Press trip to Jordan makes lasting impression
Special ACP Membership Benefit
An exceptional benefit of ACP membership for the past several years is the annual press trip to help U.S. religious journalists gain familiarity with the Kingdom of Jordan and to see first-hand some of the remarkable Biblical and archaeological sites in that land east of the River Jordan. For many of the participants in the most recent trip, the experience was just the beginning of a continuing interest in Jordan.
Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan (Jesus’ Baptism Site)
There is a profound simplicity at Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, the area between the Jordan River and Tell el-Kharrar, where John the Baptist came in the spirit of Elijah to preach and baptize, and where his baptism of Jesus marked the first recorded manifestation of the Trinity. Tell el-Kharrar’s other name, Tell Mar Elias (Elijah’s Hill) is reminiscent of the prophet Elijah, who — according to tradition — ascended from here to heaven on the famed chariot of fire (and whose ministry and proclamations were parallel to John the Baptist’s, thus underscoring the close connection of the two prophets). The group visited the remains of Byzantine churches, large baptism pools and an extensive water system — all part of the Byzantine tradition linking this place with Jesus’ baptism.
Politics and history
There is no escaping the political questions. The recent ACP/EPA familiarization trip to the Kingdom of Jordan was an opportunity for 20 writers and editors to experience “the other Holy Land,” visiting Biblical sites including the bend in the River Jordan where Jesus was baptized. But at a lengthy panel briefing the second day in Amman – the first was consumed by a half-day flight from New York, relaxation and a delicious welcome dinner – the discussion turned to the Iraq war and U.S. support for the region.
The crush of Iraqi refugees in Jordan is straining the capacity of the government, religious institutions and other non-governmental organizations to respond adequately, said some of the Jordanian government, religious and cultural officials who briefed the group and answered questions.
The larger conflict in the Middle East, exacerbated by the Iraq War and the seemingly stalled peace process in Israel-Palestine isjeopardizing Jordan’s status as “an oasis of tolerance, acceptance and mutual respect,” said Sen. Aqel Biltaji, a longtime government official and official advisor to the late King Hussein and now his son, King Abdullah II.
“This is a sad time for us because it was the Americans who brought us education, democracy, medicine and critical thinking,” Sen. Biltaji(photo above) told the group. “Now those doctors and teachers have been replaced by soldiers …”
The frank discussion didn’t dampen the U.S. press group’s enthusiasm for Jordan’s historical and cultural riches. The “tourism” part of the trip got off to a memorable start in large part because of the modern capital city of Amman and its Grand Hyatt hotel (http://amman.grand.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels/index.jsp).
Highlights of the week were:
The Citadel of ancient Rabbath Ammon, capitol of theAmmonite Kingdom, known in Greco-Roman times as Philadelphia. The archaeological museum there houses one of the finest collections of ancient artifacts in the Middle East, including some of the copper Dead Sea scrolls. Visitors can stand atop the fortress where David sent Uriah the Hittite to his death.
Ajloun, outside of Amman. The castle of Ajloun was built in 1184 by Saladin’s nephew. A fine example of Islamic architecture, the fortress dominated a wide stretch of the north Jordan Valley and passages to it. From its hilltop position, it protected the communication routes between south Jordan and Syria, and was one of its chain of forts, which lit beacons at night to pass signals from the Euphrates as far as Cairo. On the way to Ajloun, travellers follow in the footsteps of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is reported to have passed through the neighboring ancient town of Anjara to rest in a nearby cave. The cave, which has long been a holy place for pilgrims, has now been commemorated with a modern shrine and church of Our Lady of the Mountain. The cave was designated by the Catholic Churches of the Middle East as one of the five pilgrimage sites for the Jubilee Year 2000.
The ancient Greco Roman city of Jerash, by bus from Amman through pine forests (referenced in the Bible as the Forests of Gilead) and olive groves. The colonnaded street, amphitheater, churches, temples and the vast Roman forum impresses visitors with the march of civilizations that has trooped through the region. Jerash (noted in the Bible as in the “region of the Garasenes”) is remarkable for its unbroken chain of human occupation since Neolithic times. Jerash is considered one of the best-preserved Roman provincial towns. A large ecclesiastical complex within the city houses a fountain where Byzantine citizens once annually celebrated Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine. Today, the “Fountain Court” within Jerash is a popular destination for modern pilgrims who want to commemorate the travels and teachings of Jesus in the most spectacular remains of a city of the Decapolis. The route passes near Mahanaim (near the Jabbok River), where Jacob wrestled with the Angel and where David sought refuge during his son Absalom’s rebellion.
Madaba, known throughout the world as the City of Mosaics (mentioned in the Bible as the Moabite town of Medeba). The group visited the contemporary Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, which features the masterpiece sixth-century Byzantine mosaic map of the Holy Land. Afterward, they enjoyed a brief walking tour of the town on the way to lunch at Haret Jdoudna, which served a variety of local specialties. On the way to Madaba, there are mosaic workshops and gift stores, where you may see craftsmen creating mosaics. Other souvenirs include ceramics, Dead Sea health and beauty products, jewelry, clothing and handicrafts.
Mount Nebo. Sixty years of excavation on the hilltop of Mount Nebo, where Moses arrived after his long Exodus journey and viewed the Promised Land he would never enter (he is said to be buried nearby), have revealed a basilica and one of the most magnificent mosaic floors in the world. From the platform nearby the church, there is a breathtaking view across the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea to the rooftops of Bethlehem and, on a clear day, Jerusalem. A huge serpentine cross creates a stirring silhouette against the panorama of the valley.
You can spend more than a day at the Red Rose City Petra. Petra was first established sometime around the 6th century BC by the Nabataean Arabs, a nomadic tribe who settled in the area and laid the foundations of a commercial empire that extended into Syria. Despite successive attempts by the Seleucid kingAntigonus, the Roman emperor Pompey and Herod the Great to bring Petra under the control of their respective empires, Petra remained largely in Nabataean hands until around 100 AD, when the Romans took over. It was still inhabited during the Byzantine period, when the former Roman Empire moved its focus east to Constantinople, but declined in importance thereafter. The Crusaders constructed a fort there in the 12th century, but soon withdrew, leaving Petra to the local people until the early 19th century, when it was visited by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. Upon arrival you will begin an unforgettable trip on horse back to the siq and then by foot until you reach the Treasury, a huge carving at the entrance of the valley. Among other monuments are Pharaoh’s Castle, the Triumphal Arch, the Amphitheater and Monastery. Jordan abounds in archaeological riches, but few places in the world can rival this city, featured in Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” and connected to the Scriptural Exodus journey. Moses and the Israelites are said to have passed through the Petra area in ancient Edom.
Wadi Rum, which T.E. Lawrence described as “vast, echoing and God-like,” takes you off the beaten path to explore the desert. The ACP/EPA group travelled by jeeps and off-road trucks through the sand dunes, and enjoyed a hearty lunch at Captain’s Camp, a popular stop designed in the authentic style of a Bedouin camp.
Aqaba is Jordan’s playground on the Red Sea and is home towhat may be the world’s oldest church. A year-round resort with some of the best coral reefs in the world, Aqaba provides many options for water sports enthusiasts or those seeking a more relaxing sunbathing experience. The group enjoyed a free afternoon to relax, scuba dive and shop the extensive market district.
The Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth, was the group’s last stop of the week before returning to Amman, then home. The weary travelers relaxed at a palatial Marriott on what is billed as the world’s largest open-air spa. The Dead Sea is a one-of-a-kind body of water, 417 meters (1,373 feet) below sea level with mineral-rich waters. The mud is said to carry natural health and beauty benefits, and is sold globally. Recognized as a mini-universe with its own microclimate, the Dead Sea is the saltiest and most mineral-laden body of water in the world. The unparalleled buoyancy and warmth of the water allows bathers to float effortlessly, almost on top of the water.
Jordan Tourism Board North America
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This year’s Ecumenical Religious Press Tour of Jordan
The Jordan Tourism Board (JTB) and Royal Jordanian Airlines (RJ) provided round-trip airfare to Jordan; a certified guide for the duration of the tour; special briefing opportunities; accommodation at four- and five-star hotels; ground transportation; meals and park entrance fees.