Jordan is home to the oldest continuous Christian church in the world—though it’s rarely remembered as such. As a modern kingdom with a majority Muslim population, Jordan takes pride in its ongoing tradition of tolerance towards Christians (past and present), and in preserving the endless layers of human civilization in the region, going back to even before the time of Mesopotamia. Whether strolling down a Roman road, deciphering a 1,400-year old map on a church floor, or exploring the sandstone splendors of Petra—Jordan brings the past to life.
As a believer, I can visit the sites and match different placenames with scenes from the Bible—but as a traveler, Jordan shows me what it was really like: the rustling olive groves and the silence of the desert, the mystical smell of actual frankincense and myrrh, or the taste of cold-pressed olive oil, unleavened bread, and sharp briny cheese. Simply driving over the dramatic folds of the dry beige landscape sends me straight into the first few pages of the New Testament.
In Matthew Chapter 3, we read that Jesus traveled to Bethany “beyond the Jordan” to the barren “wilderness” where John the Baptist lived. Today, the prophet’s wilderness still feels wild, with natural caves and rocky outcroppings worn smooth by the wind, flowering shrubs and buzzing bees, and the ancient River Jordan still carving its way through the soft and sandy soil.
“We want today’s Christian pilgrims to experience it the way Jesus did,” says Rostam Mikhjian, Director General of the Baptism Site. The UNESCO World Heritage Site lacks any flashy monuments or some overbearing visitor center—rather, I walk along a humble path that leads to a few stone steps that drop down to the watery pool where Jesus Christ was baptized.
Perhaps it’s the quiet reverence that I find so moving, along with the great spiritual meaning of this place. Though I am also touched by the archeology left behind, remnants from the waves of early Christians who have come here on pilgrimage since the 1st century A.D.
What strikes me over and over is that Jordan is where it all began—this is where Jesus was baptized, where he wandered contemplatively in the desert, and where some of the very first Christians began to worship. Early Christians fleeing the intolerance of the Roman Empire found safety, freedom, and refuge in Jordan.
Of the ten Decapolis cities mentioned in the Bible (Matthew 4:25), six are in Jordan, including the poetic stone ruins of Jerash (Gerasa in the New Testament). Few Greco-Roman cities have survived as well as Jerash, and exploring the colonnaded streets feels like walking back two thousand years ago. Aside from Petra, Jerash is the most visited site in Jordan today, and aside from the great history of the place, it’s what I see and hear that I will never forget. When the sun sets, the ruins turn to gold, and I hear the call of a lone shepherd, standing among the tumbledown temples, gathering his flock.
In Jordan, the Bible comes to life like a slow montage. In present-day Umm Qais (Gadara in the Bible), I witness the sharp landscape where Jesus cast the devils into a herd of swine (Matthew 8:28-34). In the capital Amman (Philadelphia in the Bible), atop the Citadel, I visit the ruins of some of the earliest Christian churches in the world. Even now, Jordan tells the story in stone, how over the centuries, Christianity spread among the Greek gentiles that inhabited these cities along the edge of an empire. Much of what we know of the Decapolis goes back to a single map, painstakingly constructed as a mosaic on the floor of St. George’s Church in Madaba.
Created sometime in the mid-6th century A.D. the mosaic in Madaba represents the oldest map of the Holy Land. Still vibrant with the tiny naturally-colored tesserae that comprise it, the mosaic map in Madaba stands as one of the greatest sources on early Christianity. Under the incense clouds inside St. George’s Church, I can follow the pilgrim’s path marked out on the floor—from Jerusalem to Jericho, to Jordan and the Baptism Site and on to the cities of the Decapolis, eventually leading to the holy summit of Mt. Nebo.
Today, the ascent up Mt. Nebo is a remarkable drive, leading up to an unforgettable view that’s right out of the Book of Deuteronomy. On a clear day, I can see the mosaic map in real life, only with sweeping drop-offs down to the brilliant blue of the Dead Sea several thousand feet below. Standing atop Mt. Nebo, I take in the very same view as the Prophet Moses, who looked into the Land of Canaan before he died. Moses was buried near this spot, and today, Mt. Nebo is a shared sacred site for all three of the great monotheistic religions.
Early Christian mosaics still adorn the floor below, while overhead, an airy modern chapel protects the past. The beauty of the contemporary Franciscan monastery at Mt. Nebo is the visual reminder that Christianity is alive today, having grown all around the world but with deep roots still in Jordan.
Hiking into the narrow slot canyons of Petra—flowing the same path as the ancient camel caravans that carried frankincense up from Arabia—I crane my neck upward in awe, overwhelmed by the gargantuan hand-carved facades built during the Greco-Roman period. Yet even more surprising are the honeycombed labyrinth of caves, tombs, and temples, some of which became churches. The Byzantine Church at Petra is one of the largest and most well-preserved Christian churches in the whole of the Middle East, with the astounding mosaics still intact on the floors and walls.
Like the mosaics pieced together by faithful believers so long ago, Jordan offers the traveler a way to connect the dots from distant scripture to the here and now. From the ancient kingdoms of Ammon, Moab, and Edom, to Old Testament Prophets, to John the Baptist and the ministry of Christ, to the first pilgrims and first Christian congregations to the more established Greek church that is still in place today. In towns like Kerak and Ajloun, I meet flourishing communities of Jordanian Christians, while their respective castles highlight opposite sides in the crusader-era clash from long ago.
But for me, the ultimate experience is going way back in time—to the time of the Book of Genesis and the salt-crusted shores of the Dead Sea. Stepping into the lowest point of Earth, and falling back into the viscous saltwater, I bob like a cork, gazing at the cloudless sky. Like a floating compass, I can point to any direction beyond, and remember what happened there. These experiences and memories have become part of my own faith journey. Indeed, traveling in Jordan has given me my own mosaic map, so that now I know where Christianity comes from and how all the puzzle pieces fit together. It is by far the best souvenir from all my travels—so that now, when I can read the Bible, I see it all in my mind. Because I have walked where Jesus walked—in Jordan.
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