Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Today I stood on the mountain where Moses died

I arrived in Jordan late last night, and had no trouble getting my visa (for 10JOD). My Iraqi friend Shahnaz picked me up at the airport with a few friends, and we headed back to her house in Amman.

Clean streets. Bright lights. New cars. Little traffic. A mixture of English and Arabic on the radio. These were my first impressions of Jordan.

After a 9:15 wake-up turned into a 9:45 wake-up, we headed out to pick up another of Shahnaz's friends and then drove off toward a place I had heard of before, but had since quite forgotten - Mount Nebo. According to the Old Testament, Mount Nebo is the place where Moses went to die. And, thus, I stood on the mountain where Moses, bringer of God's law to the Hebrew people, climbed to take his last breaths.

The first church known to be build upon the crest of the mountain was build around 500 A.D., and successive churches have been built on and around the mountain. Franciscan monks have made the sight a memorial to Moses and have excavated incredible examples of early Jordanian Christian mosaics, with inscriptions in both Greek and Palestinian-Aramaic (with the help of Queen Noor, the Jordanian government, and a vast amount of assistance from the Italians). Unfortunately, the church happened to be closed for work while we were there, so we were not able to walk around the ruins of the early church.

From there, we started down a narrow, steep, winding road through the hilly Jordanian countryside toward a place which in English was simply called "Baptismal Place." As we wound our way through the hot desert in the comfortable interior of an air-conditioned Mercedes, before the vast expanse of the Dead Sea came into sight, a thought occurred to me. Looking at the rough, barren landscape around me, coming from the place where Moses died and knowing where we were going next, I realized that I was in a place where Moses had walked probably 3000 years ago. Where Jesus Christ walked 2000 years ago.

After the roads had flattened out and the heat had climbed a few degrees higher, we reached 'Baptismal Place.' We paid our admission and boarded a poorly air-conditioned bus which dropped our small group by a dusty pathway. Our guide soon led us to a view of the Jordan River - a small, greenish waterway that wound through banks of green reeds. A bit farther and the gold-covered dome of some church came into view. Farther still and our guide stopped, for the first time waiting for everyone to catch up. "Here," he said in broken but understandable English, "is where Jesus Christus was baptized by John the Baptist."

And so I stood, looking down at the ruins of stone steps and a hole that had been dug in the earth to show the greenish Jordan; looking at the spot where John the Baptist baptised Jesus Christ 2000 years ago.

In the US, and even in Rome, the places of the Bible are remote in both space and time. Suddenly, I have found myself, physically, right in the middle of Biblical geography.

Of course, the Jordan river is now much smaller that in once was (because of 'dams' in the North or because of the Israeli Occupation, depending on whom you ask) and its waters no longer flow through this spot, necessitating the hole that was dug to show its waters. But, there it is - and in the background, the remains of three successive churches named after John the Baptist and built between 500-600 A.D.

Nearing the end of our walk, we pass the gold dome seen through the trees earlier - it belongs to a 5-year-old Greek Orthodox Church, the most recent monument to John the Baptist. Our guide then leads us down to a platform build over ther edge of the river, with steps built in to allow visitors to touch its waters. Something catches my eye - a crisp, bright, blue and white Israeli flag snapping in the wind, barely 20 yards from where I stand.

"There," our guide points, "is Palestine."

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