In the summer of 2006 I visited Jordan to give a 3-day workshop on “Writing for the Web” for local journalists, students, and writers. At the time, I was working for the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs as a Web Content Manager; an affiliated program in Jordan was hosting the event at the Mövenpick Resort and Spa Dead Sea. On the final day, our visiting group had some free time, so we drove out to tour the Jordan river. The next day I wrote this e-mail to friends and family.
All is well in Jordan. Just a quick update.
Yesterday after the workshop ended, we loaded up in an SUV and headed out to do some sightseeing. There were six of us.
Our first stop was Bethany on the Jordan, the site where it is believed that John was doing his baptizing and where he baptized Jesus. New archeological evidence that came to light as recently as 1996 points to a “stone’s throw” distance east of the Jordan River. There are the foundations of a church building dating to 470 AD or so, and then there is another much smaller “church building” (really no more than the size of a large closet), dating back even earlier. Beside this, there are marble/stone steps leading down deeper into a pool that they have determined was the place of the baptism, through sedimentation dating, pilgrims’ writings, and also historians who wrote in the early Christian period.
The tour guide was very good. We took a little shuttle bus to the site. Much walking. Very very hot. I have a new definition of what “hot” means, now.
The actual baptism site is excavated and roped off. You are not allowed in because they do not want to disturb it but our group was alone yesterday, so the guide said we could walk down. I could not wrap my head around what I was doing. My traveling companion Muhammad is the IT guy I work with at Hopkins who was born in the Gaza Strip and speaks both Arabic and English. He went down the slope to the baptism site with the stone steps. I was standing on the steps and Muhammad took some pictures. He said I looked large standing next to the site, on the steps, next to the very small baptismal building they’d excavated just recently. I said I felt very small.
We went back up and walked around to see the other large church building site, then more walking to the Jordan river to see the site that had traditionally been thought to have been the site of the baptism. A monk was walking ahead of us, dressed in sandals and the robes that you’d expect, like a burlap sack with a white hood, pulled back. Our guide led us to the overlook site at the Jordan river. You can see the other side easily, the Jordan is no more than 20 or 30 feet across, not very deep at all, and it’s heavily treed on both sides.
On the West Bank side was a Jewish temple with a concrete/wood embankment that was the site where the baptism was traditionally thought to have been, before 1996 evidence indicated otherwise. We took more pictures. Muhammad went to the river to dip his hand in. I was standing on the overlook and turned around and the monk was in front of me, looking like he just stepped out of the first century AD, very dark-complected both from his being Arabic and from the sun. He wore a close-shaven head of hair with a full but trimmed beard.
We smiled at each other and I said hello. He said hello in English and then in Arabic. We shook hands, and he held on tightly, smiling. He said something in French. I said I don’t speak French. He said he did not speak English very well, but we kept shaking hands and smiling at each other.
Muhammad had stepped back onto the platform by now and said something to him in Arabic. The monk’s eyes sparkled and he said something to Muhammad in Arabic. Muhammad said, “I will translate for you.” The monk kept hold of my hands now and bowed his head and started praying in Arabic. Muhammad started translating. I cannot recall now his exact words. Remembering it now I’m tearing up. It’s difficult to describe what I was feeling at the time, and even now. A Christian Arabic monk was praying for me beside the Jordan River near where John baptized Jesus while my Muslim friend was translating. I had to hold his hands tightly while he prayed, and his prayer seemed to me at the time and still now to cover the span of the fundamentals of the faith and what Jesus did for humanity. Pure and simple. At one point he asked Muhammad what my name was. The monk then continued his prayer, in Arabic, and used my name at certain points, asking for a blessing from John the Baptist and Jesus’ mother Mary.
When he finished his prayer we hugged. The monk went to the river to dip his hand in and talked about what this site meant for all of mankind. Muhammad translated for me, and explained that the monk had traveled from Syria on a pilgrimage to the Jordan River and that he was staying nearby. I had to have a few moments to pull myself together, and I had my camera with me but did not want to take the monk’s picture. I couldn’t bring myself to do that.
He left, and we stayed a little bit longer, then headed back, too. When we got to the shuttle bus the monk was riding with us, but he was in the front and we sat in the rear. On the drive back to our car the bus stopped and the tour guide pointed out the window and said, “There is Elijah’s hill.” I said, “What?” He said, “Over there, it is Elijah’s hill, where Elijah was lifted up by God into heaven.” I just sat there looking out the window. I had no words to say or even think.
When we got back to the parking lot we left the shuttle. The monk was going on his way. And as he was walking away under the very hot sun he put up his white hood, walking down the path. I got out my camera and felt this was ok. I snapped a picture of him walking away.
This post was previously published on robert-jacoby.com.
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