"Jordan is the best kept secret in the world as a travel destination, especially for people of faith," said Graham F. Bardsley, a Presbyterian pastor and adjunct faculty member of Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va.
But as more and more travelers uncover that secret, the country is trying to strike a fragile balance between attracting essential tourist dollars and preserving ancient sites from damage by visitors.
Bardsley co-founded a nonprofit network known as Friends of Jordan, which has taken hundreds of Christian leaders to Jordan over the past several years. Many sites in Jordan remain "as they were seen by Moses, Alexander the Great, Saladin, Marco Polo, John the Baptist and Jesus," Bardsley said.
Today, a park stretching 27 square miles with a large visitor center has been developed at Bethany beyond the Jordan, an archaeological wonderland located just 40 minutes from Jordan's capital, Amman.
It's a place where Christian history and the story of Jesus' life and ministry seem omnipresent. In the past decade, the site has generated enough publicity to attract a range of VIPs, from the late Pope John Paul II to Britain's Prince Charles.
Already, hordes of tourists, along with damaging weather, have threatened pieces of the ancient rose-red rock city of Petra, perhaps Jordan's most famous site. An estimated 300,000 visitors visit Petra annually.
With increased tourism has come more pollution, a higher demand for scarce water, damage to artwork from flash photography and sometimes vandalism at archaeological sites.
Since 1996, excavations at Bethany beyond the Jordan have revealed one ancient site after another associated with John the Baptist and John's baptism of Jesus. Pottery, coins and stone objects, and architectural remains affirm that the site was in use early in the first century.
Pilgrims may visit a small hill believed to be the place from which Elijah ascended into heaven. The same hill is where God is said to have appeared to Elijah and Elisha in a whirlwind.
In addition, traces of the early Christians can be found throughout Bethany beyond the Jordan. There are architectural remnants of a fifth or sixth century Byzantine monastery with churches, baptism and water storage pools, water systems and chapels. A Roman-era building with mosaics has been called an early Christian "prayer hall."
All feed into a tradition that would place Jesus' baptism east of the Jordan River, even though there are others that link the baptism to the other side of Jordan, in Israel. Many Christians come at religious holidays. Some - eager to make use of a place so steeped in Christian history - want to baptize their children there, said Rustom Mkhjian, who supervises archaeological work at Bethany beyond the Jordan.
Jordan is a "relatively poor country" compared to the other oil-rich nations in the Persian Gulf, said Chris Johnson of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, which was founded in 1946 to protect Jordan's natural - and historical - resources.
The society struggles to provide options that accomplish three goals: continuing to lure tourists to Jordan, creating income-generating projects in poorer regions and highlighting the work of local artisans.
"For each site, we find out the skills of the local people and then we develop a craft that links people to the site," Johnson said.
For example, in southern Jordan, the society has set up a wilderness lodge in an arid desert area. Solar-powered, the lodge also uses candlelight. "All the candles are made by Bedouin women, and we use hundreds of candles a day," Johnson said.
At Bethany beyond the Jordan, tourists and pilgrims clearly are welcome, but are asked to stick to the marked trails to avoid damaging a history-rich area. "This site is our baby," said Mkhjian, the archaeological site supervisor. "My decision was to protect the site from human intervention."
The number of foreign visitors to Jordan declined right after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But tourism was up last year. In 2005, Jordan attracted 623,572 overnight foreign visitors, close to 50,000 more than the previous year. Tourism revenues increased by 8.5 percent the same year.
Though predominantly Muslim, Jordan also is home to many Christians. The estimates of how many live there, including Palestinian refugees who are Christian, varies. But Jordan's King Abdullah II is stressing peaceful co-existence among the nation's different religions and emphasizing interfaith dialogue.
Standing at Bethany beyond the Jordan near the ruins of a Byzantine monastery with a church building dating to the time of the Emperor Anastasius (491-618 A.D.), Mkhjian notes that some believe this particular spot may be the ruins of Bethabara.
"This was part of the wilderness" in which John the Baptist lived and moved, Mkhjian said. Inscriptions uncovered at various sites in the archaeological park and other findings make it appear it is likely Jesus was baptized at the site, he said.
"I leave it to you," Mkhjian told a small group of tourists. "It's your decision in what we are doing."
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