Dead sea, Gabriel’s wings, and Bethany: Jordan 2

So after our cave-sleeping episode with the bedouins, we woke up early in the morning and went back to Nawwaf’s house to change clothes. Yeah, we smelled like cattle and wood and smoke. After a shower, I realized that a shower did absolutely nothing to help with the smell, because it was my jacket that was smelling like a camel ever since I wore it last day. I had no other jackets with me, and there was not enough time to wash it too. Well, this was Jordan, and the smell of camels was everywhere, so no harm done to anybody’s nostrils, I guess.

Read about couchsurfing with the Bedouins, in Jordan!

I was thinking of what to do for the day, when Gabriel and Nawwaf came up with a plan to visit the Dead sea in Nawwaf’s Nissan truck. We just had to pay for the gas. This was not a bad deal, and with both of us pitching in, wasn’t very expensive either. So around 10 am, off we went to see the dead sea.

Again, I chose to sit on the back of the truck. This time, it proved to be a not-so-comfortable decision, because Nawwaf, the Bedouin that he is, took a shortcut to the dead sea that passed through some really mountainous deserts. After hurting my backside rather royally for a good 3 hours, we finally arrived at the dead sea.


The Jordanian side of the Dead sea

Now, the dead sea is a large body of water, which essentially also separates the 2 countries of Israel and Jordan. There is an Israeli side, and there is a Jordanian side. But since I did not have a visa to visit the Israeli side (which I heard was cheaper), the Jordanian side was the best bet.

On the way, Nawwaf regaled us with a story about how dead sea was made by the archangel called Gabriel. Now, I can find traces of this story on the internet, and it seems slightly true, but mostly made-up, but here it goes. Apparently, god was pissed off at the ancient city of Sodom, which was believed to be located in the place of the current dead sea. The people of Sodom were utterly wicked (hence the term ‘sodomize’), so God decided to punish them. And one of the punishments was, sending down the archangel Gabriel, who struck down the entire city with one flap of his giant wing, thus creating the dead sea. In fact, Nawwaf assures me, that if I looked at dead sea from google maps, I could see the shape of Gabriel’s wing.

Note: The first thing I did when I got back home to Singapore, was to check out the map of the dead sea. Crazy as it may seem, there was a wing pattern on the map! Download the image below, and rotate it to the right a little bit.

Rotate the image to the right, to be able to see the shape of Gabriel's wing. Or so, I am told.

Rotate the image to the right, to be able to see the shape of Gabriel’s wing. Or so, I am told.


After a bumpy, ass-shattering 3-hour drive, we finally reached the dead sea region around 2 PM. We stopped at one of the deserted ends of the dead sea. Me or Gabriel had no interest in spending more money on a resort. He just wanted to float! And I just wanted to float and read a newspaper!

The Jordanian side of the dead sea.

The Jordanian side of Dead sea. I stretched my neck to see Israel/Palestine in the distance.

Jordanian side of the dead sea.

The Jordanian side of the dead sea.

There was, actually, nothing much to see. Just a plain lake, with a lot of white powdery deposit on its banks. And if you paid any attention in your geography classes, you will know what that substance is.

Since, we wanted to make this quick, we started undressing and went in, Gabriel first. I had barely put my feet to the water, and it stung! I had become callused from my cave-dwelling episodes the last couple of days, and when my feet touched the water, the salt made the pain unbearable. And by then, even my lips were completely parched and torn at the sides, from the desert wind. I took a look at Gabriel who was already blissfully floating by then, and then decided that I did not want to endure pain to do it. I’d rather be taking some pictures instead.

Well, he got bored with it soon anyway. In 20 minutes, he came up saying that the salt water kept going into his eyes, and they burnt! So, we dressed up, went back to meet Nawwaf, and continued our drive.


Bethany of St. John the Baptist

We should have driven back home, but as luck would have it, we saw a signboard by the road, that said “24 Kms to Bethany”. Gabriel knew what this meant, and I had to read lonely planet to find out. So, this was the Baptismal site of St. John the Baptist! And we were so close! So, not a minute was lost, before we decided to take a turn to Bethany.

Note: Not to be confused with the other Bethany, near Jerusalem, which is famous for the Lazarus episode.

Bethany, or Bethabara, is located on the banks of the Jordan river, which interestingly is also an international border between Israel and Jordan. The new testament stated that St. John the Baptist was baptizing in “Bethany beyond the Jordan”, and interestingly, the Arabic name for the place is ‘Al-Maghtas’, meaning ‘Baptism’ or ‘immersion’.


While the entry procedures were no headache, it was slightly more than I had expected. The entry cost 12 JD, and you could not travel alone. You had to join a tour group, on a bus, along with a tour guide who spoke both Arabic and English. And the bus passed through an army checkpoint, which is understandable given that this was an international border.

There were a few trivial points along the tour, which I will not be going into. (“John walked here“, “John sat here” etc.), but after 10-15 minutes, we reached the Baptismal site, or the ‘John the Baptist church’. It was as I pictured it from lonely planet. There was a church layer, a mantle, and the unique marble steps (although there is not much marble left now). The only thing that was missing was the baptismal pool, but this was December, so kind of explains why the pool was dried out.

Baptismal site of St. John the Baptist

Yep, this was it. You could see the marble steps and the mantle chapel in the forefront.

The tour was intentionally very restricting. I am normally not a fan of non-admissions and tour guide supervision, but I felt that it was very justified to supervise and control people behavior in such a holy site. All you need is some idiot with a can of spray paint to destroy traces of history.

A little more walking, and there was another church. But this one CANNOT be built during the ancient ages, because it looked so new! Well, it was new. This was a modern, orthodox church dedicated to St. John the Baptist, and was built as part of the renovation of this archaeological site. It had a nice-looking golden dome, which cast interesting shadows outside. And murals, which caused interesting light patterns inside.

Orthodox church of St. John the Baptist.

The orthodox church of St. John the Baptist.

Orthodox church of St. John the Baptist.

I did not bring a flash, and was sad to find out that all the shots I took inside, turned out to be completely dark.

Orthodox church of St. John the Baptist.

A closer view.

Just ahead of the orthodox church stood a couple  of uniformed guards. I presumed that they were guarding some important historical monument. Ah, who cares about history when there are more pressing geographical matters to be guarded! So, in another 10 steps, I was in front of the Jordan river, facing Israel, and a whole different country was just a good, long jump ahead of me. Ok, I exaggerate, maybe 10 – 15 metres.

I was told that people came here often to conduct baptism, but I couldn’t even get myself to touch the river. Religious significance aside, lets state the fact that it is muddy! Very muddy. Everyone stood at the Jordanian end of the river, thinking about the enormous importance of this river to their faith. but I just stared at Israel. I was going to get there. Some day.

River Jordan, with Israel on the other bank.

Israel is just there! But I can’t go 🙁

The drive back to Petra was uneventful. We drove through the desert, and the rocky mountains again. Nawwaf is a daredevil. He just kept swerving wildly on the edge of cliffs, with very little light, in the middle of god-knows-where.

I just closed my eyes and went to sleep.


Travelling to Jordan? Read about Petra: the pink city!



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About Abhi Surendran

Abhi quit his corporate job, and decided to immerse himself in travels, photography, occasional periods of bankruptcy, and copious amounts of insanity. He is currently working on a book of his experiences, and a dream road trip through South Asia. Both in a haphazard fashion. He blogs at Iamnothome and you can also catch him at times on Facebook and twitter.

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