‘This is Abdullah, he’s a guide here. He works part time for Ibrahim.’Bethany sits at the head of the Dead Sea, a religious site of enormous importance. This is where John the Baptist performed the ritual of baptism on Jesus. John is a critical figure in all three of the ‘revealed religions’, Yoḥanan ha-mmaṭbil in Hebrew and Yuhanna al-maʿmadan in Arabic, John has been linked (as, indeed, has Jesus) to the Essenes, an ascetic sect identified strongly with the Dead Sea and, indeed, with Christianity itself. Just around the corner from the Baptism Place is an unprepossessing hummock which is, apparently where the Prophet Elijah ascended to heaven on a chariot. You can't really throw a stone around here without hitting a site of importance to the revealed religions, because this is the heart and homeland of the people of the book.
I said hello to Abdullah and we shook hands before he turned and led the way through the buildings and down a stone-flagged pathway. I spotted a city in the foothills across the valley on what must have been the Israeli side of the border.
‘That’s Jericho. It’s part of Palestine now.’
Jericho. I remembered it from primary school – being forced to sing Joseph’s Technicolour Dreamcoat for the school play. Joshua and his army, marching around parping away at trumpets to break down the city walls. I screwed up my eyes against sun’s glare and watched the far-away city walls, the buildings little more than white dots in the shimmering air.
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Bethany has a strange, mysterious feel to it – the paths through the arches of tamarisk eventually lead to the River Jordan itself, which rather disappoints Paul:
‘This,’ said Aisha, dramatically, ‘is the River Jordan.’
I’d expected something big and Cecil B. DeMille, but the river was narrow and a dull green, slow-moving and lifeless.
It’s not a bad description. The Jordan has been depleted massively, its waters have receded to a fragment of former glories (accounts of John’s baptism of Jesus have them wading into the river, but the baptism site itself is now well away from the mean little river that slops into the Dead Sea.
Shops in Jordan sell bottles of Holy Water from the Jordan. We have brought these back for friends and relatives Christening babies , who have to a man been terribly impressed. I suspect the water sold in the shops may not be the ‘real thing’, though, because if you put a baby anywhere near water from that gloopy green ghost of a river it’d probably glow in the dark.