It’s my second day in Jordan, and I decide I want to get out of the city and explore some of the other historic sites. I do some research and figure out that my options are to take a tour, or hire a car and go on my own. I don’t really feel like navigating the roads of Jordan myself so I pick the much more expensive option of a tour. Since I am by myself, this jacks up the price immensely and I’m not super thrilled about this but I don’t have much of a choice!
I use the tour company associated with Encounters Travel and I am happy to see that Mohammad is my driver for the day! (he is the one that picked me up from the airport).We hit the road, an hour drive to Bethany Beyond the Jordan. All of a sudden Mohammad pulls off the road as the cops motion us to stop. I have no idea what’s going on – they check his papers, check the car and the trunk. I don’t know if they want me to get out of the car, so I figure I’ll just sit tight for now. And because we’re stopped and the windows are open there are now TONS of flies in the car. They are super annoying…they are in my eyes, my nose, my mouth. UGH!!! The cops seem ok with us, so we hit the road again.
We arrive at Bethany Beyond the Jordan and even though I have a Jordan pass that should get me into all of the sites in Jordan, it doesn’t include this one. Come on!!! Also known as Al-Maghtas, Bethany is believed to be the original location of the baptism of Jesus and is a new addition to the UNESCO World Heritage collection. Keep in mind that there is no concrete evidence of his baptism happening here, just testimonials. In this archaeological area they have uncovered monasteries, baptism ponds, tombs, churches and dwellings. It is located on the Eastern bank of the Jordan River, and this area has many biblical references – like someone stopping the water flow or separating the waters to cross over. I’m not a Bible expert by any means so I won’t go into too much detail. I’m also not a religious person but I still find this a very interesting site of historical significance.
I leave Mohammad to smoke and chat with his other guide buddies (seriously everyone smokes here and it’s gross!!). We must board a small van for a hot bumpy ride to the baptism site. I meet a nice lady from Canada, who also happens to be from my hometown so I end up chatting with her for the duration of the visit.
We walk down a long covered path (thank god ‘cause it’s stupid hot out here), and we arrive at the baptism area. There is currently no water left; just a few structures and dry land as the river has shifted.
There is a sign in front of the site:
The King is right…preserve our heritage! In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II was the first pope to ever visit the site so there are pretty mosaic pics depicting the encounter.
We walk a bit further down a non covered path as I look for any bits of shade to duck into. We come to the newly built Greek Orthodox Church of John the Baptist; I can’t wait to go inside to cool off a bit and get out of the raging sun.
The inside features many beautifully painted murals, so it’s worth a look!
And just a few steps away from the church is the Jordan River…I walk over to the very murky waters so I can dip a hand in because hey, why not…it’s holy water!
And get this—on the other side of the river is Israel! This is why the area is heavily guarded and you need to take a guided tour. There are many tourists over there too, and some are immersed in the water to be baptized. You can do this for an extra cost; there is no need for me to partake.
I meet up with Mohammad again and now we drive for an hour to As Salt, an ancient agricultural town built on the slopes of 3 mountains. It’s believed the city was built by the Macedonian army during the reign of Alexander the Great.
Many of the unique buildings are made from the yellow sandstone that’s local to the area, with wooden roofs supported by stone cross arches. We pull into the centre of town and Mohammad takes me to the Historical Museum. He’s planning on just dropping me off so I can wander around. I decide I don’t want to do the museum and I convince him to show me around the town. Ha-ha. First, we walk down Hammam Street, with colorful shops selling everything from produce to textiles.
So many fresh and amazing smells from the spice shops and Mohammad encourages me to have a look in some of the shops. Then he brings me over to an old mansion that once belonged to the Abu Jaber family which is now the Historic Old Salt Museum. The building is beautiful; a mixture of classic and modern features in the dark yellow color.
Here you’ll find a detailed history of the town and its culture with many items and artifacts. Hammad explores the museum with me, explaining some of the artifacts and he points out the pics of the Jordanian Royal Family up on the wall. I have a tour guide now instead of just a driver! Ha-ha. From one of the balconies outside we look down on the town below and see two men playing a game of mancala, which happens to be one of the oldest known games in the world to still be played today.
Players use small stones or seeds and put them in rows of holes. The players try to capture each others pieces. It’s simple yet strategic – we watch for a bit, then head out to look at a couple of the churches – the first one being the Dormition of Virgin Mary Orthodox Church. The big doors are locked but Hammad knows what he’s doing and summons a guy to open the door for us. We have the church to ourselves! It’s dimly lit and a bit damp inside, very simple and pretty.
Next stop is the Al-Khader Orthodox Church…this one is also locked and once again Hammad works his magic and eventually we are allowed inside.
What’s really fascinating is that both Muslims and Christians pray here in unity. The church is actually inside a cave, and it’s small and cozy inside.
Hammad then asks me what I want to do for lunch-go to a restaurant or to a local home for a traditional meal. Well, you know what is the most interesting choice!! We head over to the house of Fatima Al Zoubi.
There is a giant spread of food that awaits us. I try to ask what some of the dishes are, and luckily there are a few foreign filmmakers having lunch with us that can translate better than Fatima and Hammad.
I figure out I’m eating stuffed grape leaves(they kind of look like pieces of poop – ha-ha but they are delicious), tabbouleh, some kind of couscous with pine nuts(I’m loving these pine nuts!), and maqluba which is rice, chicken, potato and cauliflower that is cooked in a pot and then flipped upside down when served.
So yummy – honestly such a great meal. We converge in the sitting room, which is decorated with colorful blankets, plush pillows and many interesting knick knacks. Fatima brings out dessert..I can’t figure out what it is but it’s similar to baklava. Omg it is heaven in my mouth. She asks if I want more and I politely decline, even though I could eat a whole plate of this stuff!
After lunch, they want to dress me up in traditional Jordanian gear…a very heavy black hooded dress with tassels hanging down from the hood.
They get a real kick of of this, and tell me I look very beautiful. We sit around for a couple of hours; it seems as though Hammad is having a good time; I could have left sooner but he is my ride, after all. I play with the little girl who is perhaps Fatima’s grandchild? Is Fatima even old enough to have a grandchild? I’m not totally sure. The little girl comes darting around the corner, shooting me with her toy gun. I pretend she kills me. Haha. Somehow, I wonder if this is appropriate! <shrugs>. And then Fatima tells her to come give me a kiss on the cheek. So cute. Fatima is also really proud of some of the visitors she’s welcomed to her home. The most famous one? The Queen of Jordan! So I know I’ve been in good hands since she’s hosted a queen! We finally bid farewell to Fatima and her family and her awesome hospitality and back on the road for an hour to get to Amman.
I can’t decide what to have for dinner, so Majd (the hot guy that works at the hotel) orders food to the hotel for me. It is so cheap and so amazing. I have a falafel sandwich with toppings and yummy sauces and kunafeh, the popular middle eastern dessert made with a thin noodly pastry soaked in syrup and topped with cheese or clotted cream and nuts. Wow. I’m in heaven! The falafel sandwiches I will have after this one will never match the greatness of this sandwich which is really too bad. I settle in to get a good night’s sleep before I meet with my tour group the following morning……