Pope's Holy Land visit expected to spur Jordan visits

AMMAN, Jordan -- The inclusion of Jordan on Pope John Paul II's Holy Land pilgrimage next March is expected to increase awareness of the country's treasury of sites at which many of the events recounted in the Bible are believed to have taken place.

Among the important places scheduled on the pontiff's pilgrimage are Mount Nebo and Madaba, and during the millennium year, the government of Jordan will begin preparing to open a new site to future visitors and pilgrims: the baptism site of Jesus, located a mile east of the Jordan River and a half-hour drive from Amman in the heart of the Bethany region.

A road that will access the baptism site, 10 minutes off the Amman-Jerusalem road is already under construction. The access road, is expected to be ready by December.

Contracts also have been awarded to prepare the site's infrastructure, which will include a memorial to John the Baptist, a chapel for multifaith worship, a traditional souk or marketplace and a complex water system that will enable visitors to touch the same natural spring water that John the Baptist used during his ministry for baptism.

The core of the site is a natural hill known since the fifth century as "Elijah's Hill." It is thought to be the spot from which the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven on a chariot of fire.

Additional excavations have recently uncovered more than 20 ancient sites in the area between Bethany and the Jordan River.

The pontiff's Holy Land journey will highlight the Memorial to Moses on Mount Nebo, southwest of Amman. It is a significant site for both Christians and Jews, for it was from this balcony that Moses is said to have viewed the promised land.

He is also presumed to have died here, and his tomb is thought to lie beneath a fourth century church, which by the seventh century was a vast Byzantine complex that pilgrims came to see from far and wide.

On site, visitors will see beautiful mosaics and have views across the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea -- on a clear day, all the way to the rooftops of Jerusalem.

On a half-day tour from Amman, clients easily can combine a visit to Mount Nebo with Madaba (a 10-minute drive away), home of one of the world's largest collections of mosaics, many of them still in situ and most at least 1,400 years old.

The star of the mosaic treasury is the map of ancient Palestine in the Greek Orthodox St. George Church, a wonderfully vivid depiction of the sixth century Holy Land, with the walled city of Jerusalem, Jericho and Bethlehem easily identified, as is the River Jordan, where Jesus was baptized. The map was originally made to aid pilgrims in finding their way to the Holy Land.

Other mosaics, such as those in the Church of the Virgin, depict a profusion of flowers, birds and fish; animals and exotic beasts, as well as scenes from mythology and everyday pursuits of hunting, fishing and farming.

More works of the master mosaic workers of Madaba are sited around the center of town, within easy walking distance of each other.

Some 30 miles west of Amman, and north of Madaba, Jordan River digs are being readied for the millennium, with some 20 sites in the Bethany area, where John the Baptist is believed to have lived and been baptized.

Although Jerash, 25 miles north of Amman, is known for its Greco-Roman ruins, clients also will find the vast ancient city has many Christian churches from the Byzantine era, including St. John, which contains beautiful mosaics depicting (among other things) a few Egyptian cities; St. George, said to have been used for worship up to the eighth century, and St. Theodore, known as the Court of the Fountain. The church of SS Comus and Damien contains Jerash's best-preserved mosaic floor.

Northwest of Jerash is the Arab castle of Ajlun, and nearby in the Jordan Valley are sites that are associated with the birthplace of the prophet Elijah, recognized in the scriptures of Christianity's Old and New Testaments, as well as in the Koran of Islam.

Listib, on a hilltop about 2,400 feet above sea level on which biblical scholars believe Elijah lived, will be the site of a ceremonial pilgrimage that is included on the Vatican calendar of the Holy Year 2000.

For information, contact the Jordan Tourism Board North America toll-free at (877) SEE JORDAN (733-5673) or send e-mail to [email protected].

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