Jordan: A kingdom steeped in scriptural history

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She shimmied right here. Or it might have been there. Or – down a bit, over a bit – ooh yes, just there. Summoning up the ghost of the ancient world's most erotic dancer atop a wind-blown Jordanian mountain demands imagination. But once I was able to dream Salome into existence, my reward was to hear the pounding drums, glimpse those seven veils drifting to the floor and imagine the electrifying impact her seductive show must have had on Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great.

Herod Antipas' eyes may have been glued that night to his stepdaughter's curvaceous silhouette, but 20 centuries later, under a glaring afternoon sun, my eyes had to make do with views over the curvaceous mountains of Moab.

Israel and Palestine have cornered the market in Holy Land tours, but Jordan is no second-best pilgrimage destination. Pope Benedict XVI has allotted half of his eight-day Biblical tour – which starts on Friday – to this much-overlooked "other" Holy Land. Jordan is emerging from the shadows.

The Middle Eastern kingdom has a strong and well-integrated Arab Christian minority. Estimates vary, but they are thought to comprise around 5 per cent of the population. Given that this amounts to around 300,000 people, there is remarkable diversity in the Christian community: chiefly Greek Orthodox, with communities of Roman Catholics, Melkite Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Armenians, Copts and some Protestants.

I sat for a while with Charl Twal, ebullient owner of the Mariam Hotel in the market town of Madaba – and nephew of Fouad Twal, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Jerusalem. "We feel that we are the originals," Charl told me. "We are the cousins of Jesus."

This confidence and sense of deep-rooted identity is widely felt, not least in Madaba, whose history dates back to the Old Testament. Early one Sunday I popped into the most prominent of its 50 or so churches, the modern St John's Cathedral, and watched as perhaps 100 people took communion. As I left, staff were preparing for another, busier mass afterwards.

It's a short drive from Madaba to Bethany, a cluster of pools and springs on the east bank of the river Jordan. Here I met a guide named Emad, a Greek Orthodox Christian who outlined the wealth of evidence from the Bible and medieval pilgrims pointing to Jesus' having been baptised here. John's Gospel is explicit, describing a site "beyond Jordan [that is, on the other side of the river Jordan from Jerusalem], where John was baptising".

In the world of Holy Land tourism, this is pure gold: an archaeologically rich site that tallies with the gospels and primary historical sources. Jordan is busy fast-tracking it on to the global A-list, securing authentication of the site from the Vatican, Lambeth Palace and church authorities from Moscow to Ethiopia. To dip my toe in the Jordan and reflect on the fame of this tamarisk-lined ribbon of water, coiling between dusty hills, was just about the most powerful evocation of the term "Holy Land" I could imagine. North stands Pella, where Jerusalem's first Christians fled in AD66 during a Jewish rebellion against the Romans.

Lying at sea level, with the Jordan Valley spread below, it's a modest site: most of the Roman-era city has been washed away by the flowing springs on the valley floor. Two churches and a mosque survive on higher ground, along with the foundations of a Canaanite temple.

Caretaker Deeb Hussein's family have been in the area for 150 years. We watched the shadows lengthen, sipping lip-smacking home-made lemonade with mint as he filled me in on local history. Jesus passed near here on his way to Gadara. This town of poets and philosophers (now renamed Umm Qais) is the location for one of the New Testament's more spectacular miracles, when Jesus banished the demons afflicting two madmen into a herd of swine, who then rushed down the hill and perished in the Sea of Galilee.

I arrived during a holiday weekend: Gadara's splendid Roman theatre of basalt stone, facing west across the olive groves, was buzzing with families and teenagers out for a day in the country, girls squealing and boys preening amid a fluster of pop music and Arabic drumming. Roman colonnades led me to the highest point of the ruins – an Ottoman-era schoolhouse, turned into a rather lovely terrace restaurant – to absorb an incomparable view over the Sea of Galilee and the looming plateau of the Golan Heights. It struck me that the demonised pigs would have had to run a heck of a long way down the slope: 12km or more to reach the water, vaulting the gorge of the river Yarmouk along the way. Still, it never does to be too literal about these things.

Tourists – local and foreign, Christian and Muslim – crowded in to take in the vista, posing and pointing. Later, I met Mahmoud Hawawreh, a rangy guide with excellent English (he used to be a schoolteacher) who took me out for a day on the Abraham Path, hidden in the hills of Biblical Gilead behind Umm Qais. This multinational pilgrimage route runs from Harran, in southern Turkey, where Abraham heard the call of God, through Syria and Jordan to Jerusalem and the patriarchs' tomb in Hebron. It is still under development, but Mahmoud agreed to guide me along the first Jordanian section, dubbed the Al-Ayoun Trail.

It was idyllic. We swished and swashed through knee-high meadows, past spring-watered orchards of olive, fig and pomegranate and through villages untouched by tourism. As we wandered, Mahmoud told me folk tales – a couple who eloped to a certain cave, a Roman palace atop an inaccessible crag – and pointed out which farmers' hives produce the best honey. The walk culminated in suitably dramatic Old Testament fashion at remote Tell Mar Elias ("St Elijah's Hill") – from where, according to the Book of 2 Kings, Elijah was raised to heaven in a chariot of fire. I drew breath on the summit amid the ruins of a sixth-century mosaic-floored church, surrounded by panoramic views that were, well, Biblical in both scope and grandeur.

More views awaited at Mount Nebo, named in Deuteronomy as the spot from which Moses saw the promised land. The fourth-century church on the top was under renovation by Franciscan archaeologists when I visited. Even so, the idea of standing in Moses's sandalprints more than made up for u

onot venturing inside. More than a kilometre below lay Jericho and the Dead Sea, while sprouting atop a hill on the western horizon directly opposite I spied minuscule towers – a tantalising glimpse of Jerusalem, 50km distant.

Jordan has almost too many Biblical sites. I missed out the cave where Lot sheltered from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and had no time to visit Aaron's tomb at Petra. Instead, I detoured to the palace of Herod Antipas at Machaerus, a conical hill above the Dead Sea. Some time around AD23, Herod – a shifty character who was in cahoots with Pontius Pilate – had married his brother's wife, in contravention of the laws of Leviticus. A local holy man named John, who'd taken to ritually immersing people in the river Jordan, publicly condemned the marriage. Herod flung him into a cave-cell beneath the palace and carried on living the high life.

At a particularly wild party one night, according to Roman historian Josephus, Salome, Herod Antipas' stepdaughter, performed before Antipas' assembled guests, whereupon the over-excited king offered to fulfil her merest whim. She requested John the Baptist's head on a platter. Antipas' reward goes undocumented, but there's some poetic justice in the fact that within 50 years his palace was a ruin, destroyed during the same Jewish rebellion against Rome that saw the mass suicide at Masada.

It's a short but punishingly steep walk up the hillside to the ruins – dubbed rather gloomily by the locals Qalat Al-Mashnaqa ("Citadel of the Gallows"). Caves dot the folded landscape: any one of them could have been where Herod's guards decapitated John the Baptist. But relatively few of the rooms, it seemed to me, could have staged Salome's shimmy.

Following in the footsteps of a glamour girl might not be quite what Pope Benedict has in mind for his Holy Land pilgrimage, but he is nonetheless on the right track: Jordan's land is certainly holy. For once in the Middle East, international borders count for nothing.

All that's holy: touring Jordan's Biblical sites

Many Christian tours come this way: World Discovery (01306 888799; worlddiscovery.co.uk ) has an eight-day programme including flights on Royal Jordanian from Heathrow to Amman, transport, a guide, hotel accommodation with breakfast, and admission fees. It is offering a discounted price of £1,147 per person, based on two travelling together.

Several firms specialising in "tailor-made" trips can put together an itinerary on request; for example, Audley Travel (01993 838000; audleytravel.com ) is a Jordan specialist, and Guiding Star ( guidingstarltd.com ) is an excellent local operator.

Staying in Amman is an obvious temptation, but you'd do better to use Madaba as a base. This attractive town is easier to reach (20km) from Amman airport than is the capital (35km). It has a wealth of Christian interest (outlined at visitmadaba.org ), including a unique Byzantine mosaic map of the Holy Land, laid on the floor of what is now St George's Church (daily 8.30am–6pm; £1).

Madaba also does a nice line in family-run small hotels: rooms cost about £38 at the homely Mariam ( mariamhotel.com ) or Salome ( salomehotel.com ), either of which will collect you from the airport on arrival for about £15.

A host of sites near Madaba have good road access. At Mount Nebo, a path leads from the summit car park into the grounds of a Franciscan monastery (daily 8am–6pm; £1). Its Moses Memorial Church is under renovation, but trails extend behind to the edge of the hill, gazing over Jericho and the Dead Sea.

At the Baptism Site of Jesus on the river Jordan (daily 8am–6pm; £7), free shuttle buses run frequently from the Visitor Centre to a series of three ancient mosaic-floored churches. Paths lead through the trees to the sixth-century Church of John the Baptist. You can book ahead at baptismsite.com to request your own baptism here.

Other sites near Madaba include Hesban – Biblical Heshbon – occupied by the Israelites in the 13th century BC; the King's Highway, an ancient route mentioned in the Book of Numbers; and Herod's hilltop palace at Machaerus.

Even Jordan's top tourist attraction, the mostly pagan Petra (daily 6am–6pm; £21), has Biblical associations. It is overlooked by the 1,460m peak of Jabal Haroun (Mount Hor in the Bible), on top of which stands the tomb of Moses' brother, Aaron – accessible only on a testing, full-day, guided trek. Easier to reach is Ain Musa, reputedly the rock struck in anger by Moses to bring forth water. The spring that resulted is still flowing.

Getting there

The author flew from Heathrow to Amman with BMI (0870 607 0555; flybmi.com ). Royal Jordanian (08719 112 112; rj.com ) also flies from Heathrow to Amman.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's "reduce my footprint" initiative (020-3117 0500; www.reducemyfootprint.travel ).

Staying there

Grand Hyatt Amman, Hussein Bin Ali Street, Jabal Amman, Amman, Jordan (00 962 6465 1234; amman.grand.hyatt.com ). Doubles start at 189 dinars (£180), room only.

Walking there

To walk the Al-Ayoun trail, contact the Abraham Path Initiative ( abrahampath.org ).

Red tape

British passport-holders require a visa to enter Jordan; you can get one on arrival at the airport for 10 dinars (£9.50). The Embassy of the Kingdom of Jordan is at 6 Upper Phillimore Gardens, London W8 7HA (020-7937 3685; jordanembassyuk.org ).

More information

Jordan Tourism Board: 020-7371 6496; visitjordan.com

Matthew Teller is author of 'The Rough Guide to Jordan'. The updated fourth edition is due out in August

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