I did not expect a wealth of Biblical connects when I visited Jordan in November 2011. But here’s a glimpse of what I chanced upon….
When I first looked out at the mists over the Holy Land of Canaan from Mt. Nebo in Jordan in November 2011, I wondered: is this what Moses saw 3,000 years ago? Can this be where the ancient prophet/ lawgiver was buried, reportedly aged 120, after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, after leading the exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt, across the Red Sea?
|Did I see what Moses saw?|
|All that is visible from Mt. Nebo|
On a clear day, I learn we can look out over the Dead Sea, the Jordan River Valley and the even Judean hills. Perhaps even glimpse the distant domes of Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
No matter that I’m Hindu by birth or an infrequent temple-goer, it steeps into me that I’m bound to a nebulous global past of history/ myth/ religion by my mere presence at Mt. Nebo. I remember making Easter eggs with Lynn, sharing Id biriyani with Muslim friends, tucking into a Navroze feast with Zoroastrian friends. How alike are we all? Are our mind-divides merely socially and politically imposed?
|Moses was buried here|
Minutes before I looked out from Mt. Nebo, I was stunned by a monolithic sculpture created by Vicenzo Bianchi in 2000 at the entrance to Mt. Nebo to mark the late Pope John Paul II’s visit to Mt. Nebo. The Latin phrase from the Bible (Ephesians 4:6) at its base reads: ‘Unus Deus Pater Omnium Super Omnes.’ In translation? ‘One God and Father of all, who is above all.’ That’s in sync with my individual beliefs.
|'One God, and Father of all....'|
Near the viewing point, where the late Pope made his millennial address, stands an intricate bronze cross, over which a serpent intertwines. Our guide Abdul tells us this harks back to when God advised Moses to carry a bronze serpent on a pole to ward off the plague he had sent to kill the Israelites in rebellion. Those who looked up at the serpent were spared their lives. The New Testament looks at the raised serpent as a symbol of the raising of Jesus on the cross, bringing hope to those who looked up at him. Later, of course, we came to recognize this symbol as that of ~ guess what? ~ the pharmaceutical industry.
In the 4th century, a church was erected at Mt. Nebo to commemorate the end of Moses’ life. We learn that some stones that date that far back still exist around the apse in the church. From the 5th and 6th centuries to today, the church grew into a stunning basilica that celebrated brilliant Byzantine mosaics within.
|With Lakshmi Sharath in front of the Serpentine Cross|
Franciscan monks, who ‘purchased’ Mt. Nebo in the 1930s, still have a monastery atop it. They close their gates to visitors an hour before sunset.
Back in Bangalore, I learn that six tombs lie beneath the mosaic-studded floor of the Moses Memorial Church at Mt. Nebo. The earliest of these mosaic remnants is a panel with a braided cross.
|A mosaic from Mt. Nebo's Moses Memorial Church|
Earlier the same day, we had stopped at Madaba, Jordan’s unique ‘city of mozaics’. At its 6th century Byzantine Church of St. George, we found evidence that took our breath away ~ a still extant mosaic floor map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, the earliest religious map in any form recorded in global art history. Probably created between 542 and 570 AD, historians reckon that the map was created for the Christian community of Madaba, a city that then doubled as the seat of the bishop.
|In front of the Greek Orthodox Church, Madaba|
|Inside the Byzantine church of St. George|
Historically, Madaba was conquered by the Persian empire in 614 AD. By the 8th century, the Islamic Umayyad rulers reportedly removed some figurative motifs from the original map. Largely destroyed by an earthquake in 746, Madaba was abandoned. In 1884, while constructing a Greek Orthodox Church at the site of its ancient predecessors, the builders stumbled upon the map. Today, guides seat tourists on benches in front of maps labelled in French, German or English outside the church, narrate its story, then usher them into the church. All the better to preserve it, I suppose.
The population of Madaba is half-Muslim, half-Christian. There’s a laidback feel to the city that reminds me of Bangalore, my own city.
|A detail of the Madaba mosaic floor map|
Composed of over 2 million tesserae or mosaic tiles, the Madaba map currently measures 16 by 5 metres. It encompasses an area from Lebanon in the north to the Nile delta to the south; from the western Mediterranean Sea to the Eastern Desert. Does it have a folding perspective? Not quite. Is it an aerial view? Not entirely. Its 150-odd towns and villages are labeled in Greek. Among the wonders it maps are:
~ the mouth of the Jordan river, where John the Baptist was baptized
~ Jericho, ringed by palms
~ two fishing boats on the Dead Sea
~ Jerusalem, complete with the Damascus Gate, the Lions’ Gate, the Tower of David, and the north-south Cardo Maximus
~ Neapolis, Askalon, Pelusium, Charachmoba: each city detailed, almost street by street
Some of the icons on the map are fascinating. Abdul points out that a deer symbolizes John the Baptist, while a Greek lion stands for the wicked Herod!
Madaba city is a living museum. So much to see. So little time to take it all in. But we are running late. We bypass the Madaba Archaeological Park, the Madaba Museum, the Burnt Church and the Apostles' Church. The modern city, we learn is built on ancient ruins. So, locals often stumble upon ancient mosaics under their houses, garages and even gardens!
We gobble our way through tabbouleh/ baba ghanouj/ hummus and other delicious mezze starters at the Haret Jdoudna (Garden of our Ancestors) complex of a courtyard restaurant and craft complex. Journo-tourists on the run, we dash into a tiny souvenir shop to pick up fridge magnets and other trinkets for folks back home.
|In and out of a Madaba souvenir shop|
En route to the Dead Sea, I think of how much I want to deconstruct crafts stories for my readers back in India. We stop briefly at a rambling craft store. But the goldsmiths and metal workers have left for home by late afternoon.
To offset my disappointment, I listen to Ismath. Smiling, she shares glimpses of her life. She has practiced the mosaic craft for eight-odd years. She originally learnt it during a two year diploma course at the Madaba School for Mosaic Art, inaugurated in 1994 by Queen Noor, the widow of Jordan’s late King Hussein. Its students learn to restore discovered mosaics. Likewise, they interpret and extend the craft with more contemporary interpretations.
|Ismath works on a Tree of Life mosaic|
Ismath, when I meet her, is working on a traditional Tree of Life, a theme/ motif as popular in India as in Jordan. Each of the chips she uses is natural. The greys and blacks stem from volcanic stones; the oranges, red and browns from the brilliant-hued sandstone of Petra. The spectrum spans over 26 hues.
A mosaic piece about a foot square would take Ismath (or Munir/ Saif at tables nearby) about 45 days if they work normal-sized chips with their tweezers, pliers and flour glue. Or even 60 days if they opt for micro-chips.
It would sell for about 1700 Jordanian dinar (INR 1,22,400) in the marketplace. Way beyond my budget, I think, as I turn away to seek other wonders.
Yes, the Jordanian dinar is a strong currency today. We exchange $USD 200 for JD 141.
I think: I’m lucky that I can access more affordable handicrafts in India.
BETHANY BEYOND THE JORDAN
One morning, we are told we are going to visit the spot where John the Baptist baptized Jesus Christ in the river Jordan. Really? I waited with bated breath for the plot to unravel.
Have folks in the area always known where the original site was? Not really, by all local accounts. In 1994, a Jordan-Israel peace pact paved the way for a significant Middle East peace treaty. Two years later, historians confirmed that they had found the original baptismal site of Jesus Christ.
|John the Baptist church|
The site, between Tall Mar Elias (in Arabic) and the John the Baptist church on the east bank of the Jordan, is where stories abound. Elijah is said to have ascended to heaven in a whirlwind of fire from here. Perhaps that triggered John’s decision to base his mission at the same location. For, like the earlier prophet, John confronted the religious ‘laxity’ of his time. That’s besides announcing that a Messiah was imminent.
According to the Bible (John 10.40), after being threatened with stoning in Jerusalem, ‘Jesus went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days.’
Baptized by John, anointed by God, it was from Bethany that Jesus Christ launched his public ministry at the age of 30. His first disciples ~ Simon, Peter, Andrew, Philip and Nathaniel ~ first gathered around him here. The evidence? Architectural remains, pottery, coins and stone objects confirm that this site was used as a human settlement early in 1 A.D., when Jesus and John lived.
|A 2nd or 3rd century prayer hall at Bethany|
|A stone plaque about the chapels of the Jordan river|
|Steps lead into a chapel under another chapel|
Additional sites around confirm this evidence. Such as the three chapels built by the Byzantines, 50 yards from the baptism site. The earliest of the three is on stilts, to allow for the seasonal flooding of the Jordan river. We peer into chambers beneath the existing planks and earthwork, at remains from a solid prayer site from times past. That’s besides the gooseflesh moment of coming across a 2nd or 3rd century ‘prayer hall’ at Bethany.
Across the Jordan river lies Israel. We were dissuaded from taking too many photographs across the river border, as armed soldiers patrol the barbed-wire fenced other bank.
|A baptism on the Israeli side of the Jordan river|
But there was one shot we could not resist ~ when two women of the church in flowing robes came down the Israeli steps to the Jordan river. And there, we witnessed the baptism of a third woman.
It was an act of faith we could not help subscribing to.
THE RIVER JORDAN
As we walk towards the baptism site, we look onto dry grasses, withered vegetation, and a stream that’s almost dry that November. “This is the route by the river Jordan where Moses led those fleeting Egypt,” explains Abdul.
|The river Jordan today|
These thickets, once the pride of Jordan, include tamarisk, willow and Euphrates poplar trees. Walking past, it was hard to imagine that when Jesus lived, the vegetation was so thick that wild animals thronged the green. Lions, tigers, bears, hyenas and jackals were reportedly sighted even by 19th century explorers.
Today, the Jordan winds its way from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea as a small, rather dirty stream. No doubt this owes much to the extensive use of its water resources by both Israel and Jordan. If the course of the river ran straight, it would cover just 96.5 km. But it meanders, so runs through a 209 km. course instead.
SITES OF MORE BIBLICAL LORE
~ According to the Old Testament, it was in the land of Jordan that God first manifested Himself to Man
~ When Cain killed his brother Abel, he was banished ‘east of Eden’ by God. This may refer to the ‘Cities of Refuge,’ east of the Jordan river, where a person who had killed another involuntarily could seek refuge until a fair trial was possible.
~ The lives of Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist and Jesus are interlinked through the ‘Plains of Moab,’ east of the river.
~ Jacob wrestled with the Angel of God here
~ Sodom and Gomorrah were located on the Dead Sea plain, perhaps in the ancient walled cities of Bad ed-Dhra’ and Numeira
~ Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt while leaving Sodom because she looked back, against God’s directive. This was probably in the early or middle Bronze Age, around 2500-1500 BC.
~ Lot’s daughters gave birth to sons whose descendents were the Ammonite and Moabite people, with their kingdoms in central Jordan
~ King David “slew 18,000 Edomites” (Samuel 8.13) in the Valley of Salt, along the Dead Sea’s coastal plain.
~ The King’s Highway in Jordan is the world’s oldest continuously used communication route. Abraham ~ a common patriarch of Jews, Christians and Muslims ~ who passed through northern, central and southern Jordan, would certainly have used this route on his journey from Mesopotamia to Canaan.