There Is a Bus in Gilead

The local coffee seller

Today we visited historic sites in the northern portion of Jordan, in an area which in our Old Testament readings is known as Gilead. The area has been populated for centuries, due to the availability of fertile land and reasonable amounts of water. Our first destination is Umm Qeis, a historic site about twenty miles equidistant from the Syrian border to the north and the Israeli border to the west. Umm Qeis is an ancient Roman town, and is part of the Roman “Decalopis”, a series of ten towns at the Eastern edge of the Roman empire (six of which are in Jordan). Tradition has it that it was from this site that Jesus cast the demons out of a deranged man and into a herd of pigs feeding on the hillside, causing them to plunge headlong into the Sea of Galilee. I can attest to the presence of a steep hill, and from the top of the hill the Sea of Galilee (now called Lake Tiberius) is clearly visible. I saw no evidence of pigs, however. Very little pork is available in this part of the world. One could say that pork has gone to the Devil around here, I suppose.

On the top of the hillside we toured an ancient Roman amphitheatre, which in the Sixth Century was converted to a Christian church. It is said to be one of only two Christian churches in Jordan that exhibit an octagonal design, this design being indicative of reliable testimony that Jesus actually did visit that specific place. Directly across from our vantage point at the hilltop basilica remains we look out over the Golan Heights, once a region of enormous strategic military importance due to its commanding view of Israel, Syria, and Jordan. Technology has made the Golan much less important; pinpoint radar and laser-guided missiles work just fine without much human visibility. We can kill people from almost anywhere now. I am sure the inhabitants of the Golan Heights are very grateful.

We next moved on to Jerash, site of one of the largest Roman ruins outside of Rome itself. We visited an even larger amphitheatre than the one at Umm Qeis, and once seated were unexpectedly serenaded by a brace of bagpipers, adorned in kaffiyas and thobes, playing decidedly Western tunes decidedly off key. America have no monopoly on kitsch, apparently. We were stunned at the scope of the buildings, especially the Temple of Artimus, and at the construction of the roads. Chariot tracks are still visible along the stones that form the “carbo” or the main thoroughfare. It makes the cobblestones of my native Philadelphia streets seem modern in comparison (although the streets in Jerash are probably in better condition).

We then moved on to a hillside overlooking the Jabbok river, a stream to the east of the Jordan river which lies between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. It was in this area that Jacob is reputed to have wrestled with an angel before crossed over to the Ammonite side of the river to begin settling the land. Herb and Mary Ann Goetz led us in a very moving meditation on the significance of the land over which we gazed.

Our drive to and from these historic sites took us through innumerable small towns and villages, all sporting what is to me a very distinctive “Mediterranean” look. Low buildings, cement and cinder block construction, adorned in the color of the land (which is to say sand-colored), parked amid squat trees and brush. No billboards adorned any of these roads, as they did on the drive from the airport to Amman. In place of billboards we saw slaughtered goats and sheep hanging outside butcher shops, chickens in crates ready for purchase, and every manner of fruit and vegetable sold from makeshift stands hastily erected (and just as hastily removed) along the side of the roads entering and exiting the towns. Even more fascinating is the coffee service that appears everywhere on the highways. Young men prepare coffee in large Turkish looking carafes, heated by wood chips smoldering in the base of the carafe, and sell this freshly brewed coffee to drivers entering or exiting the town. I saw no evidence of Starbucks-type Coffee Club cards at any of the stands, however.

Counterbalancing this decidedly low tech approach to the morning brew, almost one in three of the houses we pass, in even the tiniest of villages, sports a satellite dish on the roof. No doubt most of them take Al Jezeera with their morning coffee. The coffee is bitter, too..

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