By Eric Mackenzie-Lamb
AMMAN, JORDAN: In our previous article, I described my unforgettable visit to the archaeological site of Palmyra in the Syrian desert-a hidden gem of history which, sadly, may never again be seen in its original splendor. But now, it’s time to move on to yet another birthplace of humanity’s many amazing stories: the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
From Palmyra, I had driven southwest, spent a night in Damascus, and then, starting off just before dawn in an effort to avoid the midday desert heat, had continued to the Jordanian border. Unlike my first entry into Syria from Turkey, formalities here took less than three minutes.
“Good morning, sir. What is the purpose of your visit?”
“Tourism. I’m planning to visit the Dead Sea and some historic places along the River Jordan. And, if time permits, Petra.”
The immigration officer glanced down at the BMW and suddenly smiled. That’s when I realized that he’d noticed the Arabic script I’d painted on its fuel tank.
“Al hajar! A perfect name for such a beautiful motorcycle.”
He proceeded to issue me a thirty day visitor’s visa, then handed me back my passport. Not a single question about the whereabouts on the planet of St Kitts and Nevis. Whew!
Almost immediately, I noticed that Jordan was another world compared to the Syria I’d just come from. Roads here were well maintained, buildings looked clean, even the sheep and goats I saw seemed better fed and much healthier looking. Gone, thankfully, were those giant intimidating statues and posters of the Assad dynasty which had so often interrupted one’s view of an otherwise magnificent desert landscape. Something else had changed, too. Here, although there seemed to be many more cars on the road than in Syria, everyone appeared to be driving at a safe and moderate speed-and, amazingly, with no tailgating! (As any motorcyclist will tell you, that’s one of the most dangerous aspects of being on two wheels). I soon realized why. With the frequent number of police vehicles I soon spotted along the roadside, you could be sure that there were plenty of speed traps ahead. No, thank you.
A few hours later, I’d finally arrived at my destination for the night: the legendary Dead Sea. By good fortune, it was still mid afternoon, so I was able to pull over to the side of the road and take several images of the scene below me.
In yet another stroke of good luck, I managed to get a room at the Movenpick resort, which, as I soon discovered, turned out to be one of the most unusual places I’ve ever stayed in. Movenpick (the German word for seagull) is the brand name of an upscale Swiss hotel chain which, in fact, is even more world famous for its ice cream. The fact that you can find one of their properties overlooking the shores of the Dead Sea, thousands of miles from their headquarters in Zurich, was, to me at least, something that I’d least expected. And when it came to imaginative design-well, they’d actually created an entire replica of a Kasbah, complete with winding alleyways, classic Arabic arches, cobblestoned walkways, and clay water fountains. I could have easily imagined myself back in Tangier. And for any international traveler contemplating something completely different, just imagine enjoying a Swiss cheese fondue by the Dead Sea.
The next morning, after a great breakfast and a delicious cappuccino, I decided to make my way down the hotel’s wooden staircase and follow it to the water’s edge.
And saw this:
About an hour later, packed and ready to go, I finally climbed back onto al Hajar and set off to see for myself what is considered to be one of the world’s most important religious sites-Bethany beyond the Jordan. This is the place, according to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, where Jesus himself was baptized by John the Baptist, and from where he began his trek into the wilderness to fast for forty days and forty nights. It’s also believed to be where the first five apostles met, and from where the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bethany was visited by the late Pope John Paul II in March, 2006, when he officially declared the site’s authenticity. As can well be imagined, the site is visited by countless thousands of people, of many diverse religious beliefs, throughout the year.
While walking back from the river towards the baptism site, I saw another escorted shuttle bus pull up. About a dozen passengers of various ages, mostly men and all clad in identical T-shirts, descended and began making their way along the pathway in a single, orderly file. Although obviously excited, most spoke among themselves in subdued whispers. Arriving at the platform across from the baptism site, each individual made the sign of the cross. From that point on, the atmosphere was instantly transformed, filled with excitement and the endless clicking of cameras. It was then that I noticed JEWS FOR JESUS imprinted on the front of their shirts.
After a few minutes, I got into a casual conversation with a couple of them. Ephraim (“Just call me Eph”),a friendly young American in his mid-thirties, told me that he was a high school teacher in suburban Long Island, near New York City. He’d joined several others from his religious group to make what, to them, must have represented the trip of a lifetime.
I asked him about their itinerary. Were they planning to continue across the River Jordan into the occupied territories and on to Bethlehem? And to other holy sites in Israel?
He shook his head sadly. ” I wish.”
“It’s not safe,” added David, one of his companions. “At least, not for us.”
I looked at him in astonishment. “What do you mean?”
Eph and David went on to explain that, in the eyes of a small minority of ultra-Orthodox Jews inside Israel, a born Jew converting to Christianity (or Islam), no matter where he or she was from, was considered the ultimate betrayal of faith. There had even been a number assaults on such converts in the past, David said. Even killings. In any case, he added, their return tickets to New York were on Jordanian Airways, direct from Amman.
For me, hearing something like this was totally unexpected. But, as a journalist, it’s not my place to make a judgement one way or another, only to recount what was told to me. Whether based on fact or not, I still found the event deeply disturbing, and still do.
The Middle East is indeed a complex part of the world. And becoming more so, it seems, by the day.
* All images,except map, by the author.