The Pope and the Holy Land of “Jordan”

The recent trip of Pope Francis I to the Holy Land was filled with many symbols. But of all the political messages that the Vatican leader sent, and all the spin that his symbolic trip evoked, the geography and history of Judea and Jordan couldn’t have been more clear. The Pope himself made this geographic history come alive by including Jordan in his Holy land itinerary.
Of course he didn’t do it intentionally. His political message was at complete odds with his Holy Land geographic and religious agenda. But in order to appease the global Moslem community (over a billion strong), the Pope said all the politically correct things. The “West Bank” was described as the “State of Palestine”, even though this statement completely contradicts international law (UN Resolution 242). He met Israel’s political leadership in Tel Aviv, and not Jerusalem. He even invited the PA President, Mahmoud Abbas, to the Vatican for a prayer meeting for peace with the Israeli President, Shimon Peres. One can only wonder if Hamas and the Jordanian Brotherhood will be invited as well.
But the geographic scope of the visit, mixed with its historical significance, seemed lost on both the Israeli media and their secular Zionist leadership. In their attempt to score meaningless political points, they all missed the far greater story. In terms of history — the history of ancient Judea — the name this place went by when Jesus (the Jew) lived and died in this Holy Land: The Pope’s travels made it one hundred percent clear that Jordan is indeed a vital part of historic Israel/Palestine, ancient Judea.
According to the Roman Catholic Church, there are five sanctioned holy sites in Jordan. The first is Bethany, the place where John the Baptist was said to have baptized Jesus. This site is on the river itself, but can only be accessed from the territory east of the River Jordan. But Jesus lived in the Galilee. In order to eventually get to Jerusalem from the Galilee, the most circuitous (but perhaps the easiest) pathway in those days was to cross the Jordan far above the lake and proceed southward through the Transjordan landscape. Whereupon a traveler could cross the river, once again, and travel to Jerusalem from the east. This territory, called historically the Transjordan (now it is the country of Jordan) had always been a part of Israel. In all likelihood, Jesus chose this territory to preach because its inhabitants were poor.
In Biblical days, the Transjordan was the home to both prophets and kings. And the Vatican today recognizes this fact of geographic history. The Pope on his trip to the Holy Land specifically included “Jordan” because Jesus (the Jew) lived, preached and travelled through this territory of ancient Judea. For example, the Christian holy site at Anjara is a prime example. Located in the modern Jordanian governorate of Ajloun, Our Lady of the Mountain in Anjara is the site where Jesus, his mother Mary and all his disciples rested in a cave on their trip to Jerusalem. Situated on nearly the same latitude as the Galilee (but east of the river), Anjara is also extremely close to Mar Elijah, the hometown of the Biblical prophet Elijah.
Elijah is one of the greatest prophets of all three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For his birthplace to be east of the River Jordan has to be the greatest of all geographic testimonies that the Transjordan (Jordan) has always been an integral part of the history and landscape of the ancient Jewish land. In fact Elijah has been so enshrined within the Jewish religion, it has been assumed that the appearance of the future Jewish Messiah will also be miraculously heralded by the reappearance of this great prophet. On Passover, for millennia, Jews across the world and in the Holy Land have opened their doors to Elijah and invited him to partake of their Seder wine as an official part of the ancient ritual.
In Christianity, Jesus has been compared to Elijah and is thought to have been some manifestation of the great prophet himself. In Islam, the great Israelite prophet Elijah, born east of the Jordan River, has been mentioned in the Koran, which according to this religion are the very words of Allah, and spoken directly through Mohammad. In Sura 37 of the Koran, Elijah has been mentioned in relation to his warnings to the Israelites over idol worship and false gods. Also in the Koran, Allah praises Elijah (the Jew of the Transjordan). First, in Sura 37–“Peace be upon Elijah! This is how we reward those who do good. He is truly among our believing servants”. And also Elijah is praised in Sura 6– “Jesus and Elijah, they are all among the righteous”.
In fact, the Roman Catholic Church has designated Mar Elijah, in the north of Jordan, as one of its five Christian holy sites for Catholics on pilgrimages. Two others have already been mentioned (Bethany and Anjara), and the final two are Mt. Nebo and Mukawir. Mt. Nebo is the very spot where Judaism’s greatest prophet, Moses, stood high atop and viewed the Holy Land, the Promised Land of the Torah. From Mt. Nebo northward, both sides of the Jordan River can be viewed as potentially lush agricultural land. This must have been what Moses viewed, as recorded in the last chapters of Deuteronomy, as G-d assigned to the Israelite tribes land both to the east and west of the river.
The final Catholic holy site, Mukawir, is located east of the Dead Sea. It is the site of Herod’s fortress and place where John the Baptist was beheaded. Christian legend has it that this was the site where the wise men told Herod of the birth of a future Jewish messiah. But the Transjordan is the site to many other Biblical places and archaeological excavations. The Israelite tribes of Gad, Reuben and Manasseh were assigned territory in the Transjordan. The ruins of the fortress of the Ammonites are on a mountain overlooking downtown Amman Jordan (the country’s capital). This is the site where King David had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed. In northern Jordan, there is a small creek where Jacob met and wrestled the angel of the Lord. Israel was the name given to the patriarch because of this Transjordan encounter. The rock struck by Moses to bring forth water is located in southern Jordan. So too is the tomb of the great prophet’s brother, Aaron.
Jordan is a part of historic Israel/Palestine. These aren’t the words of extremists but the verdict of history. When the religious right in Israel declares that the Arabs already have a state in historic Palestine, they have truth on their side. Secular Zionists both left, center and even moderate right (Bibi, are you reading this?) have lost their narrative because it is based on the false premise that two Arab states (Jordan and Palestine) can live in harmony with each other. Palestine on the West Bank (as the Pope and Peres would have it) will never be satisfied until the Jordanian monarchy is overthrown. This has been their goal since their defeat in 1971 (Black September). First, a state west of the river, then an overthrown king — that is their strategy. And with the help of Israel’s secular enemies and many of its friends– including many in the Christian community– this false narrative continues to dominate.
The Pope can’t have it both ways: Either Jordan is a part of the Holy Land, or it is not. If it is not, then why are there so many religious sites there? But of course it is. It was a part of the original Mandate, and its geographical description has been written into the Charter of the PLO. From my point of view, eventually the East Bank must become a vital player in the political and (most importantly) the religious narrative of this hundred-year conflict. The future of the disputed territories must be decided by negotiation, and certainly not by fiat according to a reality established by either secular “West Bankers” or their friends in the Catholic Church. As the Pope tours the Holy Land, he must remember where he is, in the land of Jesus the Jew — Judea.
According to UN Security Council Resolution 242, the process of peace negotiations must be done on a state-to- state basis. In other words, the future of the territories will be decided by Jordan and Israel. If the king of Jordan refuses to live up to his obligations, he must forsake those same disputed territories by constitutional amendment. That would require a referendum of the people. So far, the Kingdom of Jordan has only relinquished its administrative and legal authority to the West Bank. According to the Jordanian constitution, they still hold sovereignty. If that changes by national referendum, and under international law, the sovereignty of those same territories would refer all the way back to the original Mandate. The Oslo process (the basis of the Palestinian Authority) was a product of the International Madrid Conference. All parties to this Conference signed on to UN 242. In other words, the PA has exactly the same legitimacy as the Jordanian-led delegation that attended Madrid, no more and no less. At the time, Israeli PM Shamir insisted that the Palestinians strictly be a subordinate part of the Jordanian delegation. If you don’t believe me, go ask Jim Baker.
If the Palestinians continue to go down the road of unilateralism, Israel must insist that the king of Jordan come forward. This will require a new strategy, a new plan, and especially a new narrative. Thanks to Pope Francis I, the Holy Land of “Jordan” will become the central theme of that new narrative. On the other hand, the Palestinians base their West Bank state on a geographical narrative that lops-off the area of the Transjordan. On the political side of his Holy Land tour, the Pope bought into the Palestinian narrative. This position is in complete contradiction to his religious narrative. I guess the Pope is both a politician (the Vatican state) and a religious leader (the Church). But like the Moslems, he can’t have it both ways: ancient Israel, on both sides of the Jordan River, is a central theme to both the New Testament and the Koran. If you don’t believe those sources just read the Hebrew Bible, the Torah.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).