For being as small as it is – roughly the size of Maine – Jordan punches way above its weight class when it comes to interesting things to see and do. It was at the center of trade, religion, and politics for many, many years. That means lots and lots of people have come through here, set up their cities and their holy places and their ruling classes only to be run off by, or absorbed into, the the next group of people who had their own ideas for holy places and cities and ruling classes.
A lot of the old cities are surprisingly intact throughout the country. We covered Petra in an earlier post, so we’ll skip that here. Instead, we’d like to focus on some of the less well known sites.
Mt. Nebo – This is the peak from which Moses was finally able to look out onto the Promised Land before he died. It’s a popular place, if a little out of the way. We were there on a particularly hazy day, so the view wasn’t great. But the small church on the top of the mountain was a real treat.
The Moses Memorial Church is a 6th century structure that is part of a still-active monastery. The church hosts some of the best mosaics in the country, dating from about 530 CE.
The big masterpiece is a hunting and herding scene rendered in mosaic tile. It was a wonderful piece to see in person, if a little unexpected for a church.
Umm Qais, known in the Bible as Gadara, is the town where Jesus relocated some demons out of two men and into a herd of pigs. My Bible teacher told this story when I was a kid to illustrate Jesus’ power over evil. Neither the Bible, nor my (wonderful) teacher, explained what happened to the demons after the pigs threw themselves into the sea and died, or for that matter what ever became of the guy who owned the herd of pigs.
We only know that the Gadarenes promptly asked Jesus to leave. I guess they decided that the inconvenience of a few demon possessions was preferable to losing their livestock. That’s maybe the bigger lesson we should take from this story – Jesus is a great many things; good for the economy is not one of them.
The ruins of Umm Qais are impressive to walk through. We looked out over the Sea of Galilee onto Palestine and Israel while eating lunch at the restaurant that’s on the grounds. It was like dining in the mist of history.
There are a bunch of other biblical sites around Jordan. One in particular that we did not make it to is Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where the Bible says John baptized Jesus. We skipped because a) it’s hard to get to, b) it didn’t seem like there was anything there anymore, and c) there is a mirror site on the Israeli side of the Sea of Galilee where they also claim the honor of Jesus’ baptismal site.
Byzantine Mosaics in Madaba
Madaba on its own is a wonderful stop. The quaint town is host to a warm and welcoming community made up of both Muslims and Christians. Its streets are lined with shops that sell everything from shoes to meat to pots and pans. What makes it even more special is that people have been living here for 4,500 years. Madaba was one of the lands occupied by the 12 Tribes of Israel back in the time of the Exodus.
After a rather major earthquake in 747 AD, Madaba was abandoned for 1100 years. When refugee Christians moved back in the late 19th century they found a treasure trove of Byzantine mosaic art buried beneath the rubble. I’ve become a huge fan of mosaics. It’s a wonderful combination of art and puzzles that makes my nerdy heart glow.
It’s an easy day walking to all the sites in this small town, including shopping along the way. You can even watch artists create new mosaics at the Madaba Institute for Mosaic Art & Restoration. I’m seriously considering taking up this hobby when we get back.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t also discuss the Shrine of the Beheading of John the Baptist in Madaba. It’s a bizarre little place. There’s nothing to suggest that John the Baptist was beheaded here, but there’s a shrine dedicated to him in an old Latin church nonetheless.
The real draw is the underbelly of the church, where we saw an ancient Moabite well that still works and bold way finding signs.
Like everywhere else in the region, most of Jordan was occupied by the Romans at some point, but for a true Roman city go to Jerash. These ruins are better than Rome’s.
This city grew to prominence because of the rich soil, which still produces ample supplies of figs, olives, apples, and berries. Trade with the Nabataeans (read: Petra) made the town rich. It was only an earthquake in 747 that led to the city being abandoned.
So many of the buildings are in such great shape, though, that it’s almost unbelievable.
If you are planning a trip to Jordan, know that it is perfectly safe. Our best advice is to rent a car for the full duration of your time in the country. Public transit between cities is difficult or nonexistent. If you’re the daring type you can hitchhike. It’s an acceptable way to travel in the country.