Dispatch, Jordan 2: A religious experience

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Travel Weekly's Kenneth Kiesnoski was in Jordan for Jordan Travel Mart 2010. His second dispatch follows.

I was only in Jordan a few days, and time was of the essence and in short supply, but I did want to make sure I saw something of the country apart from the meeting rooms of the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center, as impressive as they are.

Jordan Travel Mart 2010 was informative and enjoyable, but I wanted to get out into “the field” and see some of the country for myself.

Both the Jordan Tourism Board and the folks from USAID’s Siyaha tourism development project were more than happy to oblige.

The tourism board arranged for dashing, knowledgeable and friendly tour guide Ibrahim Abdelhaq to pick me up in his SUV for a short drive over to Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the reputed site of Jesus Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist.

Both the Baptismal Site and nearby Elijah’s Hill — traditionally associated with the biblical account of the Israelite prophet Elijah’s ascent into he

aven — were once inaccessible due to extensive land mining in the area, I’m told.

After Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel, the mines were cleared at the behest of the country’s then-queen, American-born Noor Al Hussein. The sites were more recently made accessible thanks to funding for roads and facilities from, you guessed it, USAID. (Yet another positive example of U.S. tax monies at work promoting tourism in the Middle East.)

In the years since, churches belonging to various Christian denominations have sprung up in the vicinity, the latest being a Coptic Orthodox sanctuary still under construction. About 6% of Jordan’s 6.3 million citizens are Christian; the rest are Sunni Muslim.

I was raised Catholic, although I’m probably best described as “lapsed.” But I’ll admit that even my admittedly secular pulse quickened as Ibrahim and I walked for 15 minutes on paths through desert scrub from the new car park to the eastern shore of the Jordan River.

Actually, when discussing the Jordan, using the term “river” is being generous; it looks like more of a creek, heavily lined with reeds and no more than 12 feet in width.

Ibrahim tells me the river, along with the Dead Sea, is shrinking rapidly. Water in this arid part of the world is scarce and quickly becoming scarcer due to suspected climate change and alleged water-diversion projects on the Israeli side of the border.

The facility the Jordanians have built on their side of the Jordan at the Baptismal site is rustic. Wooden stairs lead down into the muddy river waters (many Christians choose baptism — or rebaptism — by immersion in the shallow waters here). A wooden shelter offers respite from the harsh glare of the sun.

There’s a much grander complex of stone steps and open-air pavilions just across the river. I was surprised, much to my own geographical shame, when Ibrahim informed me that I was looking at Israel, nearly within arm’s reach.

“See the flag?” he said, laughing and pointing to a blue-and-white banner emblazoned with a Star of David fluttering quite obviously in the wind at the top of the opposite hill.

Of course, the lights of not-so-distant Jerusalem are visible after dusk from my hotel, the Movenpick Dead Sea, back by the convention center.

I blush, laugh and turn my attention back to the river, descending the steps to dip a hand in the water. For some reason, I feel compelled to make the sign of the cross and quickly and sloppily do so.

“Once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” I tell Ibrahim with a resigned and somewhat embarrassed chuckle.

We spent a few moments pondering the world-changing event that reputedly occurred more than two millennia ago right where we stood. The surroundings are humble but the feelings evoked are powerful.

Later, I heard that most of my fellow journalists attending Jordan Travel Mart preferred the relatively understated Jordanian side of the Baptismal Site to what looks like overdevelopment on the opposite shore.

As it was the end of the day, Ibrahim and I were alone at the Jordan River, apart from a lone, armed Jordanian border guard. I appreciated having the site to myself.

After a few pensive minutes, we bid goodbye to the guard and headed back to the car. Along the trail, I asked if local Muslims visit the Baptismal Site. After all, I know that Jesus, or Isa, is revered as an Islamic prophet.

Ibrahim said he believed so, and as if in answer, the last two visitors of the day were a Jordanian man and his veiled wife, apparently Muslim. They appeared on the trail and passed us, heading to the river.

“There’s your answer,” Ibrahim said, again with a laugh.

As we got in Ibrahim’s car and headed back to the convention center, I realized Jordan is not only a model of Middle Eastern cooperation with the U.S.; it’s also a model for peaceful cohabitation in the region.

At peace with both its Arab neighbors and Israel, Jordan is also at peace within, a model of stability and respect between a Muslim majority and Christian minority. It’s as Isa advised: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

In my third and final dispatch, I will detail a day spent touring northern Jordan with USAID’s Siyaha project.

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