MY NAME is Da'ud, says the khaki-clad guide, his swarthy features scrunched up as he squints in the bright sun. Then he adds: 'But you can call me David.'
My ears prick up at his unique introduction. After all, this is Jordan, where the bulk of its 5.5 million people are Muslim. But no one among the huddle of 10 tourists bats an eyelid, as we begin an hour-long visit to the site where Jesus was said to be baptised.
Faith and hope: At the Baptism site in Jordan, the Blue Star of David flies high on the opposite bank of the river, which is the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Indeed, I had a similar experience the day before at Mount Nebo, where the prophet Moses is said to have died and been buried. It has remains of tombs, a church built in the 4th century and a beautifully preserved mosaic floor depicting pastoral and hunting scenes.
Like the Baptism site, the signs explaining the significance of individual monuments were in Arabic. The caretaker, slouched in a chair at the entrance to the church, was a Muslim. So were some of the archaeologists who worked on both sites, we were told.
The conclusion I come to, on this last day of my week-long trip there, is that Islam and Christianity have found a comfortable co-existence in this kingdom. It is a heartening realisation.
The Baptism site I am visiting is about 45 minutes from Jordan's capital, Amman. The site, east of the Jordan River, was only fully uncovered over 10 years ago, following a 1994 peace treaty Jordan signed with Israel. There are remains of baptism pools, small churches, caves and a prayer hall, built by pilgrims who flocked to the site from before the 4th century.
The group wanders around, taking in the muted chirping of birds and the hushed gurgling of the river. Some dip their hands into the river's icy-cold water. Barely 50m away is the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where the blue star of David flies high.
Jordan offers a host of other options beyond biblical history. It is also an easy country to visit: Almost everyone speaks some English, getting around by taxi is easy and people are helpful and friendly.
About an hour away from Amman are The Dead Sea resorts, and the town of Madaba. These are good places to base yourself should you want to visit Mount Nebo, the Baptism site and, further south, the ancient city of Petra and the desert landscape of Wadi Rum.
Be prepared to spend if you want to stay at The Dead Sea. There are only four- and five-star hotels there. I spend three nights at the newly completed five-star Kempinski Hotel, on the shorefront.
Before I venture to the beach one morning, I am warned by the staff not to put my head underwater. I take a dip, and realise why. Contact with the oily waters of the Dead Sea, with a salt content of some 35 per cent, will make your eyes smart and every cut on your body sting.
For the close to two million tourists who visit The Dead Sea each year, tradition requires them to smother themselves in sulphur-rich seafloor mud, available in vats on the beach. You slap it on, wait for it to dry and then rub it off in the water. It is supposed to give you smoother skin. The mud treatment is also available in the hotel spas, along with facials and massages using Dead Sea products.
Salt spa: Writer Lynn Lee (behind) taking a dip in the Dead Sea with a friend.
The nearby town of Madaba is best known for its mosaic map of the Holy Land from the Byzantine ages. It is on the floor of St George's Church, a small, cramped building to which tourists throng on weekdays and where church services are conducted over the weekend.
Madaba's other draw is its range of food options - unlike The Dead Sea, where your only choices are hotel restaurants. You can buy shawarma (a sandwich with shaved lamb) and falafel (fried mashed chickpea patties) for 1 to 2 Jordanian dinars (S$2.20 to S$4.40).
But you can also go to the popular Al Saraya restaurant to try Arabic specialities like the mezzes, which include grilled haloumi cheese, fattoush (arugula salad) and baba ghannouj (eggplant dip). A meal is unlikely to set you back more than JD10.
A cheap and clean place to spend the night is the Mariam Hotel (www.mariamhotel.com), a 10-minute walk from the town centre. Current rates are from US$30 (about S$45) for one person.
South of Madaba down the King's Highway are the natural wonders of Petra and Wadi Rum. It is a good idea to visit both sites together. You can spend a day and night in Wadi Rum and head to Petra the next day.
Wadi Rum covers 720 sq km (about the size of Singapore) of desert landscape, with valleys and rocky mountains rising up from the sand floor. It was the setting of the award-winning film Lawrence Of Arabia.
Night in the desert under the stars
Tourists can explore it by foot, jeep, camel or horse. Trekking is also an option. You can sign up for tours either at the Visitor's Centre or before you arrive by looking for tour guides online.
Many of these guides are Bedouins, an ancient semi-nomadic tribe that still spends most of its time in the desert. But they speak perfect English, have access to computers and mobile phones, and will reply to your requests speedily.
If you want to spend the night, sleep in a Bedouin tent or camp under the stars. Make sure you have warm clothing because the desert temperature falls drastically at night.
I had limited time so I picked a jeep tour that lasted barely four hours. The highlight was a visit to a Bedouin tent, where I was served steaming-hot mint tea while I warmed my hands over a crackling fire.
ROCK STAR: The Treasury in Petra has a rock facade that is said to have been created by a pharaoh who deposited his riches in an urn at the top.
An hour away from the desert is Petra, a 2,000-year-old city that was once the centre of a bustling commercial empire extending into Syria. It is now a World Heritage site, with about 800 monuments amid rose-red sandstone hills.
Follow the 1km-long Siq gorge into the city and gaze in awe at the rock facade known as the Treasury. It is said to have been created by a pharaoh who deposited his riches in an urn at the top.
Further in are a massive theatre, tombs and monuments like the High Place of Sacrifice, a platform where religious ceremonies used to be held.
My last stop, Amman, is a city of rolling hills and a mix of ancient cultural sites, monuments and modern housing. There is the sprawling Mecca Mall, which sells everything from clothes to dates to household goods. Antiques and art galleries are abundant.
A must-visit is the Citadel, a hilltop site with impressive Roman ruins and a museum with artefacts from the Iron and Bronze ages. If anything, it gives visitors a sense of Amman's age - people have settled there for the past 9,000 years.
Finally, the uptown neighbourhood of Shmeisani is a good place to kick back and relax. Linger over mint tea or sludgy Arabic coffee, often accompanied by a hubbly-bubbly (Turkish water pipe). Then wish you could linger forever.
5 things to do
1 Dress conservatively. Sure, the Jordanian women are togged out in modern fashions but showing too much skin by wearing short skirts, for instance, is unacceptable.
2 Check out El-Pasha, Amman's lone hammam (Turkish spa), which opens till midnight on most days. It is a huge, steamy room, shared by both men and women during certain hours of the day. For JD20 (S$44), you will be lathered, scrubbed, steamed and kneaded with olive oil for about 11/2 hours.
3 Buy Dead Sea products, olive oil, olives and dates. These are relatively cheap and make great presents.
4 Get a tour guide. Mr Osama Twal (tel: 07-95575989) is based in Madaba and conducts trips for groups to Petra or Wadi Rum. If you are lucky, he might drive you to a place some 10 minutes outside Madaba, where you can buy fresh, cold-pressed olive oil at around JD5 a litre. Remember to carry an empty bottle with you.
5 Do your research. A useful site is www.jordanjubilee.com
1 Don't forget to check opening times, especially if you are there during Ramadan. Weekends in Jordan start on Friday and end on Saturday.
2 Don't offer to shake hands with a Jordanian man if you are a woman, unless he makes the first move. Many of them, especially older ones, avoid touching a woman if she is not related to them.