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Land of Promise, Land of Memory: On Pilgrimage In Jordan

07 December 2017

By Fr Rob Esdaile

Naming a country after the river which forms its western border might seem a little eccentric, but it is also highly appropriate in the case of Jordan. The country has always been defined by what lies beyond its frontiers – and especially to its west. That may be its tragedy but it is also its allure.

A Liminal Space

Jordan is by its very nature a liminal territory, an ‘in-between’ space. Wedged by geography between the Rift Valley, the Golan Heights and the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, it is also trapped by history between bigger players in Damascus, Jerusalem, Baghdad and Riyadh, while the arteries still carrying its lifeblood remain (as for millennia) the ancient ‘King’s Highway’ and the ‘Desert Highway’, each joining the country’s only sea-port, Aqaba, to Amman and beyond.

The Bedouin roots of the nation remain apparent, even if only a minute proportion of the current population of 9.5 million lives entirely in the traditional manner, with the clan moving its tents with its flocks in search of pasture. The nomadic tradition of hospitality persists, however, and has been extended to a remarkable two million Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian refugees in recent decades. Despite these population pressures, in the turbulent context of the Middle East Jordan seems a haven of calm and (relative) stability. The ‘Arab Spring’ largely passed the country by, even if government is still by absolute monarchy. Indeed, one reason I chose Jordan for my travels was to avoid the tension and hassle of check-points in contemporary Israel-Palestine.

Practicalities apart, for the Christian pilgrim Jordan has an irresistible appeal. Our little group was accompanied by a wonderful Christian guide, Enad, and our equally dependable Muslim driver, Jihad (who poignantly suggested we could call him ‘Jay’ if we wanted, lest his name disturb us). Enad took great delight in telling us that Moses’ 40 years of wandering all took place after he crossed the Red Sea.  Having travelled up ‘The King’s Highway’ (Num 20.17) the Patriarch expired after surveying the Promised Land from Mount Nebo (Deut 34.1, 4-5).

Locked Out and Yet Plugged In

You can still spend a lot of time in Jordan looking towards the Promised Land and feeling ‘locked out’. At Gadara, beyond the escarpment down which (Mt 8.28-34) the local herd of pigs purportedly plunged to their death you can glimpse the Sea of Galilee, and Tiberias beyond. But you cannot even reach its shores, any more than you can cross the valley northwards to the Golan Heights. Further south, both on the hilltop of Mukawir (ancient Machaerus) and down on the Dead Sea shore, the southern Judaean desert stares implacably back at you across the viscous waters (with their gooey 27 per cent salinity).

Nonetheless, at the same time as feeling excluded the pilgrim can feel enormously connected and ‘plugged in’ to the Story of Salvation. Travelling up and down ‘The King’s Highway’, the names of Israel’s ancient enemies – Ammon, Moab and Edom – slot into geographical sequence. And you can follow the ‘chain reaction‘ running through the Gospels too. John the Baptist baptised Jesus at Bethany Beyond The Jordan (now Al Maghtas). Then John’s beheading at Machaerus led Jesus to go into Galilee and begin his ministry (Mk 1.15), crossing back into modern Jordan at least when he came to Gadara (according to Matthew) or the Decapolis city of Gerassa (according to Mark) to exorcise that demonic ‘Legion’, before heading to Jerusalem and the crisis of Holy Week. And the chain reaction began again after Easter. It was in ‘Arabia’ that St Paul took refuge after escaping from Damascus (Gal 1.9; Ac 9.25) and some of the earliest Christian communities must surely have been founded in this land.

The Monuments of Empire

One of the poignant features of many archaeological sites is the remains of a byzantine church building, abandoned and buried after the advent of Islam. The ebb and flow of global politics has marked the land in every age. There are the extraordinary Roman remains of ancient Gerassa, stretching over more than half a mile across the ancient Decapolis city. There is the vast hulk of the Crusader Castle of Al-Karak (whose raiding parties so infuriated Saladin that he ordered the siege of Jerusalem in 1187). Some 700 years later arrived the insignificant-looking single railway track that snakes south towards Aqaba. This is the Hejaz Railway, built by the Germans for the last Ottoman Sultan (in exchange for an oil concession). This is the line which T.E. Lawrence and his men sabotaged repeatedly, to keep the Ottoman forces distracted. We visited Lawrence’s desert base, hidden in the lee of a low mountain in the Wadi Rum. And it was from there that spread the Arab Revolt, the other arm of British Foreign Policy alongside 1917’s Balfour Declaration, promising the undeliverable to both sides.

World events and bigger forces (not all of them political ones) still break into the silence of the desert. It was Hollywood and Indiana Jones, not David Roberts’ Victorian watercolours, which really put glorious Petra, that ‘rose red city half as old as time’ on the map. And nowhere challenges our tourist mind-set more. We booked into one of the anodyne luxury tourist hotels nearby, keen on our creature comforts even when on pilgrimage. Yet once inside the World Heritage Site our western values seemed reversed. For it was monuments – tombs and shrines, not habitations – which absorbed the civic energies of the ancient populace. They themselves (it seems) dwelt further down the cleft in goats’ hair tents close by the camel trains that brought their wealth.

Don’t expect a restful trip. Big distances and early starts are needed to reach many sites. But if you have a pilgrim heart, you will return from Jordan changed and challenged by this ancient land so brim-full of promise and memory.

Fr Rob's visit was organised by Pilgrimage People, a not-for-profit travel agency supporting peace projects in Israel-Palestine and Jordan. Visit them at  

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