant. Meals in Jordan feature a multitude of appetizers, or mez, including fresh hummus, baba ghanoush and tabbouleh served with naan or pita bread.

After our meal, several of us ventured outside to watch naan being made. The baker throws hand-rolled dough into a fiery pot, and it flattens as it sticks against the walls of the burning urn.

The next morning, our guide for the week, Mahmoud Twaissi, greeted us warmly.

“You bring good luck with you,” he said. “You bring the season’s first rain. Thank you.” Jordan is among the driest countries on earth, and rain is precious.

A resident of Petra, Mahmoud offered us simple lessons in Arabic each morning. We learned “salaam” for “hi,” “yalla” for “let’s go” and “shukran” for “thank you.”

“Our geology here goes from granite to limestone to sandstone,” he said as we traveled to the Greco-Roman ruins at Jerash. “Think of it like layers of a cake. The sandstone is exposed. It is very soft and easily sculpted.”


Jerash  (Luke 8:26)

A trip to Jerash begins with Hadrian’s Gate. Like other structures there, the massive entryway was built around A.D. 130 during Roman rule. The gate features three arches. The larger one in the middle was for chariots and horses; pedestrians used the outer two.

A large hippodrome with stadium seating for chariot races loomed to our left.

“Historians believe there were around 15,000 seats here during that time, and they estimate that Jerash had 40,000 inhabitants rule in the second century A.D.,” said Mahmoud.

Jerash’s ornate theater has seating sections like ours today marked by Roman numerals still visible that indicated who was to sit where based on rank. Actors entered from elaborate backstage doors recessed into the stage.

“There is much yet to be uncovered here,” said Mahmoud. “Universities are excavating walls surrounding the city now. There are many houses to be uncovered on those hillsides east of the city.

“Three churches sit side by side here and date to the sixth century A.D.,” he said on an ancient street. “The height of the columns facing the street indicated the importance of the building they fronted.”

Travel planner Mike Nieland wants his groups to see Jerash.

“Jerash has Greco-Roman ruins that are comparable to any you’ll see in Turkey or Greece doing the footsteps of Paul,” said Nieland, who owns Blue Marble Journeys in Ankeny, Iowa.

The following day, we drove from Amman to Bethany Beyond the Jordan.

We could see for miles downward toward the Jordan River where the landscape grew greener. The ancient city of Jericho stands on the opposite shore. This was one of several drives we did that offered sweeping vistas and rich colors across the horizon.