Half as Old as Time 

Take Me To The River
Saturday 11th March 2023


On our way upstairs for breakfast, in the corridor outside our room, we met the maid, or the domestic, the cleaner, the one responsible for those wonderful towel swans. 

"Room nice? Leave review?" she said, delivered with a big thumbs up and a cheesy smile. I tried to engage in conversation but she could only repeat "Room nice. Leave review." I replied with a thumbs up.

We sat with Tiffany for breakfast. She was feeling a little apprehensive as she was getting her head around details of her transfer to get from Madaba to Jerusalem, especially the border crossing, to join another Intrepid tour.  We wished her safe travels.

Our own transfer had been booked for 11am so with plenty of time to spare we went for a walk in search of an ATM. We needed some cash to pay the taxi driver. I was also hoping to find a football shirt to add to my colletion.

We began with the new modern shopping centre which we thought was a safe bet but found neither. So we continued towards the centre of the city using Google maps to help locate a few banks.  At Peace Square, the roundabout with the wings, we turned up Palestine Street where we found the Arab Bank. We took 100 dinars out.

By some chance, eagle-eyed Julie spotted a Real Madrid shirt on a manequin outside a clothes shop a little further up and shouted "Football Shirts!"

She hit the jackpot! They had a wide selection of shirts, mostly Spanish and English clubs. "Do you have a team from Jordan?" I asked.

"We have Faisaly." the owner pointed to this pale blue long sleeved shirt. "Champions." he added drawing our attention to the gold stars above the club's crest.

"Or Wehdat?" pointing to the green shirt next to it. I thought they were the same team because they had the same shirt sponsor, (a telecom company called Umniah) but they did have different badges on the chest. 

They were only 8 dinars each so I bought them both. I asked for a large size but when it came to the green shirt he suggested I needed the XL. Slightly offended I insisted that large was fine. 

Instead of returning to the hotel and loitering in the lobby waiting for our taxi we stopped at the Marouf coffee shop inside the shopping centre. I couldn't see cardamom as an option on their menu so we both had double espresso.

Back in our hotel room I was so excited about finally buying a football shirt that I tried them both on. The pale blue Al-Faisaly was a snug fit but the Al-Wehdat, the green one, despite being a large and the same as the blue one, was too tight!

The owner was right!  At least they were only 8 dinars each.

We checked-out and waited in the foyer for Khaleel the taxi driver. He arrived minutes later.  We followed him outside where he introduced us to his son, Inad, a young lad in his early twenties, who was going to be our driver today.

We set off, leaving Madaba for Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the location believed to be where Jesus was baptised. Along the way we were reminded not of peace but of war with a Royal Jordanian F-104 Starfighter jet set on a pedestal in the centre of a roundabout. 

Then, another reminder of the tensions appeared as we turned onto Baptism Road, at the intersection with the Dead Sea Highway. We saw an armoured personnel vehicle, the first real military presence we had seen on our trip.

Some 45 minutes after leaving Madaba we arrived at the Bethany visitors centre. To control the numbers visiting the river was done in small groups. The next bus was set to leave at 12pm. 

We had ten minutes to wait. Three minutes of which we spent looking at the items displayed inside the visitors centre. A section filled with photographs of visiting dignatories kept us occupied for most of it, trying to spot famous people we recognised, like Tony Blair the former British Prime Minister, (or the H.E. Rt. Hon. Anthony Charles Lynton Blair to give him his full title as it read beneath his photo) and the former Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, when he came in 2004. 

At 12pm we made our way across the courtyard towards a bus waiting for us all. Our number had swelled to over thirty by now. In fact a second stand-by bus was used.

We set off on a five minute drive towards the river.

The first thing of interest we saw were several churches. Which was which I don't know but they were all recently built.

Any development in this area was only made possible after a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan was signed in 1994. Up to then it had been a heavily militarised zone since Six Day War between the two countries. The area had been filled with land mines.

There are ambitious plans in the pipeline to develop this site as a major tourist destination with a hotel, restaurant, wellness centre, even a glamping site. It sounded like it could be in danger of becoming a Hallelujahland theme park!

We came to a stop and got out of the bus. We had a guide with us. He was a tall, heavily built, like a circus strongman, definitely ex-military type. He spoke English to the group. "Please, stay with the group. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT go on your own. It is not permitted."

We all nodded.

Our guide marched us along a covered path offering some shade from the sun.

We soon came to a viewpoint. "This is the River Jordan" he explained, pointing to a muddy stream, no more than four metres wide. I don't think anyone believed him. "That is Palestine ... or Israel" he said rolling his eyes slightly.

He then pointed to a church in the distance. "But that church is still in Jordan."  The river meandered wildly here. 

We then came to arguably the most important site here, the remains of a baptism pool at the bottom of steps leading down from a 4th century church. "Now this is proof that we have the right place" our guide explained.

You couldn't argue with his rational. This was built only a few centuries after the actual event took place. Not quite in living memory of those who were there at the time but only a few generations later perhaps.

There wasn't much water and it wasn't even the River Jordan but there was a puddle which came from a spring a few hundred metres away, which then fed into the River Jordan. This was a place of such historical significance, irrespective of your beliefs, and we were glad we came.

Of course it called for a selfie which we quickly grabbed as the guide stopped talking and the group began to move on.

Under the shade of the covered walkway we made our way to the other side and took a closer look of what remained of the church. It was covered by a wooden pavillion to protect what little was there.

Most of the group didn't even bother to have a look. The only thing of significance was a few fragments of mosaic but by simply being there they showed there once was a church, which had steps that lead down to a baptism pool. In fact on and around this spot the remains date back to five seperate churches exist. The oldesst being 4th century.

The whole site has been listed as a World Heritage site.

Julie and I were the last to leave the pavillion. Fearing the wrath of the guide we quickened our pace to catch up with the rest of the group. We didn't want to "go on our own"

The covered walkway stopped and we walked in the direct sunlight towards St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church. This was the church we saw earlier from the viewpoint,  which looked like it was across the river. We didn't go inside, they seemed to be carrying out some renovaton work.

A short distance away was a wooden structural, like an agricultural pen, into which we gathered ourselves to listen to our guide explain where we were now. In case we didn't know this was where we had the opportunity to walk down to the river.

A sign painted on a rock again reminded us. Another sign, in the style of an icon from an Eastern Orthodox church asked us to pray for the soul of the Crown Prince of Bulgaria who died in 2015 after being in a coma for six years.

We stepped out onto a platform and could see the murky brown river Jordan. On the other bank we could see the Israeli flags. "Please do not attempt to cross the river" he explained "or it will be your last act" suggesting that you would be shot.

We walked down to the riverbank. It wasn't deep, perhaps a little over a metre. You could easily have waded across. It wasn't wide either. Qasr el Yahud, as it's known on the other side, was no more than 10 metres away. 

Some of our group took their shoes off and dipped their toes into the Jordan. I joined in the fun. I noticed a buoyant rope marking out a safe zone within which you could safely submerge yourself.

On our side there were no baptisms taking place, whilst over on the other side,  they were busy actually baptising people. 

Some people were dunking themselves in a DIY soaking whilst others went through a short ceremony with a minister before being pushed backwards beneath the water.  

I'm sure one of our group wished she was on the other side. She whooped, hollered and applauded when the gentleman got baptised. She was of course American and talked a lot about her church.

Just as we were about to leave an Ukrainian woman dressed in a flowing white dress decided she wanted have a dip. She and her much much older partner got changed in changing room to the side. They had brought their swimming costumes so it wasn't exaclty impulsive.

The guide wasn't too impressed as we all had to wait for them. We sat out of the way in the holding pen whilst they went for a dip. The happy clapping American was "so pleased" for them.

Eventually we all walked back as a group towards where we arrived by bus. Along the way we stopped at the St. John the Baptist Monastery where inside one of the churches was a small museum filled with artefacts discovered here at Bethany Beyond the Jordan.

Ten minutes was spent checking them out before gathering at the pickup point.

Whilst we waited for our bus we had a great view of the monastery of the "Baptism of the Lord. Institute of the Incarnate Word".

The guide explained that a little further away to the left was a hill with a cross at the summit known as Tell el-Kharrar or Elijah's Hill, where the Biblical story of Elijah ascending to heaven in a chariot of fire took place. It sounded like he took off in a rocket to me!

We could also see the St. Garabed Armenian Apolistic Church with its crenalated roof. 

Twenty minutes later we were still waiting for our bus to take us back up to the Visitor's Centre. Eventually the bus arrived and we were back where we began almost two hours after the taxi driver dropped us off.

We apologised profusely to Inad for the delay. We told him we'd only be an hour. He was gracious not to be annoyed with us. I'm sure we're not the first he's taken to the baptism site.

Thankfully, our onward journey to the Movenpick Dead Sea Resort took less than twenty minutes. We paid Inad the 40 dinars as agreed but also slipped him an extra 10 dinars for having to wait so long for us.

We checked-in at reception, which took a while. There only seemed to be one person behind the desk and she was dealing with an awkward customer.

After we got the formalities over and done they offered a ride down in a golf buggy. I almost delclined but I was glad I didn't. It was quite some distance away. It took us several minutes to drive there.

The journey through the village was quite interesting. It was built in the style of a local village of mudbrick houses. Despite having as much character as the Arabian Nights of Adventureland in Disney it was actually attracted us to book this resort over the others. 

It took us a few minutes to navigate our way past the village square and the swimming pool, down to the last group of rooms nearest the beach. They were collectively known as Wadi Rum. We had been given room W31.

We were very disappointed because it was set up as a twin bed room. A word to the porter was all it took. "No problem" he said "leave it to me."

After less than a minute on the walkie-talkie we followed him out of W31, up some steps and all the way down the corridor to room W27.

We both let out a little "Wow" as we walked in. It was a much better room, with a double bed, very spacious, with a huge outdoor terrace. He had used a master key to enter so he had to return to reception to get keys for us. 

He dropped us off at the charming village square where we could find a restaurant for lunch. There were several options and we opted for the Italian themed restaurant called Luigi's.  

After a week of eating traditional local dishes I have to admit it felt naughty but nice to be browsing a menu full of Italian favourites. I could see they had a proper wood fired pizza oven so we simply had to try one. 

We shared the margherita. The base was tasty but a little chewy and the cheese was sharp like a cheddar, which was disappointing. So we scored it 5/10 !

The porter delivered our new keys to our table. We praised him for his incredible customer service and thanked him with a 5 dinar discreetly slipped into his soft handshake. 

In the village square there was a large gnarly old olive tree. A sign suggested it was 2000 years old! I don't know if that bold claim was true or not but how incredible if it was!

It also had the words Beth Lehem and Kasr Gasser. I assumed it suggested that it was brought here from Bethlehem and I later found on the internet that Kasr Gasser refered to a fortified mudbrick village.

Before we left the square we went inside The Grill restaurant to book a table for this evening. The manager came to greet us. He asked us our room number and what time we would like. We then asked if it was possible for a table outside. He said they didn't usually take reservations for them "but for you sir, we can" and proceeded to give me an odd male-bonding hug/wrestle. I don't know if he did that with all the guests or just got carried away with the commoraderie but it was most peculiar. 

We returned to our room for the the rest of the afternoon, lounging on our very large terrace. We were a little disappointed to discover we shared it with the room next door. However, it appeared that we didn't have any neighbours so we had the place to ourselves.  

It was so relaxing watching the sunset over the promised land. Under the blood red sky we could see the lights of Jericho to the North and I'm sure we could see Jerusalem to the South.

We left our room at 7pm walking up through the resort, stopping at the pool where they has created a sandy beach. There was also a small auditorium at the back that they called the Sunset Arena. Why was clear, there was a perfect view of the sunset across the resort, the Dead Sea and beyond. 

From here we took a wrong turn. We should have continued straight up the hill towards the main building but instead followed a path that took us to the "fast lane to the beach" an access road at the edge of the resort, between the Movenpick and the Kempinski next door.

We knew if we kept on walking up hill we'd get there in the end but I decided to rectify our wandering by cutting back through the bushes. Rather embarrassingly we stumbled across a private pool occupied by a young couple. We got out of there as quickly as possible.

It felt like we were cutting across private gardens but eventually we found a door to let us into the main building. It was happy hour at the Al-Khayam bar but could we find it?

We walked up and down the length of the hotel, from one end to the other and back again. We just couldn't find it. Eventually we gave up and asked someone from behind reception. Apparently it was inside the Al-Hana lounge, for which we had seen a sign.

Finally we sat down for a happy half hour where all the drinks were half price. We were served by a very attentive African girl, with a big smile and a wonderful accent. Despite her exellent customer service her male colleagues were barking orders at her. We felt really sorry for her. 

Happy hour finished at 8pm so we left, slowly made our way back down the hill, through the mudbrick village. Thankfully this time we didn't get lost.

There was a lovely atmosphere in the village square. The Grill restaurant had plenty of tables outside. I don't think a reservation was necessary.

However, when we arrived the front of house guy, the one who playfully wrestled me earlier, welcomed us like Royalty. He was so pleased to show us to our table, reserved for us outside.

It was a lovely warm evening. The air hadn't cooled yet. According to the weather app it was still 20C.

Despite being the "grill" restaurant and the focus being on its grilled meats, there was so much choice for me on the menu. I couldn't possibly try them all in one evening but I gave it a good go!

First came the mutabal, the smoky aubergine dip, which was delicious. Then came the muhamarah, a red pepper dip made with walnut. I've made it at home many times, however, here it was served with a thicker consistency, so much thicker they even formed small balls of it. It may have been different to what I expected but it was very tasty none the less.

I then had the Sabanekh bi-zeit, a simple spinach dish seasoned to perfection with lemon and topped with plenty of crispy onions. Loved it!

Finally came the tabouleh, done as it should be with a huge amount of herbs and just a sprinkling of bulghur wheat. Once again seasoned to perfection and it was all washed down with an excellent Jordanian Chardonay from the St. George's vineyard.

Only after all of my dishes were served did they bring Julie's choices. She began with some chicken wings then followed it with grilled lamb chops, called Kastaleta on the menu.   Usually when we travel, being from Wales, the lamb is not as good as from home but tonight she hailed it as the best ever. 

It was a pleasurable evening. Even the 100 dinar bill didn't dampen our enjoyment.

We were surprisingly tired after our meal so we retired to our room as soon as we could.

Tomorrow was going to be a proper full blown lazy day.

  Next Day >>>  

ęCopyright 2000 - 2023  Colin Owen