Walking on a Dead Sea
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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You can easily do a day trip from Amman, but the town of Madaba a little south of the capital seemed like a worthwhile place to move to. After many buses on a circuitous route via Al Jiza through more fertile green lands with new friend Najev (who ended up kindly paying for my whole trip), I arrived in this most religiously tolerant of Jordanian cities and was glad I'd made the effort.
For there is a large Christian community here and their Orthodox churches make for interesting sights in a land dominated by Islam and mosques. Of particular interest are their religious mosaics that have been venerated for centuries, but also the unique and colourful iconic designs of the churches which I have not encountered before in the Orthodox world. Surrounding areas contain a number of highly significant but generally unpublicised religious sites that should be added to the itinerary, and finally, I was fortunate enough to meet Charlie - a 69 year old Aussie who has been travelling for the past 9 years on a beefy motorbike - who has been great to hang out with and who has made getting around to see things much, much easier. More about Charlie later.
Madaba's premier attraction is the Mosaic Map at the Church of St George. Initially constructed in 560AD from more than two million individual tiles, it displayed and labelled 157 major religious sites in the region stretching from Egypt all the way to the Black Sea. Now housed in a pretty 19th century church, only about one third of the pieces remain. It's hard to picture or describe, but it would certainly keep the congregation occupied during those long and boring sermons.
Later that day Charlie and I headed out to Mt Nebo, the site where Moses came for one final look at the Promised Land before meeting his maker. The crazy old coot just loved climbing mountains and this one took its toll it seems, as he was eventually buried in the immediate area after his death.
On a good day you can see all the way to Jericho and Jerusalem, but that afternoon I was lucky to see to the valley floor due to the dust and pollution. It's striking scenery none the less, witnessed in slightly better clarity on a later trip to the Dead Sea (photo above right).
Being an important religious site the first church built here was in the 4th century, but the remains that now house some impressively large and complete mosaics date to the 6th century. The last Pope visited a couple of times and surveyed the domains from a papal platform so there's also a variety of statues and monuments about to mark these occasions.
The wind picked up overnight and blew some of the haze away, making the next day a perfect opportunity to head to the Dead Sea. Charlie's 1,000 CC BMW Paris-Dakar motorbike chewed up the road that plunges hundreds of metres into the Jordan Valley to an extremely low-level shoreline. Bedouin tents and grazing herds blurred by and various checkpoints weren't too concerned that I'd forgotten my passport, so soon we were cruising along the seaside.
Apart from some expensive resort frontages at the north east tip of the sea, the banks slope sharply down from the road making the waterline difficult to access. Salt encrusted cliffs and the occasional palm-lined fresh water stream flowing into the sea made kept me occupied as we rode by. Eventually 15km south of the resorts we found a trail through a tomato farm to the shore beside a fresh water creek, creating the perfect place for a dip (as you need fresh water to wash the salt off as soon as you get out).
All the rumours are true - this water is extremely buoyant so requires little effort to float on your back with most of your shoulders, chest and legs out of the water. Jesus probably didn't walk on it but the calcified sodium deposits underfoot resemble bleached coral formations and the resulting combination has a strange but not unpleasant feeling in the thick, briny water. Still I didn't stay immersed for long as a wind was cutting across the valley and clouds looked threatening above, so I rinsed off in the nearby stream and soon started feeling human again.
A scorched shoreline and the salty stalactites on the rocks around added to the bizarre scene. We later found out that this is the result of a rapidly diminishing Dead Sea - it declines up to 1 metre in depth per year to evaporation and unchecked irrigation (after desalination) of neighbouring lands, meaning it will completely disappear within 50 years if it continues to lose water at this rate! Better get in quick potential floaters!
After a climb back up to the roadside we were invited over for chi (tea) with the local tomato farmers. No-one could speak a common language but after explaining we were from Australia everyone nodded, smiled and complimented the tea under the hot orange tarpaulin. In a random act of kindness after offering to buy some of the tomatoes, they packed a big bag full of fresh plump ones and sent us on our way without taking a cent for their troubles. Sometimes you get ripped off, sometimes the meekest souls are incredibly kind, but it pays to remember the nice interactions with locals like these. Cheers Mohammed and friends for such unexpected generosity.
The final stop of the day came from following mysterious signs leading to a 'Baptism Site' for about 25km. We end up on the banks of the Jordan River and therefore right on the border with Israel (thought this was meant to be Palestinian?). The Baptism Site in question was none other than that of Jesus Christ, who according to much supposition and speculation was baptised here by another biblical legend, the aptly named John the Baptist.
There must have been a lot more water in the valley at that time because the particular area is pretty dry now and only a trickle of a Jordan River flows languidly nearby. Ruins of a number of shrines and churches mark the spots were Jesus unrobed before the Baptism, and where he was actually anointed. I suppose you just have to use your imagination a bit...
Further on there is a new gold-domed Greek Orthodox chapel right next to the river border. Inside it's pretty new and flashy, but it does contain an unknown skull and some bones recovered from one of the Baptism site ruins so this individual must have been pretty holy and righteous indeed. Security riverside is tight as Jordanian and Israeli flags flutter in the breeze but the area retains a semblance of the peace and tranquillity such holy ground deserves.
Because of the proximity of the border you have to visit the Baptism sites as part of an escorted tour. Unless you're pretty dedicated I wouldn't say the $US7.50 price tag is worth your while but it was an interesting addendum to a good day out on the holy water around Madaba.
Next entry -> hunting Oryx out at Azraq
Words from the Wise #53
"Men grow tired of sleep, love, singing and dancing sooner than of war."
Homer - The Illiad