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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Ole Jordan, Cold and Dark

Biblical associations have the magical capacity to turn hills into mountains, lakes into seas and streams into rivers. The Kineret, in truth a lake, is known as the Sea of Galilee, the rapidly shrinking Dead Sea is in reality a salt lake, and the Jordan... this celebrated river rarely lives up to the title and invariably disappoints those who expect it to be far more substantial. It is hardly a river at all, though, like so much else in this tiny country, it has packed into almost no space a variety of forms, so that travelling its length one can observe all the ages of a river, even if a very narrow and shallow one, from trickling springs to a white-water torrent, and then to a meandering aged flow, and finally, to a river's death, a pitiful one as a pernicious trickle leaking into the noxious shimmering miasma.

But it begins with such hope. The upper Jordan, the mountainous Jordan (HaYarden HaHarari in Hebrew) flows from four springs: the Dan, Banias (Caesarea Philippi), Iyon and two sources of the Nahr al-Ḥāṣbānī (Nahal Snir in Hebrew) at the base of Mount Hermon. From its headwaters south to the Sea of Galilee it is a juvenile; narrow and wild, particularly after it has passed through the Hula Valley (formerly the Hula Lake). But once it emerges from the southern end of the Sea of Galilee it is tamed and mature. Here it is boosted somewhat, though today quite insubstantially, by tributaries, the Yarmouk, the biblical Jabbok that flows from the southern Golan, and the Zarqa that rises at Ain Ghazal, north-east of Amman. Neither of these have very much water to add, having been extensively made use of in Syria and Jordan, and as it meanders south the river rapidly ages, becoming evermore sluggish, clogged, shallow and narrow, and carrying nearly as much sewage as water as it meanders towards its pitiful destiny in the shimmering barrenness of the Dead Sea.

Of the various beliefs regarding the origins of its name is the idea that it derived from the Hebrew word Yored (יורד) – to descend, but in medieval sources it more often was asserted that the name originated in two springs that formed the river's source; the Yor or Jor and the Dan, and it is this way that it appears on the medieval maps and in numerous geographical descriptions. There is occasional confusion as to the identity of the Jor. The pilgrim Fretellus, for example, refers to the Dan joining with the Yor under Gilboa, thus apparently referring to the Yarmuk River, although the confluence of those two rivers is in fact several kilometres to the north of the Gilboa range. However, he also records that not far from Banias the Jor becomes a lake, apparently Lake Hula) which is far to the north.[1]

William of Tyre writes: "...between Tiberias and Scythopolis, formerly called Bethsan, runs the river Dan on its way to unite with the Jordan"[2] The Jor and Dan appear in the account of John of Joinville, who participated in Louis IX's crusade in the mid-thirteenth century:

There is within the city [Banias] a beautiful fountain named Le Jour, and on the plain before the place, another fine spring, called Dain. From these two springs issue rivulets, which unite at some distance and form the river Jordan, in which our Lord Jesus Christ was baptized.[3]

The Jordan River on Matthew Paris' map of Acre and the Holy Land - British Library - Royal MS 14 C VII, ff. 4r-5r, public domain

Even in the Middle Ages when none of its flow was diverted, the Jordan could not have amounted to much. Nonetheless, thanks to its biblical past it gets fairly good press. It had another name in medieval sources. In documents of the Regesta Regni Hierosolymitani it is referred to as the River of the Devil, and this name seems to come for it emptying into the Dead Sea which is occasionally called the Sea of the Devil.[4] And it gave its name to the stretch of land to its east, a region that for a fair part of the Crusader period fell within Frankish control and was known as Oulrejourdain. This lordship extended on the eastern side of the Dead Sea and south as far as the Bay of Aqaba and through it ran the Hajj route from Damascus to the Red Sea and Mecca. It was a frontier region, distant from Frankish centres and largely austere and barren. Even the more fertile parts in its north were only sparsely settled by Franks and there was a tenacious hold on those more watered parts of the south where small agricultural settlements were defended by a few scattered, though significant fortresses.

The Jordan is more than a river. It is a concept. It has been so throughout history, whether in the bible as a crossing point and an entry into a Promised Land or, as in the narrative and song of the Afro-American slaves who had never seen it, but for whom it signified liberation, achieved either through emancipation or death. But for the Frankish settlers and for medieval pilgrims the river was something else. It had sanctity of course - particularly as the place of Baptism, but by-and-large its significance was more prosaic. For them the river perhaps conjured up something closer to what it would later represent for Jews resettling in the Holy Land in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - it was a place of danger, a borderland, demarcating what was possessed and what was disputed and constituted a threat:

This river divides the land of the Saracens and of the Christians, just as it runs. The land of the Christians is on this side, and its name is Land of Promise, and that of the Saracens is named Arabia.[5]

1. Fretellus [Fetellus], Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 5, trans. James Rose Macpherson, London, 1896, pp. 27-28.

2. William of Tyre, Chronicon, English transl. Emily A. Babcock and A.C. Krey, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, vol. 2, New York, 1943, p. 27.

3. John of Joinville, Chronicles of the Crusades, ed. Henry G. Bohm, London and New York, p. 498.

4. Regesta regni Hierosolymitani, nos. 80, 90 (see Revised Regesta regni Hierosolymitani - nos. 158, 195); Ernoul, The City of Jerusalem, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 6, trans. Claude R. Conder, London, 1896, p. 55.

5. Ibid., Ernoul, p. 50.

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