The customs agent at New York's JFK airport looked at my papers and then eyed me with what I took to be professional suspicion.
"What countries did you visit?"
"Purpose of the trip?"
"I was on a tour visiting historic sites."
The agent's brow arched. "Israel has historic sites," he said dubiously. "What historic sites are in Jordan?" He looked at me as if I'd just told him I'd been on a skiing trip to Kansas.
I realized it was a reasonable question. I'd asked it myself when I was first invited to go on a history tour of Jordan. But now, but after spending a week in what Bible readers know as Moab and Edom, the Jordan River valley and Dead Sea basin, the hills of Gilead and the cities of the Decapolis, the question now struck me as a comic one-liner. He might as well have said, "America has cities. What cities are in Europe?"
I wondered where to begin.
"Well, there's Mount Nebo, where Moses looked into the Promised Land just before he died. There's the Ravine Kerith (now called Wadi Kharrar), where the prophet Elijah hid from Jezebel and was fed by ravens. He later returned to the place known as Elijah's Hill, where he was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. There's also Petra, the ancient city carved into the craggy, rose-colored rocks and popularized in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."
I was about to describe the extensive Roman theaters and temples in Jerash (or Geresa, ground zero in the biblical "region of the Geresenes") and Machaerus, the mountaintop fortress just east of the Dead Sea used by Herod Antipas as a place for relaxation and leisure, and where he imprisoned and eventually beheaded John the Baptist. But before I got that far, the customs agent said, "Okay, okay. You can go."
The exchange illustrated the reason for my trip. Today's nation of Jordan is home to some of the most significant sites in biblical history, but almost no one thinks of Jordan as a pilgrim's destination.
It wasn't always so. Pilgrims as early as the fourth century traveled to Jerusalem, east to Jericho, then crossed the Jordan River to pause at Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan, where they believed John the Baptist performed his ministry and baptized Jesus, before proceeding to the top of Mount Nebo to experience the only view of the Promised Land that Moses ever got. From there you can see the whole Jordan Valley, the wilderness, and the mountains of Judea. The site of Jerusalem would have been visible, at least on a clear day, to Moses, whose "eye was not dim" even at age 120 (Deut. 34:7).
Today Jordan is trying to woo western pilgrims and tourists back to what Aqel Biltaji, Jordan's Minister for Tourism and Antiquities, calls with a twinkle in his eye, "the right side of the river."
After signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, Jordan enjoyed a surge in tourism-related investment. And in 1996, minefields along the Jordan River were cleared, which led to the discovery of the area's most historic find-ruins of early Christian churches, prayer halls, and pools in an area that Jordan claims is the home of John the Baptist and the site of Jesus' baptism.
Israel, of course, has a competing claim on the other side of the river. But Jordanian archaeologist Mohammed Waheeb, 39, a Muslim with a mastery of the Bible and a warm, crinkly-eyed smile, passionately presents his case. "We base our conclusions on three types of evidence," he says. "The biblical record, the journals of early pilgrims, and the archaeological evidence."
The site at Wadi Kharrar, just a good stone's throw from the trickle that remains of the Jordan River now that dams have been built upstream, fits all three types of evidence:
Biblically, John was associated with Bethany-Beyond-(east)-Jordan and with Aenon at Salim (John 3:23), which is a couple miles further east.
Archaeologically, ruins of early Byzantine church structures have been uncovered at the location?and, Waheeb says, manuscripts from the eleventh century refer to Byzantine churches and pools built in the third or early fourth century upon orders from Helena, the mother of Constantine, after her visit to the area.
And finally, Waheeb cites the journals of pilgrims from the fourth and fifth centuries that refer to hermit caves visible from the site, and indeed such caves are within sight of the Byzantine ruins.
Earlier this year Pope John Paul II visited Wadi Kharrar, and the Vatican added this site to the list that Christian pilgrims could visit to celebrate the millennium. It stopped short, however, of declaring the area the actual baptism site.
Even authorities in Israel acknowledge that Waheeb has a case. "Unfortunately for Israeli tourism, the Book of John specifically says that Jesus was baptized east of the Jordan," says Yadin Roman, editor in chief of Eretz magazine, Israel's equivalent of National Geographic. He told the Associated Press: "They have a very plausible claim that during the Byzantine era that site was accepted as the site where Jesus was baptized."
Both Israel and Jordan have been hurt economically by the recent outbreaks of violence in the area. Tour operators report business is down 85 percent from normal levels. Jordan emphasizes that no violence has spilled over into its borders.
Jordan's sites will probably strike an American as undeveloped, at least compared to highly commercialized tourist sites such as the Church of the Nativity or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But what's more appealing on a study tour: gift shops and posh hotels, or a landscape that has hardly changed in 2,000 years?