The Jordan River, looking towards the Orthodox Church of St. John The Baptist
Humanity had its beginnings in Africa, which means that in order for there to be people in the bits of the world that are not Africa, at some stage they had to pass through the narrow corridor we now call the Middle East. Unsurprisingly there are artefacts from every epoch of human history buried beneath Jordanian soil. We saw some of them this morning. There is a hill above Amman called the Citadel of Amman which has been inhabited for at least 10,000 years. There are very visible Roman and Ottoman ruins there, lots of archaeological diggings and the Jordanian Archaeological Museum. As far as exhibition space and facilities go, the JAM might best be described as basic, but it houses some amazing bits of kit. There are some Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance; real ones, not copies. There is the oldest statue ever discovered; and again, the actual statue is sitting there, not a copy of something out the back in an air conditioned vault.
The citadel is one of the high points of Amman, in every sense, so from here it was, literally, downhill all the way. In the space of about 30km we dropped from about 1100 metres above sea level to the Jordan valley about 480 metres below sea level. When we arrived at the site where Jesus was baptised by John, the temperature was in the low 40s. Because the site is in a military reserve, we travelled to it in an approved shuttle and by approved shuttle I mean the back of a truck. Before reaching the sacred site, we stopped to view the Jordan, and I must say Naaman sums it up pretty well. “there are a lot better rivers where I come from.” The Jordan, never a huge river, has been badly depleted by irrigation schemes and is now a narrow polluted muddy creek. At the site where, consensus has it, John worked and Jesus, in obedience, allowed John to minister to him, there is a shallow grey green puddle and the ruins of the 5 churches which have been built on top of the site and on top of one another. The River has changed course since John was here, and floods and earthquakes haven’t been kind to the buildings people have erected to try and preserve that holy moment from so long ago. There is now just an archaeological dig and a temporary wooden roof to keep the sun off the boffins’ heads. A hundred metres walk away there is the Eastern bank of the Jordan, from which we looked into Israel about 5 metres away. We visited the impressive little Orthodox Church of St. John the Baptist, ate some dates from a date palm (about as different from the dates we put in scones back home as a dried apricot is from a fresh one. Exactly as different) and headed south.
I crossed myself with water from the Jordan, and although a dove flapped down from a nearby tree, I was profoundly unmoved by it all. You can’t step into the same river twice, the old saying has it, and the river in which my Lord was immersed disappeared thousands of years ago. Now there is a wooden platform above a creek and Israeli and Jordanian soldiers nursing automatic weapons and glowering nonchalantly at each other across a line someone had arbitrarily drawn on a map. There are shops selling religious tat and coca cola. Not one bit of it spoke to me at any level of the Good News which Jesus was baptised to proclaim.
10km further South Ibraham dropped us off at a hotel – a very nice hotel – on the shores of the Dead Sea. We did the Dead Sea things. We floated uncannily atop the water. I couldn’t swim as my body was too far out of the water to execute any proper strokes. Instead I lay on my back and rowed myself along like a Phoenician trireme. Stately and noble and gracious, I thought I looked. The water looks like hydrochloric acid, and it has probably the strongest taste of anything thing I have ever had in my mouth. We all coated ourselves with the slimy black mud which is scooped from the bottom of the sea, waited until it dried and washed it off by swimming or rather bobbing in the sea once more; It made me feel a) very soft and slightly oily and b) itchy. Supposedly, I am now looking ten years younger, but only I and one other can verify that and the vote is inconclusive.
We had yet another wonderful meal, this time sitting on a broad terrace in the still hot and dry evening air with the flat, still sea before us and the lights of Jerusalem twinkling on the hillside beyond.