PLACES TO VISIT IN JORDAN
The Dead Sea, which shimmers like a blue mirror under days full of sunshine, is one of the most unusual bodies of water in the world.
It is set in the lowest dry land on earth, so it has no outlet. It is so loaded with minerals that no fish can live in it. It is so dense that bathers can lie back on its surface and read a newspaper.
The Dead Sea is located east of Jerusalem, along the border between Israel and Jordan. About half of it is actually in Jordanian territory.
The ancient Hebrews called this body of water the Sea of Salt. Other ancient names include the Sea of Solitude, the Sea of Arabah and the Asphalt Sea. The Crusaders called it the Sea of Satan.
The Dead Sea’s therapeutic qualities attracted Herod the Great. Its minerals and sticky black mud provided balms for Egyptian mummies and cosmetics for Cleopatra.
Now its health resorts treat psoriasis and arthritis, its skin-care products are marketed worldwide, and its industrial evaporation pans harvest potash and other minerals.
WICKED CITIES WERE DESTROYED
The region has many biblical connections. Here, though their locations are unknown, the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God with “sulphur and fire” and Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back at the destruction (Genesis 19:24-26). Among the salt encrustations around the sea is an unusual column at the southern end called Lot’s Wife.
On the eastern side, the highest peak visible is Mount Nebo, where Moses glimpsed the Promised Land.
Further south stands the fortress of Machaerus, where Herod Antipas imprisoned and then executed John the Baptist.
On the western side, from north to south, are Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found; Ein Gedi, where David hid from King Saul in a cave (and cut off a corner of the king’s cloak when he entered the cave to relieve himself); and Herod the Great’s fortress of Masada.
The Dead Sea is 67km long, 18km across at its widest point, and 420 meters below sea level.
Because it has no exit, water is lost only through evaporation, which leaves behind the minerals. The Dead Sea is nearly 10 times as salty as the open seas. The high concentration of minerals (predominantly magnesium chloride) provides the buoyancy that keeps bathers suspended — as well as a bitter taste.
A low promontory of land called el-Lisan (“the tongue”) projects across the sea from the east, dividing the southern third from the northern section.
At one time the Dead Sea covered four times as much land as it did in 2006, when its surface was falling by up to a meter a year.
Much of the water that once flowed into the Dead Sea is being diverted for drinking water and agriculture purposes, so there is not enough to offset the high evaporation rate.
Rescue proposals to prevent the sea drying up have included canals to bring water from the Mediterranean Sea or the Red Sea.
If the Dead Sea becomes rejuvenated with fresh water, this could fulfill a prophecy in Ezekiel 47:8-10, that it will “become fresh . . . and there will be very many fish”.
“Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo … There the LORD showed him the whole land–from Gilead to Dan.” (Deuteronomy 34:1)
Mount Nebo is an elevated ridge in Jordan, approximately 2,680 feet above sea level, mentioned in the Bible as the place where Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land that he would never enter. The view from the summit provides a panorama of the Holy Land and, to the north, a more limited one of the valley of the River Jordan. It was here that the Christian community of the 4th century had built a sanctuary in honor of Moses, recalling the Deuteronomy text regarding the Prophet’s death (chapter 34). In October of 1932 on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the property was transferred to the Franciscans. Excavations began immediately, and they found the basilica of Moses and the monastery, which surrounded it. A second excavation was resumed in the 1960’s.
It is here that the tribes of Israel under Joshua crossed the river on dry ground to enter the Promised Land after years of wandering in the desert. It is also where John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the waters of the Jordan. Flowing southward from its sources in the mountainous area where Israel, Syria and Lebanon meet, the Jordan River passes through the Sea of Galilee and ends in the Dead Sea. A large part of its length forms the border between Israel and Jordan in the north and the West Bank and Jordan in the south. Because its waters are a vital resource for the dry lands of the region, the Jordan has been a source of contention. In modern times, more than 90 percent of its natural flow has been diverted for domestic and agricultural use. The lower Jordan is heavily polluted by sewage and industrial run-off.
The Jordan River runs through the land and history of the Bible, giving its waters a spiritual significance that sets it aside from other rivers.
The Jordan is significant for Jews because the tribes of Israel under Joshua crossed the river on dry ground to enter the Promised Land after years of wandering in the desert.
It is significant for Christians because John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the waters of the Jordan.
The prophets Elijah and Elisha also crossed the river dry-shod; and the Syrian general Naaman was healed of leprosy after washing in the Jordan at Elisha’s direction.
RIVER FLOWS BELOW SEA LEVEL
Flowing southward from its sources in the mountainous area where Israel, Syria and Lebanon meet, the Jordan River passes through the Sea of Galilee and ends in the Dead Sea. A large part of its length forms the border between Israel and Jordan in the north and the West Bank and Jordan in the south.
The river falls 950 meters from its source to the Dead Sea. For most of its course down the Jordan Rift Valley, it flows well below sea level. Its name means “Dan [one of its tributaries] flows down”.
Though an old song says the River Jordan is “deep and wide”, the modern river is neither. In places it is more like a creek than a river — less than 10 meters across and 2 meters deep.
From Jesus’ time until the mid 20th century, seasonal flooding in winter and spring expanded its width to 1.5km. Dams in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel now preclude flooding.
SITE IDENTIFIED IN FORMER MILITARY ZONE
The place where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist is believed to be in Jordan, on the east bank of a large loop in the river opposite Jericho.
A site less than 2km east of the river’s present course, at Wadi Al-Kharrar, has been identified as Bethany Beyond the Jordan. This is where John lived and baptized, and where Jesus fled for safety after being threatened with stoning in Jerusalem.
Until the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, the area was a Jordanian military zone. After clearing nearby minefields, the Jordanian government has made the place accessible to archaeologists, pilgrims and tourists.
Jordan’s new Baptism Archaeological Park contains the remains of a Byzantine-era monastery featuring at least four churches, one of which is built around a cave believed to be the one that ancient pilgrims called “the cave of John the Baptist”.
While the Jordanian location was inaccessible, a modern site commemorating Christ’s baptism was established at Yardenit in Israel, at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee.
Maintained by a kibbutz, it is a popular place for Christian pilgrims to renew their baptismal promises — or for new Christians to be baptized, often in white robes and undergoing total immersion in the mild waters of the Jordan.
JORDAN IS DIVERTED AND POLLUTED
Because its waters are a vital resource for the dry lands of the region, the Jordan has been a source of contention among Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.
In modern times more than 90 percent of its natural flow has been diverted for domestic and agricultural use. The lower Jordan is heavily polluted by sewage and industrial run-off.
In 2007, the World Monuments Fund listed the lower Jordan in the top 100 most “endangered cultural heritage sites”. In support, a regional environmental organization, Friends of the Earth Middle East, said: “The region’s current policies treat the river as a backyard dumping ground.”