As I stood beneath a huge serpentine cross with our small group of Christian journalists at the top of Mount Nebo in Jordan, I almost felt like I was in a dream. Thousands of years ago, Moses had stood in the same place, able to view the Promised Land he would never reach.
A sign tells us the distances to important Biblical places nearby: Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives (46 km), Bethlehem (50 km), Jericho (27 km) and the Sea of Galilee (105 km). This was the land Moses never reached, turning over leadership of the Hebrew people to Joshua.
It’s believed Moses is buried near this site on Mount Nebo. A church was built here in the fourth century, and its mosaic floors have been preserved.
Mount Nebo is only one of a number of Biblical sites in Jordan, a predominantly Muslim country with a small but influential Christian minority. Our group was able to visit not only the site where Jesus was baptized at the Jordan River, but the ruins of many early Christian churches and places that Jesus visited in what was then called the Decapolis.
In northern Jordan, close to the Syrian border, is Umm Qays, which overlooks the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee. It is part of the story of the Gadarene swine, told in the Gospel of Matthew (8:28-34). The residents of what was then called Gadara asked Jesus to leave the area after he cast demons out of two men who were possessed. The demons entered a herd of swine, which went off a steep bank into the water. We saw at Gadara how Christians in the fourth century used Roman ruins to build a church where Jesus is said to have performed the miracle of the swine.
In Rihab, also in northern Jordan near the Syrian border, is thought to be one of the earliest Christian churches in the world, dating back to the first century. It has been found underneath the remains of St. George Church, which itself dates back to 230 CE. Abdul Qader al-Husan, head of Jordan’s Rihab Centre for Archeological Studies, believes the first-century church sheltered early Christians who fled Jerusalem after the Romans crushed the Jewish rebellion in 70 CE.
In Rihab are the remains of at least a dozen churches. Jesus and the Virgin Mary are believed to have passed through the area.
At Anjara, also in northern Jordan, we met Father Hugo, an Argentine Roman Catholic priest who served at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Mountain, a place where Jesus and Mary were said to have rested on their journey through the Decapolis. Fr. Hugo says there are 1,000 Christians in Anjara, a town of 20,000, and ministry is demanding. He visits prisons regularly and runs a school for 36 students, a third of them orphans.
There are biblical connections everywhere that we travel in Jordan. The Jordan Valley has small villages, agriculture, olive groves and wildflowers, along with ancient ruins.
Going south toward the Gulf of Aqaba, we got off the highway to view Mukawir, the stark hilltop fortress where John the Baptist was imprisoned during the reign of Herod Antipas. It was here that Salome did her famous dance for John’s head. The terrain here is barren, like much of Jordan outside the lush Jordan Valley. We saw shepherds with tents in the fields as they watched over flocks of sheep, as they have done for thousands of years.
No visit to Jordan would be complete without a trip to what is often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world – the ancient city of Petra. Nabataean Arabs ran a commercial empire, with Petra as its capital, from the sixth century BCE until 100 CE, when the Romans assumed control.
After many years of being uninhabited, Petra was rediscovered by a Swiss explorer in the 19th century. The city is a fascinating trip into the past. There is stunning architecture, such as the famous “treasury,” which was used in the filming of the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Visitors to Petra travel on foot or by horse down a gradual slope surrounded by high cliffs. The art and architecture are a blend of Roman, Greek, Mesopotamian and Egyptian styles, a reflection of Petra’s status as an advanced civilization at the height of its remarkable independent existence.
As with many ancient sites, there are remains of the early Christian church in Petra, a reminder that Jordan was the home of many of the first Christians who fled Judea and Palestine.
As well as being the first place of refuge for Christians in the first century, Jordan was also the first place for Muslim expansion beyond the Arabian Peninsula many centuries later. Muslim pilgrims look to Jordan as the place where some of the Prophet Mohammad’s followers died and were buried as martyrs for their faith.