The site of Jesus’ baptism

It’s supposedly here, not far from the Dead Sea resort where we were staying.  Well, who knows?  Here’s an interesting article about UNESCO designating the Jordan baptismal area (where we were) as a World Heritage site:

For years, Christian pilgrims have waded into the Jordan River from both its eastern and western banks to connect with a core event of their faith — the baptism of Jesus. The parallel traditions allowed Jordan and Israel to compete for tourism dollars in marketing one of Christianity’s most important sites.

But now UNESCO has weighed in on the rivalry, designating Jordan’s baptismal area on the eastern bank a World Heritage site. The U.N. cultural agency declared this month that the site “is believed to be” the location of Jesus’ baptism, based on what it said is a view shared by most Christian churches.

The decision drew cheers in Jordan, where the number of tourists has dropped sharply since the 2011 Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State group. Israel has kept silent while a Palestinian official said the western baptismal site, located in an Israeli-occupied area sought for a Palestinian state, should have been included.

It “has nothing to do with archaeological reality,” said Jodi Magness, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We don’t have any sites with evidence or archaeological remains that were continuously venerated from the first century on.”

Jordan certainly makes a big deal of how tolerant it is to be operating this site.  Here is a large photo at the entrance of King Abdullah chillin’ with Pope Francis:

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The place where you buy your tickets isn’t all that inspirational:

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You take a bus part of the way down to the river and then you proceed the rest of the way on foot, along covered boardwalks to, finally, stone paths.  Here’s what things look like in the neighborhood.  My son tells me that the area was mined until Jordan and Israel signed their peace treaty.

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A small Greek Orthodox church was recently built near the site:

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And here, finally, is the Jordan River, looking across to the Israeli side.

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A couple of points:

The spiritual “Michaell Row the Boat Ashore” has this line: “Jordan’s river is deep and wide, hallelujah.”  Well, not anymore, at least not at the time of year we were there.  You could throw a rock to the Israeli side of the river (not that I’d recommend doing this, of course).

Also, note that the river isn’t exactly beckoning you to come in and dunk your head in it. My wife had a vague idea beforehand about doing this, but she took one look at that muddy brown color and decided not to bother.  On the other hand, I saw a couple of people on the other side wearing white robes with red crosses on them who looked like they were getting up their nerve to take the plunge.  We had to return to the bus before we could see how that worked out for them, though.

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The Dead Sea

Still trying to cover our trip to Jordan last November . . .

Pro traveling tip: Don’t try to drive from Wadi Rum to Petra, visit Petra, and then drive up to the Dead Sea.  Not unless you know the route a lot better than we did.  We arrived at our hotel late and cranky.

Luckily it was a really fancy hotel, one of a number of upscale hotels in a resort area on the Dead Sea.  And they take security very seriously — with good reason.  This was the first time I’ve ever had a camera wheeled under our car looking for explosives.  The hotel had a variety of restaurants for every taste.  We were too worn out to make a good decision, so we ended up at an American Sports Bar, featuring bad American food (I cannot recommend their Philly cheese steak) while soccer matches were displayed on the big-screen TVs. The next day we went to the site of Jesus’s baptism, which I’ll get to in another post.  In the afternoon we relaxed back at the hotel, which had no shortage of swimming pools.

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But what you really want to do is walk down endless steps to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth:

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Really, it ain’t much of a beach.  But you’re there to sit in the water.  (Try not to get a mouthful of the water; it is really salty.)

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Also you’re supposed to slather yourself with some Dead Sea mud, which is apparently good for what ails you.  I declined.

Here is the Dead Sea as the sun sets:

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That night we had a magical dinner outdoors with friends of my son and their parents.  Below us a wedding was taking place; cats roamed the terrace looking for treats.  We drank wine and ate great food and talked about football and our children; we looked across the sea at the lights twinkling on the West Bank.  How could anything go wrong in such a world?

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Petra

Another post about our trip to Jordan.  Petra is Jordan’s main tourist attraction, about an hour south of Wadi Rum.  Here’s the iconic image of the Treasury (probably a burial chamber):

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Here’s a closeup of the urn (I think) at the top of the Treasury:

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You get there by walking (or riding in a carriage) through a long, narrow passage:

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. . . filled with ancient petroglyphs:

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You see lots of camels:

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And you can ride one for a few dinars.  Here a camel poses for a photo:

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It’s a very commercial place.  Little Bedouin boys are constantly trying to sell you cheap bracelets; old ladies sit cross-legged on the ground and try to sell Petra rocks.  And you have stores like this one:

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If you’re adventurous you can climb up into the ruins:

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There’s more than just ancient Nabatean ruins.  Here are the remains of a Roman amphitheater:

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And here’s the floor of an ancient Greek temple:

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Go see it — before the world explodes and it’s too late.

Wadi Rum

A wadi is a valley.  “Rum,” according to Wikipedia, is probably from an Aramaic word meaning “high”.  Wadi Rum is a couple of hours south of Amman, Jordan, along a highway my son tells me was funded by Saddam Hussein–one more thing to hold against him.  The most interesting part of the journey was seeing cars and trucks occasionally driving the wrong way in the breakdown lane.  Easier to do this than to go in south to the next U-turn, then go north to another U-turn, then go south again.

Also, what’s with the stacks of tires everywhere?  It’s like they’re growing out of the sand instead of grass.

Wadi Rum was developed as a tourist attraction about 25 years ago.  Before that, the local Bedouins slept in tents and made their living herding goats.  Now they live in small concrete houses, drive tourists around in ATVs, and communicate with each other via cell phones.

We took our tour with a delightful friend of my son’s called Suleiman who runs a camp there called Starlight.  It even has a WordPress blog, although I think someone spent about three minutes setting it up.

Here is the visitor center:

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Here is what you see from the parking lot:

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Here is Suleiman and my wife yakking while the rest of us were climbing a small hill:

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Here is my son and Suleiman’s cute kid Rashid climbing up to look at some Nabatean graffiti from a couple thousand years ago:

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Wadi Rum was the location used to film The Martian and many other movies.  For The Martian, they apparently had to do some post-processing to remove the occasional vegetation:

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But mostly the place is just spectacularly barren:

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Lawrence of Arabia was one of the movies filmed here.  Lawrence is a bit of a controversial figure nowadays, but Suleiman had nothing but good things to say about him.  The is supposed to be the remains of a place where Lawrence stayed in Wadi Rum:

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Here we see a small camp against the backdrop of a massive peak:

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Here’s what a camp looks like close up:

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The tents were fine, although I would have appreciated a flashlight to help me find my way to the bathroom.  (As it was, I used up the battery in my iPhone using it as a flashlight.)  We ate in a tent with Suleiman, his associates, and the rest of the campers.  The food, cooked in a sand pit, was delightful.  I took a pass on the after-dinner hookah.  A full moon prevented us from seeing the spectacular display of stars that is a feature of nights in Wadi Rum.

There isn’t much wildlife, but you occasionally see scenes like this:

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The scenery became particularly breathtaking towards sunset:

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And early in the morning:

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About Amman

I keep meaning to post about my recent trip to Jordan.  Let’s start with Amman.

Here is Amman, viewed from the Amman Citadel:

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It’s build on a series of hills, and it’s overwhelmingly monochromatic–just shades of gray and brown.

Here’s the Temple of Hercules on the Citadel, which is the primary tourist attraction in the city:

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Here’s my favorite photo from the Citadel: fingers from a massive Roman statue (presumably of Hercules):

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While we were on the Citadel we heard the noontime call to prayer being broadcast from some mosque.  Then we heard it from some other mosque.  My son didn’t know how that works–shouldn’t they be synchronized somehow?

Here’s the Roman amphitheater, viewed from the Citadel:

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It’s still in use.

The traffic in Amman is awful.  My son drove us everywhere, and he was great, but this place makes Boston drivers look like they’re from the Midwest.  Those hills are filled with narrow side streets, and the major streets are connected by a series of “rings” (that is, roundabouts or rotaries), and if the drivers were observing any rules on those rings, I didn’t notice them.  One cultural item: if you stop to let a pedestrian cross the street, he puts his hand over his heart as a sign of thanks.  That was sweet.

Here’s the street where my son lives:

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There are lots of Western chain stores in Amman — Popeye’s, Hardees, Starbucks.  And there are lots of chain-store wannabes.  There is a local chain of donut stores that uses the orange and pink color scheme of Dunkin’ Donuts.  I didn’t see a Dollar Rent-a-Car, but I saw a Dinar Rent-a-Car. Here is a faux Stop ‘n Shop in my son’s neighborhood:

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It can feel pretty Western, until suddenly it doesn’t.  For example:

  • People smoke hookahs in restaurants after dinner.  This looked pretty civilized to me, actually.
  • Toilet paper in some places seems to be, er optional.  That does not seem civilized to me.
  • No one neuters their pets, so there are lots of stray cats roaming the streets.
  • I’d say about a third to a half of women wear non-Western styles of dress, from headscarves to (some) burkas.
  • I saw several old men sitting by the side of the road selling lottery tickets.  This is not a wealthy country.

The thing I missed most while I was there was grass–I’d even have appreciated weeds in a vacant lot (and there were plenty of vacant lots).  There just wasn’t any.

The people were unfailingly delightful.

Mystic Pizza in Madaba

For some reason one of my most-read posts was about our visit to Mystic Pizza in Mystic, Connecticut, the inspiration for the movie that launched Julia Roberts on the path to stardom.

Now my expat son sends me evidence that Mystic Pizza is a global phenomenon — at least, it shows up in Madaba, a city in central Jordan:

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Um, why?  My son has been to a Dunkin’ Donuts in Beirut, but Mystic Pizza is not a chain bent on global pizza domination.  It’s not a chain at all, as far as I know.  Here’s the original.  Note the different font on the sign.  And everything.  Well, the world is an interesting place.

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Wanna see my son in a Jordanian sitcom?

“Wait,” you say, “there are sitcoms in Jordan?”

Yes, there are.  This one is called My American Neighbor.  It’s a mild cross-cultural satire: Jordanians misunderstand American customs; Americans misunderstand Jordan.  In this episode, the American guy living in Jordan is getting married to a local girl, and his family arrives from the States.  They show up at around the seven-minute mark.  His kid brother is wearing a Red Sox cap — hey, I recognize that cap!  Later he wears a Celtics jacket, and in another scene he wears a green shirt with the Narragansett “Hi, neighbor!” slogan on it.  I recognize that shirt, too!  Clearly he’s giving off a New England vibe.

Here’s the show:

Anyway, I think James is pretty good (not that he got paid or anything).  The best part of the show, though, is the Mona Lisa print on the wall with duct tape covering her décolletage.