AMMAN, Jordan – Just the mention of traveling to the Middle East today may raise red flags given all the unrest the region is experiencing. However my recent weeklong tour of Jordan left me with a new understanding and appreciation for a country I can only describe as an oasis of glistening water in an unsettled desert.
I had the privilege of being part of a delegation of religious journalists invited as guest of the country's tourism bureau to experience the country. Having never traveled to the Middle East I was a bit leery about the trip, as were my family and friends. I had to ask myself if I would be safe during our journey and would my experience make a lasting impression in my faith walk.
The answer; yes and yes.
Having traveled extensively in the U.S. and made trips to other second and third world countries, I must admit I felt safer in Jordan than I usually do walking in some U.S. cities. As with any unfamiliar destination you visit, using common sense and following standard safety rules should keep you safe and secure in this Middle East country.
Jordanians are warm and hospitable people and welcomed our group with open arms as we traveled to the country's most significant historical destinations. Tourism is an important component of Jordan's economy and due to the various levels of unrest in some of the neighboring countries; the number of people seeing its sights has diminished over the last few years. Hopefully that will soon change.
The five days spent on the ground were a whirlwind of activity that took us from the mountainous northern terrain near the Sea of Galilee at Umm Qays to Wadi Rum, to the shores of the Dead Sea.
The capitol city of Amman, like most major metropolitan areas, is highly "westernized" yet still able to preserve the country's long Arabic culture. With its unique blend of old and new, Amman's most unique historical destination is what is known as the Citadel – a hill with ruins of the Temple of Hercules, an Ummayyad Place and a Byzantine Church. Capping this destination off is a 6,000 seat Roman theatre.
Umm Qays offered us a look at how various cultures occupied and fought for some of the most critical trade routes in the last three thousand years. As you stand in the shadows of fourth century Roman ruins you can look out onto the Golan Heights while seeing the distant Israeli city of Tiberias on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee where the Bible tells the story of Jesus chasing demons out of a man.
Although approximately 95 percent of Jordanians claim Islam as their religion, the country is immersed with Christian history.
With all its amazing sites, my favorite day by far was our visit to Bethany Beyond the Jordan and Mount Nebo. Biblical accounts in the Old Testament confirm how God granted a special place to the land that is now Jordan. Elijah, one of the most important Old Testament prophets ventured into the area with Elisha and it was there that he ascended into Heaven.
Just steps away you can find what is believed to be the cave where John the Baptist lived and the stream where he baptized hundreds of Christians including Jesus. Nothing can compare to seeing the recently discovered spot where Jesus began his earthy ministry to ponder the possibility I may have walked on the same ground that Jesus, John the Baptist, Peter or John walked on was a bit overwhelming.
To my astonishment, his site was uninhabited for decades due to tension between Israel and Jordan, but in 1994 the minefields were cleared and excavation uncovered the churches and prayer halls that Christians built early in the first century.
A short bus ride from the Israeli border carried us to Mount Nebo where Moses looked upon the Dead Sea, the Jordan River Valley and the distant hills of Jerusalem; what God told him was the "Promise Land." Moses is believed to have died near the site and for centuries Christians made their way here to commemorate the end of his life. Some of the same stones from a fourth century church remain in their original place with great care being taken to preserve the mosaic floors that for years have been left exposed.
Our trip concluded with a visit to the ancient city of Petra, named one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Of all the amazing photographs I have seen of this treasure city that lies deep inside a valley accessible only by a 25-minute walk, videos or still images cannot do justice to its awe and simple beauty.
Petra's most famous monument - commonly referred to as "The Treasury" - was not an early day Wall Street but a burial chamber for the city's wealthy citizens. After being deserted by residents in the aftermath of seventh century earthquakes, it was rediscovered by a Scottish explorer in 1812.
But if it's sunsets you're looking for, seeing the sun fall behind the mountains that dot the desert landscape of Wadi Rum is breathtaking.
Would I go back to Jordan? In a heartbeat if simply to continue my exploration of the great Christian historic sites that lie within its boundaries. I would also urge you to make it part of any Middle Eastern visit you have planned, especially if it involves a trip to Israel. I can guarantee you will not be disappointed.