Jordan is a modern country with an ancient culture, a land of which visitors can walk through the valleys, hills and plains whose names have become part of human history by virtue of the simple deeds and profound messages of prophets who walked the land and crossed its rivers during their lives. Many of the sites where they are said to have performed miracles or reached out to ordinary people have been identified, excavated and protected, and are now more easily accessible to visitors.
The site of John the Baptist's settlement at Bethany beyond the Jordan, where Jesus was baptised, has long been known from the Bible (John 1:28 and 10:40) and from the Byzantine and medieval texts.
The site has now been identified on the east bank of the Jordan River, in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and is being systematically surveyed, excavated, restored, and prepared to receive pilgrims and visitors in early 2000. The site is located half an hour by car from the Jordanian capital Amman. John 1:28 speaks of Bethany beyond Jordan, where John was baptising, while John 10:40 mentioned an incident when Jesus escaped from hostile crowds in Jerusalem and went away again across the Jordan to the place where John at first baptised. The site of this Bethany beyond (east of) the Jordan River is not to be confused with Bethany near Jerusalem, which was the hometown of Lazarus.
The Bethany area sites formed part of the early Christian pilgrimage route between Jerusalem, the Jordan River, and Mount Nebo.The area is also associated with the biblical account of how the Prophet Elijah (Mar Elias in Arabic) ascended to heaven in a whirlwind on a chariot of fire, having parted the waters of the Jordan River and walked across it with his anointed successor, the Prophet Elisha (2, Kings 2:5-14). Joshua is also said to have crossed the Jordan River at this point.
The Jordanian Department of Antiquities has now identified nearly 20 related sites within an area stretching some 3 km. east of the Jordan River. The site of Bethany beyond the Jordan has also been known by other names over the past 2000 years, including Beth-Abara of Bethabara, Beit el-Obour (house of the crossing in Arabic), Beit Anya, Bethania , Bethennabris, Ainon where now Saphsaphas`( on the sixth century Byzantine Madaba mosaic map of Holy Land), Saphsas or Sapsas, and perhaps also Beth-Barah (Judges 7:24-25). The main settlement of Bethany beyond Jordan, some 1.5 km east of the Jordan River, comprises structures on and around a small nature hill, adjacent to the spring and small oasis at the head of the Wadi Kharrar (a perennial riverbed).
The hill has long been known as Elijah's Hill, or Jebel Mar Elias or Tell Mar Elias in Arabic. The site comprises a settlement that was inhabited from the time of Christ and John the Baptist, throughout most of the Byzantine period, into the early Islamic era, and again in Ottoman centuries. Excavations of the earliest settlement from the days of Christ and John the Baptist have revealed at least three plastered baptism pools, a system of water pipes and channels to carry water to and from the site, and associated domestic and other structures. Ancient writers and pilgrims called the fresh spring at the site of Elijah's Hill both John the Baptist's Spring and Elijah's Spring.
The later fifth to sixth century settlement from the Byzantine era was a substantial walled monastery, comprising plastered pools, water cisterns, and at least three churches and other buildings with plain white and coloured mosaic floors,some with crosses in the mosaics. One church mosaic inscription mentions Rotorius as the 'head of the monastery'. The Byzantine writers Jerome and Eusebius mentioned 'Bethabara beyond the Jordan' in the fourth century as a pilgrimage destination where people went to be baptised. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, is to have crossed the Jordan River and visited Elijah's Hill and the cave where John the Baptist lived, and built a church there to commemorate him. Stone and mud structures on the summit of Elijah's Hill and on the adjacent hills to the south and east date from the mid-to-late Ottoman period (16th-18th centuries), when Greek Orthodox monks established a monastery at the site comprising different structures for worship, their residence and accommodation for visiting pilgrims.
AND 'BETHANY BEYOND THE JORDAN'
The Jordan Valley lies at the northern end of the East African Rift Valley. After descending to the Dead Sea it reaches the level of 400 metres below sea level, which is the lowest point on the surface of the earth. The valley is typically Mediterranean, with mild winters and hot summers. Because of the low elevation, it is a natural greenhouse, rich in minerals and in water from the sloping steep wadis (valleys) on both its sides.
In ancient times, the Jordan Valley was one of the most fertile places in the Middle East, and some of the world's oldest civilisations sprang from this soil. Today a vast network of dams and canals irrigate the region. Signs of life are everywhere. Driving through, especially in spring, you see a soft blanket of wheat, flowers and vegetable gardens.
'BETHANY BEYOND THE JORDAN'
The Jordan Valley also has profound meaning for religious travellers. The area opposite Jericho has been identified for nearly two millennia as the area where Jesus Christ was baptized by John the Baptist. Stunning archaeological discoveries between the Jordan River and Tell al-Kharrar since 1996 have identified this area as biblical 'Bethany beyond the Jordan', where John was living when he baptized Jesus. Tell al-Kharrar's other name, Tell Mar Elias ('St. Elijah's Hill'), is reminiscent of the Prophet Elijah, who ascended from here to heaven. The hillock is now the focal point of the Baptism Site and is covered with the remains of a Byzantine monastery with churches, large baptism pools and a water storage system. Findings from the early 1st century AD confirm the site was inhabited during the lives of Jesus and John the Baptist.
A 3rd century building with a white mosaic pavement has been called an early Christian 'prayer hall'; if this identification is correct, this may be one of the earliest Christian prayer facilities identified anywhere in the world. Also identified on Elijah's Hill is the cave where, according to numerous Byzantine pilgrims' texts, John the Baptist lived and baptized. The Byzantine church built around the cave, and a built water channel emerging from the cave, have been excavated in the last few years and can be now visited.
Closer to the Jordan River are four other Byzantine churches and large pools with an extensive water system. These facilities were mentioned in texts by Byzantine writers, who linked them with the tradition of Jesus' baptism.
HOW TO GET THERE
By car or taxi: The newly opened Baptism Site, offering all the necessary visitors facilities, is about a 40-minutes drive from Amman. Take the Airport Highway to the south and turn right where the brown sign indicates the road to the Dead Sea. The exit to Bethany is also marked by traffic signs.
The part of the Holy Land on the eastern side of the Jordan River, in the country of Jordan, is blessed with the rich spiritual heritage of the full story of Salvation as recorded in the Bible. Abraham, Job, Moses, Ruth, Elijah, John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, Paul and other leading figures from the Bible performed pivotal elements of their divinely-ordained mission in the ancient landscape now within the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
This is why increasing numbers of religious pilgrims today begin their pilgrimages in Jordan and continue into ancient Canaan, modern Palestine and Israel -- for in so doing, they retrace the entire saga of God's revelation to mankind and the development of the Abrahamic faiths.
In and around southern Jordan, God first manifested Himself to human beings, as documented in the narratives related to Abraham, Job, and Moses. Subsequently, this land witnessed the missions of numerous prophets, the completion of the First Covenant through Moses and the Israelites, and the launching of the Christian faith through the Second Covenant, heralded by John the Baptist and completed through Jesus Christ.
The very name of the country and its famous river of baptism and spiritual cleansing -- Jordan -- retains the unique heritage of the land where God repeatedly interacted with human beings and sent them His message of righteousness, love and peace. The heartland of this spiritual landscape that witnessed the unfolding of God's Salvation History is the area alongside the Dead Sea and the Jordan River, in today's west-central Jordan. This area was called the "Plains of Moab" in the Old Testament and formed part of the region of "Peraea" in the New Testament. This is the only area in the Holy Land that combines the traditions of Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus Christ -- key figures in God's redemption of humankind and call for human righteousness.
Other than the central covenants that God made with humankind through Moses and Jesus, Jordan is also where Jacob wrestled with the angel of God, Job suffered and was rewarded for his faith, and Elijah ascended to Heaven. This is where Moses delivered God's Law to humankind, including the great commandments to "love God", "pursue justice and only justice", and to "choose life". Here is where Jesus was baptized by John and anointed by God, where he called his first disciples, and where the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit manifested itself explicitly during the baptism along the Jordan River.
In the land of Jordan, God frequently appeared and encountered humankind in the form of a whirlwind, a cloud of light or dust, an angel, or a voice speaking with the prophets. One biblical passage (Habbakuk 3:3) says explicitly that "God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran". Deuteronomy 33:2 notes that "The Lord came from Sinai, and dawned down on them from Seir; He shone forth from Mount Paran". Teman, Seir and Paran are in the area of Edom, in southern Jordan.
God repeatedly designated Jordan as a land of peace and refuge, where Ruth, Elijah, David, Jesus, John the Baptist and the first Christian communities, among others, found safety and peace. Most of the great biblical prophets journeyed from the east bank of the Jordan River to the west -- symbolically moving from the "wilderness" where men and women are tested, to the promised Holy Land, the Kingdom of God. Among these leading figures whose journeys took them from the east to the west banks of the Jordan River were Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Elijah, John the Baptist and Jesus.
Most of the holy sites in Jordan where the biblical prophets performed miracles or reached out to ordinary people are identified, excavated and easily accessible to visitors today. New sites are discovered every year. Religious pilgrims and visitors to Jordan often can visit archaeological excavations and share in the excitement of identifying ancient remains of places where John the Baptist preached and heralded the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus performed miracles, Elijah lived by faith and Moses completed his mission from God.
Retracing biblical history
The biblical history of humankind starts with Adam and Eve, and this is where we first encounter associations with the land of Jordan. Some early biblical interpretations linked Adam and Eve with the area of the Jordan River and the Jordan Valley. They located the Garden of Eden along the banks of the Jordan River, in the northern Jordan Valley near Wadi Rayyan on the eastern bank and Baysan (Beth-shean) on the western bank of the river. This is not surprising, given the area's lush vegetation and rich animal life. In the book of Genesis, God calls the Jordan Valley plain around the Dead Sea "the Garden of the Lord" (Genesis 13:10). Some early biblical traditions interpret the Genesis 2:10 account of a river that "flowed out of Eden to water the garden" as a description of the upper Jordan River and the Jordan Valley. After being expelled from the Garden of Eden, these traditions say, Adam stood in the waters of the Jordan River for 40 days, praying and begging forgiveness from God.
Other early biblical interpretations suggested that when Cain killed his brother Abel and was banished by God to the area "east of Eden" (Genesis 4:16), he went to one of three sites east of the Jordan River that would later be designated as Cities of Refuge. A person accused of involuntary manslaughter could seek refuge in the one of these cities until he or she could receive a fair trial.
The next major biblical figure linked with Jordan is Noah, described as "righteous and blameless" (Genesis 6:9, Ezekiel 14:14). A tomb/shrine of Noah is locally revered at Karak, in southern Jordan (today Karak is best known for its massive Crusader and medieval Islamic castle).The tomb/shrine of Noah in Jordan is an important reminder of the unbroken continuity of the shared faith principles of the Abrahamic communities from the dawn of history until today.
One of the earliest patriarchal figures in the Bible is Job, whose book is one of the world's great masterpieces of religious literature. The city of Salt, northwest of the Jordanian capital Amman, houses the tomb/shrine of Job, the wealthy, righteous man from the Land of Uz who endured hardships with much patience and ultimately was rewarded with God's blessing (Job 1-3; 42:10; Ezekiel 14:14). Biblical scholars have located the Land of Uz in either northern or southern Jordan. But to those who know the land, the rich biblical description in the Book of Job perfectly describes the varied natural environment, pastoral economy, and patriarchal social structures of ancient southern Jordan, known as Edom in the Old Testament. Job's three friends are identified as being from Teman, Shuh and Naamah, areas located in and near southern Jordan.
The story of Job is thought to have taken place during the Patriarchal Period, in the Early and Middle Bronze Age eras (around 2500-1500 BC). Thus Job's story is regarded as one of the oldest in the Bible, placing Jordan squarely in the genesis of human faith on earth. Job's narrative in his home region in southern Jordan contains:
1) The longest recorded speeches by God Himself;
2) The most profound argument or debate between a human being and God;
3) The first explicit appearance in the Bible of Satan, who asks God's permission to test Job's faith.
Equally fascinating is the use of five different names for God in the book of Job -- El, Elohim, Shadday, Yahweh and Eloah. Job manifests perhaps the Bible's earliest sign of human movement towards monotheism -- the belief in a single God -- and is another aspect of the importance of the land of modern Jordan in the development of the monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
The Patriarchs in Jordan
Around this same time or slightly later, the Bible introduces the Prophet Abraham, the common patriarch of Jews, Christians and Muslims, who passed through northern, central and southern Jordan. The only caravan route from Mesopotamia to Jordan and Canaan explicitly identified in the Bible was the one Jacob used during his return journey from Haran to Canaan.The Bible indicates that this route passed through the hills of northern Jordan, across the fords of the Jabbok River (the modern Zerqa River) and the Jordan River (Genesis 32:22). It then passed through the central Jordan Valley around Succoth (modern Tell Deir 'Alla) and up into the hill country of Canaan and Palestine in the area of Shechem, modern Nablus.
While travelling this route from Mesopotamia to Canaan, Abraham also would have travelled along the King's Highway -- the world's oldest continuously used communication route. Today the scenic King's Highway is a fine paved road that winds, dips, twists and rambles through the heart of the Jordanian highlands. It links ancient Bashan, Gilead and Ammon in the north with Moab, Edom, Paran and Midian in the south, passing through the country's most beautiful landscapes and most important ancient sites.
The King's Highway was first mentioned by name in Numbers 20:17 in relation to Moses as he led the Exodus through southern Jordan. He told the King of Edom that he and his people would "go along the King's Highway" during their journey to Canaan; but the request was refused. This same route was used in the earlier story related in Genesis 14:5-8: four kings from the north attacked Sodom and Gomorrah and the three other Cities of the Plain in southern Jordan and took hostage Abraham's nephew Lot, only to be chased and beaten by Abraham.
The infamous Sodom and Gomorrah and the other Cities of the Plain or (Cities of the Valley) were the subjects of some of the most dramatic and enduring Old Testament stories. Soon after Abraham and Lot arrived in the area around the Dead Sea Plain, they separated their herds and people, and went their own ways (Genesis 13:1-13). God said He would destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of the inhabitants' wicked and arrogant ways, but Abraham successfully argued with God that Lot and any other righteous people there should be spared. Lot's wife disobeyed God's order not to look back at burning Sodom, and was turned into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26). Lot and his two daughters survived, fled to the small town of Zoar (modern Safi), and reportedly lived in a nearby cave (Genesis 19:30). The biblical text says they gave birth to sons whose descendants would become the Ammonite and Moabite people, whose kingdoms were in what is now central Jordan (Genesis 19:31-38).
The New Testament recalls that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the other Cities of the Plain was an "example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire" (Jude 1:7). Jesus Himself, speaking of human behaviour during the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, specifically warned, "Remember Lot's wife". He said that "it would be the same on the day the Son of Man is revealed", meaning that on judgement day every person's fate would depend on whether he or she chose material possessions or God's Kingdom (Luke 17:28-32).
The events in the lives of Abraham and Lot probably took place during the Early or Middle Bronze Age, around 2500-1500 BC -- though the long continuity in historical and religious traditions in Jordan means that events that took place in the times of Abraham and Lot would continue to affect lives for all of recorded time.
By the 6th century AD early Christian era, more than 2000 years after Genesis events related to Sodom and Gomorrah and to Lot and his daughters, the Land of Jordan was dotted with Christian monasteries and churches. On a hillside above the town of Zoar (modern Safi), along the southeastern Dead Sea coast, the Byzantine faithful built a church and monastery dedicated to Saint Lot, recalling the events of Genesis 14. The complex was built around a cave that the Byzantines believed marked the spot where Lot and his daughters had found refuge. The monastery complex has been excavated and can be easily visited. A museum under construction there will display the results of the archaeological excavations at the important sites along the southeastern Dead Sea plain.
The best available candidates to be the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah are the ancient remains of the walled towns of Bab ed-Dhra' and Numeira, in the southeastern Dead Sea coastal plain. They still show the remains of fiery destructions in the Early Bronze Age, after which they were never inhabited again. The three other Cities of the Plain were "Admah, Zeboiim and Bela, that is Zoar" (Genesis 14:2). Their remains are still buried somewhere around the Dead Sea. Archaeological remains of other Early Bronze Age towns, including massive cemeteries with thousands of graves, have been identified along the haunting Dead Sea plain at places such as Feifeh, Safi, Khneizirah and others. Visitors today can easily visit these sites on new roads linking the Dead Sea and Jordan Valley with Aqaba and Petra to the south, or with Amman and northern Jordan.
The Dead Sea itself is one of the most dramatic places on earth, its stunning natural environment matched by its powerful spiritual symbolism. The Bible variously calls it 'Sea of the Arabah', the 'Salt Sea' and the 'Eastern Sea' (Genesis 14:3; Deuteronomy 3:17; Joshua 3:16; Numbers 34:12; Ezekiel 47:18). Arabs have always known it as Bahr Lut (Lot's Sea), while medieval texts called it "the Devil's Sea".
The entire length of its eastern shore, including new hotels with amazing spas of Dead Sea and local thermal waters, is easily accessible today on fine roads from central and southern Jordan. Somewhere along its coastal plain is the Valley of Salt, where King David "slew 18,000 Edomites" (2 Samuel 8:13). The broad plain at the southern end of the Dead Sea still sparkles with natural salt formations along the water's edge. The Araba desert, a "wilderness" of the Bible (Deuteronomy 1:1), is the semi-arid region in southern Jordan between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba, known in Arabic today as Wadi Araba. The 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel was signed in the southern Wadi Araba, north of Aqaba city.
Abraham fathered two sons in his old age -- first Ishmael, and then Isaac. When Ishmael and his mother Hagar were banished by Abraham to please his wife Sarah, they travelled eastwards into the lands of southern Jordan and northern Arabia, the area called Paran and Midian in the Bible (Genesis 14:6, 21:21, Exodus 2:15). Isaac's descendants eventually would become the people known as Israel, while Ishmael would father the Arabian tribes and peoples of the east or the "sons of the east" (Judges 8:10; Isaiah 11:14). Through these two sons, blessings of God would pass on to all humanity.
Jacob and Esau
Some of the most important theological events associated with the life of Isaac's twin sons Jacob and Esau took place in ancient Jordan. Jacob, with his wives Rachel and Leah, his two concubines, and his many children, fled the home of his uncle Laban in Haran, Mesopotamia (Turkey/Iraq area today), and headed back to Canaan. Laban chased down Jacob's party and caught up with them at a place called Mizpah in Gilead, in the hill country above the Jordan Valley (Genesis 31). Jacob and Laban reconciled there and made a lifelong pact of peace, saying, "May the Lord watch between you and me while we are absent one from the other" (Genesis 31:49).
The sites of Penuel and Mahanaim, where Jacob stopped during this transformative return journey from Mesopotamia to Canaan, have long been identified with two sites in north-central Jordan -- Tulul ed-Dahab al-Gharbi and Tulul ed-Dahab al-Sharqi ("the eastern and western hills of gold"). Jacob had reconciled with his uncle Laban, but still feared facing his brother Esau, for Jacob had used trickery to steal Esau's birthright, and Esau had vowed to kill Jacob one day. When Jacob camped at Mahanaim on his way to meet Esau, he was greeted by the angels of God who protected him (Genesis 32:1). Nevertheless, a frightened Jacob made the first prayer in the Bible in which a human being asks God for personal protection (Genesis 32:9-12).
Penuel (" the face of God") was so named by Jacob after he wrestled there all night with God in the form of a man or an angel (Genesis 32:24-30). A massive Bronze and Iron Age temple recently discovered at Pella, in the northern Jordan Valley, is thought to be the largest, best preserved temple from Old Testament times excavated anywhere in the Holy Land.
The discovery leads some scholars to believe that ancient Penuel may have been located at Pella. After Jacob struggled with the angel of God, his name was changed to Isra-'el ("he struggles with God"). Then he reconciled with Esau, continued with his family to Canaan, and soon after emerged as the father of the 12 tribes of Isra-'el. Esau remained in southern Jordan, where the Bible describes him as the father of the Edomites in the land of Seir (also called Edom) (Genesis 36:6-8).
The moving reconciliations in this area between Jacob and Laban, and Jacob and Esau, are only two of many examples of Jordan's enduring symbolism as a place where human beings learned and applied God's command to love one another, and to be merciful, tolerant, humble and forgiving.
The region of southern Jordan below the Zered River (modern Wadi Hasa) includes the biblical lands of Midian, Edom, Paran and Seir (or Mount Seir), fabled for their pasture lands, mineral-rich mountains, strategic communication routes, and expansive deserts (Genesis 14:6; 32:3; Exodus 2:15). During the Exodus, Moses and the people had to detour around Edom because the King of Edom refused them passage. The excavated 7th century BC remains at Busayra town are those of ancient Bozrah, an Edomite capital (Isaiah 34:6). One biblical passage suggests that the Messiah will return from Bozrah (Isaiah 63:1; also, Revelations 19:13), while Habbakuk 3:3 says that the Lord God came from Edom and Paran.
The summit of Umm al-Biyara mountain in central Petra, with its excavated 7th century BC village, is identified by some scholars as biblical Sela ("rock"). King Amaziah of Judah "killed ten thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt and took Sela by storm" (2 Kings 14:7, Isaiah 16:1). Ancient Sela also is identified with the mountaintop stronghold known today as Sele', north of Petra and near Busayra.
Jacob's son Joseph is known to have passed through the land of Jordan only once as an adult, (Genesis 50:10,11). He and other members of the family brought the body of their father Jacob for mourning at a place called "the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan" (i.e., east of the Jordan River Valley), after which they took it for its final burial in Canaan.
The Old Testament lands of Bashan and Gilead in northern Jordan were the scenes of episodes in the lives of Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha, Gideon, and other kings, judges and prophets. Bashan was famed for its thick oak forests, while Gilead was noted for its balm. The Ishmaelite traders who bought Joseph and took him to Egypt were carrying aromatic gum, balm and myrrh from Gilead to Egypt (Genesis 37:25). The southern border of Gilead was usually the Jabbok River, the modern Zerqa River (Numbers 21:24). Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, Jephthah and others travelled along its banks east of the Jordan (Judges 8:4-12; Genesis 33:17). Archaeological remains of biblical towns in Gilead include Rammoth-gilead (Tell Rumeith), which is linked with events in the lives of Ahab, Jezebel, Elijah and Elisha (2 Kings 9:1). Jabesh-gilead in Wadi al-Yabis, whose citizens retrieved and buried the bodies of Saul and his sons, has been identified with modern Tell al-Maqbara, Tell Abu-Kharaz, or Tell al-Maqlub (Judges 21:8-15; 1 Samuel 31:11-13; 2 Samuel 2:4-7).
Moses and the Exodus
Several hundred years after the narratives of Jacob, Esau, Joseph and his brothers, the Bible recounts the key story of the Exodus, which marked the emergence of Moses as the greatest Old Testament figure. Many sites and incidents in Jordan are associated with the story of Moses and the Exodus route, linking his departure from Egypt with his final moments and death on the summit of Mount Nebo. The Bible gives several different Exodus itineraries through the lands of Edom and Moab (Numbers 21, 33; Deuteronomy 2; Judges 11:12-22).
The Bible reports that when Moses and the Israelites reached the land that is now modern Jordan, they had to contend with the peoples and nations that lived there, including Edom, Moab, Ammon and several Amorite kings in central and northern Jordan.
The fertile plains of Bashan in northern Jordan, renowned for their fine cattle, belonged to the Amorite King Og (Numbers 21:33). A giant of a man, King Og was famed for his huge iron 'bed' (probably a coffin), which was preserved in Rabbath-ammon (Deuteronomy 3:11).
The Amorite King Sihon ruled the area of central Jordan from his capital at Heshbon, widely identified with modern Hisban due to the similarity in names (Numbers 21:26). Song of Solomon 7:5, says "…your eyes are like pools in Heshbon…". Modern Hisban village is the first major antiquities site on the King's Highway south of Amman. Some scholars think nearby Tell Jalul is a better candidate for ancient Heshbon. Both sites, 20 minutes by car from Amman, have been excavated and can be visited easily. Fortified in the Roman-Byzantine period and called Esbus, Hisban was also an important early Christian station on the pilgrims' route from Jerusalem to Mount Nebo via the Jordan River. The excavated ancient Tell of Hisban has been equipped with signs and walkways that allow visitors to appreciate its many ancient remains, from the Iron, Graeco-Roman, Byzantine and medieval Islamic periods.
Jethro, the Midianite priest and father of Moses' wife Zipporah (Exodus 3:1) is memorialised at the "tomb of Jethro", an important pilgrimage site in Wadi Shu'ayb, near Salt, northwest of Amman (Shu'ayb is the Arabic name for Jethro). At nearby 'Ain al-Jadur, west of Salt, is the tomb of Gad, the seventh son of Jacob by his wife Leah's maid Zilpah (Genesis 35:26); the tomb of Asher, Jacob's eighth son, also by Zilpah, is in an adjacent valley.
Exodus stations in Jordan
The first site in southern Jordan mentioned in the Exodus journey is Ezion-geber (Numbers 33:35). Ezion-geber and Elath (or Eloth) were port-towns located at or near Jordan's Red Sea port-resort Aqaba. They are best known in the Bible for their roles during the Iron Age, a few hundred years after the time of the Exodus. They are associated with Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and chronic wars between the kings of Judah and Edom (Deuteronomy 2:8, 1 Kings 9:26, 2 Kings 14:22).
Moses wanted to travel from the Aqaba area directly north on the King's Highway. He asked permission from the king of Edom to "travel along the King's Highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory", but the request was turned down. The Bible says that Moses and the people then travelled west of Edom until they reached the Zered Valley (Wadi Hasa), from where they travelled due north through Moab, or possibly skirted around Moab along an ancient desert caravan track. (The route of that desert caravan track is today's Desert Highway. Visitors to Jordan usually travel between Amman, Petra, and Aqaba in south Jordan along the Desert Highway in one direction and the King's Highway in the other direction).
One Exodus itinerary has Moses and the Israelites passing through the Petra area in Edom. Local tradition says the spring of Wadi Musa ("Valley of Moses") at Petra is where Moses struck the rock and brought forth water (Numbers 20:10-11). A fresh water spring still emerges from the rocks at the entrance of the modern town. The Bible says that Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land, but could only glimpse it from Mount Nebo, because he struck the rock with his rod instead of speaking to the rock to bring forth water, as God had commanded (Numbers 20:12-24).
Aaron, the brother of Moses and Miriam, was "called by God" to be Moses' "voice" or "prophet", and God spoke directly to Moses and Aaron (Exodus 4:14-16, 7:1; Numbers 20:23; Hebrews 5:4). Aaron died in Jordan and was buried at Mount Hor at Petra, now called Jabal Harun ("Mount Aaron") in Arabic (Numbers 20:22-29). A Byzantine church and later an Islamic shrine/tomb of Aaron were built on the summit of the mountain, which today attracts pilgrims from all over the world. Aaron was the first high priest in the Bible, and is remembered in particular for the beautiful priestly blessing that God commanded him to give people: "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance on you and give you peace" (Numbers 6:24-26).
The next Exodus station, Zalmonah, is often identified as the village of Bir Madhkur in southern Wadi Araba. The important stop of Punon ("precious stone") is widely associated with the sprawling, partly excavated ancient copper mining settlement at Feinan, southeast of the Dead Sea. This is thought to be the place where the incident of the brazen serpent took place (Numbers 21:4-10). God instructed Moses to erect a bronze, or brazen, serpent on a pole to stop the plague that He had sent to kill the rebellious Israelites during the Exodus journey. All who looked up at the raised serpent were spared death by the plague. A modern sculpted replica of the brazen serpent stands today on the summit of Mount Nebo, where Moses died, and the curative serpent wrapped around a pole later became the symbol of the pharmaceutical industry. The raised serpent would be recalled in the New Testament as a precursor to the lifting of Jesus on the cross, giving life to all those who looked up to the raised figure. Jesus Himself said: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life" (John 3:14-15).
The next Exodus station they reached was Oboth, which could be 'Ain Ubur ("spring of the passage"), northeast of Busayra. They next stopped at lye-abarim, "in the desert that faces Moab toward the sunrise". The Zered Valley, today's Wadi Hasa, is where Moses and the Israelites camped at the end of their wanderings through the wilderness, as they entered central Transjordan (Numbers 21:12, Deuteronomy 2:13-14). Dibon-gad, the next station, is another name for the Moabite capital of Dibon, modern Dhiban, whose excavated grand citadel was the capital of the Moabite King Mesha in the 9th century BC (Numbers 21:26-31; Isaiah 15:1-9). Dhiban is located just north of Wadi al-Mujib, the Bible's Arnon River (Numbers 21:24; Judges 11:18). After stopping at Almon-diblathaim, the Exodus party reached "the other side of the Arnon" (Wadi al-Mujib), and then stopped at Beer (or Beer-elim), thought to be in the Wadi Themed south of Madaba. Mattanah north of the Wadi al-Mujib was the next station, followed by Nahaliel and Bamoth. They then reached the Mountains of Ab'arim ("mountain beyond"), the range in northern Moab and southern Ammon, north of Heshbon, that includes Mount Nebo (Numbers 27:12; Deuteronomy 32:49).
The epic wilderness journey finally brought Moses and his people to the Plains of Moab, the wide floor of the Jordan Valley east of the Jordan River, along the northeast Dead Sea Plain opposite Jericho (Numbers 33:49; Deuteronomy 34:8). The Plains of Moab were so named because this area once fell under the control of the King of Moab in the Iron Age. Here is where Joshua prepared the people for the crossing of the river into Canaan (Joshua 3:1).
The area includes several archaeological mounds identified with biblical sites. Abel-shittim (modern Tell Hammam) is where Joshua was designated as Moses' successor and from where Joshua and the Israelites set out to cross the Jordan River (Numbers 27:23; Joshua 3:1). Beth-nimrah (Tell Nimrin) was a fortified city of the tribe of Gad (Numbers 32:36). Beth-jeshimoth was a Moabite frontier town that God promised to destroy in a prophecy in (Ezekiel 25:9). It is associated with the ancient remains at Khirbat Suwayma or Tell 'Azeimeh (Numbers 33:49). The Wadi Nimrin riverbed that enters the Plains of Moab from the eastern hills is likely the biblical Waters of Nimrin, which once dried up in antiquity (Isaiah 15:6; Jeremiah 48:34).
Mount Nebo, ten minutes west of Madaba by car, was the final station in the life of Moses, the "servant of the Lord" and "friend of God" (Deuteronomy 32:49; 34:5). Moses and the people camped "in the valley near Beth-peor". Biblical Beth-peor has long been associated with the site known today as 'Ayun Musa ("Springs of Moses"), a small, lush valley northeast of Mount Nebo (Deuteronomy 3:29; 34:6; Joshua 13:20). From Mount Nebo's windswept promontory overlooking the Dead Sea, the Jordan River Valley, Jericho and the hills of Jerusalem, Moses viewed the Promised Land that he would never enter. He died and "was buried in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth-peor, and the location of his tomb remains unknown until today." Jeremiah, after consulting an oracle, reportedly hid the Ark of the Covenant, the tent and the altar of incense at Mount Nebo (2 Maccabees 2:4-8).
The early Christians revered this spot on Mount Nebo and made pilgrimages to it from Jerusalem. A small church was built there in the 4th century AD to commemorate the end of the life of Moses (the stones of that church remain in their original place in the wall around the apse area). That first church subsequently was expanded in the 5th and 6th centuries into the present large basilica with its stunning collection of Byzantine mosaics.
This ancient memorial to Moses received worldwide attention in March 2000 when Pope John Paul II began his spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Land with prayers in the basilica, and then stood on the Mount Nebo promontory and viewed the scene that Moses saw more than 3,000 years ago. The viewing platform erected for the Pope's visit remains and is used by pilgrims who want to enjoy the same profound, panoramic views of the Holy Land area around the Jordan Valley and the hills of Jerusalem.
After Joshua was anointed in the Plains of Moab by Moses as his successor upon God's specific command, Joshua completed Moses' mission by miraculously crossing the Jordan River with his people (Joshua 3:14-17). The traditional crossing point has been identified as the ford directly opposite Jericho, known as Bethabara, or Beit 'Abarah ("house of the crossing"), and this may be the same ford also known in the Bible as Beth-barah, Beth-arabah and Bethany beyond the Jordan (Judges 7:24-25; John 1:28). This also has long been identified as the spot where, centuries later, the Prophets Elijah and Elisha divided the Jordan's waters "to the right and left" and crossed to the eastern bank of the river (2 Kings 2:8).
Two other important biblical episodes associated with Moses' last days took place in this region. The Moabite King Balak, fearful of the advance of Moses and the Israelites, hired the folk-prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balaam climbed three mountaintops around Mount Nebo overlooking the Plains of Moab, but instead of cursing the Israelites he obeyed God's command and blessed them (Numbers 22, 23, 24). At one point, God used Balaam's donkey to send the folk-prophet a message, a telling example of how God used even animals and non-Israelite prophets to communicate with humankind. Balaam would be remembered as an example of a false prophet who loved gain from wrongdoing but was rebuked for his transgression, for he ultimately was killed by Moses' army (2 Peter 2:15-16; Numbers 31:8). A text with Balaam's name and some prophetic curses was excavated in the Iron Age levels at Tell Deir 'Alla in the central Jordan Valley (biblical Succoth) -- one of several instances in which archaeological texts found in Jordan correspond to biblical events.
The Plains of Moab also was the setting for the story of Phinehas, son of Eleazar, and grandson of Aaron, who demonstrated his zealotry for God by spearing an Israelite man and a Midianite woman who were engaging in a religious sexual ritual (Numbers 25:1-8). Some very early biblical traditions suggest that Moses and Phinehas never died, but were taken to heaven, like Enoch and Elijah. If this were so, then three of four Old Testament figures taken to heaven -- Phinehas, Moses and Elijah - may have ascended to God from the area in modern Jordan between Mount Nebo and the Jordan River.
After the Exodus
Following the time of Moses and Joshua, the next two centuries in the biblical narrative are known as "the days when the judges governed" (Ruth 1:1), and incidents in the lives of several judges took place in Jordan. When Gideon chased the Midianites to the east, he travelled on the main road through the central Jordan Valley, probably following the path of the Bible's Way of the Plain (2 Samuel 18:23). The massive, excavated Tell Deir 'Alla in the central plain has been identified as the ancient market and cultic centre of Succoth. It was visited by Gideon (Judges 8:5-16) when he was chasing the Midianites to the east. Succoth refused to assist him, so on his return journey Gideon carried through with his pledge to thrash the bodies of the men of Succoth "with the thorns of the wilderness and with briars". A small museum at the Tell Deir 'Alla archaeological station includes artifacts excavated at several ancient sites in the central valley.
The nearby town of Zerathan (or Zeredah) is linked with episodes in the lives of Solomon, Joshua and Gideon (1 Kings 7:46; Joshua 3:16). When Joshua and the people crossed the Jordan River, the waters stopped and "piled up in a heap...at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zerathan". The site of Zerathan is identified with the large, excavated Tell as-Saidiyya. Adam is identified with Tell Damyeh, in the central valley in Jordan. Another candidate for Zerathan is the nearby excavated Iron Age biblical era site called Tell al-Mazar. This area on the Jordan Valley floor between Succoth and Zerathan, described in 2 Chronicles 4:17, is where King Solomon's master coppersmith Huran cast the bronze and other decorative elements for the temple in Jerusalem.
Jephthah the Gileadite is associated in the Bible with the towns of Mizpah in Gilead (possibly modern Anjara) and Zaphon (identified with Tell al-Qos) (Judges 11:29; 12:1). He defeated the Ammonites in battle at Aroer, Minnith and Abel-keramim (Judges 11:33), then defeated the Ephraimites near the fords of the Jordan River (Judges 12:4-6). The ancient name of Aroer, located on the northern rim of Wadi al-Mujib, is retained today in the village and excavated biblical era antiquities site called Arair in Arabic. Abel-keramim is identified with the massive archaeological mound called Tell al-Umayri, six miles south of Amman alongside the Desert Highway. It has been excavated since the early 1980s and reveals some of the best preserved urban remains from the Bronze and Iron Age biblical periods, including a reconstructed four-room house that allows visitors to peek into a typical home used by the biblical era Ammonites, Moabites and Israelites.
Also from the time of the judges is the famous story of the Moabite woman Ruth and her family. Ruth was the great grandmother of David, and ancestor of Jesus Christ (Ruth 1-4; Matthew 1:5). During a period of famine in Judah, her family found refuge in the region of Moab, south of the Wadi al-Mujib, which was famed for its rich agricultural and pasture lands (Jeremiah 48:33). After her husband died, Ruth returned to Judah with her mother-in-law rather than stay in Moab. Ruth became a symbol of deep loyalty and love, with her oft-quoted "Entreat me not to leave thee nor to return from following after thee, for whither thou goest, I will go, and whither thou lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God" (Ruth 1:16). The lineage of David and Jesus from the Moabite Ruth is another example of how God used people from all nations and tribes to spread His divine message of love to all humankind.
The next significant biblical figure associated with the land of Jordan was King David, who lived in the early 10th century BC. He sought refuge at Mahanaim in Gilead during the revolt of his son Absalom. He was given food and assistance by several men from Ammon and Gilead (2 Samuel 17:26-29; 1 Kings 2:7). Mahanaim has been associated with the modern village of Mihna, in the forested hills east of the Jordan Valley. Absalom died hanging by his hair from a tree in the nearby forest of Ephraim in Gilead (2 Samuel 18:6-16). David was sitting in the city gate of Mahanaim when he received the news of his son's death (2 Samuel 18:24-32). A mosque/shrine to Nebi Daoud ("Prophet David", in Arabic) is located at Mazar al-Shamali in the northern Jordan hills. It recalls King David's visits to Mahanaim and reflects his status among Arabs as a righteous man and important prophet.
The region around the Jordanian capital Amman was known in the Bible as Ammon or the Ammonite Kingdom (Deuteronomy 2:37; 2 Samuel 10:2), famed for its springs and citadel. Most visitors to Jordan start their visits in Amman, the ancient Rabbath-ammon (or Rabbah), citadel and capital of the Ammonites. Still standing are its massive fortifications, where David arranged for Uriah the Hittite to die in battle so that David could marry Uriah's widow Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:1-27).
David's son Solomon is noted in the Bible for his wisdom, and was one of Jesus' ancestors (1 Kings 10:24; Matthew 1:6, 6:29, 12:42). One of Solomon's wives, Naamah, was an Ammonite, and was also an ancestress of Jesus Christ (1 Kings 14:21, 31). Solomon is known to Arabs and Muslims as Nebi Suleiman (the Prophet Solomon), and a shrine to Solomon stands at Sarfah, near Karak.
Elijah and Elisha
About a century after the time of David and Solomon, the great Prophet Elijah emerges from the land of Transjordan, where key incidents in his life took place. He is called "Elijah the Tishbite", having been born in the Tishbe area in the forested mountains of Gilead (1 Kings 17:1). Tishbe in Gilead has long been associated with the archaeological remains at modern Listib. Adjacent to Listib are the newly excavated remains of a large 6th - 7th century AD Byzantine church on the hilltop site long identified with Elijah, known in Arabic as Tell Mar Elias ("the mound of Saint Elijah"). Prophet Elijah ascended into heaven "on a chariot of fire and horses of fire", which later gave rise to the gospel song "Swing low, Sweet chariot". From as early as the centuries immediately after Jesus' time, the place of Elijah's ascension to heaven has been known as Elijah's Hill. This small natural hill, about one mile east of the Jordan River, forms the core of the ancient settlement called "Bethany beyond the Jordan" in the New Testament (John 1:28), where John was living when he baptized Jesus. The natural stream here, called Wadi al-Kharrar today, is a leading candidate for the Brook Kerith (or the Kerith Ravine), the stream "east of the Jordan" where God commanded Elijah to seek refuge from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Every morning and evening ravens arrived with meat and bread for Elijah (1 Kings 17:3-6). Elijah would be remembered frequently in the New Testament as a righteous, ordinary man who achieved great deeds by the power of prayer and faith in God (Luke 4:25-26; James 5:16-18).
Upon God's instruction, Elijah travelled to Abel-meholah in the northern Jordan Valley to anoint the Prophet Elisha as his successor (1 Kings 19:1-21). Abel-meholah has been associated with several sites in Jordan, including Tell al-Maqlub and Tell al-Maqbara, which can be easily visited, but have never been excavated. Elijah found Elisha working 12 pairs of oxen in the field. Throwing his mantle over the shoulder of Elisha, Elijah passed on to him the duties of God's prophet. Elisha was personally involved in the episode when the kings of Judah, Israel and Edom marched for seven days along "the Way of the Wilderness of Edom" to attack the Moabite King Mesha at his fortress of Kir-moab (or Kir-hereseth) (2 Kings 3:4-27). Then the capital of Moab, Kir-moab is now known as Karak town. During that incident, Elisha miraculously provided the three kings' armies with water and helped to defeat the Moabite forces. However, the Moabite stronghold was spared when King Mesha sacrificed his oldest son on the citadel walls. The Mesha Stele, or Dhiban Stone, was a large basalt stone on which Mesha left a public record of his victory over the Israelites. It is the longest known original, non-biblical indigenous text about a historical episode that is also mentioned in the Bible, and another example of how archaeological finds in Jordan often correspond to the biblical narratives. The original Dhiban Stone is in the Louvre Museum in Paris, but copies are on view at the archaeological museums in Amman and Irbid.
Elisha walked across the Jordan River with Elijah, and was on the ground on the eastern bank of the river when Elijah ascended to heaven in a whirlwind. Elijah threw his mantle down as he ascended, and Elisha picked it up and used it to separate the waters of the Jordan River as he crossed back to the western bank of the river to start his prophetic mission (2 Kings 2:7-14). Elisha once told the Syrian general Naaman to wash himself seven times in the Jordan River to rid himself of his leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-14). This incident in the mid 9th century BC was a precursor to the symbolism of this holy river for baptism and spiritual cleansing in the New Testament.
Many scholars have seen parallels between Elisha and Jesus Christ: both pursued itinerant ministries, had disciples, challenged the political powers of their days, and performed similar miracles that included bringing the dead back to life, cleansing lepers, and walking on water or splitting the water of the Jordan River to walk through it.
New Testament events
More than eight centuries after the time of Elijah and Elisha, John the Baptist would be the next major biblical figure to appear in the land of Jordan. He first appears in the Bible in the wilderness around the lower Jordan Valley, where he lived an ascetic life, preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and told people to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. The Bible reports that John preached and baptized in a place called Bethany beyond the Jordan, which Byzantine and Medieval texts as well as modern archaeology identify as the site called Tell al-Kharrar and Elijah's Hill (Tell Mar Elias in Arabic). This site has long been identified as the same place from which traditions says Elijah ascended to heaven. It was appropriate for John the Baptist to appear and begin his mission at the same place from where Elijah ended his own, for both of these leading biblical prophets played similar theological and spiritual roles: they confronted the religious laxity of their times, challenged political authority, announced the imminent arrival of the Messiah, and urged people to repent and live a righteous life.
The area around the large loop in the Jordan River opposite Jericho has been identified for nearly two millennia as the area where Jesus Christ was baptized by John the Baptist. Stunning archaeological discoveries since 1996 between the Jordan River and Tell al-Kharrar have identified this area as Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was living when he baptized Jesus (John 1:28). John 10:40 refers to this same place when it says that, fleeing for his safety after being threatened with stoning in Jerusalem, "Jesus went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days".
Pottery, coin, stone objects and architectural remains confirm the site was used in the early 1st century AD, during the time of Jesus and John the Baptist. The extensive architectural remains visible on the main site are from a 5th-6th century Byzantine monastery, with churches, baptism and water storage pools, water systems and chapels. A 3rd century (Roman era) building with fine mosaics has been called an early Christian "prayer hall". If this identification is correct, this may be one of the earliest Christian prayer facilities identified anywhere in the world. Also identified here is the cave where, according to numerous Byzantine pilgrims' texts, John the Baptist lived and baptized. The pilgrims noted that fresh water flowed out of the cave, and John drank the water and used it for baptism. The cave was turned into a church in the Byzantine period (early 4th to early 7th centuries AD). The church built around the cave, and a water channel emerging from the cave, have been recently excavated and can be visited today.
Closer to the Jordan River are four other Byzantine churches and large pools with an extensive water system, archaeologically dated to the 5th-6th centuries AD. These facilities were mentioned in texts by Byzantine writers, who linked them with the tradition of Jesus' baptism on the eastern bank of the river.
This area and its settlements was known in the period from Jesus' time to the 6th century AD by several different names in different languages, including Bethabara, Bethania, Ainon and Saphsaphas. The site is depicted and named on the 6th century AD mosaic map of the Holy Land located in Madaba. Today the area is called in Arabic al-Maghtas ("the place of baptism"). New roads and visitor facilities now make the site easily accessible from Amman, the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea.
John the Baptist, who started and ended his mission in Jordan, is the patron saint of Jordan for Roman Catholic Christians. Herod Antipas imprisoned John (Luke 3:20). We know from the writings of the 1st century AD Roman-Jewish historian Josephus that the Herodian palace/fort where John was imprisoned and beheaded was the awe-inspiring site of Machaerus (modern Mukawir), a hilltop fortified palace overlooking the central Dead Sea region and the hills of Palestine and Israel. The site is easily reached by car in 25 minutes from Madaba. Here John the Baptist was beheaded after Salome's fateful dance (Matthew 14:3-11). Like its sister site of Masada on the opposite side of the Dead Sea, Machaerus was also the scene of a Roman siege of local troops during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome.
John and Jesus
John the Baptist prepared the way for the arrival of the Messiah, and John's ministry itself marked the beginning of the preaching of "the gospel of the Kingdom of God" (Luke 16:16). Some of the pivotal events in John's life and his heralding of the coming of Jesus took place in Jordan. Though Jesus Christ's divinely inspired role was announced before and during His birth, He launched His public ministry at Bethany beyond the Jordan at age 30, immediately after He was baptized by John and anointed by God (Luke 3:21-23; Acts 1:21-22). Several seminal events happened during Jesus' three-day stay with John at Bethany beyond the Jordan. John called Jesus "the Lamb of God" and Jesus gathered his first disciples (Simon-Peter, Andrew, Philip and Nathaneal) (John 1:35-51). Here is where Jesus is first reported to have prayed to God (Luke 3:21). When Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism (Mark 1:12), He may well have been in the stark, desolate marl area immediately east of the Jordan River and north of Bethany beyond the Jordan. A nearby valley to the south, near Mount Nebo, is known to this day as "the valley of the devil" (Wadi al-'Afreet). Jesus often travelled, taught and healed the sick throughout Transjordan, in the regions of the Decapolis and Peraea, and from here he started his last, purposeful journey to Jerusalem (Matthew 19:1). Among the parables and statements that Jesus spoke in the land of Jordan were those about the Kingdom of Heaven belonging to the children; the prohibition against divorce ("..what God has joined together let no man separate..."); the advice to the young ruler that to inherit eternal life he must sell his possessions and give to the poor; that it is "easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God"; and that "the last shall be first and the first last" (Matthew 19; Mark 10:1-31).
A local tradition at the town of Anjara, in the hills of Gilead east of the valley, recounts that Jesus, His disciples, and His mother Mary passed through the town and rested there in a cave, which has been commemorated in the form of a modern shrine/church to Our Lady of the Mountain. This was one of five pilgrimage sites for the Jubilee Year 2000 designated by the Catholic Churches of the Middle East. The others were Mount Nebo, Machaerus, Tell Mar Elias near Ajloun, and the Jordan River region at Bethany beyond the Jordan. Pope John Paul II visited Mount Nebo and Bethany beyond the Jordan during his March 2000 pilgrimage in Jordan.
The Decapolis in Jordan
In the New Testament period, northern Jordan was the region of the Decapolis ('ten cities' in Greek), where Jesus taught and performed miracles (Matthew 4:25; Mark 5:20). The New Testament records that, "...there followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis and from Judaea and from beyond Jordan" (Matthew 4:25). All the Decapolis cities except for one are located today in northern Jordan or southern Syria, on the eastern side of the Jordan River Valley.
The Decapolis city of Gadara (modern Umm Qays), with its spectacular panoramic views overlooking the Sea of Galilee, is the site of Jesus' miracle of the Gadarene swine, where he sent demented spirits out of a man who lived in tombs at the entrance to the city. Jesus sent the spirits into a herd of pigs that ran down the hill and drowned in the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39). A rare five-aisle basilica from the 4th century AD recently was discovered and excavated at Umm Qays. It was found to be built directly over a Roman-Byzantine tomb, with views into the tomb from the interior of the church. It also was located alongside the Roman city gate on the road from the Sea of Galilee. This distinctive arrangement of a church above a tomb clearly was designed to commemorate the very spot where the Byzantine faithful believed that Jesus performed this miracle.
Several other Decapolis cities in Jordan are easy to visit by car. Philadelphia (modern Amman), still sports two theatres, a Roman temple and several Byzantine churches. Amman Archaeological Museum has one of the finest collections of ancient artifacts in the Middle East, including some of the Copper Dead Sea Scrolls and the famous plastered skulls from the late Stone Age town at Jericho.
Gerasa (Jarash), the most complete and best preserved Graeco-Roman city in the Middle East, is included in the Bible's mention of "the region of the Gerasenes" (Mark 5:1; Luke 8:26). At a fountain within a large ecclesiastical complex, the city's Byzantine citizens annually celebrated the miracle of Jesus' turning water into wine. This "Fountain Court" in Jarash is a favourite destination for modern pilgrims who want to re-enact the travels and teachings of Jesus in the splendid 1st century AD cities of the Decapolis.
Pella (Tabaqat Fahl) nestles exactly at sea level in the northern Jordan Valley foothills, with its antiquities from the Old and New Testament periods. Persecuted early Christians from Jerusalem fled to Pella for safety. Pella also may be the site of Old Testament Penuel, where Jacob wrestled all night with God in the form of a man.
Ghost-like Umm al-Jimal in northeastern Jordan is a Classical era provincial town built totally of black basalt stone, and is particularly noteworthy for its numerous Byzantine churches. It is not mentioned as a Hellenized Decapolis town, but for most of its eight centuries of life was an indigenous Nabataean-Arab town on the frontier of the Decapolis. Today it offers pilgrims and tourists a powerful example of the provincial towns in the Graeco-Roman period that Jesus and His Disciples and Apostles would have visited during their ministry.
During the time of Jesus and the Apostles, one of the East Mediterranean's greatest commodities emporiums was located in the southern Jordan city of Petra, the largely rock-cut capital of the Nabataean Kingdom. The site flourished during Nabataean rule from the 3rd century BC to the early 2nd century AD, when it was occupied by the Roman Emperor Trajan. Petra seems to have been mentioned in the Old Testament under several possible names, including Sela and Joktheel (2 Kings 14:7). Petra was, almost certainly the last staging post of the three kings who took frankincense, gold and myrrh to honour the baby Jesus in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-12). The King Aretas mentioned in 2 Corinthians 11:32 was a Nabataean king who ruled from Petra.
After Jesus' days, the Apostle Paul would have passed through northern Jordan on his route from Jerusalem to Damascus. Paul's years in Arabia after his conversion on the road to Damascus were spent in the Nabataean Kingdom that dominated Transjordan at that time (Galatians 1:17). Thus the land of Jordan was a significant setting for the formation of early Christian theological doctrines that thereafter would define the new Christian faith and church.
Another critical moment in the history of the new movement that ultimately would become known as Christianity occurred east of the Jordan River in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, when Nazarenes, Ebionites and other early Jewish-Christian groups fled Roman persecution in Jerusalem and found refuge in the eastern bank of the Jordan Valley. Byzantine writers of the 4th century AD record that in particular these groups settled safely in or around Pella, where archaeological excavations have uncovered distinctive coffins and artifacts associated with these first Christians.
Some of the world's earliest known churches have been recently discovered in Jordan. These include a 4th century church at Umm Qays, a possible 2nd or 3rd century AD "prayer hall" at Bethany beyond the Jordan, and the remains of a mud brick building at Aqaba that may be the world's oldest known purpose built church. The Aqaba building dates from the late 3rd or early 4th century AD. The American archaeologists who excavated it believe it was a church because of its unusual layout, its many decorative glass lamps, its association with an adjacent Byzantine cemetery, and its parallels with similar early mud brick churches in Egypt.
Another powerful manifestation of the faith and art of the first Christian centuries may be enjoyed today in Madaba city and its surrounding region in central Jordan. Between the 4th and 7th centuries AD, the prosperous ecclesiastical centre of Madaba produced one of the world's finest collections of Byzantine mosaic art, many fine examples of which are well preserved today. Several church floor mosaics may be seen in their original locations, while others have been preserved and moved for protection and display in the Madaba Archaeological Museum and the Madaba Archaeological Park. The park houses Jordan's oldest mosaic floor (a 1st century BC floor from the Herodian palace-fortress at Machaerus). Madaba's masterpiece, in the Orthodox Church of St. George, is the 6th century AD mosaic map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land -- the earliest original map of the Holy Land in any form to survive from antiquity.
Madaba and its hinterland also were repeatedly mentioned in the Old Testament, then called Medaba and featured in narratives related to Moses and the Exodus, David's war against the Moabites, Isaiah's oracle against Moab, and King Mesha of Moab's rebellion against Israel (Numbers 21:30; 1 Chronicles 19:7; Isaiah 15:2). Mephaath, a Moabite city known for its pasture lands, is firmly identified at modern Umm ar-Rasas, southeast of Madaba (Joshua 13:18; 1 Chronicles 6:66; Jeremiah 48:21). Excavations here uncovered some of the finest Byzantine church mosaics in the Middle East, including a large carpet depicting cities in Palestine and Jordan.
The unbroken legacy of the birth and development of faith in the land of Jordan, including key episodes in the history of Christianity, continues today in the witness of Jordanian Christians who form a vital part of the country's population. Many Christian churches and communities in Jordan trace their heritage directly to the days of Jesus and John the Baptist. They often pray in churches first built in the Byzantine era on the same sites where Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Elijah, Jesus, John, Mary and other leading biblical figures lived or passed through. Jordanian Christians include Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical denominations, and make up about five percent of Jordan's population.
"Bethany Beyond the Jordan"
The Baptism Site at "Bethany beyond the Jordan" (John 1:28) is one of the most recent significant archaeological and religious discoveries. In addition to its unique spiritual and cultural aspects, the site harbours some special natural values, which makes it a true eco-tourism location.
"Bethany beyond the Jordan" includes a salt marsh wetland, which is stretching along Wadi al-Kharrar. The wadi is a tributary of the Jordan River and is located within its larger flood plain, between the monastic complex on Elijah's Hill and the Jordan itself. The wetland area is following the stream of Wadi al-Kharrar and contains typical flora and fauna: tree frog and marsh frog as well as several species of hydrophilic dragonflies, water beetles and some crustaceans.
In addition, a considerable number of migratory and wetland birds are recorded at the site. Birdlife International and Wetland International have both declared the whole Jordan River basin as significant bird and wetland areas; and many birds, mammal and reptiles within the site are on the IUCN Red List as regionally or globally threatened or endangered species.
Taking into account vegetation type and water availability, the Baptism Site wetland ecosystem includes five distinguished habitats:
Dense Reed Beds:
Consisting mainly of Phragmites australis. These beds provide the perfect feeding and roosting area for many reptiles, birds, and mammals, and are ecologically important for crustaceans and dragonflies.
Consisting mainly of Tamarix Jordanis. These are important feeding and roosting areas for bird species such as Turtle Dove, Palm Dove, Collard Dove, White-breasted Kingfisher, Dead Sea Sparrow and Black Francolin.
Salty and brackish water marshes:
These marshes are vital for migratory waterfowl and are ecologically important for fresh water and wetland animals and plants such as algae, weeds, dragonflies, crustaceans, amphibians and others.
These are dry sandy hills with scarce vegetation and many small holes and caves. They provide excellent grounds for many reptiles, birds and mammals to occupy and colonize.
The banks of the river are heavily dense with semi-tropical and wetland vegetation, offering refuge for many migratory birds and giving life to a whole complex and interdependent biological community. The river itself is full with fifteen species of fresh water fish, some of which are endemic to the Levant.
The Baptism Site at "Bethany beyond the Jordan" has many values. On one hand it reflects the diversity of the Jordanian tourism as an archaeological, natural and religious site, on the other hand Bethany's rediscovery was made possible by the peace treaty with Israel, and is considered a dividend of peace. The historical, spiritual and ecological significance necessitated a careful and comprehensive planning of the newly opened archaeological park and nature reserve, whereby the continuing and almost daily uncovering of new treasures was accompanied by the most thorough planning for the safety and preservation of the antiquities and the ecological system.
Bethany is only 40 minutes away from Amman. Take the Airport Highway south of Amman and turn right where the brown sign indicates the road to the Dead Sea. Fifteen minutes before reaching the Dead Sea, the signs will indicate Bethany's location.