Jordan baptism site magnet to visitors
Southern Shuneh - On the eastern bank of the Jordan river lies a site where John the Baptist is believed to have baptised Jesus.
For decades, al-maghtas, Arabic for the “baptism” site, was thought to be on the western side of the biblical river in the West Bank and under Israeli military rule.
However, Arab Christian theologians, aided by historians and archaeologists, determined in the late 1990s that the baptismal site was instead on the Jordanian side in a biblical area called “Bethany”. Other biblical references had it as “Bethany Beyond the Jordan”, pointing to the eastern bank of the Jordan river.
Indeed, Bethany existed all those years in modern-day Jordan, commonly known by its Arabic name Beit Enya on the banks of the Jordan.
Excavations in the area unearthed remains of what is believed to have been an ancient church, a water system for irrigation and drinking and even a shelter said to be where Prophet Elijah lived. Churches and rest houses have since been built on the site.
However, disputes arose with Israel over the exact location of the site. Both countries, bound by diplomatic ties and close security cooperation under a peace treaty, compete for tourism on the river.
The controversy swelled in 2000, when the Vatican announced the site as part of Christian pilgrimage areas. That year, Pope John Paul II visited, making the Vatican’s recognition of the site official. His two successors have visited since — Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 and Pope Francis in 2014.
In July, the UN cultural agency UNESCO officially designated the baptism site on the Jordanian side part of its World Heritage list.
Scholars insist it is difficult to ascertain where Jesus was baptised.
“We don’t have any sites with evidence or archaeological remains that were continuously venerated from the first century on,” said Jodi Magness, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
But tourists seem content to be in an area Jesus once strolled.
“I’m in the Jordan river, in Bethany, where Jesus was and this is all that matters to me,” said Jean Zadioca of San Diego, California.
The Greek Orthodox tourist, who travelled to Jordan with friends recently to be baptised again, said the “area is so holy.”
“It’s simply breathtaking,” she said.
The Bible’s New Testament, in Matthew Chapter 3, says when Jesus left the river after being baptised, the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended as a dove and alighted upon him. A voice from the heavens said: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”
The baptism site is less than an hour drive west of Amman. It is near the mouth of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth.
The overall area is rich with history. A nearby mountain, overlooking the baptism site and the Dead Sea, is Mount Nebo, where tradition says Moses saw the Promised Land, a reference to the biblical Judea and Samaria or what is known as the West Bank.
Further down on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea is believed to be where the ancient kingdoms of Sodom and Gomorrah lie under water.
The Jordan baptism site draws pilgrims, mostly Christian, from across the world. That includes Russian President Vladimir Putin, who inaugurated a house for pilgrims that belongs to the Orthodox Church on June 27, 2012.
However, the number of visitors to the baptism site has been decreasing because of tensions and wars in the region. Official figures show that 3.7 million tourists visited Jordan between January and September, compared with 5.3 million in all of 2014 and 8.1 million before the “Arab spring” revolutions in 2010.
Dia Madani, director of the Baptism Commission, an independent board of trustees, said 10,500 visitors travelled to the baptism site from January through May of 2014, compared with 7,300 in the same period in 2015. He said visitors were mostly from Europe and North and South America.
“The 44% decline in the visitor numbers is due to the political situation surrounding us,” Madani said.
From a biblical perspective, the site Saphsapha, which is portrayed on a sixth-century mosaic of the Holy Land is the same site of Wadi al-Kharrar, which lies east of the Jordan river in Bethany.
Local archaeologists say at the start of Wadi al-Kharrar, near a monastic complex, pilgrims could climb Jabal Mar Elias, the hill where the Prophet Elijah is said to have ascended into heaven. The site includes a sanctuary, which attracted Christian pilgrims.
Abbot Daniel, a Russian pilgrim who visited in 1661, wrote: “Not far away from the river, at a distance of two arrow throws, is the place where the Prophet Elijah was taken into Heaven in a chariot of fire. There is also the grotto of St John the Baptist. A beautiful strong fast stream full of water flows over the stones. The water is very cold, has a very good taste and is the water that John drank.”