East of the River

Holy Land beyond the Jordan


Last fall, I was privileged to join more than a dozen other members of the Associated Church Press on a tour of Jordan’s Holy Sites sponsored by the Jordan Tourism Board North America. Coworkers who had visited the Middle Eastern nation quickly offered their insights: “Eat everything they give you. The food is fantastic!” “The people are so friendly and helpful.” “They are proud of their country and will want you to love it too.”

By the end of my week in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, all of my coworkers’ impressions had become my own. I wanted to return to this nation—and I wished my family and friends could also experience “the other Holy Land,” as Mahfouz Kishek, marketing manager of the Jordan Tourism Board and a member of the Orthodox Church, calls his country.

For many Western Christians who get the chance to travel to the Holy Land, their pilgrimage to the Middle East begins and ends in Israel. But several important biblical sites are east of the river that serves as one of Israel’s borders. Mount Nebo, from which Moses surveyed the Promised Land, is about 40 miles southwest of Jordan’s capital, Amman. Gadara (Umm Qais), where Jesus freed a man from a legion of demons, is on the Sea of Galilee just southwest of the Jordan–Syria border, and the Decapolis, mentioned several times in the Gospel accounts, is nearby. “Jordan is the continuation of the story,” says Rustom Mkhjian, supervisor of archeological works at Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism. “We do not compete; we complete each other as part of the Holy Land.”

A Christian, Mkhjian is passionate about discovering and preserving evidence of Church history in Jordan. The archeologist and his team have excavated many ancient Christian sites/structures on the property, some dating back to the fifth century. Each is being carefully documented and preserved. “It is beautiful when [we] find something that was actually in the Bible,” he says. “Every stone is a word. Every course of stone is a sentence.”

He believes that Jesus chose a spot for His baptism 388 meters below sea level to set an example of humility. With Jericho visible but miles away on the far side of the river and the Decapolis much further north, the site today is still the wilderness of sand and rock described in the Gospels. A place that should have stayed “off the beaten path” became, in the first centuries after Christ, part of the ancient Christian pilgrimage route that included Jerusalem and Mount Nebo. Many churches were built in the vicinity, which Mkhjian sees as evidence that the area has been correctly identified as the place where Jesus sought out his cousin John. “Why would early Christians build churches in a place where you would not expect to find churches?”

The Jordanian government has approved plans to make Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan a place of Christian spiritual renewal and retreat, since, as one worker pointed out to us, “Christianity began here because the Trinity was affirmed at Jesus’ baptism” (see Mark 1:10–11). Thirteen churches will be constructed near the site, following UNESCO guidelines that restrict new construction in World Heritage areas to be at least 300 meters (about a quarter mile) from archeological sites.

But such support of Christian culture in an Islamic nation is not always evident to the average citizen. The frustration of living in the region, coupled by economic hardship, has triggered an exodus among Jordanian Christians.

Fr. Nabil Haddad, executive director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, observes that Christians in Jordan are highly respected because of their ethics and integrity. But he is concerned that their cultural impact may fade as numbers decrease. “There is a dangerous hemorrhage in this part of the world,” he says, noting that King Abdullah II is also alarmed at the continued emigration of Christians from the kingdom.

“We don’t want Christians in Jordan to fail in being what they are supposed to be,” says Haddad, “—the salt of the world.”

More images from Jordan

Photos by Melinda Smith Lane

The ceiling of an ancient stone dwelling in Petra.

The most photographed building in Petra—the Treasury—is actually a tomb.

Modern churches will join older structures at Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan.

The Jordanians have resisted building at river’s edge, allowing visitors to view the Jordan in a natural state.

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