Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, immigration and border scrabbles, and Jerash

It has been a while since I updated my travel/life-in-the-crazy-Middle-East blog because we’ve been moving about so much and I’ve barely had a second to myself. So now, sitting in a kibbutz in the Negev in Israel, I finally have time to look back at what we did in Jordan two weeks ago and write a much-less detailed account.

Our trip to Jordan was cut rather short by some immigration issues I was having with Israel. I had applied for a visa extension a few months prior to leaving the country and I was still waiting for approval. The Ministry of the Interior assured me that, as I was in the system, I was still legally in the country. However, when I left to go to Amman on the 15th of December, the woman at immigration told me that I would need to visit the Israeli Consulate in Amman to get documents allowing my re-entry into the country. It seems the various computer systems are not well integrated. Frustrated by this bit of bureaucracy, we left Wadi Rum and drove back to Amman on Wednesday, knowing Thursday would be spent in offices in the city.

The day wasn’t lost, however, because on the way from Wadi Rum to Amman we drove right past Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, the site at which, according to most historians, Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist. As I love religious history, I repeatedly asked my parents to stop off there for a visit. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived (3:15pm) the place was closed. More fortunate, however, was the fact that one of the staff was willing to take us for 12JD per person (about $18-20). As my family didn’t care to see the site, I was the only one willing to take up his offer, which posed more problems. The manager wouldn’t let him enter after 3pm for only 1 tourist. Determined for me to enter, however, we waited at the gates while other tourists came and went.

Finally, moved for some reason, the man who had offered us the 12JD entry motioned to me to enter his car. “Talk to my manager,” he told me, “maybe he will let you go.” He drove me to the main office, where I shyly asked the manager if he would make an exception for me only to have him retort, very rudely, “I don’t speak English.” Employing what little Arabic I have (and assisted by vigorous hand gestures), I begged him “please, I’m not coming back, this is my only chance.” He turned his back to me and walked into his office. I stood there, almost in tears about the fact that I had come so close to this holy site and been denied entry, when the determined member of staff returned to me triumphant with a pass in his hands stamped by the manager that would let us pass the police guard.

And so the winding drive began. There are numerous Christian denominations that have churches near the site (Greek Orthodox, Latin, Armenian, Catholic, to name a few) but other than these churches, the land was barren. We arrived at a parking lot near a modern baptism site where the man – now my guide – proudly told me his daughter had been baptised while he rushed me, with calls of “yalla yalla!”, through a path winding underneath branches for about 10 minutes. It was a beautiful walk, I wish we had had the time to enjoy it more (I imagine it must be quite unpleasant when filled with noisy or weepy pilgrims), but we rushed on through until emerging at the baptism site.

The site in itself was not stunning. It was a square dug into the ground off the banks of the Jordan river with a little structure with a roof behind it. However, there’s a presence about it – knowing that this is believed to be the place where Jesus was baptised, a place with so much significance to so many people today – that made the waiting and the rushing all worthwhile. Because no one was around, my guide lifted up the barrier and ushered me down into the baptism site itself so I could take a photo INSIDE it, where tourists aren’t normally allowed! He then led me up the steps (also not normally allowed to tourists) where it is believed Jesus walked down before his baptism, and up to the remains of the ancient building where there was still a magnificent mosaic floor in-situ. It was incredible!

The following morning, my mother and I woke up early to head to the Israeli Consulate in Shmeisani (or so our guide book said). Our taxi driver, confused by the fact that we insisted the Consulate was in Shmeisani, was unable to find it. In the end, it turned out it was in a different part of the city. After an extensive security check, we arrived at an outdoor waiting room where we sat behind a number of Jordanians there for visas, despite the fact that on the phone we had been told that as British citizens we wouldn’t have to wait.

Finally, we were allowed in and pointed to a counter behind which no one was seated. We waited for the gentleman to arrive and he looked at us in utter confusion. “As a British citizen, you don’t need a visa. We cannot legally provide you with any documentation stating that your re-entry to the country should be allowed. We can only issue visas, you don’t need the visa. The rest is the domain of the Ministry of the Interior and immigration,” he told us, after we explained my predicament, what the lady had said, and he had consulted with the Consul himself. “Can you at least provide me with a letter stating that I came here and you could do nothing so I can show it to the border guards?” I asked. His response was simply “no, contact the British Embassy, maybe they can do something.”

Frustrated that we had wasted half a day because of what the lady at the border had said (the man at the Consulate said she didn’t know what she was talking about), we returned to our hotel to pick up my brother and father and hopped straight into the car to head to Jerash, an ancient Greco-Roman city about an hour or so north of Amman.

The ruins were incredible. We  began by walking through Hadrian’s Arch and then into the Hippodrome, a large stadium where we’re pretty certain the ridiculous young men of Top Gear raced their cars in their 2010 Christmas special. We then walked along the colonnaded street, taking in various rooms and climbing up to the magnificent Temple of Artemis. We ended our visit at the small North Theater that was used mostly for political purposes and in which we could still see the names of participants carved into the rock seats.

Finally, Friday morning we left Jerash (well, really we stayed just outside the city) at a casual pace, heading for the King Hussein/Allenby border-crossing from Jordan into the Palestinian territories. We arrived at 12 and were advised that though the bridge closes at 12:30 for “regular” people, we were no longer allowed through as the last shuttle left at 11:30. When we asked if we could walk across, we were told we could try but we’d be shot at, and that the only way through was to either pay $100 per person to take the VIP bus or to go to Sheikh Hussein crossing up by the Israeli city of Nazareth.

Sheikh Hussein it was. We took a taxi to the border and then proceeded to wait for over an hour at Israeli immigration because two of the four immigration windows were unmanned. My family got through without a problem, but my case was, as we had assumed it would be, a little more complicated. I explained to the young lady at immigration that I had filed an application with the Ministry of the Interior and gone to the Consulate in Amman and everything, and she gave me a surprising piece of news – she couldn’t give me the regular 3-month visa as my application was not in the system (although the Ministry had told me it was), but she would give me a one month visa and I’d have to re-apply for an extension. I happily took back my passport and, relieved, the whole family stepped out and into Israel.

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