Today we headed to the far north of Jordan, to Um Qais.

On the way we stopped at the Jabbok River, where the Old Testament says that Jacob, on his return to Canaan to reconcile with his brother Esau, wrestled with the angels of God. The river itself is not much more than a swift-running stream, but in a dry country like Jordan, it’s a blessed, welcome spot of green.

Um Qais is another ancient village with Hellenistic, Roman, and Turkish ruins, these made of the local basalt. The Bible actually records a visit Jesus made to Um Qais, which was called Gadarene in biblical times. This is where the miracle of the Gadarene swine took place. Christ entered the village and encountered several young men possessed of spirits. He drove the evil spirits into the herd of local swine, which promptly ran off the cliffs and destroyed themselves. He was rewarded for his efforts by being run out of town for killing the local livestock.

So while I walked, I was awed by the realization that I was walking the same roads Jesus walked 2000 years ago.

One of the most awe-inspiring aspects of Um Qais is that you can stand in the ruins and look down on the sea of Galilee. You can even see the city of Tiberius, which in Christ’s time was the town of Galilee. You can also look directly across the valley at the Golan Heights of Syria. We had coffee at the top of a mountain looking down on Galilee. It was amazing.

After our visit to Um Qais, we drove down into the valley between the Golan Heights and Jordan to visit a very tiny village that sits just a few miles from the border into Golan. We had to pass through military checkpoints to get there; along the roads signs are posted forbidding pictures. We could see Israeli watchtowers and soldiers in jeeps on the hills. Very, very intimidating.

We went to the village with a Roman Catholic fellow who works with the village Benevolent Society on behalf of the Mennonite Central Committee. How’s that for ecumenical work? And in the village, we met up with a Habitat for Humanity crew from Denver, Colorado, who had spent the week building a house there. They were putting on the roof when we arrived. There are only 400 houses in the village, and more than 100 of them were built by the Mennonites and Habitat volunteers.

Goats and chickens wandered down the road, and the children of the village crowded around us, clambering to have their pictures taken. I ended up taking a dozen photos of kids, then letting them see themselves on the digital cameral. At one point, I was actually knocked over in their excitement. What fun!

When I say kids, I actually mean little boys. The girls would not be photographed, even the preschoolers. They learn VERY EARLY about Muslim modesty for females.

Then we went to the home of a widow who was the first in the village to receive a Habitat home. We sat on cushions in her sitting room and drank good, strong coffee — the standard Arabic offering, along with tea. She had only three tiny cups, so her brother poured three cups, offered them, we drank; then he re-poured the cups and offered them to the next three. This is the traditional way to share coffee, and a great community-building experience!

The woman of the house was very gracious, and let us tour the house. She even let us meet her daughters — traditionally a no-no in Muslim culture, but she can get away with it because she is a very respected person in her village. One of the daughters — who looked not more than 16 or 17 — was there with her husband and baby. The baby couldn’t have been more than about four months old, and she was so incredibly pretty. I tickled her cheeks and she laughed out loud. Afterward, the baby’s mother sidled up beside me, pointed to the infant and then to herself, to let me know she was the baby’s mother. She spoke not a word of English, but she clearly understood when I told her that her child was beautiful. She smiled, nodded, and blushed mightily.

When we left the village, it seemed like every child in the valley was there to wave goodbye to us. I nearly cried.

Finally, we drove back to Amman to the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, where we had dinner and heard about Jordan’s new eco-tourism industry. It was fascinating and inspiring to learn how the country is trying to use this industry both to protect its natural wonders and to help its people to earn a decent living at the same time.

The Society has enlisted the local communities’ input and help from the start, and is trying to build local economies by engaging their citizens in building and running these new facilities. It also provides outlets for local folks to sell their beautiful handicrafts — silver, stonework, leather goods, spices, and intricately embroidered goods.

Thus far, Jordan has five “natural parks,” each with its own ecosystem and attractions. And while tourism fell off sharply after 9/11, Westerners are finally re-discovering this small country’s many historical, natural, and biblical wonders.

Tomorrow we leave Amman for Petra, the country’s most famous draw. I’m not certain about Internet capability in our hotel there, but if I can, I will keep updating this blog daily.

I am having such an emotional and wonderful time. Jordan is a beautiful country, and I really want to come back someday.

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