Today was our last day of touring, friends. From here on out, it’s all travelling home, unless the impending snowstorm stampeding towards the mid-Atlantic means we end up rerouted to Iceland or something. That would be OK; I want to visit Iceland, and these would be great people to do it with.
First thing this morning, I looked out the window and realized that there was a Bedouin camp right outside the hotel. Which meant that my view included CAMELS. And sheep! What a lovely thing to wake up to.
About half our group took the trouble to get up early for the express purpose of heading down to the shores of the Dead Sea for a quick float. Well, technically, that had been our plan the night before. But when you get up at 6:45am and contemplate the idea of immersing yourself in a big cold salty lake in the middle of January…well, the nice fluffy hotel duvet starts looking awfully attractive. So really, most of us were telling ourselves that we were just going to watch everyone else swim. And then we all ended up in the water anyway.
The Dead Sea is really hard to describe. I can tell you that the water was pretty warm, probably about 70 degrees. The water has a weird texture…when you wet your hand and rub your fingers together, there’s a slippery, almost slimy feel. (It is not as gross as I’m making it sound.) And it is super, super salty. Ten times saltier than seawater. It is the saltiest thing I have ever tasted, and because of that, there’s nothing I can compare it to in order to help you understand how salty it is. I think it’s actually saltier than salt. I really do think that if you put salt directly on your tongue, it would not be as salty as an equivalent amount of Dead Sea water. Mythbusters can check me on that.
It’s also very buoyant. I remember seeing a photograph in an encyclopedia when I was young–yes, a REAL encyclopedia, I knew how to use the index and everything–of a man reading a newspaper in the Dead Sea. I was really hung up on that image. It raised a number of questions for me, which I would try to invent answers to:
Who is this man, and why is he reading his newspaper in the Dead Sea, instead of at the breakfast table like a normal person? Option 1: Maybe he lives with his mother-in-law and cannot stand to eat breakfast with her, so he forgoes his morning coffee, grabs his paper, and escapes to the Dead Sea to read it. Option 2: Maybe he is a man who has always dreamed of having his picture taken of reading while floating in the Dead Sea. Maybe he was planning on bringing something grand to read, like Shakespeare or Tolstoy, but his luggage got lost and he had to read the paper instead. Option 3: His wife made him come and is out of frame smearing Dead Sea mud on, and he’s not going to let this change in routine keep him from reading the paper.
But most of all, I remember thinking, “I understand it’s easier to float there, but surely the water would make the paper just as wet as regular water. WHY ISN’T THE NEWSPAPER WET?”
Now having encountered Dead Sea waters, I can vouch for the fact that they are as wet as other waters. But it is much harder to get wet in the Dead Sea. It’s quite difficult to submerse oneself, and is inadvisable in any case, since you’re not supposed to get the water in your eyes. Or your lungs. Or in any open cuts or abrasions. So you just enjoy floating, and keep your head dry:
Incidentally, the Dead Sea is disappearing. It’s dropping several feet every year, and the shoreline has receded dramatically in the last few decades. Modern agriculture and rising populations are putting pressures on the sources of the Dead Sea waters. I don’t know if any organization has tried to mobilize efforts to reverse that trend, but I can’t help but think that it will be one of the things that’s tabled until there’s peace between Palestine and Israel, since Israel gets most of the headwaters, and Palestine gets the Dead Sea, and right now no one’s particularly motivated to be cooperative.
After the dip in the Dead Sea, we started headed north to an ancient Roman ruin called Jaresh. On the way, we stopped at the Jordan River, at the place everyone’s decided is the baptismal site. According to some of the sources I’ve read, there’s a fair chance of historical accuracy for the tradition that locates Jesus’ baptism at this site. It’s clear that churches have been built around this part of the Jordan since the early Church was allowed to build things, and since it’s very much in the middle of nowhere, and since Josephus links John the Baptist with a nearby town named Macheraeus, it’s a definite candidate. Plus, our guide assured us that they were absolutely, positively, beyond a shadow of a doubt sure that this was the exact spot of Jesus’ baptism, and that by the way, it was definitely on the EAST bank of the Jordan. (Across the river, we could see a group of tourists being assured of almost exactly the same thing by their Palestinian guide, except of course that Jesus was baptized on the WEST bank.)
As you can see, the Jordan is at this point more of what I’d call a creek than a river. But in the winter and spring, when flash floods are not uncommon, every so often the Jordan will live up to its title. In the meantime, baptisms are practically a tourist industry, and not far from the Jordan one can find gift shops featuring such novelty items as t-shirts saying “I was baptized in the Jordan River.” Or even adult baptismal gowns emblazoned with the same.
We took a pass on the t-shirts and did an affirmation of baptism at the river, which was lovely. And we also saw a couple of churches around the area, including a Lutheran church that had been newly dedicated just two weeks ago! That was really nifty. The Lutheran church looked rather plain next to the Greek Orthodox church, though, which was painted throughout with beautiful icons:
After the Jordan we kept heading north, crossing over another river called the Jabbok. Jabbok is the site of one of my favorite Bible stories, the one where Jacob wrestles with the angel of God until daybreak. (I think it’s also the site where he dreams of Jacob’s ladder, but I have to double check.)
After lunch we finally arrived at Jaresh (or Gerasa), a ruin of an old Roman city, one of the city-states of the Decapolis. It was seriously impressive. It was even bigger than the biggest tel we’d seen in Israel (Bet She’an), and there were acres that hadn’t been touched by excavators yet.
Jaresha also had a number of the most complete structures we’d seen so far, including a hippodrome, a nymphaeum, and TWO theaters. We got to sing in one, which was nice and all, but the second one was really nifty in terms of acoustics. There was this particular place you could stand on the floor–it was marked out by the way the stones were laid, too–where you could speak in a normal voice and it would echo all up and down the stands. But move one foot to the right or left and the echo would disappear. Also, there were circles carved into the wall surrounding the orchestra pit, and if you spoke into one circle, someone crouching by another circle could hear you as though you were standing next to them. Of course, we had to test this.
It was true.
Jaresha, to conclude, was just lovely. I don’t know exactly what happened that stopped development, apparently in the early Byzantine period, because frankly, my brain lost its capacity to absorb new information about four days ago, but it was a high note to end on.
After Jaresh, we went to Amman, Jordan’s capital city, for a nice sit-down meal. This was incredible. The waitstaff kept bringing plate after plate of finger food, and we were all stuffing ourselves and starting to lose steam at about the eighth new plate when our guide came over and said, “Don’t fill up, guys. These are the appetizers.”
Whoops. Too late.
And now we’re back at the hotel, variously packing or sleeping. We’re leaving at 3a.m. to catch our early flight to Istanbul, and then Istanbul to Washington D.C., presuming the weather is kind. Travelling mercies indeed!