Mount of Olives panorama

Mount of Olives panorama
A panoramic view of the Mount of Olives

Jordan, Fall 2011

Jordan, Day 1: Mt Nebo, Madaba, and Machaerus (10/24/11)

[I have video highlights for each day as usual, but other illustrative clips from of the other sites will need to wait until I get back to Jerusalem.  The internet here is SLOW]

I am, in a word, exhausted, and will need to go down to the hotel lobby to upload this, so this may be a short blog entry.

Today we began our four day tour though Jordan, which began with a rather lengthy series of border crossing steps.  Israel and Jordan have had a peace treaty since the 90's and a long period of non-belligerency before that, but it is still a VERY secured border.  We took Israeli buses down to the King Hussein (formerly Allenby) Crossing on the Jordan River and went through several check points, changed to Jordanian buses, crossed the river, which is barely a stream and was hardly noticeable, and then went through Jordanian immigration controls.

We have Jordanian guides on each bus, who do most of the onsite guiding, though we get to supplement the biblical information and provide devotional experiences.  Our guide is a man named Yousef, who has been leading BYU groups for years.

Our first site was the traditional site of Mt. Nebo, where Moses was able to view the Promised Land before he “died.”  I say “traditional” because there is no archaeological or clear historical information verifying the site, though it was the one identified in the Byzantine period.  The Franciscans are in the process of rebuilding the old Byzantine church as the Moses Memorial Basilica.

After our guide explained the site and gave us a view towards Palestine and Israel (unfortunately too hazy to see anything really), I was able to talk to my students about the mission of Moses, particularly LDS teaching regarding his role at the Mt of Transfiguration and his later appearance with Elijah at the Kirtland Temple in 1836.  This led to our singing of “The Spirit of God.”  There were quite a few tourists around, so I told my students that the singing was optional but then asked them, “Are we tourists or are we pilgrims?”  So we sang.

This may have been the view that Moses had towards Canaan.
This is the first of a series of pictures with students sporting Indiana Jones hats similar to mine.  Here with Kimberly Michels.
We then stopped for lunch (still crossing our fingers to see how we do with Jordanian food since we have heard about people getting sick here) and went on to Madaba.  Madaba was an important place on the Byzantine pilgrimage route—pilgrims would cross the Jordan to go to the baptismal site of Jesus and then move on to see Mt. Nebo and other OT sites.  The town was largely abandoned until the 1890s when a Christian Arab tribe began to resettle the area after they had been displaced from their original homes because of a blood feud elsewhere in Jordan.  Restoring a Greek Orthodox church dedicated to St. George, they discovered a wonderful mosaic that depicted the Holy Land from a pilgrim’s perspective (up is east and north is left, because pilgrims always came from the sea and went up to Jerusalem).  This mosaic map has actually guided archaeologists in identifying biblical sites and even finding particular buildings in Byzantine Jerusalem.

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This detail of the mosaic map of the Holy Land at Magaba shows many details about Byzantine Jerusalem that have been confirmed by archaeology.  In fact, in a few incidents this map has guided archaeologists to FIND sites and features of the Christian city that were not previously known.  The cardo, or main north-south street, appears here as a colonnaded street from left to right.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre appears in the center oriented downwards.  The Church of Maria Theotokos Nea (the New Church of Mary the Mother of God) appears on the right.
We then drove to Mukawir, near the ancient site of Machaerus.  This was a plateau fortress that the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus built in the first century B.C. to help control the territory on this (the east) side of the Dead Sea.  Herod the Great expanded it significantly and built a luxurious palace on top.  I described it as a “mini Masada.”  The territory east of the Jordan River and part way down the east coast of the Dead Sea fell to Herod’s son Herod Antipas who also ruled the Galilee in the time of Jesus.  Josephus identifies Machaerus as the place where John the Baptist was imprisoned (sometimes assumed to be in one of the caves around the base of the fortress), and the palace on top was where Salome probably danced for her uncle, leading Antipas to give in to Herodias’ demand to execute John.

Machaerus is kind of like a mini-Masada: a powerful fortress topped by a palace

Students climb over the ruins of the palace where Salome once danced for Herod Antipas.
My colleague Steve Harper spoke stirringly about the greatness of John the Baptist and his role in the Restoration.  I should have gone first, because my discussion of the history of the site (our guides did not hike up to the top with us) and the Old Testament typology (John = Elijah, Antipas = Ahab, Herodias = Jezebel) was a bit of a distraction from the high note that Steve ended on.  But I was able to bear testimony of John’s role as a witness of Jesus, and then I led the group in “Faith of Our Fathers,” which seemed to fit the occasion.

The sun sets over the Dead Sea to the west of Machaerus

It was a long ride and then a late dinner to our hotel here in Petra, but we will have an exciting time at that site tomorrow!

Jordan Day 2: Petra (10/25/11)

Started the day in our rather impressive hotel, the Hotel Beit Zaman.  It is built on the site of an abandoned ninteenth century village (relatively modern by local standards).  It consists of cabins and villas built to look like the original village, with real ruins emerging in between many of them.

In the lobby before breakfast, as I was checking my mail on my iPad, I ran into my friend Ron Gunnell from the Tabernacle Choir.  He is here with a group accompanying Heidi Swinton, which will be in Israel later in the week.  Once again, it was so great to see someone from home that I gave Ron a rather embarrassing hug. Hoped to get pictures with him and Kaye in Petra later in the day, but our paths did not cross again.  Hope to see them in Jerusalem later in the week.

Most of you know something about this site, even if you do not realize it.  That is because it was featured in the first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Now this also is germane to my field persona, because many of you have seen on this blog and in previous updates of my trips to Greece and Turkey my beloved field hat.  I bought it back in 2007 when I first came to Israel on my site training.  My friend and colleague Kerry Muhlestein gave me a nickname on that trip: JustIndy (that is a portmanteau of JUSTinian, the great Byzantine emperor, and INDY for Indiana Jones).  Well, my hat of genuine Australian leather, is the heart and sole of my wanna-be an intrepid explorer (a term that you will see referenced later in this entry).

But I digress . . . Let's get back to Petra.  I am going to include a lot of pictures, despite the time that takes to upload them here in Jordan.  That is because the site is stunning, and I want to share it.  But I am also anxious to include as many pictures of students and colleagues as I can, since many of their families, I understand, are using this blog to follow their loved ones.

Map of ancient Petra. Wikimedia Commons.
Petra is a massive site, one that is probably Jordan's single greatest, and most important, attraction.  It was also fabulously expensive, 50 Jordanian dinars or about US$70.00, making it something like going to Disney Land in terms of cost.  It was established by the Nabateans, an Arabic people who settled in the area of biblical Edom beginning about the fifth century B.C.  They developed a lucrative trading and commercial empire and decided to make their capital in this unusual location, an area enclosed on all sides by high impassable mountains and accessed only through the narrow Siq, or tectonic rift that is like a giant crack making its way down to the area of the city proper.

The entrance to the Siq is right behind my hat

Three blackshirts (Taylor Crane and Jaclyn Sheffield with me) in the Siq entrance.

The Siq gets quite narrow at times

Pretty stunning view of the sky from the bottom of the Siq

Andy and Janet Skinner as the Siq opens up before the Treasury

The water channel along the side of the Siq includes periodic sedimentation filters

This niche used to contain a Nabatean idol

Justin Bircher observes as Catie Legro demonstrates her continuing "curse of the cat"

This round, buxom stone is a Nabatean fertility goddess!

Petra is best known for its many rock-carved tombs, such as the famous "Treasury" that was seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

We got to the Treasury, which was actually a tomb and not a treasury, after first hiking down the Siq and seeing the water channel system, "minor" tombs, and many niches carved for the worship of Nabatean gods and goddesses.
View of the "Treasury" (actually a tomb) as we come out of the Siq
Group pic!

More hats: Katherine Redd, Jeff Perry, Jared Maxfield, and "Pappa Hunts"

Really? A Camel?

Our guide, Yousef Zrukat, encourages me to "thank" my camel
After taking pictures at the Treasury, riding camels, and doing other such "touristy" things, we split into small groups.  My group hiked up to the high place above the main complex.  After seeing the altar complex, we walked through the main part of the city, where I ran into, of all things, a group of Thai tourists! They thought it was great I spoke to them in Thai . . . at first . . . but I think after a while I became that "crazy American in the hat."

Climbing up to the high place

Altar of the high place

Looking down at Petra from the high place

The Cardo or main street from the Roman period

Thais abroad are always surprised when a farang begins to speak once-fluent Thai (not now)
After a quick lunch, I hurried with a smaller group of students up to a site at the top of one side of Petra called "the monastery," though it, like the "Treasury" is a Classical-era tomb.  We also saw some overlooks on each side of that promontory.  We began calling ourselves "the intrepid explorers," and we crammed absolutely as much in that day as we possible could, arriving back at our buses in the nick of time.

The Intrepid Explorers at the Monastery: Jeff Perry, Allyson Reeves, Justin Bircher, Papa Hunts

Overlooking the Arabah Valley

Kaleb Valdez joins the Intrepid Explorers

A quick shout out to our guide, Yousef Zrukat.  He has been a delight to work with.  Besides knowing a great deal about the sites and his country's history, he is sensitive to religious issues and really knows his Bible.  At the same time he shared important and enlightening things about Islam.  On the way to Jordan, he stopped us at a train station built about 1910 and showed us the railway that the Turkish sultan had built as part of the pilgrims railroad to Mecca.  This was stretch was used in the movie "Lawrence of Arabia."

It was a long bus ride to Amman, but we are safely in our hotel and ready for another day.

Jordan Day 3: Amman, Jabbok, and Jerash (10/26/11)

Today started in Amman, after which we stopped briefly at the Jabbok River and then continued on to Jerash, the site of ancient Gerasa.  We then returned to Amman for dinner and our last night in Jordan before tomorrow's final activities.

The day actually began rather frantically, because I almost missed the bus for my own field trip.  My son Samuel back in Jerusalem developed a terrible ear infection last night.  He had gone to bed with a high fever and then woke up screaming that his ear hurt.  Not only was I out of the country, the Jerusalem Center doctor is here in Jordan with the students.  So Elaine and I were on the phone several times last night trying to figure out what to do.  When my alarm went off at 5:30, I decided to silence it and wait for the 6:30 wake-up call.  When a call finally came it was 8:10, and the call was from one of my students telling me that they had been waiting for me on the bus for ten minutes.  No time to shower, shave, or anything but throw on my field clothes, grab my hat, run to the bus, and hope for the best.

By the way, Elaine found a good family clinic in West Jerusalem, managed to drive there without problem, and got Sam Man on strong oral and external antibiotics.

We stopped at two sites in Amman before heading out of town for the rest of the day.  First we visited the King Abdullah Mosque.  It is a rather new mosque, built between 1982 and 1989 and named for the first king of Jordan (grandfather of the well-known King Hussein and the grandfather of the current king).  While not old or historical, it is a beautiful house of prayer, and there we had an interesting and important lecture on Islam by our guide, Yousef.

Yousef talks to us about his beliefs

Decapolis cities in pink.  Wikimedia Commons
We then drove to the Citadel, the fortified center of every city on this site since the Iron Age, if not earlier.  It was Rabbath Ammon in the Bible, capital of the Ammonites and frequently fought against by the Israelites.  In the Hellenistic period it became a Greek city known as Philadephia.  It continued as such into the Roman period, when it was one of the Decapolis or "ten cities" mentioned in the New Testament gospels.  In the Byzantine period it became an important Christian site, and in the Arab period it became Amman, by which it is known today.  The Citadel has remains from all these periods.  The most noticeable is the great Temple of Hercules, who was actually a Roman syncretism with Melqart, the chief god of the Ammonites.

Pointing out the all important Byzantine phase of Amman's citadel

Temple of Hercules

Driving out of Amman, we stopped along the banks of the Zarqa River, known in the Bible as the Jabbok.  It was here that Jacob in Genesis 32 wrestled with the angel and saw the Lord face to face.  Standing by the the stream, we read the biblical account and talked about its significance.  We then sang "God of Our Fathers, Known of Old" and then, on the suggestion of a student, "Nearer, My God, to Thee."  I then prayed with my students there by the river.  We do not pray at many sites, but we were by ourselves, and it just felt right to ask the Lord there to help us with the things with which we each wrestled but most of all to make us faithful witnesses and help us persevere in faith till we, too, see the Lord face to face.

The students along the banks of the Jabbok River before our devotional.  Here Jacob wrestled with an angel and saw the Lord face to face.
 Our main goal today was Jerash, which is the New Testament city of Gerasa, also one of the cities of the Decapolis.  This is an amazing Classical, Roman, and Byzantine site.  It is one of the largest surviving sites, and in many ways it has much in common with Ephesus.  A Greek city that was heavily Romanized, it continued to be important in the Christian period.  It is known for the usual kind of Classical features: a theater, temples, a hippodrome.
Ancient Gerasa.  Wikimedia Commons.

In the hippodrome or circus, we were treated by a performance of the Roman Army and Chariot Experience (RACE), that demonstrated Roman armor and fighting techniques, followed by a mock gladiatorial combat and a chariot race reminiscent of Ben Hur.  The students had a lot of fun with that, flooding the sand of the hippodrome afterwards to take pictures with the performers.

Whitney and Alyson try their hands at the chariot reins

Some of our guys battle Roman troops

We then entered the main site and spent a couple hours, though we could have been there a couple more.  One of the most stunning features of Gerasa is the well-preserved colonnaded Cardo or main street.

The Hadrianic Gate at Gerasa
Group picture at in the oval forum at Gerasa

The colonnaded Cardo, or main street, of Gerasa

The ornate Nymphaeum, or fountain, at Gerasa

I love this shot of the setting sun through the colonnade

The back of the apse of the Byzantine cathedral

The Temple of Artemis
Much of this region is still seismically active, as illustrated by this brief clip showing a spoon wedged into a column drum shaking of its own accord:

We then caught buses home.  Many of the students stopped at the Royal Automobile Museum in Amman, which is as much a museum of recent history as it is a car show.  I, however, came straight back to my hotel room (a suite, surprisingly) to at last shower (remember the rough start my day began with!).  

Jordan Day 4: Theater in Amman, the baptismal site on the River Jordan (10/27/11)

After checking out of our hotel, we went  in two buses down to the classical theater in Amman, which lies not too far below the citadel.  We spent a fair amount of time here, much of it rather unstructured.  Our guides gave us the rather standard tour, and then I force-fed my students a bit more information about a classical Greek theater (its parts, its use, etc.).  Sometimes my past Classics career asserts itself!

As the students sang one lively number, Daniel Walker and Maddy McHale broke into a dance

It is always fun to sing and perform in such places, so we sang a few songs as a group for fun.  But then the students pressed me into singing a few things... they wanted something from a show or something "not Mo Tab," but my attempt to sing "Memories" from Cats failed when I could not remember all the words.  So, randomly, I sang "Brightly Beams Our Father's Mercy" from my pocket-sized hymn book.  We have several quite good vocalists, so one of them, Rivkah Steele sang an impromptu duet of "Be Still My Soul" with me.  We also had great show songs by Cassie Pelton and Taylor Olson.  And on top of that, our very own Koryl Wadsworth, an accomplished dancer, gave us another kind of performance, accompanied vocally by Shelly Darrington.  The students are usually willing to share their talents and are ALWAYS supportive and appreciative of each other.

Koryl Wadsorth dancing

Rivkah and Eric singing

Talyor Olson

Our guide Yousef singing a traditional song

We also sang some Christmas songs, of all things.  Next, the students all joined in on some popular song that I am not quite familiar with but which I have heard a few times, after which our guides both sang some traditional Arabic songs.  Finally, but not least moving, was a general chorus of "I Am a Child of God," which drew a lot attention from other visitors to the theater.

We then walked through the modern market in Amman (modern in the sense of still being used and not something ancient).  It was a rather quick walk through several blocks, which simply dangled the prospect of shopping before some of our students who are inclined that way without giving them any chance to satisfy the urge.  But it did give us a feel for some local color, as I always like to call it.

I had to make this picture large so you could fully enjoy the skinned goat faces.  Note the tongues in the first and fifth heads.

Here is more conventional market fare
We ate Kentucky Fried Chicken on the road, which was delivered to a rest stop and devoured with relish on the buses.  It was good, but my dream of a three piece, extra crispy breast and wing combo was not realized.  Alas . . . I will need to wait another ten months for that, I fear.

The last site we visited in Jordan gave me perhaps the most powerful spiritual experience that I have had so far.  We went to the traditional baptismal site of Jesus on the Jordan River.  I never had a sense for what "the wilderness of Jordan" was like . . . more scrubby trees, more brush, more heat, and many more bugs than I ever imagined.  And there were also some things that I had never put together, such as the proximity of the traditional site of the taking up of Elijah into heaven.  Now I knew that he and Elisha had crossed the Jordan, and I know it is possible that it might not have been so close to the baptismal site.  But the collocation of the traditional sites helped me make connections that I had never made, such as how Elijah's being taken up into heaven without tasting death may well symbolize how baptism, the straight and narrow gate, give us access to heaven without dying spiritually.

We parked the buses and walked by the remains of an early Christian church dedicated to John the Baptist.  Near where the course of the river, or at least a branch or channel of it, once flowed, it had steps leading down to a place of pilgrimage baptism, though it is now high and dry.  Our guide, Yousef, shared with us the early Christian evidence that located the baptismal site somewhere quite near here.
A mosaic diagram of the original church of John the Baptist with steps leading down to the baptismal site
The site today

But then as we walked farther through dry tamarix trees, trying to shoo the cloud of flies away from our faces, a reverent silence descended on us, like the feeling we have at the Garden Tomb or the Sacred Grove.  We then came to the rather simple wooden structure providing shade on the Jordanian bank of the River Jordan.  Just some 20 feet or so on the Israeli side is a more recently built, rather fancy pilgrimage point.  After Yousef expressed the importance of this site and its events to him as a Muslim, he turned the time over to me to do our devotional.

Yousef talking to us about Jesus and John from the Islamic perspective

The baptismal site on the Israeli site across the rive
I had some difficulty starting.  Earlier at a rest stop, I had flipped through a Jordanian gift book that described the baptismal site as "the third most holy site in Christianity," after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity.  That really made me think.  We celebrate the fact (and to a lesser extent the place) of the divine conception and miraculous birth of Jesus.  We stand in awe of and reverence the fact (and to a lesser extent the place) of the saving death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We talk about the baptism, we use it as an example or model for our own.  But I think more often than not it gets lost in the shuffle of teachings and miracles and parables.

But I thought to start with the image of Romans 6:4.  Baptism is, for us, both a symbol of death and rebirth.  In a way, Jesus' birth, death, and resurrection are all tied up in that act.  More importantly, the death of our old man or woman of sin and the rising of each of us as new men and women of Christ is what it is all about.

We then read the account of Jesus' baptism in Matthew 3 and talked about what it meant that the voice of God and the sign of the Holy Ghost all happened here or somewhere near here.  We read from Mosiah 18 to review the commitments that we all made in our old baptisms.  We all understand that we have taken upon ourselves the name of Christ, pledged to remember him, and promised to keep his commandment.  But how well, I wonder aloud, have I borne the burdens of others, mourned with those who mourn, and stood as a witness of God at all times and in all things?

With Andy Skinner at the baptismal site
Then we sang "Baptism" from The Children's Songbook.  "Jesus came to John the Baptist, in Judea long ago, and was baptized by immersion, in the river Jordan's flow . . ."  There was a real peace, a real spirit that enveloped us at that point.  I wanted to do more than just teach and sing this time.  So I called upon two of our students, Shalyn Blackham and Michael-Sean Covey to bear their testimonies of following Christ and the importance of baptism, and then we sang "Come, Follow Me."  We then asked my friend and senior colleague, Andy Skinner, to lead us in prayer.

As he led us in prayer, I felt his spirit and commitment, and we were all blessed as he thanked the Lord for us for the blessings of the gospel and prayed that we would all be touched in a powerful way as we moved now from our study of the Old Testament to our feasting upon the New.  We still have a couple of weeks of Old Testament classes to complete, but in a real way, just as Jesus' baptism opened his mortal ministry, our coming to this place is preparing us to start our study of the Gospels.

After that we still had the drive to the border, the various hurdles in making the border crossing, and the drive home.  Home.  How odd, and how wonderful, to think of Jerusalem as home, even if it is only for a season.  But the city feels like it is ours now.  And it was great to get back to the center and into the welcome arms of my family.  I was glad to see each of them, and especially glad to see that Samuel seemed to be feeling better.  He was anxious to have us "all play the Wii together," which we understood meant that he was glad that I was home and that our whole family was once again in the same place again.