Dead Sea mud and Jesus stuff

View of the Dead Sea from our resort room. You can see Palestine, the West Bank, on the other side.

Forgive my feigned nonchalance in the title of this post. It was our joke of the morning, but we were humbled by afternoon. Read on to find out what I mean. Forgive me also for the extraordinary length of this post, and I hope you can find the time to read the whole thing because this was an exceptional day and I could talk about it for thousands more words, but I saved you from that fate.

After a good night’s sleep, we asked for a late morning pickup so we could go down to the Dead Sea and play in the water. Though the temperature was in the 50s when we left Dana the day before, it was back in the 80s. A swim would feel great. In fact, we could hardly wait, and were down there in the water before breakfast.

Ms. M dropping her towel and getting ready to take a salt bath.
A glass elevator took us from the hotel to the beach. You can see the small beach down there, just for this resort hotel. The shore is naturally rocky, so golden sand has been imported to cover that small section.

Being in the water reminded me immediately of the sensory deprivation tank, only this water was more than one foot deep and in bright daylight outside. Margaret and I bobbed to the top, and had to spend several minutes getting used to the feeling and learning how to manage our bodies in the water. It was impossible to swim like I usually do, but easy to swim once you figured out how to do it. Dog paddling was most effective for me. The saltwater concentration is so intense that you can float without any effort whatsoever. The water always wanted to bob me to the top and roll me over so my face was down, and it was tricky getting myself to stay butt down. I laid with my head back and relaxed into the water. Margaret found that using one of the styrofoam floats as a neck rest was handy for keeping her ears and face out of the water. I spent a huge amount of effort figuring out how to keep myself treading water with feet below my shoulders. I had to be perfectly balanced or I would tip over and my butt would bob up into the air! Not very graceful, I have to say.

We got out, showered most of the salt off, and went to breakfast. Margaret used the blow-drier and I wore a headscarf. Wet hair on women is apparently inappropriately sexually suggestive in Jordan. It’s like arguing that a wet cat is cuter. Religious rules often don’t make any sense to me. Over breakfast we talked about the touring plans for the day. Ezat, also a Mormon like his brother Nashat, would again be collecting us and taking us to tourist sites. He sometimes has a hard time explaining in English things that he’s not used to talking about. He had tried a couple of times to ask if we knew the story about Moses and a stick and a snake, and asked if we knew that Jesus was baptized. I was raised fully immersed in Christianity, but only barely recalled the details of these stories. I am atheist and am not in Jordan for any religious reason. Margaret is Christian, but not particularly devout. Between the three of us, we couldn’t tell any part of the relevant Biblical stories. So we had just been referring to our touring today as “Going to see Jesus stuff.” As in, “After we’re done with the Jesus stuff, do you want to stop by a market?”

After breakfast we went right back down to the water and tried on the supposedly therapeutic Dead Sea Mud. Staff manually digs it out of the water at the shore, then hauls it up the beach to fill sinks on the beach, so that it’s very easy to apply your own mud. We walked around feeling slightly ridiculous and conscious of how much it looked like black face. Then we awkwardly bobbed in the water again. Though we tourists were from different places around the world, we were all experiencing the same thing, and shared many laughs at each others’ expense.

Strike a pose. You can sort of see a mud sink with mirror behind me, and other guests mudding it up. Also note the sharp slope of the beach into the sea.
Notice that Margaret is floating with no effort, in a sitting position. The water is over her head right there.

Ezat picked us up at noon and unlike the day before, we were very soon at our first tour stop of the day, the site of Jesus’s baptism by John {Luke 3:21-23}. The area is fiercely protected as a spiritual and natural resource. This area in which Moses wandered is referred to as a “wilderness” in the Bible, and Jordanians want it to remain a wilderness. (Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet, and honor him) Visitors park on the edge, and take official tour busses into the park. This time we paid for a guided tour and suddenly had to deal with things we hadn’t had to deal with on this trip: keeping together in a large group, and forced shopping stops.  Our first stop was a gift shop and I was thoroughly amused by it. But seriously, we were both impatient to go see the thing, whatever the thing was.

Jesus stuff for sale while we waited to tour other Jesus stuff.
This stuff is too cheezy.  I looked for one that said, “Margaret took me to the Jordan River, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”

At long last we began walking. It was quite a walk despite having rode a tour bus to get this far. It is clear that this is a highly protected site. We had passed high, imposing fences on the way in, topped with razor wire and every so often, a guard tower. We weren’t sure if the military presence was related to the tourist attraction.

On the way I spotted crepuscular rays shooting down to light up the golden dome of a church ahead of us. It was like I was being sent a message: “Ok, time to drop the jocularity. You are now approaching an important site.”

This sight struck me. I know the correct weather terminology, but many people refer to these as God’s Rays.

At the first stop I understood the importance of our visit. This is the location of Jesus of Nazareth’s baptism by John the Baptist {Matthew 3:13}. In anticipation of Margaret’s caution, there was a pamphlet available that listed all the written references in the past 2000 years that specifically describe landmarks to help identify the precise location of the baptism of Jesus Christ. I am convinced, but then, I’m eager to believe in a legend. That’s my personality.

I’m an atheist, but I believe Jesus was a man who lived and taught and completely disrupted the corrupt political and social and religious status quo, and for that I love him. Also, he seems like an overall good dude, putting humility and love above all else. Teaching clearly over and over and over not to judge others who are different: Something that Christians (hell, all religions) are famous for ignoring. He fought for authenticity at all levels, and he was brave enough to speak the truth to authority.

So anyhooo… you bet I was excited to see an actual place where the actual man had been in real life; to see the location of the beginning of his mission and the beginning of Christianity as I know it today.

The precise spot at Bethany beyond the Jordan, where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. See the four square blocks in the foreground? They were originally the columns that held up a roof over the spot where pilgrims came by the thousands to receive their own baptism.
This artist’s rendition will help you visualize it.

I couldn’t help but think: he stood right there. He looked around and saw the same ridgetops that I see, the same kinds of trees, these very stones. History in the US can barely be called history, compared to other places in the world.

You’ll notice there is no water between the four pillars today. The course of the River Jordan has shifted in the last 2000 years. It’s an earthquake-prone region, which may have affected this. The river is much smaller than it was then. And we all know that over time, rivers frequently shift their course.

We walked the path you see there on the right, all the way to the back of the remains of the Basilica, and were able to see the foundations of the other churches that had been here, and were able to walk up the steps on the other side, and enter the Basilica that is today protected by a wooden roof. Some of the original stone walls and columns can still be seen. There are also the remains of mosaic tile floors. The Basilica was built on top of the Church of St. John the Baptist, which was built in approximately 500 CE.

What is left of the Basilica. Directly ahead, you can see the steps leading down to what used to be the river.
The guide said that these are remains of the 1500 year old Church of St. John the Baptist.

When we were done looking at the ruins, it was time to walk to the river. This ended up being one of the most dramatic scenes of our entire trip. I stood on the river bank and was struck by multiple profound discoveries.

First of all, the river is about 30 feet wide and tourists from the West Bank were approaching as we were. Only their approach was three times grander, with marble and stainless steel railings and paved steps into the water. There was landscaping with flowers and palm trees, and a visitor’s center. By contrast, we had approached on a dirt trail that entered a wooden platform with wooden plank steps into the river water, covered by a wooden awning. It was about half the size of my back deck. Those on the other side were not protecting the wilderness aspect of the sacred site, and the wealth discrepancy was glaring. There were three times as many people on the other side. What really startled me was to look into the faces of those people – so close I could see their expressions – and to know it was another country. No wall, no fence, just a river. I could swim to Palestine in 5 minutes. THAT explained the military presence we had noticed earlier. And yes, here in our wooden shelter sat at least two armed military men with no sense of humor. Another simple, quiet thought to myself was that I recognized the look of the river from picture books of Bible stories from when I was a child. 50 years ago, publishers paid much less attention to authenticity, and yet, the rushes drawn at the water’s edge in Bible stories of this region were so accurately portrayed that when I visited the place for the first time, I recognized it.

Tourists in the Palestinian West Bank across the river from us.
The people on the other side of the Jordan River were so close I could have recognized family, if any were standing there.
Inexplicably, I recognized the river. It’s not the Nile, but I could visualize a woven basket with baby Moses inside, caught in the rushes.

After we left the water, I got some good shots of the new church built at the site. Imagine how long it has been since there was a church here. Today’s church will have a difference in attendance since it is within a protected area.

The new church at the baptismal site.
Sinking sun makes the stones even more warm with colour.

We met up with Ezat again and he said he would be taking us to Mt. Nebo next. The name didn’t mean anything to us but Margaret and I have great spirit of adventure and a willingness to see what happens. We cheerfully said, “Lead on!”

This site is not a boundary nor controlled by the military, and access was easier and cheaper. We came across a guide who was speaking English, and we lingered around him. We had missed the main point somewhere, and Margaret expressed out loud, “What was Moses doing on Mt. Nebo anyway?!” A woman nearby overheard her and said in a somewhat incredulous voice, “This is where he saw the Promised Land!” {Deuteronomy 34:1} The story of Moses and his people wandering in the wilderness is also described in the Qur’an. {5:20-26} We walked to the top of the hill and could see for miles around, though still the hazy skies shrouded what is nothing less than a spectacular view on clearer days.

The view from Mt. Nebo toward Palestine, including Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Jericho.
Church on Mt. Nebo today.

The church on Mt. Nebo is a brilliant design to incorporate a museum of ruins, while maintaining it’s integrity and function as an indoor church. It’s spectacularly done. No guides are allowed to speak inside, and indeed a service was in session as we arrived. All visitors maintained quiet respect while we were there. What you see is the remains of a 4th century Byzantine Church built in honor of the place of Moses’ death. You see, though he spotted the destination for his people from here, Moses was not allowed to go, and died there. {Deuteronomy 34:4-6} In order to protect the ruins, platforms are built to keep our feet above the surface, and railings are built to keep our fingers off the walls and columns. I have been especially admiring mosaics during this entire trip, and this day I was dumbfounded. Speechless in awe. I know I will probably never see mosaics like this again in my lifetime.

Inside the Byzantine Church surrounded by a modern church. A choir and service are up front, beneath the stained glass.
I could fill an entire post with photos of the varied, stunning, colourful and impressive mosaics of this church.
From platforms we looked down onto the original walls and floors of the church.
This mosaic is spectacular. I wanted to crawl around on it on my hands and knees and examine every coloured piece.
I wanted to put my face this close.
Fourth century remains are lovingly preserved in this movingly beautiful space.

Outside again, we took advantage of our perspective and took sunset photos across the Dead Sea. It had been a fulfilling and awe-inspiring day and we were ready to go back to Amman. Ezat took us to our final hotel of the trip, and we were delighted to meet Nashat there again! A reunion! While Margaret got online to check the latest news of the Kincade Fire, I had Nashat explain to me in detail how to find a restaurant he recommended for very good authentic Jordanian food. We said goodbye to the brothers and walked through the night to the restaurant, which was indeed very good.

View of the Dead Sea and of the Palestinian West Bank.
Margaret and Ezat enjoy the sunset with me.
Sunset across the Dead Sea. We said goodbye to the sea and left for Amman.

14 thoughts on “Dead Sea mud and Jesus stuff

    1. Thanks Brian! By contradictory, you mean saying that while I don’t believe in God I believe in Jesus? Or contradictory as in having the nerve to post in public that I’m an atheist? I find in my life that the latter one tends to be more shocking to people, ha ha. I spend my life trying to be a better person: find more love, more empathy, more generosity, more humility, more education, more perspective. I know that I have so much room to improve. From what I understand about religion, that’s the point of it: teach people to be better. So I see myself on an equal quest as believers: we’re all trying to do our best in the way that works for us. (One difference is that I never try to push believers into switching to my path…)

      But I’m also a history buff with education in anthropology. And this stuff is amazingly cool! And Jesus is famous! And I get a little silly around famous people or famous things and the baptismal site turned me into a goofy excitable fangirl.

      1. Agreed. What I mean by contradictory is I don’t believe in God, but I do believe there was a man called Jesus, who changed the world. In fact I was an agnostic for a long time. Recently turned full-blown atheist. But that’s a personal choice, right? And in the meantime, my wife goes to church every Sunday. No problemo.
        History and anthropology are two interests of mine too. (Though I have an MBA). But anthropology and my love of pre-colombian cutlures may have led me to Mexico.
        And yes, when you face history… hats down. “Something happened here 2000 years ago.”
        Take care.

  1. What a wonderful telling of your visit to parts of the Holy Land. Your insights are telling of the deep impact you experienced during your travels. So happy that you were able and willing to share your story in such an elegant and thoughtful manner; I’ve truly enjoyed reading about your adventure.

    1. Thank you Chris! I’m excited to be able to share my trip with you and thanks for coming along. Yeah, this particular day was the most profound for me, though I think nearly every single day in Jordan was incredible. You are very kind with your comments. ❤

    1. Absolutely Kim, I love it that you’re coming along. I wish everyone could have walked those trails with us that day. It was truly a momentous day. I could actually feel the energy and emotion of the people around me, especially at the river.

  2. This is endlessly fascinating. I relate to the feeling you had about ‘seeing’ this. I suspect I’d have the same experience. It would be emotional for me, I think.

    1. Yes, fascinating is the right word. Fascinating on multiple levels. I was not just seeing, but touching. I’m such a tactile person. Seeing was amazing, but I try to put my hands on everything too. I touch the mosaics and stones I can get to, I put my hands into the river, I brush my fingers over the tree bark and bushes in the area, and pick up the sand and let it run through my fingers. These things make it feel so real to me. I want that little extra to pull the stories out of legends and fantasy in my head, and plant it in 2019 in my real life in my real world. You know what I’m saying? Then, obviously, it does get emotional.

    1. Understatement!! ha ha. I’m so glad you liked the mosaics. I know each person has their thing that they are drawn to. Margaret appreciated the mosaics, but we have been seeing them nearly every day, so she was all filled up with mosaics and didn’t really need to see any more. Every time I saw a new one, even a poorly preserved one, with only one colour of tiles, I would get just as excited as on the first day, ha ha. Apparently mosaics are my thing.

  3. I’m enjoying your new layout so much! And I’m happy for your wonderful day. Over here I can enjoy fully other kind of mosaics but I can see where your enthusiasm derives from. I wish to be as close to it as you. (I’m much more of an atheist as you, no Sunday school for me. I’d believe even more than you did.)

    1. Thanks for the feedback! It is much more satisfying to see the larger photos. I’m still figuring things out about this new layout, but you were oh, so, right and I did need to make a change. You are lucky to be able to see mosaics frequently. I can’t think of very many examples of mosaics here. Modern artists still use this style, but I like the old ones the best. Ha! I am always intrigued to learn the backgrounds of different people who firmly committed to their faith, or firmly embraced atheism. Our paths are fascinating. The ones who surprise me are the ones who, as adults, don’t give it any thought. Have you met them? You ask what their faith is, and they say “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t really care all that much and it doesn’t make any difference to me.” or “My mom is Catholic, so I guess I am, but I never thought about it.” I’m sort of obsessed with taking the right path, so I have put time into thinking about my faith (or lack thereof) more than probably any other subject. Maybe that’s why I’ve got a little bit of a fangirl thing going on for Jesus. 😉

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