A pilgrim’s progress

She shimmied right here. Or it might have been there. Or – down a bit, over a bit – ooh yes, just there. Summoning up the ghost of the ancient world’s most erotic dancer atop a windblown Jordanian mountain demands imagination, but once I was able to dream Salome into existence, my reward was to hear the pounding drums, glimpse those seven veils drifting to the floor and imagine the electrifying impact her seductive show must have had on old King Herod.

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Herod’s eyes may have been glued that night to his step-daughter’s curvaceous silhouette, but 20 centuries later, under a glaring afternoon sun, my eyes had to make do with views over the curvaceous mountains of Moab. Israel and Palestine may have cornered the market in Holy Land tours, but Jordan is no second-best pilgrimage destination. Pope Benedict has allotted half of his eight-day Biblical tour – which starts on Friday – to this much-overlooked “other” Holy Land. Jordan is emerging from the shadows.

Jordan has a strong and well-integrated Arab Christian minority. Estimates vary, but they are thought to comprise around six percent of the population. Given that this amounts to under 300,000 people, there is remarkable diversity in the Christian community: chiefly Greek Orthodox, with communities of Roman Catholics, Melkite Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Armenians, Copts and some Protestants.

I sat for a while with Charl Twal, ebullient owner of the Mariam Hotel in the market town of Madaba – and nephew of Fouad Twal, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Jerusalem. “We feel that we are the originals,” Charl told me. “We are the cousins of Jesus.”

This confidence and sense of deep-rooted identity is widely felt, not least in Madaba, whose history dates back to the Old Testament. Early one Sunday I popped into the most prominent of its 50-odd churches, the modern St John’s Cathedral, and watched as perhaps 100 people took communion. As I left, staff were preparing the church for another, busier Mass immediately afterwards.

It’s a short drive from Madaba down to Bethany, a cluster of pools and springs on the east bank of the River Jordan. Here I met a local guide named Emad – a Greek Orthodox Christian – who outlined the wealth of evidence from the Bible and medieval pilgrims pointing to Jesus’s having been baptised here. John’s Gospel is explicit, describing a site “beyond Jordan [that is, on the other side of the River Jordan from Jerusalem], where John was baptising”.

In the high-stakes world of Holy Land tourism, this is pure gold: an archaeologically rich site that tallies with both the gospels and primary historical sources. Jordan is busy fast-tracking it onto the global A-list, securing authentication of the site from the Vatican, Lambeth Palace and church authorities from Moscow to Ethiopia.

To dip my toe in the Jordan and reflect on the fame of this tamarisk-lined ribbon of water, coiling between dusty hills, was just about the most powerful evocation of the term “Holy Land” I could imagine.

North stands Pella, where Jerusalem’s first Christians fled in 66AD during a Jewish rebellion against the Romans. Lying at sea level, with the Jordan Valley spread below, it’s a modest site: most of the Roman-era city has been washed away by the flowing springs on the valley floor. Three churches survive on higher ground, along with the foundations of a Canaanite temple. Caretaker Deeb Hussein’s family has been in the area for 150 years. We watched the shadows lengthen, sipping lip-smacking home-made lemonade with mint as he filled me in on local history.

It seems that Jesus passed near here on his way to Gadara. This town of poets and philosophers (now renamed Umm Qais) is the location for one of the New Testament’s more spectacular miracles, when Jesus banished the demons afflicting two madmen into a herd of swine, who then rushed down the hill and perished in the Sea of Galilee.

I arrived during a holiday weekend: Gadara’s splendid Roman theatre of basalt stone, facing west across the olive groves, was buzzing with families and teenagers out for a day in the country, girls squealing and boys preening amid a fluster of pop music and Arabic drumming. Roman colonnades led me to the highest point of the ruins – an Ottoman-era schoolhouse, turned into a rather lovely terrace restaurant – to absorb an incomparable view over the Sea of Galilee and the looming plateau of the Golan Heights.

It struck me that the demonised pigs would have had to run a heck of a long way down the slope – 12km or more to reach the water, vaulting the gorge of the River Yarmouk on the way – but it never does to be too literal about these things. Tourists, local and foreign, Christian and Muslim, were crowding onto the viewpoints to take in the vista, posing and pointing.

Later, I met Mahmoud Hawawreh, a rangy guide with excellent English – he used to be a schoolteacher – who took me out for a day on the Abraham Path, hidden in the hills of biblical Gilead behind Umm Qais. This multi-national pilgrimage route runs from Harran, in southern Turkey, where Abraham heard the call of God, through Syria and Jordan to Jerusalem and the Patriarch’s tomb in Hebron. It is still under development, but Mahmoud agreed to guide me along the first Jordanian section, dubbed the Al-Ayoun Trail.

It was idyllic. We swished and swashed through knee-high meadows, past spring-watered orchards of olive, fig and pomegranate and through villages untouched by tourism. As we wandered, Mahmoud told me folk tales – a couple who eloped to a certain cave, a Roman palace atop an inaccessible crag – and pointed out which farmers’ hives produce the best honey. The walk culminated in suitably dramatic Old Testament fashion at remote Tell Mar Elyas (‘St Elijah’s Hill’) – from where, according to the Book of 2 Kings, Elijah was raised to heaven in a chariot of fire. I drew breath on the summit amid the ruins of a 6th-century mosaic-floored church, surrounded by panoramic views that were, well, Biblical in both scope and grandeur.

More views awaited at Mount Nebo, named in Deuteronomy as the spot from which Moses saw the Promised Land. The 4th-century church on the top was under renovation by Franciscan archaeologists when I visited, but the idea of standing in Moses’s sandalprints more than made up. More than a kilometre below lay Jericho and the Dead Sea, while sprouting atop a hill on the western horizon directly opposite I spied minuscule towers – a tantalising glimpse of Jerusalem, 50km distant.

Jordan has almost too many Biblical sites. I missed out the cave where Lot sheltered from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and had no time to visit Aaron’s tomb at Petra. Instead I detoured to the palace of Herod Antipas (son of baby-killer Herod the Great) at Machaerus, a conical hill above the Dead Sea. Some time around 23AD, Herod – a shifty character who was in cahoots with Pontius Pilate – had married his brother’s wife in contravention of the laws of Leviticus. A local holy man named John, who’d taken to ritually immersing people in the River Jordan, publicly condemned the marriage. Herod flung him into a cave-cell beneath the palace and carried on living the high life.

At a particularly wild party one night, according to Roman historian Josephus, Salome, Herod’s stepdaughter, performed before Herod’s assembled guests, whereupon the over-excited king offered to fulfil her merest whim. She requested John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod’s reward goes undocumented, but there’s some poetic justice in the fact that within 50 years his palace was a ruin, destroyed during the same Jewish rebellion against Rome that saw the mass suicide at Masada.

It’s a short but punishingly steep walk up the hillside to the ruins – dubbed rather gloomily by the locals Qalat Al-Mashnaqa (“Citadel of the Gallows”). Caves dot the folded landscape: any one of them could have been where Herod’s guards decapitated John the Baptist. But relatively few of the rooms, it seemed to me, could have staged Salome’s shimmy.

Following in the footsteps of a glamour girl might not be quite what Pope Benedict has in mind for his Holy Land pilgrimage, but he is nonetheless on the right track: Jordan’s land is certainly holy. For once in the Middle East, international borders count for nothing.