Whether you take the Bible as truth or not, there is no denying the impact the book has had on our world as it continues to shape and influence much of the world today. Often overshadowed by Israel, which contains the most important biblical sites, many of the places that inspired the stories of the Bible are also found in present day Jordan. For nearly 2,000 years, many of these places have been a continual place of pilgrimage for the devout and curious. This continues to this day, with buses of the faithful arriving daily to reflect on the places where ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ occurred.
Many of the biblical sites in Jordan are within driving distance of Amman, making them perfect day trip options during your stay in the city. In this post, I will describe our experiences at the main biblical sites we visited while in the country. If you want to get to these places themselves, check out our post detailing our driving itineraries.
Mount Nebo, an unassuming hill located just 32 km (20 miles) southwest of Amman is the supposed site where Moses died. As the story goes, after guiding the Israelites for 40 years out of Egypt and the surrounding desert, God allowed the Israelites to enter The Promised Land. However, God punished Moses for doubting God when he struck a stone twice , from which a spring is said to have sprung, rather than once as God commanded him to do so. With the very little compassion that God seems to have in the Old Testament, he permitted Moses to view the land that would become his people’s but not his own, before passing away. After viewing the Promise Land from Mount Nebo, Moses died, with his remains buried somewhere in the valley below, never to be found.
Today the site offers much of the same view that God permitted Moses in this biblical Story. The stark mountaintop offers unobstructed views into Israel and the Palestinian territories. On a clear day, Jerusalem, Jericho, Bethlehem, and other legendary cities can be seen from here. Unfortunately for us, it was a dusty day, meaning we couldn’t view any of these cities but the landscape before us was impressive none the less. Both Claire and I heard this story read to us hundreds of times growing up as kids, so to see the place that actually inspired the story was pretty special.
In addition to the views, the mountaintop is also home to a group of monks who maintain the site and church that dates back the fourth century. Inside the church are the remains of Jordan’s most well preserved floor mosaics from the time period. Exotic animals decorate the floor in addition to battle scenes with warriors. The brightness of the tiles’ colors is quite impressive and only look a few decades old instead of their 1,700 year long history. One of the many contested sites where Moses created a spring for much needed water is also nearby Mount Nebo.
Mount Nebo is not included on the Jordan Pass as it is a privately run site. The easiest way to get here is to use your own set of wheels. Look out for our post describing our driving itineraries which include Mount Nebo within the next few weeks.
Bethany Beyond the Jordan
Bethany Beyond the Jordan is the agreed upon site of Jesus’ baptism. It is here that it is believed that John the Baptist submerged Jesus into the waters of the Jordan river. Due to the political tensions that surround the site, the area today is heavily militarized and people entering the area are strictly monitored. Prior to entering the site, police will take down your license plate number and passenger information to ensure everyone that enters the site leaves as well. The only way to visit the baptismal site is through a tour which is organized at the ticket office next to the parking lot. Tours run every half hour to hour, so be sure to sign up as soon as you arrive in order to reserve yourself a spot. A bus will take you close to the main sight seeing area where the guide will explain things to you along the way. The path that leads to the actual baptismal site hugs the Jordan/Israeli border, with Israel just a few meters away.
The Baptismal site itself is extremely underwhelming but there is no denying the importance of the site itself. Steps dating back to the fourth century lead down to the once gushing spring where it is believed the baptism took place. Now, a small pool of water is all that remains to mark the spot. Due to agreements made with the Israelis during the peace agreements, visitors are no longer able to go down to the actual site and must appreciate it from above. While groups tend to pass through quickly here, it is ok to lag behind for a few minutes to reflect on what lies before you.
The tour then leads visitors to the Church of St. George with a beautifully painted interior and relics of an ancient monk that helped found the church here. Directly across from the church is a series of steps that lead down to the only place in Jordan where visitors can touch the Jordan river. Just a slither of its former self due to overuse, the murky river is not that inviting for a swim. A police barricade lies in the middle of the river, marking the border between Jordan and Israel. Across the river is the Israeli baptismal center where pilgrims can dunk themselves into the muddy depths of the Jordan river. It’s an amusing place to be as the tourists on the other side, despite being in a different country, are so close you could easily have a conversation with them.
If you plan on visiting the site, it is best to per-purchase tickets on your Jordan Pass before entering the country. Buying them as part of the Pass will save you an additional 4 Dinars per ticket. (Look out for our future post on why you should get the Jordan Pass)
Machaerus was by far our favorite biblical site that we visited. The lone gumdrop shaped hill, framed with the Dead Sea from behind, is where the remains of Herod the Great’s Castle lie. It is somewhere on this hilltop, among the many caves that dot the hillside that John the Baptist is said to have lost his head. As the story goes, John the Baptist denied Herod Antipas’ (successor of Herod the Great) marriage to Herodias, who was previously married to Herod’s brother, who was still alive. One evening, after being bewitched by his Salome’s (his step daughter) dancing, Herod promised to grant her anything she wished. Seeking revenge, Herodias instructed her daughter to demand for John the Baptists head on a platter. Herod fulfilled his step daughter’s wish, having John killed somewhere along the now lonesome hill.
While not much of the ruins remain after being destroyed by invading Romans and earthquakes, there are few places in Jordan that offer such spectacular scenery. The climb around the hill and the mountaintop itself offer 360 views of the whole area. The most impressive of the views are to the west, where the hills gently roll down to the Dead Sea some 1,100 meters (3,608 feet) below. If you’re up for a little hike, the path seen winding over the hilltops below Machaerus offer even better views of the Dead Sea.
On most days, the site only sees a handful of visitors meaning it will most likely only be you and the whispering winds up on top of the mountain. During our visit here, we saw only two other people who stayed for roughly 20 minutes, leaving us with the place all to ourselves for much of our time there.
The main reason to visit Umm Qais is to visit the black stoned ruins left by the Romans and Ottomans. The site is also famous due to the fact that it is one of two sites competing for recognition as the place where Jesus casted out demons into pigs. In one of the most widely known biblical stories, two demons who were possessing two humans, entreated Jesus that if he were to cast them out, to send them into a nearby herd of pigs. Jesus is said to have done this which, after casting the demons out into the pigs, the swine proceeded to rush down the steep cliff side and drown themselves in the nearby Sea of Galilee.
The site today offers impressive views of Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Syria. The ruins here, while not as impressive as Jerash, are well worth a visit in their own right. For more information on visiting Umm Qais, check out our post about the ruined city here.
While, not a biblical site itself, Madaba is home to the world’s oldest known map of the Holy Land, offering important insight about the region. Dating back to the year 560, the floor mosaic depicting the Holy Land is now protected under the roof of a more modern eighteenth century church. Much of the map has been lost with time, but enough of it remains to get a lay of the land. The tiles that do remain, are vibrant in color and are miraculously well preserved. Be sure to take a picture of the map outside as there are no signs inside and the mosaic inscriptions are in Greek. The church is a privately run site and is not included in the Jordan Pass.
In addition to the Church of St. George, the town of Madaba is home to countless other sites containing priceless mosaics, many in even better condition that the one found at St. George. The most impressive being housed in the Madaba Archaeological Park I and Virgin Mary Church. After extensive excavation, the open air museum houses some fine examples of Mosaics in Jordan, the oldest dating back to the first century. The most impressive of the mosaics lie under the protective roof which covers a sixth century Byzantine villa. The very well preserved floor depicts scenes of topless Aphrodite spanking Eros with the four seasons represented in the corners of the room.
If tight on time, the other sites with Mosaics in town are far less impressive than those found at the Archaeological Park I and the church of St. George. If still interested, the two other places worthy of a visit are Archaeological Park II and Church of the Apostles a little further down the main road.
Madaba itself is home to one of Jordan’s largest Christian communities with roughly 1/3 of the town’s population belonging to the Christian faith. Mosques and Churches stand side by side in this town acting as a modern symbol of religious tolerance and coexistence.
Little Sights with Legendary Stories
Most of the sights listed above are small in comparison to what Jordan as a whole has to offer. The inspiration they provided however, and the stories that came from them have impacted generations of people for thousands of years. After hearing these stories while growing up, it was a pretty surreal experience to put an actual place with the picture I had constructed in my head as a child.