Thomas L. McDonald has been a writer and editor for the past 25 years, covering technology, history, archaeology, games, and religion. He has degrees in English, Film, and Theology with a concentration in Church History. He’s been a certified catechist for twelve years, and taught Church History for eight. His other writing can be found at Weird Catholic.
In October the Jordan Tourism Board took a group of Christian journalists and bloggers on a pilgrimage to the holy and historical sites of their country. It was a life changing experience for everyone involved, and one of the hardest parts was simply processing it all emotionally, intellectually, and, most of all, spiritually. This is holy ground where the events of our sacred history took place. I plan to explore some of the striking locations in more detail, but for now I just want to give you a taste of what the pilgrim to Jordan will see and experience, along with the scripture that mentions them and the people who walked these roads.
The Ministry of John and the Baptism of Jesus
“These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” (John 1:28)
People: Jesus, John, and possibly Elijah, Elisha, and Joshua
In the 1990s, when peace between Israel and Jordan allowed mine-clearing in the area of Al-Maghtas (“site of immersion”), archaeological exploration revealed a cluster of ancient sites, including remains of churches, cisterns, and baptismal pools. One structure in particular was of intense interest: the ruins of four stone pylons that once held a church above the water, its rocks carved with myriad crosses left behind by people who came there to be baptized. Located close to the Jordan river, this was Bethabara, Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where John the Baptist preached and baptized, and where the Holy Trinity was revealed to him in the baptism of Jesus.
Some traditions call this area The House of the Crossing, where Joshua following the priests with the Ark across the river (Joshua 3:14-17), and where Elijah struck the water to cross with Elisha and ascend into heaven (2 Kings 2:7-8).
The Cities of the Decapolis
“And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan.” (Matthew 4:25)
People: Jesus, the Apostles, Paul
The cities of the Decapolis (literally “ten cities,” although some list as many as eighteen) were considered hubs of Greco-Roman culture in the Holy Land, and places were Jews, Greeks, and Romans interacted freely. Of the ten cities, six are in Jordan: Philadelphia (modern Amman), Jerash (Gerasa), Umm Qais (Gadara), Pella, Capitolias (Beit Ras), and Raphan.
Jesus and the early Christians would have visited these cities and preached in them. Two are extensively excavated and open to tourists, and show the mingling of Greek, Roman, and Jewish culture, as well as the imprint of early Christianity in the ruins of churches.
Jerash in particular is an extraordinary site, sprawling far beyond Hadrian’s Triumphal arch and including a vast colonnaded forum, temples to Zeus and Artemis, the cardo maximus (the main colonnaded road), a theatre, a hippodrome, and several early churches. It is one of the finest and best preserved Roman sites outside of Rome.
But that isn’t the only City of the Decapolis you can visit. Another is the location of one of the most memorable incidents in the New Testament.
The Exorcism of Legion
"And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way." (Matthew 8:28)
People: Jesus, the Apostles, Paul
The stories of the exorcism of the demoniac(s) differ in Mark/Luke and Matthew. Matthew places it at Gadara (Umm Qias) while Mark/Luke named Garasa (Jerash, see above). Gadara is the only location that makes sense, and when you visit it today and see the hill sloping downward toward the Sea of Galilee, it’s easy to imagine that this is the place.
The view from Umm Qais is magnificent and sobering. For starters, the first thing you see rising on the horizon are the Golan Heights, with a Jewish settlement in the valley below. Look to the right and Syria is visible. Look to the left and you see the Sea of Tiberius/Galilee. Though not as impressive in scale and preservation as Jerash, Umm Qais is still host to a cardo and a number of other Greek and Roman ruins.
"And Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain, that is, the valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar." (Deut. 34:1-4)
People: Moses, Joshua, the Israelites
On this ridge, Moses first beheld the Promised Land which he would never enter. From these heights today you can see a sweeping view of the same land seen by Moses, and you can feel his sense of having arrived at last. Somewhere in the hills below, legend holds, Moses is buried, and Joshua hid the Ark of the Covenant in a cave. The hill across from Nebo is believed to be one of the high places of Baal associated with the story of Balaam in the book of numbers.
The view is spectacular, and a grand new Church just opened there. We were privileged to have mass with Franciscan Fr. Fergus in a lovely little chapel.
The Lost City of the Nabateans
"[Amaziah, King of Judah] killed ten thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt and took Sela [Petra] by storm, and called it Jokthe-el, which is its name to this day." (2 Kings 14:7)
People: Israelites, Edomites, Early Christians
There is nothing that can prepare you for Petra, which the bible calls “Sela.” (Petra, as we know from Peter, simply means “rock.”) The long walk in through the soaring red rock defile plunges you into deep history, and then opens upon the iconic tomb (called the “Treasury”) famous from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and a elsewhere. Carved right into the rock, it is truly one of the wonders of the world, but what really surprises is that this amazing structure is only the beginning of a vast valley complex filled with countless rock-cut tombs, temples to ancient gods, early churches, and the Bedouin who still live in the area and make their living from tourists. There is nothing on earth like it.
The Palace of Herod
“[The soldier] went and beheaded [John] in the prison, and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother.” (Mark 6:27-8)
People: Herod Antipas, Salome, John the Baptist
Machaerus (Mukawer) is reached by a two hour drive along treacherous winding roads, followed by a steep climb of barren, sun-blasted rock. What you’ll find at the top isn’t remarkably impressive on its own: several low, ruined foundations, some cisterns and caves, and two pillars are all that remains. It affords a panoramic view of the stark, barren hills that provided a natural barrier to invading enemies. In the distance the flat, dark Dead Sea separates Jordan and Israel.
But once this was the palace of Herod Antipas, and somewhere within these low stone ruins Salome danced for the head of John the Baptist. John was kept prisoner nearby, and this is where he died. Even though the archaeological remains are modest, the weight of history here is palpable.
”So their posterity perished from Heshbon, as far as Dibon, and we laid waste until fire spread to Medeba.” (Numbers 21:30)
People: Moabites, Israelites, Early Christians
On the floor of the church of St. George in the city of Madaba, a fragmentary mosaic map from the sixth century helps make sense of this entire pilgrimage. The Madaba map is the earliest depiction of the geography of Holy Land. It’s not merely value as a beautiful work of art or as a source of information on the region, but also for what it says about everything I’ve done on this journey.
Beyond meeting people and seeing wonders, there’s the simple but profound power of place. God is present with us in New Jersey or in the shadow of ancient ruins, but as I touched the waters of the Jordan in this land and climbed the hills climb by Jesus and John and so many Christians who came before, I felt a very immanent sense of God’s work in the world. Place, matter, history: these are all sacred to God. God chose a people and a land and a time to write His story, and this is that land, and when you walk here it is as though you can reach across those years and draw them back into the present.