If there is one body of water that doesn’t discriminate against people who can’t swim, it’s the Dead Sea. The sea, which is actually a lake surrounded by Jordan, Israel and Palestine, welcomes all to float easily on its surface, with no fear of drowning. So, when this non-swimmer stepped into the waters of the sea on its eastern shore in Jordan, it was with trepidation. But the sight of others floating about — some were reading newspapers, others sleeping on the surface of the water —encouraged me to “lie flat” on the sea. No, I didn’t sprawl on my own, rather the water calmly and gently lifted my legs and hands, my back and my head. I closed my eyes, and cliché as it sounds, it felt like heaven. Till someone passed by and suddenly, I felt salt cutting through my tongue and eyes. Shaken, I struggled to walk to the shore — the sea keeps lifting you up — for some cool water to be sprinkled on my face.
The Dead Sea is one of the saltiest water bodies in the world. Its 34.2 per cent salinity makes it unfit to support marine life, and hence its name. There’s another reason why the Dead Sea is “dead”. At the bottom of the Dead Sea, some 1,004 feet below, are remains of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. According to the Bible and the Quran, Sodom and Gomorrah were two ancient cities where homosexuality was common (the word ‘sodomy’ comes from ‘Sodom’). Jews, Christians and Muslims believe God had sent a prophet called Lot to dissuade the people from homosexuality. But when the people didn’t listen, God turned the cities upside down and ordered a rain of “stones hard as clay”.
Such Biblical stories abound in Jordan, a tiny nation in the Middle East which shares borders with Syria, Israel, Palestine, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The Jordan Tourism Board invites people from over the world, specially Christians, for “Biblical tourism”, taking them to sites which form the backdrop of many a stories in the Bible. One such site is Mount Nebo, an arid mountain from where Prophet Moses viewed the “Promised Land” for the Jews before he died. It was a hazy day, and we could only see some barren mountains from the site. The Promised Land seemed far from Mount Nebo, but a board on the site indicated that it’s barely 25 km away. An olive tree planted by Pope John Paul II in 2000, and Italian artist Giovanni Fantoni’s sculpture of Moses’s bronze serpent on the mountain, give a sort of “official stamp” to its religious significance.
The next day, we drove through arid mountains — our guide Salah said the hills turn green in the rainfall season of October-March, and that Jordan is home to some 15 million olive trees — to Mukhawir. Well, actually, a mountain top from where Mukhawir is visible. From there, we could see two pillars of the fortress of the Jewish king, Herod the Great. Mukhawir has a dramatic Biblical story to it. Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, divorced his wife to marry Herodias, his brother’s wife. Prophet John objected to this act, thus angering Herodias. The latter asked her daughter Salomne to dance in front of Herod Antipas, and then demand John’s head on a platter. Herodias’s plan worked and John was beheaded in Mukhawir.
As we listened to the Biblical tales related to the sites, it was hard not to notice the fact that Jordan is a largely Muslim country — 92 per cent of its population is Sunni (Salah stressed there is “not a single Shia here”), and six per cent is Christian. The Muslim presence is felt everywhere – in the muezzin’s call for prayer, and the fact that almost all women wear headscarves, colourful ones stylishly draped over jeans, palazzos and long skirts. Though many Biblical sites are mentioned in the Quran, the Muslim guides narrate only their Christian aspects. There may be an economic motive to this — Jordan would expect more Western tourists if it highlights the Biblical aspects. But nevertheless, it is an impressive feat for a country which for centuries was the site of Crusades — Christian-Muslim wars over the Holy Land — and later, a bitter conflict with Jewish Israel supported by a Christian West.
The tide turned in 1994, when Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty. Since then, Jordan has opened up its border with Israel for archaeologists and the Christian clergy. This led to the discovery of another Biblical site, “Bethany Beyond Jordan” in 1996. It is a spot on the muddy, shallow Jordan River where Jesus Christ was baptised. Today, there is no water at the site — the Jordan River has dried up there — and water is artificially pumped for any Christian wanting to be baptised. Pope Benedict XVI visited Bethany in 2009, and since then it’s been part of Jordan’s Biblical itinerary.
There is another competing site for Jesus’s baptism though — it’s called Qasr Al-Yahud (Castle of the Jews) in Israel and was opened to the public in 2011. Last year, it received 4,30,000 pilgrims/tourists, while Bethany Beyond Jordan received only 90,000, according to tourism ministries of both countries.
We walked through a path which was once infested with landmines — Salah told us that they were cleared out by 1995 — towards the Jordan River. We sat its eastern bank, and just a five-minute-swim away was its western bank, which falls in the territory of Israel, evident especially by the presence of Israeli soldiers and the Israeli flag. Our side had few people, while the Israeli side was teeming with pilgrims getting baptised. Why the gap? “Well, religious scriptures support our sites, but our country only waits for the arrival of the Pope to promote them, while they market theirs all year round,” said Salah.
Salah’s words ring true, because we were invited by Jordan to coincide with Pope Francis’s visit to the country on May 24. Several hours before the Pope was to hold a mass at the Amman International Stadium, Christians from Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon, had assembled in the arena, though it was nowhere near full. Many in the crowd read a more political meaning into the religious head’s visit. Suzanne Farraj, a home-maker from Jordan, and a Christian, for example, saw it as “an opportunity to tell the world that Muslims and Christians live here in peace, not in conflict”. But some, like Naila Dawood, felt that peace was still “fragile” in the region. “Syria and Iraq are still at war, and they are next door,” she said.
Jordan is “an oasis of peace in a region otherwise in conflict” said Salah, something which has affected its tourist draw. The Syria War and the Arab Spring (though Jordan saw no such revolution) have reduced tourist flow by 10 per cent. To know that Jordan is a peaceful, and a tolerant country, one only needs to look at its refugee influx. The country has been a haven for refugees from Palestine since the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. Today, Palestinian-origin people make up 60 per cent of the country’s population. Salah, too, is a Palestinian-origin Jordanian citizen. The country also has refugees from Iraq and more recently, Syria. From the top of a hill in Amman — the city has 23 hills — Salah showed us a “Palestinian refugee camp”. It was not a land filled with tents, but proper concrete homes. “Camps were there long ago, but the name has stayed on,” Salah said. Behind the “Palestinian refugee camp”, once could see the Jordanian flag fluttering in the sky. “At 127.5 metres, it’s the tallest flagpole in the world, and the flag — 40×20 metres — the biggest,” he said.
After touring the Roman theatre, the Amman Citadel and the Umayyad Mosque — all signifying the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic histories of Amman — we walked through the city’s downtown. It is here that Jordan frees itself of the baggage of religion, history and war, and comes alive in its souks selling hookahs, ittars, hijabs, belly dance costumes and ceramics, in its roadside eateries doling out shawarmas, falafels and kinafahs (a sweet made of cheese, vermicelli, sugar syrup and nuts), in shops selling olive pickles and coffee beans, and in the soothing sound of Arabian music being played everywhere.
It’s in the everyday city life that Jordan seems to be the most at peace.