[Please see Pilgrimages Part I]
[Please see Pilgrimages Part I]
Au contraire, our approach to Jesus’ baptism site in Jordan three months later, was a simple test of audacity and a smile.
We’d spent the bulk of the day at play. First we visited the mosaic artist Samaher Khameis at her workshop in Madaba. I feature Samaher in my short film on Madaba’s Institute of Mosaic Art and Restoration. It’s fascinating to see how this intricate art form in process and to imagine men and women tooling over tiny pieces of stone millennia ago. What a legacy – what stories! – they’ve left behind. (Once the invoices for that project are honored – and that’s another story -- I will put up the piece for you to see.)
Then we drove the long, narrow and winding roads south out of Madaba to Hammamat Ma’in – to the natural hot springs of Jordan that rush from the cliffs of the mountainside above the Dead Sea.
Like the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA, Jordan has three waters coming together: salt, fresh creek (as in Wadi Mujib), and hot: Ma’in. At Hammamat Ma’in the main waterfall ranges in temperature from 40° to 60° C (104-140° F).
Imagine the power of that water pounding down on your shoulders: hot, heavy, relentless; healing, soothing, invigorating.
We wore swimsuits with tee shirts and shorts over top. Nearby were women in long dresses with headscarves, smiling and laughing in the spray. There was one man, French, we thought, in a Speedo.
Speaking of John the Baptist … to the point of this letter.
We left the Hammamat via the other route: by the Dead Sea. Winding down the muscular mountains with a broad view of both our side of the Dead Sea and theirs. Every time I take in that view I am in wonder: it all looks so peaceful, unified; the land around a lake. Then I remember the contested ownership, the lines, imaginary and real cutting through towns, cultures, salt water, and the trickle called “the Jordan River.”
“Let’s go to the Baptism Site,” suggested Katie, as we turned north with the Dead Sea on our left and the mountains that hide Ma’in on our right.
“Lesh la? Why not!”
The signs are everywhere. Tourism – adventure and spiritual – is business for Jordan and the signage is good. So are the roads.
We drove past our favorite Dead Sea swimming spot, Amman Beach, and all the big hotels. Then we turned left toward the world’s widest partition and drove through the no man’s holy land to a simple entrance arch where three men were enjoying tea and an early evening chat.
“Marhaba (Hello). We’d like to visit the Baptism Site.”
“Yes, but we closed at 5pm,” said Emad, gatekeeper of the moment. It was 5:40.
After discussing the schedule (8am – 5pm) and the entrance fees (seven JOD per person) I smiled and asked, “Can we see it anyway?”
Within a few minutes we arranged with Emad that we’d pay our entrance with all the dinars we had (16) and that we’d drive him to his home afterward (on the road to Amman) and he escorted us to and through the site, Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan.
According to www.sacred-destinations.com, excavations on the site -- on the east bank of the Jordan River -- only began here in 1996, following Jordan's peace treaty with Israel in 1994. Land mines dotted the infamous and disputed border along the ever-shrinking river.It took two years to make it safe. Since ‘96 more than 20 churches, caves and baptismal pools dating back to the Roman and Byzantine periods have been uncovered.
You still feel the tension as you approach the Jordan. After guiding us on cool wooded paths to the pools that scholars agree may be where Jesus Christ was baptized by the Prophet John, Emad told us, “I cannot go any farther. The Jordanian soldier will take you from here.”
And a military man stepped forward, gesturing us toward a simple gazebo-like structure with stairs down to the Jordan trickle and the Israeli flag in clear view.
The Jordan side of the river has a wood platform with steps at either end for visitors to descend, just a few at a time, and dip their toes into the 10-foot-wide-water about which so many anthems and spirituals are sung. On the Israeli side, a skipping stone’s throw away, a 20-foot-long concrete slab with steps the length of the slab so many pilgrims may access the water at once. Each country's flag flies high. There is no sign of Palestine.
I was glad we were alone there, that no noise disturbed our reflections but the call of the rula bird -- a brave little lime green bird with turquoise scruff. (Do you know its English name?)
It was strange being so close and so far from “the other side.” No guards but our Bedouin soldier. A peaceful stream between “sides.” A place so heralded, lauded, prayed for and fought for. Just my daughters and me. And the soldier. And Emad waiting for his ride home.
Home is always the destination of the pilgrim.