It took me a while to figure out what exactly is the Holy Land. I mean, most people probably think of the modern country Israel as “the Holy Land,” but is it?
Arriving in Jordan, we quickly figured out that the term “Holy Land” applies to an area much larger than what is modern-day Israel. In fact, some people would claim that it includes parts of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan. This definition is based on regions included in Biblical narratives (except that according to that definition, it would also include all regions of the Roman Empire, as St. Paul travelled all over.) I base my definition on a map.
This map is the oldest existing map of the Holy Land, dating to the 6th century CE. The map can be best described as a floor mosaic, measuring about 16x5m. (It is estimated that the original map measured some 21x7m.) It was discovered in the town of Madaba in Jordan in 1894 during the construction of a new Greek Orthodox Church, which now houses the mosaic map.
The map shows an area from Lebanon in the north to the Nile river in the south. On the west side is the Mediterranean Sea and the eastern boundary is the “eastern desert.” It shows the Dead Sea with fishing boats and the Jordan River with fish. Among the cities shown on the map are Hebron, Karak, Jericho, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Other sites shown on the map are Mt. Sinai, Jacob’s Well and the St. Lot’s Monastery.
The City of Jerusalem is depicted as a large area at the centre of the map, with a number of structures in the Old City: the Damascus Gate, the Lion’s Gate, the Golden Gate, the Zion Gate, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the New Church of the Theotokos, the Tower of David and the Cardo Maximus.
And so, even though, we cannot deny that the area of Judea and the Galilee have a prominence in what we refer to as the Holy Land, because Jesus lived in that area, there are a number of sites throughout the whole region where Holy people lived and miraculous events happened. Travelling throughout Jordan, I was filled with awe at the land and its history. Beginning with Amman.
Amman is a city, which in the Bible is referred to as Rabbath-ammon, the capital of the Ammonite territory. Remember when the Israelites were travelling into the Land of Canaan and the Ammorites and Moabites prohibited them from crossing through their territories (Numbers 21:10-31)? That was in modern-day Jordan. Moses married a Midianite woman, remember? Midian is in modern-day Jordan. Moses also died at Mt. Nebo, on the east side of the Jordan river; that’s in modern-day Jordan. But not just Moses walked in what is today Jordan: Abraham, Job, Ruth, Elijah, John the Baptist, St. Paul and Jesus himself, travelled through this land. In fact, every time the Bible refers to “beyond the Jordan” it refers to what is today known as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
On our last day in Jordan, after we visited the historic city of Madaba, we travelled up to Mt. Nebo. It was from this spot that Moses gazed upon the land promised to his people by God (Deuteronomy 32:48-52). The Book of Deuteronomy tells us that Moses saw “the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain- that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees- as far as Zoar” (Deut. 34:1-3). For us it was a hazy day – we didn’t see all across to the Mediterranean (I wonder if you really can), but we did see across the valley, through the Dead Sea and into Israel. There in the Jordan valley is the city of Jericho (and there are palm trees in that valley – and banana trees too!) What a sight! But Moses never entered the Promised Land. He died that same day (Deut. 34:5). No one knows where he is buried, but it could have been very close to where we were.
I must say, among all our travelling on this trip, perhaps, more so than any Shrine or Basilica, it was this spot that moved me the most, for “never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deut. 34:10). And for all we know, that piece of earth, those rocks, have remained as they were, for 5000 years.