Feature

Rugged & Hospitable

Jordan: A land of contrasts

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Along with nine other Christian journalists, I recently participated in a weeklong press tour of Jordan sponsored by its tourism board. The purpose was to showcase Jordan as a safe, hospitable place for Western Christians to explore the many rugged landscapes and well-preserved biblical landmarks that create a deeply meaningful setting for believers seeking the roots of their faith. Nearly every stop along the way was marked with monolithic monuments bearing witness to the events that helped shape the foundations of Christian, Jewish and Muslim spiritual heritage.

Amman

We arrived in the bustling capital of Amman, which was also the ancient capital of the Ammonites (see Deut. 3:11, Josh. 13:15 and 2 Sam. 17:27). Under its Greco-Roman name, Philadelphia, it was part of the Decapolis, a group of 10 cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in Judea and Syria. Though the name means “brotherly love,” I was intrigued to discover that Uriah the Hittite, husband of Bathsheba, was killed here in battle under the cloaked order of an infatuated King David. It was a reminder to me of God’s promise to restore penitent hearts and of His faithfulness to His people. Even so, the genuine warmth of the citizens of this beautiful city more than lived up to its ancient moniker, and at least one familiar staple of Western civilization can be found (1).

Naher Al Zarqa (Jabbok River)

When our tour bus pulled off the side of the highway near a small brook (2), I first thought the vehicle may have been overheating or the driver needed a cigarette break. This spot bore no resemblance to any of the historical ruins on our scheduled itinerary. About that time, our tour guide took out his Bible and began reading from Genesis:

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak (32:22–24).

It was then that we realized that we were standing very near to Peniel, where the night before meeting his brother Esau, Jacob found himself wrestling with the angel of the Lord. And I found myself wrestling to stay composed.

Umm Qais

The ruins of Gadara (another ancient Decapolis city) are found at Umm Qais, perched on a hilltop overlooking the Sea of Tiberias (Galilee) and the Golan Heights, where the borders of Jordan, Israel and Syria meet. With a well-preserved Roman highway (3) running through Umm Qais, it requires very little imagination to envision Jesus and His disciples weaving through this ancient area, preaching to the crowds, healing the sick and lame and delivering the demon oppressed. The Synoptic Gospels infer that this is the site where, after Jesus and His disciples stepped ashore, they met a man possessed by demons. Jesus sent the tormentors into a nearby herd of swine, which ran “down the steep place into the sea” (Matt. 8:28–32).

Jerash

Also among the Decapolis, Jerash (4) was founded by Greeks in the fourth century BC. The ruins include two large temples dedicated to Zeus and Artemis, an oval piazza market, two ornate theaters and a 15,000-seat hippodrome that is being restored. The triumphal arch at the city’s south entrance was built in AD 130 in honor of Roman Emperor Hadrian’s extended visit to the city. Considered part of “the region of the Gerasenes” mentioned in Mark 5:1 and Luke 8:26, Jerash is among the best preserved Roman cities in the world and a vivid reminder of the political situation that characterized the Holy Land during Christianity’s infancy.

Bethany Beyond the Jordan

Although the Jordan River (5) has receded from the spot where Jesus was baptized, the site remains well marked and accessible to all seeking to identify with their Savior in baptism and death (Romans 6). At nearly 1,400 feet below sea level, this area of the Dead Sea valley is the lowest spot on the surface of the earth. I was struck that this most glorious event unfolded in the lowliest of places.

Machaerus (Mukawir)

The fortress atop this barren mountain was originally built by Alexander Jannaeus, king of Judea from 103 BC to 76 BC (6). Herod the Great later rebuilt it as a military base to safeguard his territories east of the Jordan. In 32 AD, in the palace at the center of this fortress, Salome enticed Herod to deliver the head of John the Baptist to her on a plate. And I was struck that this lowliest event unfolded in the most glorious of places.

Mount Nebo

From the summit of this peak (7), God granted Moses a view of the Promised Land, which the Jewish leader would never enter. On a clear day, the view continues to provide a panorama of the Holy Land, including the Jordan River Valley, Jerusalem and Jericho. After the great Exodus, God’s faithful servant was laid to rest somewhere on this mountain. I caught myself searching for clues to the exact spot, hoping to crack a mystery unsolved by thousands of archeological digs on the mountain. Maybe next time.

Petra

One of the Seven Wonders of the World, Petra (8) was included in Smithsonian Magazine’s list of the “28 Places to See before You Die.” As a writer and editor, I found myself at a true loss of words in trying to describe Petra’s magnificence. The spot where the steep, narrow canyon spills into the impeccably carved tomb facades represented to me the confluence of God’s creative splendor and man’s triumphant labor. Petra (also called “Sela,” meaning rock) is referenced several times in the Old Testament, including 2 Kings 14, as the place where Judah’s King Amaziah defeated 10,000 Edomites, and in Numbers 20, as the location where Moses’ brother, Aaron, was laid to rest. Most scholars agree that any biblical mention of Sela, the Valley of Salt, Mount Hor or the land of the Edomites refers to the location of the city of Petra. It is also believed that the Magi passed through Petra on their return trip from the birth of Jesus.

Wadi Rum

Of all the sites we visited, this rugged desert (9) in southern Jordan held the least biblical significance. Yet it is here where I had my deepest spiritual experience. Spending the night under the stars in the vast, open beauty of this magnificent desert, I couldn’t help but reflect on how God’s watchful eye never diverts its attention from wandering nomads—as I once was. I imagine Lawrence of Arabia having similar thoughts as he journeyed through these mystical landscapes.

It was here where I experienced the true hospitality of the Bedouins, a predominantly desert-dwelling, semi-nomadic ethnic group who migrated from the Arabian Peninsula between the 14th and 18th centuries. As evening fell, they unveiled a five-course meal that had been roasting for several hours under the desert sand. It was a feast fit for a sheik. Later, as we sipped Bedouin tea next to our sleeping quarters—traditional tents woven from camel hair—three musicians serenated us with folk songs. I was even convinced to join the moonlit Bedouin line dance, for which I forbade the use of flash photography by my traveling journalist comrades.

The Price of Hospitality

It was clear from my first through my final encounter with Jordanians that this is a highly hospitable country. Despite the political and religious tensions simmering over nearly every surrounding border, I felt safe enough in Jordan to walk the streets, canyons and deserts alone. The genuine warmth of the people seemed to negate everything I had heard about the volatility of the region. As a Western Christian, I felt welcome in this predominantly Muslim country.

Yet it soon became clear to me that Jordan’s hospitality had come at great cost. During the past six decades, millions of Arabs from surrounding countries have sought refuge there from the conflicts in their homelands.

During the Arab–Israeli war of 1948, 85 percent of the Palestinian population of Israel, driven by force or by fear, fled to the West Bank, Gaza or the bordering countries of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Then in 1967, the demolition of Arab villages in Israel during the Six Day War resulted in another mass exodus of refugees into Jordan. Today, 2 million registered Palestinian refugees live in the country.

The events preceding and following the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime resulted in approximately half a million Iraqi refugees in Jordan, many of whom are not legally able to work and are therefore without a regular income. And since its civil war erupted two years ago, an equal number of refugees from Syria have poured across the border.

Nearly half of Jordan’s 6.5 million residents have migrated from a neighboring nation. Since basic resources, such as water, are scarce, the ongoing influx of refugees has taken an enormous toll on Jordan’s infrastructure.

Most Jordanians regard refugees both as threats to the _status quo_ and as comrades in arms, whom there is a responsibility to protect. This ideological conflict might explain why refugees are commonly referred to as “brothers” yet at the same time also suffer a variety of social stigmas and injustices.

Being Light

In a predominantly Muslim nation, the church must respect cultural and religious sensitivities toward open evangelism. Members of Jordanian churches are free to exercise their beliefs within the confines of the facility but not to publically proclaim the truth of the gospel. So what does being light look like within these parameters?

When asked by a member of our press tour how Christians can share their faith in such a context, Father Nabil Haddad, a noted Jordanian religious leader, simply replied, “We share our faith by showing our love.” Arab Alliance churches in Jordan are doing just that.

In one city, an Alliance church demonstrates Christ’s love by offering free medical services, prescription medication and food vouchers to Iraqi refugees who are otherwise unable to afford these basic necessities. Another Alliance church is providing for the overwhelming needs of Syrian refugees traumatized by violence and forced to flee their homeland with only what their hands could carry.

As I saw and heard what these churches are doing, I was reminded of pioneer Alliance missionaries who braved the physically and spiritually parched terrain to help replant and nurture a viable gospel presence in this conflicted land. Even as the monolithic rocks cry out to all who pass by, it is the echoed voices of the living stones that truly resound.

“You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).

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