Growing up, our family was a happy part of the church and there was seldom a week that passed without a Sunday morning service spent amongst a handful of beautiful people. To this day, I consider this community one of my strongest support systems and an extension of my family. The true reason I enjoy going to church services is to see their smiles and feel their embraces, and to share a few laughs with our joyful minister.
In Texas, I continued to attend church services and fell in love again with the community built up within the church. For some time, Sunday mornings were spent at the community’s casual coffee shop worship services and followed up with invitations to family homes, to movies, and to various other events throughout the city. At the same time, I began to attend Buddhism services twice weekly. Riding my bike through the noisy El Paso streets to sit for some time in a room of solitude, eyes closed as mantras were recited, I found a different form of peace than I had previously been attuned to. It wasn’t a piece of me that I freely advertised, but I strongly feel that those buddhism learnings changed my direction and life and helped turn me from an anxious worry wart to a much more calm being. More accepting. More… zen.
It was those meetings that turned me on to yoga, a practice I began in middle school and casually continued throughout high school and college. Yoga had always been a hobby, but in El Paso I was able to turn it into more, spending my last eight months in the city diving into the yoga community and breaking through the toughest times, mentally emotionally and physically, that my 27 year young body has encountered. Yoga may not be a religion in the traditional sense, but when you look at what makes any religion ideal to its followers, there can be found a similar spiritual system wound within yoga’s roots.
A world away, I now live in a land where one religion is dominant and the rest are undercover, with their sites of prayer disclosed only through word of mouth. Islam is a religion I had rarely encountered and new little about before moving here. I remember vividly the first night I spent here. As I set up my bed and watched a dark night turn bright with the morning sun, the Call to Prayer whirled through the desert air. Throughout the day, I heard a similar sound several times and in a naive mind thought it was merely a neighbor’s music playing at a level loud enough to wake every sleeping baby in town.
My, how things have changed since then. I soon came to find that the Call to Prayer is broadcast live from each mosque six times daily on a schedule set by the sun. As time has progressed, many other qualities of the Islamic religion have become more defined, from daily recitations of the Holy Quran at our school’s morning Flag Ceremony to the modesties that accompany a religion more strictly enforced than in Western cultures.
As with all religions I have come to learn about, it speaks to a group of people in a way that offers them guidance and is grounded deep in tradition.
The idea of a set faith that is definable and can be named is not one I find myself submitting to, but I have every respect and admiration for those people that are able to find themselves at home in a place of worship, whether above ground or concealed. Religion is a beautiful part of our identities and is often a determinant of our current status in this world, whether we want it to be or not. Religion, also, is an extremely touchy subject. It’s one we’re often times raised not to talk about, yet living in the Middle East, is one that leads our days, our schedules, our holidays. In fact religion is such a hush-hush topic that I’ve been very hesitant to publish this post, as freedom of speech around these parts is not the same as it is back home and writing the wrong words has landed plenty of people behind bars for lengthy sentences. I hope this post leaves me in the clear though, because I’m not saying any one religion is better than the other – I’m merely saying that the idea of religion is intriguing to me and though I may not follow a strict religious path, the idea of identification and the joy of finding an identity- whatever it is relatable to- is a beautiful part of humanity.
From studying Christianity and Buddhism in the States, to visiting the holiest of Hindu settings in India and Nepal, to living in an Islamic country, the past few years have been insightful introductions to some of the world’s religious values. Still, there is an infinite amount to learn.
Through the services I’ve attended in Kuwait, I’ve become increasingly aware of the proximity to which we live to the beginning of the Bible’s stories. And there’s nothing like a bit of ‘when in Rome?’ to aide in our travel planning now, is there?
With a yearning to learn more about the world’s history, whether it be related to religions or not, I eagerly booked the trip that led me to this spot – Amman, Jordan – and on my third day in Jordan, was about to lead me down King’s Highway to lands that Jesus himself is said to have walked upon.
King’s Highway is a winding road leading from Amman to Petra with the most spectacular pit stops available for the tourists who travel this distance. The first stop was a town known for its handcrafted mosaics. Madaba is a quiet town with cheerful locals and a history dating back to the Byzantine- era (think of when the capital was Constantinople, not Istanbul). I stopped here to admire some mosaics which have withstood the test of time. The most famous is known as the “Madaba Map”, a mosaic dating back to the 6th century and offering the layout of the surrounding lands of Jordan and Jerusalem.
After a quick glimpse at the town, I continued down King’s Highway to Mount Nebo. Here it is said that Moses is buried although the exact location is not known. Be that it was thousands of years ago, the true place may never be found, but it was still an astounding feeling to walk along the lands of true Gods.
The journey continued, as did the undeniable urge to pinch myself and wake myself from dreamland. I honestly thought to myself while touring during down this highway stretch, “I wonder what this is like in real life”
This is real life, darling. Yet I couldn’t grasp it. It really seemed as if I was watching a movie, reading a story, delighting in a dream. And it wasn’t even noon.
From Mount Nebo, the road leads to Bethany. As if Moses’s burial land isn’t miraculous enough, I was soon standing at the site where Jesus was baptized. In The River Jordan only meters away were hundreds of people from all walks of life gathered to be baptized in these holy waters. There were songs and praises sung in French, German, Italian, and other languages indistinguishable across the river. Some chose to be baptized by fully immersing themselves, and others were sprinkled with the holy water. Meanwhile, the tourists on the Jordan side of the river filled their bottles with Holy Water and sand to take home as souvenirs. However you look at it, no matter what brought each person to that specific site on that exact day, it was a beautiful experience to stand 5 meters away from a group of people in a different country with governments and religions that don’t even gain recognition of existence by their neighbors. Any of us could have could have waded through the water, ducked under the orange buoyed rope, and entered into a forbidden land. Yet not a single person showed the desire to. Every body was there for his reason and was rejoicing in his own way that day. It took several attempts for each tourists to pull away from the river. We continued to dart back and forth asking ‘should I stay or should I go?’
The majority of us were on our way down King’s Highway and knew that what lied ahead of us was exciting, but also feeling the pull of this Biblical hotspot. With a final foot soak in the most pure of muddy waters, I returned to the car for they day’s final stop: Genesis’s Vale of Siddim; Joshua’s Plains Sea; Zechariah’s Former Sea; yours and my Dead Sea.
Yes, it was time to float! I didn’t realize the biblical references were so many when it came to the Dead Sea. I did realize though many years ago that I could float like a goddess upon the salt quenched waters. In high school we learned about the Dead Sea’s severe floating powers, and I recall being so excited because that meant higher boosts and ballet legs when performing synchronized swimming. That memory came to me after all these years just as I pulled into the parking lot of one of the Dead Sea’s many beach resorts. Quickly rushing from car to changing room and nearly running down the steps to the soft sand beach, I fought away the chill that accompanies being outside in eight degree temperatures and just a swim suit, and dipped my toes into the salty waters. Two steps in, I looked down and noticed that I was no longer walking on sand. Instead, the sea floor was entirely covered in layered accumulations of salt waves. I continued to a deeper level and ducked in, attempting to submerge my body in the warmer waters. Up up up I floated. I whipped out a ballet leg, performed a couple synchronized swim moves just like I’d dreamed about in that high school social studies class, and managed to float just on my belly, with both arms and legs above water. It was like being in Mother Nature’s version of a play ball pit. I could ramble and roll and feel weightless and limitless.
Days such as this prove that our life’s accumulation of moments and learnings each occur for a reason. I nearly opted for a direct bus from Amman down King’s Highway without having delighted in any stops along the way. I almost drove by the Mosaics of Madaba, Moses’s Burial site, Jesus’s baptismal site. I nearly said no to dipping my feet in the River Jordan as I watched baptisms performed across the waters in Jerusalem. I even contemplated ignoring the fifteen year old me’s idea of a good time by performing some synchro moves in the Dead Sea. If I had skipped out, it would’ve been for a reason – something else I would have never expected would have taken the place of those experiences. But just like the studies of religion shape our bodies and minds, so do our decisions and experiences shape ourselves now and in the future.
There was a road that led to King’s Highway. There is a road that leads from King’s Highway. And King’s Highway is a road that leads to many astounding experiences.
For even more insight into the history of King’s Highway, the Dead Sea and Jordan, take a look at this fantastic post by Sid the Wanderer!