By SUSAN DENNIN
Traveling in the footsteps of ancient pilgrims took on a deeper meaning during my visit to Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the hallowed ground where the bible tells us the prophet Elijah ascended into heaven on a chariot of fire and where St. John the Baptist came in the spirit of Elijah.
In the late 1990s, landmine-clearing operations east of the Jordan River enabled archaeological digs to unearth an ancient church on a site where the Jordan River flowed in the first century, matching the place marked on the Madaba map. The discovery led to a growing consensus among archaeologists and scholars that this is indeed the place where John the Baptist preached and baptized. The protected area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The path from the caves where John the Baptist was living down to the river, takes you literally and figuratively on a journey from darkness to light. Isaiah’s words speaking of a messenger being sent to pave the way; a voice crying out in the wilderness, were brought into stark focus as I walked through the tangled underbrush and reeds towards the river. I was blessed to have the opportunity, typically afforded only to pontiffs and VIP’s, to go down to the spring, anoint myself with the water and collect some as a treasured memory. Spiritually, this was the locus of my trip. It is here that we witness the full manifestation of the Trinity, the place where Christianity was born!
Our next stop fulfilled one of my “bucket list” items. Petra, situated between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, is just as magnificent as you might imagine. The rose-red city, dating to 300 B.C., was meticulously half carved/half built out of rock first by the Nabateans. It became a major caravan route during Hellenistic and Roman times for incense, spices and silks as it stood at the crossroads of Egypt, Syria and Arabia. Our group traveled through the Siq, the camel caravan route, just after sunrise. You are left in awe as you wind through the cavernous path and, through a narrow gap, catch your first glimpse of the Treasury. There is a plethora of tombs, caves, temples, monasteries and active archeological sites throughout Petra. A hike out to the far end of the city is not for the weak limbed, but it affords you a view of the beautiful monastery and the vista of the Rift Valley.
After Petra, we traveled south through the Jordanian countryside and arrived at Wadi Rum, an otherworldly desert landscape. This place is often associated with T.E. Lawrence, better known as Laurence of Arabia, who described this place as “vast, echoing and God-like.” It has been a movie location for many films, most recently, The Martian. There are several hundred Bedouin who call this place home and it has become a center of eco-tourism. Sunset in this desert setting is hard to put into words. Our group was treated to a true Bedouin experience as we camped in tents (yes, it was “glamping”) and dined on a traditional dish called Zarb, one of the delicious treasures of Bedouin culture. We experienced the full drama of the meal preparation as the food was dug out of the pit and ceremoniously arranged on platters; the delicious aromas from the spices filled the gathering space. Truly a treat for the senses!
The following morning, we visited Mukawir, a hilltop fortress accessed by steep winding roads. The site was quiet and sobering. Herod Antipas’ castle lies in ruins atop the acropolis, but the story of John the Baptist’s arrest, execution and burial, which took place there, lives on in the Bible and through the story of Salome. It was at that site that she performed her infamous dance and demanded the head of John the Baptist. You can still see the many caves dotting the landscape; some probably were used as prison cells.
We ended our pilgrimage at the Dead Sea and had the opportunity to float in the healing waters while contemplating the experiences of the past 10 days. I found myself standing on the east bank at dusk, looking out onto the lights of Jerusalem twinkling across the sea. The view reminded me of how connected this Holy Land is, despite the political demarcations.
Making this journey through Jordan deeply impacted me and I hope that you have had the chance, through my retelling, to vicariously experience the sacred wonders of the eastern part of the Holy Land and will consider a life-changing pilgrimage of your own.
Susan Dennin is the communications director for the Diocese of Salt Lake City.