December 31st, 2016
Writen in Madaba, Jordan
Yesterday afternoon, after standing on the edge of Mt. Nebo – where Moses is said to have finally seen the promised land before dying – we set off across the neighboring hills to find the ruins of a cluster of pilgrimage churches. We were quiet and introspective; I don’t think we had anticipated the effect that hillside would have on us as we curiously walked up the cement pathway, past a few monks, past commemorative signs, a declaration from the Pope that this was, in fact, Holy Ground.
I can’t say I know what it takes for a place to become spiritual and meditative. Is it the other tourists (or lack thereof) around you feeling the same thing, a sort of collective rising of consciousness? Is it the centuries of pilgrims who have walked and prayed before you, filling the air and ground with an intrinsic sense of stillness? Or has it always been there, drawing people in, silencing their hearts and minds, inspiring them to build churches and way-side rests in this place?
Perhaps, it was just this evening in particular, settling in early and chilled: golden pink sunlight softening the desert hills, glittering off the Dead Sea below and shadowing the hills of Israel and Palestine beyond.
Even living in Italy, even traversing the grandness of that epic Roman empire, we have been realizing that we are in the face of something more ancient to humanity than those columned temples and marble-paved roads. These hills have seen, cultivated and given more than we can contend with or imagine today. Life, crops, religions. Inevitably, war and grief. Perhaps this is what stuns and silences us, as well.
Before the sun fully set, as as the tour groups cluster along the cliff side which makes “Mount” Nebo a mountain rather than a quick fall to hundreds of meters below sea level, we leave to seek out one more nearby ruin that we’ve read about. The area surrounding Madaba is known for incredible, Byzantine-era mosaic floors which used to decorate homes and churches alike, remains of which are hidden throughout the hills and still being discovered. True, we’ve seen a lot of them in the last few hours, but nights are long this time of the year, and we want to experience as much as possible before dark.
We take a right off the main road – a two-lane paved street laced with potholes and with herds of goats and sheep grazing dangerously close to moving cars without a guardrail – and drive a few kilometers along a single-lane drive tracing its way across the top of the hillsides. We pass by a group of teenage boys setting themselves up to watch the sunset along a line of tall pines, a hookah and pot of tea balanced between them all. They wave as enthusiastically as little children, shouting greetings. We have been pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming hospitality of the people we meet here: the men who pull over on the highway and offer to take our photo as we appreciate a great view, the passersby who rush to assure us that the sounds we hear are not bombs, but fireworks celebrating the New Year, the many conversations about European football my fiance has with taxi drivers. There is a genuineness to the people here, an ease and openness that goes beyond the service industry standards which I do not often find when traveling. Probably, it comes with a culture sitting at the crossroads of the earth: nomadic desert folk who need to be opened to strangers in order to survive as a species. It has taken work for me to fight against an intrinsic fear I’ve been taught when the images of men in the traditional clothing of the Middle East are standing before me, going about their lives. There are constant reminders that this is just not a given, that taught fear wont serve me here or anywhere.
As we pull up to the farm at the end of the road, a Bedouin groundskeeper and his son appear, waving to us, then telling us he had closed for the day. We apologize and move to get back into the car, but he shakes his head and assures us “You are welcome, you are most welcome,” shaking my fiances hand.
He leads us to a covered cement structure, unlocking the heavy, bolted door. In the dim light, we can make out the mosaic patterns of what used to be the floor of a church. In the center, the colors are scared by burn marks, and he tells us that before the priests came and discovered the ancient workmanship, his family had used the convenient (and beautiful) flat surface as the floor of their tents when they arrived in the area. When the priests came to inspect the work, the paid for a proper home to be built for the family, as well as this structure over the mosaic to protect it.
After we leave the artwork, our guide catches my wandering eye and leads us to the crest of the hill to show us the neighboring ridges spotted with tents and ruins, even a sliver view of the Dead Sea, still reflecting the deepening sunset. Through broken English, he offers us each a cup of sugary tea which his son had already brought, then instructs us to sit down cross-legged together on the hilltop.
“Breathe.” He mimics slow, long intakes of breath with a pause between inhale and exhale. We all follow suit, in the same meditative silence we found on the top of Mount Nebo. The sounds of sheep bleating in the distance are drowned out as the final Call to Prayer of the day echoing through the hills. Our host mutters a few Arabic prayers as the sun slips below the horizon, the clouds become rosy and brilliant for a moment longer, and darkness starts to truly descend. The air becomes chilly, delicate.
We’ve finished our tea. We stand and his son takes our cups. As we linger a moment longer on the way to the car, the father stops, looks us in the eye and tells us that the real Muslims of the world are nothing like DASH (a regional name for ISIS). They are peaceful, welcoming and should not wish for warfare. My fiance and I nod. Syria and all the horrors being experienced there, is less than 75 kilometers away. It is strangely always the darkest, stormiest spot on the horizon: the north. It is a world away, yet always present. We don’t have enough shared language to discuss this, to speak to nuance. But we nod. We heard him, and will tell others. I think this is what he needs from us tonight.
As we drive back to the main road, the teenage boys are still sitting, smoking at the line of trees. When they see us approaching, they jump up, wave again, signalling us to stop and join them for a cup of tea. We smile and wave but keep driving: we’ve already learned that here in Jordan, if you stop for every cup of tea you’re offered, you probably won’t make it anywhere.