Jordan's Quiet Spring in the Land of the Bible
AMMAN, Jordan -- For a country planted in the center of the tumultuous Middle East, life seems surprisingly tranquil in the Kingdom of Jordan.
Amman, the vortex of national activity, is bustling but one hears fewer car horns than in many other world capitals.
And just outside Amman, the pace of life is mostly unhurried, as guides shepherd tourists to key sites mentioned in the Bible, or into toney spa resorts on the Dead Sea, or past the staggering carvings ancient societies built into the sheer rock walls of Petra.
The casual visitor wouldn't have a clue that Jordan hosts a half million refugees on its northern border, casualties of Syria's civil war that has displaced more than a quarter of the population. Most are unaware that in a matter of days, military forces from 13 nations, including the United States, will take part in Operation Eager Lion, one of the largest war games maneuvers ever staged.
And except for a few strategically placed billboards and posters, it could be easily overlooked that Pope Francis will also make his first papal visit to Jordan at the same time.
I am in the region to visit Israel, where I have lived and worked much of the past 20 years. On this trip I wanted to enter Israel from the Jordanian border to Israel's east, taking time to visit two biblical sites: Mt. Nebo in the land of Moab, where the Lord showed Moses the Promised Land before his death, and Bethany beyond Jordan, the site where it is believed Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
I didn't know when I planned my visit that the pope is expected to stop at both places when he arrives later this week.
In Deuteronomy 32:49, the Lord tells Moses, "Go up into the Abarim Range to Mount Nebo in Moab, across from Jericho, and view Canaan, the land I am giving the Israelites as their own possession. There, on the mountain that you have climbed you will die and be gathered to your people..." (NIV).
There, Moses first blessed the Israelites, tribe by tribe.
"Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There, The Lord showed him the whole land -- from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah, as far as the western [Mediterranean] sea, the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar.
Then the Lord said to him, "This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I said, 'I will give it to your descendants.'" (Deut. 34:1-4)
And then, the Bible says, Moses died.
Today, Mount Nebo is mostly a Christian shrine. Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty 20 years ago, but it's not a comfortable peace in many ways, not comfortable enough that Israeli Jews feel like flocking here.
But the majority Muslim population honors Moses as a prophet, so he is well represented in the kingdom.
Bethany beyond Jordan is another biblical site that presents an interesting current-day dilemma. It is literally on the border (the Jordan River) between Jordan and Israel, and tourists in both countries -- separated by barbed wire except at the river's edge -- come to commemorate the event described in Matthew 3:13-17 (NIV):
"Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, 'I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?'
Jesus replied, 'Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.'
Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water.
At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.'"
On the Israeli side of the river, the sound of the shofar interrupts the silence of the warm spring afternoon. Very possibly, an evangelical Christian is signaling the Jewish roots of his or her faith.
On the Jordanian side, a bus load of Italians watches their guide -- coiffed in a keffiyeh, or Arab headdress -- point out some of the buildings of Jerusalem in the far distance.
"That is Palestine," he said.
As the tourists enjoy the beauty of the scene, Jordanian soldiers sit in the shade, quietly guarding the site, while in an outpost a few dozen yards away, Israeli soldiers do the same.
And so the land that witnessed the seminal moments of Judaism and Christianity enjoys one more day of peace.
The Dead Sea and Judea (the Promised Land) from Mt. Nebo.
View of Israel from Mt.Nebo, more northward toward Samaria.
Catholic memorial to Moses on Mt. Nebo.
Cross-shaped site in Jordan believed to be where Jesus was baptized.
Giant poster at Bethany beyond Jordan announcing Papal visit.
Jordanian flag flies at Bethany beyond Jordan.
Tourists line both Jordanian, Israeli sides of Jesus' baptismal site.