Graham Reid | | 4 min read
On this bright morning when a barely visible film of rain evaporates before it hits the dry desert floor, the River Jordan – down the long path past the empty Pepsi stand – is an unremarkable sight.
Today this river – which runs between Israel and Palestine to the west, Jordan to the east, and through the pages of religious history – is little more than a muddy creek about four metres wide.
Just beyond this bend in the river – and over the centuries it has changed course many times – is an even more unedifying site. It's where, according to legend, John baptized Jesus.
But this small backwater is barely damp and only the moist mud, cracking under the flat sun, gives any hint water is ever here at all.
We take a few dull photos and move on through the arid and rocky landscape in this part of Jordan. We didn't know what to expect of the baptism site, but we certainly expected . . . something?
Perhaps we should have taken our cues early when our guide – mandatory in this tetchy borderland – has the battered bus pull over so he can point out a mound in the distance.
“And that, my friends, is the site where the Elijah ascended to Heaven on a chariot of fire” he says with no discernible interest in his subject.
Ironically, he's also our “guard” but if shots are fired the only way he'd take a bullet for us would be because he's too wide and slow to get out of the way.
Still, he repeatedly addresses us as “my friends” in his desultory patter then waddles ahead of us through this ancient land freighted with religious history and metaphors.
Around the small hills are churches of many Christian denominations, each reflecting its origins in the design of cupolas or artwork, and at the baptism site known as Bethabara or Bethany are the ruins of an ancient church. It was here the late Pope John Paul II came in 2000 – commemorated by an unflattering mosaic – and, according to our guide, had the significance of the place explained to him.
I joke perhaps the Pope could have explained it better, but he doesn't laugh.
In more ancient times – and wetter seasons – the River Jordan is more impressive than it appears on this January day. According to Biblical researchers it was around 60 metres wide at the point where today it is the border between Jordan and the West Bank.
Here, the river so narrow I could throw a tennis ball and hit pilgrims on the other side, the difference between Jordan – whose economy relies on tourism and international assistance – and its neighbour is stark.
We few stand on a bare wooden platform, on the opposite bank pilgrims in printed cotton shirts bought from a large new store enter the waters on well constructed stone steps and in the shade of carefully tended palms.
Yet, while a group of pilgrims over there – who look to be from Somalia or Ethiopia – ululate and make joyous cries as they are baptized, there is something so unprepossessing about the Jordanian landscape that is quite moving.
If we believe the ancient texts, it was through this unforgiving landscape – one might even say Godforsaken in places – that prophets and pilgrims walked.
Elijah is an acknowledged figure in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths. Just south of here is the desert wilderness where Jesus, after being baptized by John, wandered for 40 days and was tempted by the Devil.
At nearby Mt Nebo, Moses was shown the Promised Land by God. It would have been the fertile valley watered by this river which must have stood on stark contrast to the bleached-bare rock-strewn hills and valleys he and his followers had trekked through.
When God told Moses he'd never reach the Promised Land in the distance he might have been relieved. At 120 he was probably done with walking through these unforgiving valleys.
Whether you believe any of this is irrelevant. Others do. Millions and millions of them over two millennia.
For some reason, as I dip my hand in the water I instinctively say a short prayer asking someone or something to look after my children.
Later, as we wait for the bus to pick us up we are encouraged to enjoy the cool shade of the gift shop. There are shelves of hideously carved images of the Last Supper (after Leonardo Da Vinci), the Virgin Mary and praying hands “made from genuine olive wood”, wall hangings of crucifixes, a painting of a handsome Christ (“Jesus 90210” I whisper), out of focus postcards of local wildlife . . .
“This is the only shop I've been in where I don't want to buy a single thing,” I say to my wife.
But we'd already bought anyway.
Back in the impressive, gold-domed Greek Orthodox St John the Baptist Church near the border we have admired murals of vivid, Disney-like colour. I've been especially taken with a ragged John the Baptist – bearded and wild-eyed – placing his hand on the forehead of a muscular Christ while halo-wearing faithful look on.
Here Megan bought a little box containing phials of Holy Water, Holy Soil, Holy Oil and Holy Incense which comes with a metal Jesus on an olive wood cross and a DVD. It is certified as “authentic” in six languages.
As the bus wheezes through this parched and scrubby desert – where an opulent hotel is going to be built – I wonder what it must have been like for those ancient souls who wandered this land. And how the heat might have affected their senses.
And if Jesus would shop here for trinkets and cheap memorabilia.
Or would he overturn the tables?