Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Dead Sea and The River Jordan

My stories are a day behind…yesterday was another great day of site seeing! My colleague Muna and her husband took me down into the Jordan Valley to the River Jordan and the Dead Sea (the lowest spot on earth – about 1200 feet below sea level). What an amazing place! In only 40 miles we descend from Amman (about 3000 feet above sea level) into the Jordan Valley which is part of the Great Rift Valley that goes all the way to East Africa! I’ve now been in the Great Rift Valley on 2 continents!

During that drive down we were stopped by 3 military check points, interestingly coming back into Amman from the Valley, there were no check points! It seems that it’s very important to check the people leaving Amman heading towards Israel and the Occupied Territories of Palestine, but not very important to check who is coming back to Amman! One check point gave us a very hard time because the vehicle didn’t have a fire extinguisher inside.

We first went somewhere where I never thought I’d be, nor did I think I had the interest to be, but it turns out it’s quite an amazing place… Bethany Beyond the Jordan, or Al-Maghatas, translated from Arabic as ‘Baptism Site’. This UNESCO World Heritage site, along the River Jordan, has been identified by archaeologists as the places where John the Baptist preached, where Jesus was baptized by John, and where the first 5 apostles met.

For a place of such religious and historical importance, it’s amazingly simple. Actually the Jordanian military uses much of the surrounding land as a training facility. Personal cars are not allowed in the site. We hopped on the tour bus which took us to a drop off near the river. From there we walked through the thickets towards the river. I was definitely expecting a wild and raging river and instead got a very calm, trickling little stream! Much of the River Jordan is being diverted to provide water to Jordan and Israel. The actual “proposed” site of baptism is mostly dried up now, but there are still preserved remains of the original mosaics and stones that were once the churches that marked the site. I am not a religious person, but the historical significance of this site is pretty powerful.

At a separate point on the river, only about 200m away, is a brand new Greek Orthodox Church sitting on one of the only remaining non-militarized areas left of the River Jordan. Here you can actually touch the water. Literally 10 feet across the calm, little river (which is the countries border) is Palestine with a rival Israeli baptism complex. Other than military, there were no people over there.

Our tour group was a very interesting mix of a non-religious American (me!), two non-religious Muslims (my friends), a group of young Jordanians (religious affiliation unknown), and a group of Spanish “Pilgrims”. The pilgrims by far were the most interesting to observe, for them this was a very meaningful experience culminating in their being able to put their feet in the River and collect the “holy” water. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but they were all very animated and excited to be there. It was quite fun to see!

From here we traveled the 15km to the Dead Sea. The day was very hazy so I wasn’t able to see the mountains of Israel on the other side, but I hear they are a sight to behold. The sea itself is quite blue and since it is about 10 times more salty than the oceans, nothing lives in it or near it. It is a stark contrast of bright blue water with brown desert mud and salt formations.

Here in the Jordan Valley I also saw my first Bedouin families - with camels even! Very exciting! More pictures posted here!

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