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Sacred Landscape

Across the Jordan

The Jordan River Valley has long been a sacred landscape for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Why?

THE RIVER OF MIRACLES

In 1897 a mosaic was unearthed in the ruins of a Byzantine church in Madaba, Jordan. It turned out to be a map of Palestine, made in the middle of the sixth century CE and depicting with startling accuracy and detail the sacred sites of the Christian Holy Land. Among them, just to the east of Jericho on the banks of the river, is an image of what may have been one of the first religious sanctuaries in the Jordan Valley: the standing stones of Gilgal.

The book of Joshua tells us that these stones were taken from the bed of the river Jordan, which had miraculously dried up to allow the twelve tribes of Israel to cross into the promised land after the exodus from Egypt:

‘And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, did Joshua pitch in Gilgal. And he spake unto the children of Israel, saying, When your children shall ask their fathers in time to come, saying What mean these stones? Then ye shall let your children know, saying, Israel came over this Jordan on dry land.’

Joshua 4:20-23

The standing stones of Gilgal have never been found, and, if they existed at all, we are unlikely ever to know the truth of when and why they were placed on the banks of the river. Some scholars have suggested that the account in Joshua is an aetiological myth – a story told by the book’s authors to explain the existence of a much older, possibly Neolithic, stone circle that stood by the Jordan at the time that they were writing.

What we do know is that by the sixth century BCE, when the book of Joshua was probably written, the river Jordan was already understood by the Jewish people as a place of miracles, and as the boundary that marked their entry into a holy land.

THE GARDEN OF THE LORD

The valley was also seen as a kind of earthly glimpse of paradise. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam originated on the edge of the desert, and in all three traditions we find the image of paradise as a garden. The earliest description we have of the Jordan River Valley comes for the book of Genesis, and makes explicit this connection between the green of the valley and the desert dweller’s dream of heaven:

‘And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere…even as the garden of the Lord’

Genesis 13:10

In another book of the Hebrew bible, Kings, written at around the same time, we find the first reference to the river as a place of purification and healing.

A military commander called Namaan seeks out Elisha, having heard that the prophet has the power to cure him of leprosy. Following instructions given by Elisha, Namaan immerses himself seven times in the Jordan and emerges from the river healed of disease and converted to the god of Israel.

This story was almost certainly known to John the Baptist - a charismatic Jewish preacher who, during the reign of King Herod, some eight centuries after the events described in the book of Kings, was ritually immersing people in the river Jordan as an act of spiritual cleansing and renewal. The story of Jesus’s baptism by John ensured that ritual washing would come to represent rebirth into the Christian faith, and that the river Jordan would become the symbol of crossing into the kingdom of heaven.

THE MAKING OF A CHRISTIAN HOLY LAND

Though early Christians seems to have practiced ritual baptism right from the start, the actual place of Christ’s baptism was forgotten for centuries. Unlike the Jews, who had always connected the presence of God with this particular stretch of land, the first Christians were not interested in sacred geography. For them, God had been revealed not in a place but through a person, and some of the church’s first theologians explicitly warned against the idea that God might be located in any particular spot. Eusebius, the earliest historian of the church, imagined Christ teaching men “not to look for God in a corner of the earth, nor in mountains, nor in temples made with hands.”

But even within the lifetime of Eusebius, a different current of Christian thought was emerging. By the early fourth century Christians were no longer a persecuted minority, forced to conceal their faith and to worship in furtive gatherings behinds closed doors. Although the date of his own conversion to Christianity is not clear, the Roman Emperor Constantine extended his protection to the faith in 313 CE and, some ten years after that, instigated a program of religious building that transformed the landscape of Palestine.

Led by the family of the Emperor, Christians abandoned their disdain for the idea of sacred geography and were swept along by a new enthusiasm to map the story of Jesus onto the landscape of Palestine. Within a single generation, they had identified the cave where Christ had been born, the olive groves where he had wept, and the hill where he had been crucified and buried. Magnificent new basilicas were built over all of the sites, and the first Christian pilgrims found that although the events of Christ’s life were now centuries in the past, the widening gulf of time could be bridged by physical closeness to the places where Jesus had walked, and prayed, and died.

Among these places, of course, was the river Jordan. It was from this time on that the river became a place of pilgrimage, and the Jordan valley became central to the emerging Christian idea of ‘the Holy Land’. Within two hundred years of Constantine’s death, the valley was filled with churches built to commemorate the life the Christ as well as the stories of the Old Testament.

The mosaic discovered in Madaba is a map of these stories and places, as they were known to the Christians of the sixth century, and the churches unearthed on the bank of the river Jordan in the 1990s belong to this Byzantine imaginative reconstruction of the life of Jesus.

THE DESERT A CITY

The most astonishing aspect of the Christian holy land that was created here between the fourth and the sixth centuries is that it has survived into our own time - not just in the dust of Byzantine archaeology, but in the living form of the monasteries that still stand in the Jordan River Valley and in the desert canyons to the west of the Dead Sea.

The first monks settled around the valley in the fourth century after Christ. Like the early pilgrims, they were drawn to Palestine by Jerusalem, and by the idea that Jesus himself had retreated into the wilderness east of the holy city. But they were also seeking out lonely places, far from the noise and corruption of the world, where they could practice forms of extreme austerity and prayer that, they believed, drew them closer to God.

Following the example of Saint Anthony of Egypt, who retreated from the world towards the end of the third century and is traditionally regarded as the first Christian monk, these men were hermits who lived alone and in silence for decades at a time. Many survived on nothing but insects, wild roots, and herbs, exposing themselves to the heat and cold of the desert and depriving themselves of food, sex, and sleep. By the time of Anthony’s death in 356 CE, so many people had followed him into the wilderness that his biographer writes ‘the desert had become a city.’

It is no coincidence that the growth of the monastic movement coincides with the with adoption of Christianity as the favored religion of the Roman Empire. Just a generation earlier, Christians had suffered and died for their beliefs in wave after wave of persecution. Suddenly, the church was flooded with new converts, many of whom knew little about the faith and were still steeped in pagan patterns of thought. How were the most committed Christians to mark themselves out from the crowd of pragmatists and promotion-seekers who had jumped onto the imperial bandwagon? How could they share in the suffering that had surely opened the gates of heaven to the early Christian martyrs? Monasticism offered an answer.

All of the early monasteries of the Jordan valley – Saint George, Saint Gerasimos, and Saint Sabas – began as scattered collections of hermit monks living in isolated caves and connected only by a narrow footpath. Towards the end of the fifth century, the monks began to gather together into organized communities under the direction of a spiritual father or abbot. Gradually, the traditions of early monastic life were codified into written rules that determined the monks’ patterns of work, study and prayer. Gardens were planted and churches were built. This was the beginning of the monastic tradition that would eventually spread across Europe and become instrumental in the formation of Western Christian culture, not least because the monasteries were, for something like five hundred years, the only places that preserved the written classical culture of ancient Greece and Rome.

The finest example of an early Christian community in the region, and one of the best anywhere in the world, is the monastery of Mar Saba (Saint Sabas) in the Kidron Valley.  It was founded in around 483 and has functioned as a monastery for more then fifteen centuries, surviving not only the earthquakes that left much of the late classical world in ruins but also the Persian invasions, the rise of Islam, the Crusades, the First World War, and the coming of modernity. While every other stratum of late antique society has perished or changed, the monasteries have persisted in their isolation and in their extreme conservatism, carrying the prayers, the music, the paintings, the books, the architecture, the language, and even the clothes of the Byzantine Christian world into the modern era.

Al ARD AL MUQADASA

It is almost certain that the prophet Mohammed met some of the early Christian monks who lived in the deserts of what is now Jordan and Syria in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. And although Islam rejected the concept of monasticism, it adopted the idea of Palestine as a sacred landscape right from the start.

The first Muslims understood Islam to be a return to the original faith of Abraham, a cleansing of the revelation that had been given by God to Jews and Christians but obscured by centuries of misunderstanding. This was why the first great work of Islamic architecture, the Dome of the Rock, was built on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which Muslims believed had been visited by the Mohammed during a mysterious night journey on a winged horse, and why the prophet instructed his followers to pray towards Jerusalem during the early years of Islam. The entire stretch of land, from the Mediterranean to the city of Damascus, was seen by the first Muslims as al ard al muqadasa – the holy land.

From at least the ninth century, Sufi mystics were drawn to Jerusalem from across the Islamic world. Influenced by the Christian monks who they met here, some of these men withdrew from the city into the solitude of the hills, acquired a reputation for sanctity, and began to attract disciples. Shrines were built over the graves of these local Sufi saints, drawing pilgrims in search of healing or fertility. The Jordan Valley was part of this network of shrines, not least because three companions of the prophet Mohammed had been buried along the river, including Shurhabil bin Husna, one of the scribes of the Quran. 

It was not until the time of the crusades, though, that ruling elites of the Islamic world began to promote the cult of the saints and the practice of pilgrimage as a way to consolidate Islamic rule over Palestine. Salaheddin al Ayyubi, the Kurdish military leader who defeated the crusader armies in 1187 and brought Palestine back under Muslim rule, understood that the European invasions of the eleventh and twelfth centuries had been inspired by devotion to the sacred sites of the Christian tradition. In response, Salaheddin and his successors encouraged the development of an Islamic sacred geography across Palestine.

Jerusalem and Hebron had always been the poles of Muslim pilgrimage in Palestine. But among the most important of the new holy places that developed during the Ayyubid period was the shrine of Nebi Musa in the Jordan Valley. The first pilgrims to visit this shrine looked across the valley towards Mount Nebo, the traditional burial place of Moses, who had always been recognized by Islam as a prophet. Inevitably, perhaps, the tradition of venerating Moses from this spot morphed into the belief that the prophet had actually been buried here.

By 1269, during the reign of the Mamluk Caliph Baybars, a major mosque and caravanserai had been built over the shrine, and an annual festival was held in honor of the prophet. Under Ottoman rule, the mawsim (pilgrimage festival) developed into a celebration that drew thousands of people from Jerusalem for five full days of prayer and feasting. Until it was stopped by the Jordanian government among the political turmoil that followed 1948, this was among the most colorful popular festivals in Palestine.

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