Friday, August 26, 2005

PETRA, Jordan — Enthusiasm flows from Rustom Mkhjian like the stream of holy water his team of archaeologists christened John the Baptist Spring. What’s enlightening about this discovery, hailed as one of the most significant archaeological and religious finds of modern time, is that I am standing in the kingdom of Jordan — in the long-lost settlement of Bethany Beyond the Jordan where John the Baptist converted untold numbers while preparing for the coming and eventual baptism of Jesus Christ.

“Some people still think Jordan is a small town in Montana,” Akel Biltaji, an adviser to King Abdullah II, tells me, “but we share with others the Holy Land.”

Giving his trowel a rest, Mr. Mkhjian, a supervisor of archaeological works for the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, leads me into the shade of John’s recently resurrected grotto on the banks of Jordan River.

He sifts through considerable biblical text and archaeological discourse before pointing to a specific patch of sandy ground at the base of some newly excavated steps.

“There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind, based on religious records and all the supporting evidence we’ve uncovered here, that this is the very spot — right here at the bottom of the steps — where Jesus was baptized,” he says.

That would make this particular excavation — one of more than a dozen within the grotto that reveal arches and walls, marble and mosaic floors — the ruins of Bethabara, a church built about 500 years after Jesus’ death to commemorate His exact baptismal place.

“This site is a child now,” Mr. Mkhjian stresses. “Let our work progress; you will see.”

So why, after all these years, is Bethany Beyond the Jordan and all that has been buried beneath it only seeing the light of day now?

Until the 1994 peace treaty with Israel, Jordan’s military was dug in where this team of archaeologists digs today. From their vantage point along the east bank of the Jordan River — here no wider than Rock Creek in Washington — the soldiers kept a wary eye on Israeli troops posted less than a stone’s throw away on the opposite shore.

The only evidence today of those turbulent years is a rusting minesweeper at the grotto’s entrance, although Mr. Mkhjian assures me all explosives have long since been removed.

This site was opened to the public with much fanfare in 2000. In the past year, the Greek Orthodox Church opened a beautiful shrine here, and Catholics aren’t far behind with their own church (not to be confused with the grotto’s Church of John Paul II, a partially restored chapel dating to the fifth century and named for the late pontiff after his visit and blessing of the site in March 2000).

Bethany Beyond the Jordan also has a new visitors center and restaurant near well-marked trails leading to the excavations. Wouldn’t Jesus’ followers have been surprised to have known that about 2,000 years distant, a heliport would be constructed here to whisk world leaders and other VIPs to His baptismal place? John the Baptist, too, would be thrilled to see that baptisms have resumed in his ancient grotto. The going, however, hasn’t been easy.

After welcoming a record number of visitors during the late 1990s, Jordan’s tourism industry, like that in much of the Middle East, took a major hit in the wake of September 11. Next came the wars in neighboring Iraq and in Afghanistan, and suddenly tourism plummeted. The country’s precarious position on the world map hasn’t helped matters: Jordan is sandwiched between Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

I was apprehensive about coming here, but not once during my 10-day journey have I felt unsafe. Most Jordanians I encounter go out of their way to say how much the tourists are missed, especially Americans.

“You cannot have tourism without security,” Mr. Mkhjian tells me, “and the Jordanian government sees to it that we have that.”

That is slowly paying off. Tourism revenues during the first quarter of 2005 were up 166 percent over last year. Who would have imagined even a few years ago that Israeli tourists would be crossing the border by the thousands? Visitors from the United States are 25 percent more numerous this year compared to last.

“The first Christians on Earth were Jordanians,” says Mr. Biltaji, who was minister of tourism and antiquities under the late King Hussein. Mr. Biltaji insisted on the excavation of the baptismal site, although he makes a point of thanking the Americans for the $7 million the project received from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“Jordan is a biblical road map,” he says. “This is the beginning; it all started here. The baptism was the start of the journey to the cross.”

• • •

Ibrahim Abdelhaq, my guide in Jordan, says the life story of Moses is recounted in the Koran more than that of any other prophet. Among the Old Testament crowd, Moses similarly is singled out more than any other in the New Testament.

Bethany Beyond the Jordan may be the kingdom’s newest holy site, but Mount Nebo is arguably its oldest and most treasured. It was from atop this mountain that Moses, who was chosen to deliver God’s law to mankind, viewed the Promised Land for the first time. It also was here, Christians and Jews believe, that he was buried by the hand of God.

It’s no wonder John Paul II climbed Mount Nebo on his 2000 pilgrimage to Jordan, and first lady Laura Bush came to see it for herself in May 2005. (Her limousine overheated on the way up.) Both visitors stood where Moses is believed to have been when he saw the Plains of Moab — the Jordan Valley, Dead Sea and ancient Palestine.

Franciscan priests are given credit for Mount Nebo’s excavation, beginning in 1933. Digs have uncovered remnants of churches, a large monastery, and mosaic floors that were built in the fourth and fifth centuries to mark the place of Moses’ death. (If God did bury Moses here, nobody knows where.)

Given these archaeological finds and everything known from Scriptures, who can argue with the Jordan Tourism Board when it boasts that God made His presence felt here “in the form of a whirlwind, a cloud of light or dust, an angel, or a voice speaking with the prophets” more than anyplace else on Earth?

Mr. Abdelhaq, my guide, who grew up a Muslim in Amman, points out that God through the centuries has repeatedly designated Jordan a place of refuge.

“It still is today,” he says, telling the stories of Ruth, Elijah, David, John the Baptist and Jesus — and before them Abraham (another common patriarch of Muslims, Jews and Christians), Job (it was here, he says, that Job suffered and was rewarded for his faith), Jacob (somewhere nearby, it is said, he wrestled with the angel of God), and Joshua.

Jordanians dare go back even further to the Creation. Early biblical interpretations link Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden with the area of the Jordan River and Jordan Valley. Noah is said to have had roots here. (There is a shrine to him in Jordan.) There also were Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed by God for their inhabitants’ wicked ways. Jordan, for those who believe, has seen it all.

• • •

“We have the second biggest army in Jordan,” says Stellan Lind, a Swedish citizen who moved to Jordan more than five years ago to lead modern legionnaries he has recruited from Jordan’s army and police force.

The bearded ranks, each between 35 and 45 years of age, no longer carry modern weapons. Now they clutch javelins, swords, shields and trumpets while racing off to battle in horse-drawn chariots.

“I’ve dreamed of re-creating a Roman army and chariot experience somewhere in the world ever since I saw the movie ‘Ben Hur,’” Mr. Lind says. “I have a passion for Roman history, and what better place to see it become a reality than here in this genuine Roman setting?”

The gray-haired Swede, wearing a robe and dusty sandals, stands amid the ruins of an ancient Roman hippodrome in the must-see city of Jerash (the Roman city of Gerasa), a well-preserved Roman city less than an hour’s drive from Amman. (Plan on spending an entire day here, entering the city through Hadrian’s Arch, built to welcome the Emperor Hadrian to Gerasa in A.D. 129).

To turn his passion into authentic reality, Mr. Lind consulted with experts on ancient Rome. He went to Italy to meet the man who built the chariots for “Ben Hur.”

Now, after years of preparation, his Roman Army and Chariot Experience — or RACE — is suited for battle: 45 armored legionnaries, teams of gladiators, horses and chariots.

This summer, these well-trained re-creators of Roman warfare performed for the first time in the hippodrome, recently restored by Jordan’s government. In the circus’s original stone seating, where 15,000 Roman spectators once cheered the charioteers, were Jordan’s Prince Raad Bin Zeid and Princess Majda Raad. Gladiator fights and seven-lap chariot races have been scheduled occasionally through September, when the official opening takes place and daily performances begin.

The audience decides the fate of the winners and losers — thumbs up or thumbs down.

• • •

My travel group, all Americans but one, chartered a small bus for our tour of Jordan, taking us quite comfortably from the white stone streets of Jerash in the north to the orange sands of Wadi Rum in the south, the headquarters of Lawrence of Arabia during World War I, and here in the center to the rose-red city of Petra.

My friends who have visited this wonder of the ancient world before tell of experiencing the same emotions while walking through the Siq, the narrow mile-long gorge and only passage to this dead city.

“You won’t believe your eyes,” says Mr. Abdelhaq, who makes a point of turning around to see my reaction when the gorge suddenly splits open and reveals the Treasury, its elaborate 142-foot facade carved into rock during the first century B.C. by the Nabataeans, the Bedouin merchants who made this their capital.

The same breathtaking moment I experience surely stunned Swiss traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhardt when he stumbled upon Petra in 1812.

No differently from Burckhardt, I’m astounded to discover hundreds of these Nabataean monuments — as far as the eye can see — all meticulously chiseled out of the sandstone cliffs. About 30,000 Nabataeans, a very gifted people, lived and prospered here for several centuries while operating Arabian trade routes linking China to the Mediterranean.

I’m half-serious when I tell Mr. Abdelhaq of a strange sensation that I have been in Petra before, perhaps in a previous life.

The notion quickly dissipates when he reminds me that this archaeological treasure was a setting for “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

Comfortable walking shoes are necessary in Petra, especially for the 800 uneven steps carved into rock leading to the second-most popular site here, the monastery.

Some tourists prefer that donkeys carry them to the top; horses and camels also are available for hire by the local Bedouin people, who otherwise keep busy peddling silver and turquoise jewelry and cold beverages. A sun hat is necessary, too, for it can get very hot.

• • •

While crossing Jordan, I cannot help feeling for its proud people who want to show off the kingdom’s rich past. To do so means confronting the present.

I ask Mr. Biltaji about the regional violence, particularly in Iraq, and he doesn’t hesitate in saying, “Jordan always warned our allies … that it would take some time. Look, it took the United States some 200 years to realize full democracy — do you remember the 1960s and civil rights? And yet we are expected to do it overnight? You can’t.

“It’s a process,” he stresses. “Give [the Arab world] time to educate ourselves.”

In Amman, we met with Princess Basma Bint Talal, King Hussein’s only sister, who has worked globally on human development issues for more than 30 years. She, too, pleads for patience.

“It’s fashionable to talk about ‘sudden change,’ ” she says, “but it is premature to say ‘sudden.’ It is an evolving process. The one positive thing we do have now, which we did not before, is a global consciousness of the Middle East.”

Nutritious food, seasonal climate

Royal Jordanian Airlines offers daily nonstop flights from New York to Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport.

Jordan’s climate is similar to the that of the United States and depends on the region and season. Desert areas get quite hot in the summer, while it’s not unheard of to see snow in Amman and elsewhere during the winter.

Visas are required to enter Jordan. The Jordan Tourism Board North America has headquarters in the Washington area and can answer questions or concerns; call 703/243-7404.

Arabic is Jordan’s official language, although English is widely spoken. The population is 98 percent Arab, and in religion, 92 percent are Sunni Muslims and 6 percent Christians.

The currency — in paper and coins — is the Jordanian dinar, or JD. Most major credit cards are accepted in Jordan.

Five-star hotels and other comfortable lodgings are found throughout Jordan. A new Four Seasons hotel recently opened in Amman. A 10 to 12 percent service charge is generally added in hotels and restaurants in lieu of tipping.

Jordanian cuisine is regarded as very nutritious, consisting of grains, vegetables, fresh and dried fruits, yogurt and meats.

The national dish is mansaf — lamb cooked with yogurt and seasoned with herbs and spices — served on a large platter with large mounds of rice. Popular side dishes include hummus, tabbouleh, baba ghanouj, parsley salad, fava beans in oil, and Arabic salad.

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