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Amid living history

25 January 2013

Heading out to see biblical sights in Jordan, Malcolm Doney is glad that he has packed his imagination

BRENDAN HARDING

Promised land: the view from Mount Nebo across the Plain of Jordan, looking west towards Jericho

Promised land: the view from Mount Nebo across the Plain of Jordan, looking west towards Jericho

I AM standing on a high ridge, on Mount Nebo, looking west across the plain. Through the heat haze, I can pick out the line of the River Jordan outlined in green, and the shape of the city of Jericho. Moses is said to have stood here, too, a few years back, looking wistfully towards the Promised Land. His eyesight seems to have been better than mine, even though he was meant to be 120 years old.

The book of Deuteronomy says: "The Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain - that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees - as far as Zoar." He must have been to Specsavers.

If you plan to visit Jordan, it is worth packing a Bible. There are so many biblical sites here, often featuring lesser-known episodes, especially in the Old Testament, and you may want to remind yourself. More important, you need to bring your imagination. If you are anything like me, you will want to try and put yourself in the place of these biblical characters.

Occasionally, as it does on Mount Nebo, it takes something of a leap - past the visitor centre and the museum, and the faux ruins - in order to be Moses on this windy ridge.

Moses had been shown a red card by God earlier on in Israel's wilderness peregrination. He had encouraged water from a rock by smiting it rather than simply commanding it. For this, he was told he would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land.

But, standing here, it is possible to reflect on what it might have felt like to be Moses. Was he resigned, disappointed, angry? Maybe he was just tired - he had spent the best part of a century acting as the go-between, ferrying messages from Yahweh to Israel, and vice versa. But you would think that he would like, at least, a taste of milk and honey.

JORDAN, which is roughly the size of Ireland, lives next door to Israel, the West Bank, Iraq, and Syria - not exactly a salubrious neighbourhood at the moment. As a result, tourism numbers are down. Westerners are mostly, theoretically, keen on the idea of an Arab Spring, but they do not want to experience its birth pangs at first hand.

But Jordan wants the world to know that the country does not fit the toxic Middle Eastern stereotype. It prides itself on being an oasis in the midst of a desert of conflict.

Jordan has a constitutional monarchy with the glamorous, and popular, King Abdullah II and Queen Rania. There is an elected parliament, although senior officials are still appointed by the King. The rumblings of dissent in the country are not about deposing the monarchs, or violent revolution. They are more about frustrations with the stately progress of reforms, and the need for wider representation. I feel as safe here as anywhere I have been.

In Jordan, many people like to take the long view - this is a place of great antiquity. It is a Hashemite kingdom; and the Hashemites trace their history back to Hashim ibn Abd Manaf, who died in AD 510, and was great-grandfather to the Prophet Muhammad. The history of the land goes back even further.

Nothing is more emblematic of this than the north-south road on which we often find ourselves travelling: the King's Highway. It is an undistinguished tarmac road, crowded with lorries and pick-up trucks, but bordered by scrub and tracts of austere, rocky wilderness, with sparse trees, like an adoles-cent's beard. These give way to craggy canyons of stark grandeur. It conjures images of sunbeaten, windblown wanderers, and prophets.

THE King's Highway starts in the south, in Memphis, Egypt. It heads east to Aqaba, and then north, through Jordan and beyond, to the Assyrian city of Resafa, in the upper Euphrates (in the centre of modern day Syria). It takes in the Old Testament territories inhabited by the Edomites, the Moabites, and the Ammonites.

You will find this ancient trade-route in Numbers 20.17-21, when Moses sought permission from the Edomites to pass through their land. But the Edomites refused, not trusting Moses or his rag-tag, nomadic nation. They drew their swords. Israel backed off.

While Jordan's strong biblical suit is in Old Testament stories, there are still sites that evoke powerful events from the gospels. Take Gadara, for instance, from which the "Gadarene swine" take their name. Here are the ruins of one of the Graeco-Roman Decapolis cities, established by Pompey. On the hilltop city, we find ourselves on limestone paving with toppled columns and strong shadows, like a de Chirico painting.

This is a very Jordanian experience - a melding of various ancients and moderns. Gadara is a Hellenistic city, with the elegant remains of an amphitheatre, and grand streets. But, looking northwards, what we now know as the Golan Heights slope steeply down to to the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, and you can imagine the pigs, possessed by Legion, hurtling down to their watery grave.

But being so close to Jordan's northern border, you can also see into Israel, and Syria, and towards Lebanon. The squabbles that have beset this region since antiquity are never far away. These lands have been fought over, and occupied, by Greeks, Romans, Assyrians, Turks, and more.

The topography of Jordan is bleak, but beautiful. You can watch the ravens take off from a rose-coloured bluff, and think you are Elijah (who was born here), hoping for a morsel. Or you can hear the calls of the shepherds to their flocks bouncing off the rock - as they always have done - in a remote bastion, where John the Baptist is said finally to have lost his head. And then there is Petra, a sophisticated Nabataean civilisation all of its own, written in the rock.

The heat is fierce, but the people are friendly, and the Lebanese-Turkish-influenced food is exceptional. You cannot always be absolutely sure that what is meant to have happened here, actually took place. But that is why you have packed your imagination.

 

TRAVEL FACTS

MALCOLM DONEY travelled as the guest of the Jordanian Tourist Board, flying Royal Jordanian Airways from Heathrow to Amman and staying at the Landmark Hotel, Amman; Mövenpick Resort & Spa, Dead Sea; Qantarah Rest, Beit Zaman; Radisson Blu, Aqaba.

Oakhall Expeditions offers seven-night Jordan tours from £1124 pp (www.oakhall.co.uk); Special Pilgrimages offer seven-night Jordan tours from £895 pp (www.special-pilgrimages.co.uk).

 

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