In 2012, after spending Easter in Germany: Bavaria, my husband Tony and I travelled to Jordan, in the Middle East, where we celebrated Easter for a second time. That year, the Eastern and Orthodox Christian churches, following the Julian calendar, observed Easter one week later than the Western Christian churches.
Easter in Jordan: What a contrast to Easter in Germany!
Read on to discover why.
In April 2012, Tony and I visited Jordan to spend time with Lex and June Macqueen, Australians who had been living and serving the Lord in Amman, Jordan, since 2007. With the support of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), Lex was employed as the Minister to the English-speaking congregation of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, Amman (or International Anglican Church of Amman). June supported Lex’s ministry with her gift of hospitality and children’s ministry.
Our reasons for visiting Lex and June were to provide them with practical help and support, to better understand their ministry and circumstances, and to learn about Jordan and its people first-hand.
Jordan, right in the heart of the Middle East, is a Biblical land. From the top of Mount Nebo, Moses surveyed the Promised Land. Jesus was there.
The Middle East is the birthplace of Christianity. Today, there are Christians in every country in the region, but they are minorities. The state religion of Jordan is Islam, with 90% of the population Sunni Muslim, 2% followers of Shia or Sufism, and 8% Christian (mainly Roman Catholic, Syrian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox). Christians are free to practise their religion, but they are not free to proselytise (seek to convert Muslims).
On the evening of Wednesday 11th April, in Holy Week, we arrived at Jordan’s Queen Alia International Airport, 32 km (about half an hour’s drive) south of Amman.
Amman, Jordan’s capital, is a busy, modern city, with a population of about 4 million. It sprawls over several hills and mountains, originally seven. It is mostly new, built in the latter half of the 20th century.
In Biblical times Amman was the home of the Ammonites; it was named Philadelphia in the Greek period. It contains remnants of Bronze-age tombs such as the Citadel, located on a hill in the centre of the city. There are ruins of buildings from the time of King David and Roman constructions such as the Rujm Al-Malfouf (North) Tower. (We visited both of these sites on Easter Saturday.) Philadelphia was one of the 10 Graeco-Roman towns of the Decapolis. Philadelphia reverted to its Semitic name, Ammon, under Islamic rule.
Thursday 12th April (Maundy Thursday) dawned fine, clear and cool. The maximum temperature expected was 19 degrees Celcius. Lex and June told us to get ready to go on an outing. Together with three of their friends, they planned to drive to the district south of Amman in search of Jordan’s national flower, the rare black wild iris. A protected native wildflower, it blooms only at that time of year, and for a short period.
Easter in the Middle East, as in Europe, falls in early Spring. Everywhere we saw signs of new life, fields a flush of green, wildflowers in bloom, and nomadic shepherds out grazing their flocks. By the side of the road in a couple of remote locations between the Desert Highway and King’s Highway, we spotted the black wild iris. When we stopped to inspect the flowers, some local children, curious about our presence, came to see what we were doing and chatted with us.
We did lots of sightseeing that day. The first place we visited was Umm ar Rasas, a UNESCO World Heritage listed site, located about 50 km south of Amman and accessible via the Desert Highway or King’s Highway. It is a square walled town, a jumble of stones and ruins, dating from the Roman period. Lex called it “Fred Flintstone territory”. It was first used as a Roman military garrison; later the town was inhabited by Christians, then Muslims. It is the site of many former Byzantine churches, noted for their stunning mosaics. We visited the remnants of two of these churches (built in 586 AD and 785 AD) to see their mosaic floors, which are being painstakingly uncovered and restored.
The second place we visited was Wadi Al Mujib, a huge gorge about 4 km wide at the top and 500 m deep, near Dhiban, a township south-west of Amman. Lex called it “Jordan’s answer to the Grand Canyon”. From our elevated vantage point, the almost 360 degree views were spectacular, breathtaking. We spotted the Al Mujib Dam, far below, at the bottom of the broad flat dry wadi (or valley). Apparently, in Biblical times, this valley and the river that flowed through it (River Arnon) separated the land of Moab from the land of the Amorites.
Our third and subsequent stops were in Wadi Al Hidan and the area south and south-west of Madaba. We stopped to take more photographs of the sights and of the wildflowers in bloom: red anemone, yellow fennel, wild salvia, and white and pink hollyhocks.
On Thursday evening, at 7.00 pm, we joined the Arabic-speaking congregation of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer for its Maundy Thursday service. The church was packed. Lex was the guest preacher (in English, thankfully for us) and he joined Rev Fadi Diab (Minister of the Arabic-speaking congregation) in washing the feet of 12 children from the congregation. Lex’s message was from John 13, which includes the passage about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. We loved the service. Although it was in Arabic, we are familiar with the Anglican liturgy so we were able to follow the service. The congregational singing (in Arabic), was hearty and inspiring, and very beautiful. When the choir sang, it gave us goose bumps! We knew all of the hymns (in English) and the hymn tunes, so we knew what they were singing.
The next day, Friday 13th April (Good Friday), was a “holiday”, but not for Easter. Unlike Germany, which sets aside two public holidays for Easter (Good Friday and Easter Monday), Jordan doesn’t observe any public holidays for Easter.
Friday 13th April 2012 was just a normal Friday in Jordan. The shops were closed; no-one works on a Friday. Friday is Islam’s holy day. The “weekend” in Jordan is Friday-Saturday. Sunday is a working day.
Most Christians in Jordan gather for worship on Saturday; some meet on Friday. Lex used to conduct the weekly worship service for his congregation on Saturday afternoons. However, to cater for those people who prefer to worship informally or who cannot attend church on Saturday, he organised a home church meeting each Friday morning. Tony and I were invited to join this group for their Good Friday “service” in the home of one of the couples. Lex led the “service” and the Bible teaching, and each person was invited to join in the discussion, singing and prayer. There were about 20 adults and 10 children present altogether. We shared lunch together after the “service”.
On Good Friday evening, June hosted a small dinner party for us and three friends (Brennan, Anne and Annie), but Lex did not join us. Lex had agreed to assist Rev Fadi Diab lead the Good Friday service for the Arabic-speaking congregation. The Good Friday service commenced at 7.00 pm, but Lex didn’t return home until 10.30 pm.
“What happened?” we asked.
Lex explained, “Fadi invited folk to come forward for prayer after the service. He expected three or four, but almost the entire congregation came forward! We were on our knees on the hard floor all that time, but we prayed for each one personally. It was very moving and encouraging.”
Lex told us that there were more people at the service that night than the previous night (Maundy Thursday) when Tony and I attended. And the church was packed then!
Saturday 14th April 2012, Easter Saturday, was a day of preparation in the Macqueen household. On Easter Sunday, Lex was scheduled to conduct a sunrise service for his congregation at the top of Mount Nebo. There was to be no service on Saturday. Lex and June had much to do to get ready for Easter Sunday. Lex printed the service sheets and Tony helped Lex by folding and stapling them. June asked me to help her in the kitchen: we baked a couple of large quiches and several batches of muffins to take the following day to share with worshippers after the early morning service. The sunrise service had been advertised at hotels frequented by tourists and in English-language publications, so Lex and June were expecting a large number of people to turn up at the service.
Tony and I awoke with the alarm at 3.40 am on Easter Sunday morning. I was really tired, as I didn’t sleep well the night before. I kept waking up, expecting the alarm to go off! Lex told us we had about an hour to get ready before we had to leave for the one hour drive from Amman south-west (via Madaba) to Mount Nebo. Tony and I travelled in a small hire car with Brennan (whom we had met on Good Friday), close behind Lex and June in their fully loaded vehicle. We arrived at the top of Mount Nebo around 5.45 am. It was still dark. The lights were on in the little chapel.
The Easter Sunday Sunrise Service on Mount Nebo commenced on time at 6.00 am. It was a special Easter celebration, one we will not forget. The chapel was packed, as expected, with many visitors joining Lex’s regular congregation for this unique service. At least 150 people were present; some worshippers had to stand. Lex led the Holy Communion service. Everyone was invited to breakfast outside in the chapel grounds after the service. It was a cool, overcast and windy day. Fortunately, it did not rain.
Here, at the top of the mountain, the views were amazing, despite the dust haze. From one vantage point (near the Franciscan Bronze Serpent Cross) we could see Israel: the Dead Sea, Jericho and the Jordan River. It is from here, on Mount Nebo, that Moses saw the Promised Land. A reminder of this fact is the Memorial of Moses, also located on the mountain. The Memorial Church of Moses, built high on the site, was undergoing repairs at the time of our visit, so we did not see it.
Easter Sunday was a special day for Christians, but for Jordanians generally, it was just an ordinary Sunday – a normal working day. Given that it was Sunday and shops and tourist venues were open to the public, Brennan (our driver) offered to escort us to a couple of sites on our return trip to Amman.
Our first stopover was a pottery factory and showroom just outside Madaba. Here we saw young disabled Arab women at work: making the mosaics and painting the designs on the ceramic plaques or pots before firing. The showroom salesman tried very hard to sell us some of his wares, without success. (Tony and I did buy some Jordanian pottery at another time, though. It is very beautiful.)
Our next stop was Madaba’s Greek Orthodox Church of St George. Madaba is located about 30 km south-west of Amman. A city of about 70,000, it has one of the largest Christian communities in Jordan. One-third of its population is Christian. Madaba has been inhabited for 4500 years; it was a Moabite town in Biblical times. St George’s Church was built in 1884. The church is famous for its Byzantine floor map, dated 560 AD, over which the current church was built. The map, discovered in 1896, is 15 metres wide by 25 metres long and contains 157 Greek captions of Biblical sites.
Easter in Jordan was an experience we will never forget.
There were no Easter eggs, no special food and no Easter symbols to remind us of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Instead, everywhere we went there were reminders of the past: of people, places and incidents from the Bible and the early Church. From what we observed, Jordan’s rich Biblical and Christian heritage is acknowledged, displayed and (at least to some extent) is being preserved. This is in spite of the fact that Jordan’s state religion is Islam.
These 4 days (Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday), so full and profound, were just the beginning of our 19-day stay in Jordan in April 2012. Little did we know just how much more we had to discover about this enigmatic and ancient land…
I will share some of these discoveries with you at another time.