Jordan’s baptism site: Completing the Holy Land

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Originally published at The Jerusalem Post

In 1873 the British surveyor, explorer and soldier Claude Conder was in the Jericho area exploring for ruins. “I rode day by day over almost every acre of ground between Jericho and the Dead Sea. The whole is white desert, except near the hills, where rich herbage grows after the rains.” There was no grass, it was January. “In all that plain I found no ruin, except the old monastery of Saint John and a little hermit’s cave, and it seems probable that no other ruins will be found.”

More than 140 years after Conder was so discouraged by his failure to find much of anything, the Jordan Valley is bustling with activity. Cities like Jericho have blossomed along it, as have innumerable villages and towns on both sides of the river. Resorts now dot the Dead Sea. Tourists are flocking to the region from all over the world. The single largest attraction in the last few years has been a quiet site on the bank of the small muddy Jordan River, a site that commemorates the baptism of Jesus.

On July 3 the 21 countries sitting on the UNESCO World Heritage Committee unanimously voted to declare the Jordanian site on the river a World Heritage Site. Visitors flocking to both sides of the river to commemorate the baptism now number more than half a million a year, meaning the place is one of the single largest draws for tourism in Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. It is best to see the Jordan River as part of a region, not a border, argues engineer Rustom Mkhjian, the assistant commission director of the baptism site in Jordan.

“We truly believe religion has no borders. It is a reminder there were no borders here at that time. One of the oldest maps shows Jerusalem as the center and shows Jordan and Syria and up to the Red Sea and Egypt. “Unfortunately, some people think the Holy Land is just west of the Jordan [River], and we want the world to know [that] this is an integral part of the Holy Land. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Jesus’s last days were in Jerusalem. But Christianity started here.” Mkhjian is a thin Armenian Christian who speaks almost as incessantly as he smokes. We are sitting in his air-conditioned office in a small squat building in Jordan, a few kilometers from the river. Mkhjian and his commission rule over a small preserve – around 14 square kilometers of desert and scrub brush – that abuts the river. Around 3 sq.km. make up the UNESCO site. He has a skeleton staff.

The building has posters for other tourist attractions in Jordan such as Umm Qais and Petra. Another wall shows the dozens of famous dignitaries, including the pope, royals such as Prince Charles, and various heads of churches who have visited the baptism site. Mkhjian appears in some of them.

A view of the Jordan river valley and churches near the baptism site (Seth J. Frantzman)

A view of the Jordan river valley and churches near the baptism site (Seth J. Frantzman)

An engineer by training, he studied in England, and in Rome became an expert in monument restoration. He still recalls that people in Europe didn’t always know where the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is. “When I studied in Britain my girlfriend had not heard of Jordan, but people had heard of King Hussein.” Mkhjian returned to his country in the 1980s and has worked in the antiquities department since 1986. “When the archeological team came down here, I was doing rescue preservation works.” He was familiar with the baptism site, but the River Jordan was a site of conflict. After the 1967 war the area around the river was heavily mined and there were clashes between the Israeli army, Palestinian groups and the Jordanian army. As time went on an uneasy quiet set in, and in 1994 Israel and Jordan signed a peace agreement. “In 1997 the digs began,” recalls Mkhjian. “This had been a closed military area and Jordan had to de-mine the area before archeologists could come here. They knew the importance of the site.”

The site found patronage from the Jordanian royal family. Soon after the treaty was signed Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, cousin of today’s King Abdullah II, was on a visit to Mount Nebo, which overlooks the Jordan Valley when he met a Franciscan monk and archeologist named Father Michele Piccirillo. The prince had a deep interest in religious history and the monk convinced him to take a look around the area of what was thought to be the baptism site. When they found evidence of ruins, that was enough to convince the prince to encourage de-mining and further development. “The site is still a baby,” says Mkhjian.  The managers of the area believe it has a message for peace and tolerance in the region.

“I was originally a civil engineer. Although I knew bridges, here bridges of peace are built. Badly needed today, too. So I think it is a blessing for me to be at this site,” says Mkhjian. Director Dia al-Madani agrees. “When you talk about religion, forget about politics and geography. It is located in Jordan, but it doesn’t belong to Jordan but to all of the world, Christians, Jews, Muslims – to avoid these wars of competition.” The Jordanians want to avoid the word “competition.” The managers of the site feel they have been impugned in the media since the UNESCO recognition, as if somehow they are “competing” with the Israelis to draw tourists to the Jordan River. Most of the coverage in July described it as a kind of victory for the kingdom. “UN backs Jordan’s claim on site where Jesus was baptized,” wrote Ishaan Tharoor at The Washington Post. A story in the Associated Press that particularly bothered the Jordanians notes: “UNESCO backs Jordan as Jesus’ baptism site as debate goes on.” “We don’t compete, we complete each other’s Holy Land,” says Mkhjian.

A map of the Jordanian side of the Jordan (Seth J. Frantzman)

A map of the Jordanian side of the Jordan (Seth J. Frantzman)

A University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill archeologist told reporters that the issue has “nothing to do with archeological reality…. We don’t have any sites with any evidence of archeological remains that were continuously venerated from the first century on.” The baptism of Jesus took place in the water, and it was not until many years afterward that pilgrimage tradition began to commemorate it, so there is little reason one would expect to find archeological evidence from the period.

What’s interesting is that even though media outlets portrayed the Jordanians as “winning their claim,” the UNESCO petition itself says nothing of competing claims to the same site. Included in a tentative list at the initiative of the kingdom, the site is noted under the name “Baptism Site, Bethany Beyond the Jordan-Al-Maghtas.”

The site is described as containing two archeological areas, one at Tell el- Kharrar, also known as Jabal Mar Elias, and the area of the churches of St. John the Baptist. “The property is believed to be the location where Jesus of Nazareth was baptized by John the Baptist and is a popular pilgrimage destination,” the petition states.

The Jordanian petition was reviewed by the International Council on Monuments and Sites, a professional body located in Paris which advises UNESCO. ICOMOS noted that “the property best represents the tradition of baptism, an important sacrament in Christian faith, and with it the continuous practice of pilgrimage to the site. This tradition is illustrated by the archeological evidence, which references the practice of baptism since the 4th century, a practice that is continued again at the present time.”

What is most interesting is the note “ICOMOS considers that the claims concerning the authenticity of the site as the baptism site of Jesus or the locations of Elijah’s ascension cannot be confirmed from an archeological point of view but have been accepted by the majority of Christian [denominations], which seems more relevant for the historic and present practice of the cultural tradition.” The conclusion was that the site has attributes of “outstanding universal value” and that there are archeological remains that associate it with the practice of pilgrimage, hermit life and religious veneration.

There was no mention of “competition” or objection from the Israeli side or the Palestinians, who now have delegations at UNESCO. This is because the Israeli side of the Jordan River is not inside the Green Line, and Israel could not lay claim to a “world heritage site” which is located in territory the international community does not recognize as part of Israel. Similarly the PA does not administer the western side of the Jordan and has no way to petition UNESCO to recognize “its side.” Those interviewed for this article on both sides of the Jordan, including government authorities who would not provide official responses, noted that there was no dispute or contest over the site. One official in Israel noted: “I wouldn’t make much of it. There was no feeling that ‘it’s not fair’; we got Beit She’arim in the last UNESCO vote,” noting that UNESCO added the Israeli site in the Lower Galilee to its list this year as well.

IT WAS an outrageously hot day when we took a tour of the Jordanian site. A group from an American NGO that provides assistance to sites like this was also on the tour, a reminder that Mkhjian’s operation survives on a bare-bones budget. Usually visitors not on an organized tour of the site must park a distance away in a sun-bleached parking lot and await a shuttle bus that leaves every 30 minutes and does a circular route to see the area. The entrance fee is 12 dinars for foreigners, three dinars for Jordanians.

We piled into Mkhjian’s black Toyota Hilux, which he lauds as the best of the various vehicles he’s used over the years. “When you have a UNESCO site, there is the property and the buffer zone,” he explains. In the distance we can see the towers of several new churches still under construction. “The new churches are in the buffer zone.” Here is the area where Elijah reputedly ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire. As it says in II Kings 2:11, “he went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” Commemorated as a Jewish prophet, Elijah, or Elias in Arabic, is also important in Christian and Muslim traditions.

The commemoration of Elijah’s ascent to heaven reminds us that so much of the western side of the Jordan is a mirror image of the east. There is a Bethany next to Jerusalem, and a Bethany beyond the Jordan on the eastern side. The city of Sodom that God destroyed may have existed on either side of the Dead Sea. Some believe Lot escaped into the caves in Tall el-Hammam, northeast of the Dead Sea, after the destruction. Elijah, whose works are so closely connected to Mount Carmel, is also commemorated in Jordan. Even Moses, who reputedly saw the Holy Land from Mount Nebo, is considered by Muslims to be buried at Nebi Musa, on the road to Jerusalem. When pope John Paul II came to this site in Jordan, he stood under a stone arch. “I will keep all the people of Jordan, Christians and Muslims, in my prayers, especially the sick and the elderly.” Today a large mosaic commemorates the pope’s visit, as well as the work of Piccirillo in aiding excavations and identification at the place. An explanatory note at the site mentions that John the Baptist “came in the spirit and strength of Elijah,” and that he lived in a cave near the present hill and “baptized believers in the spring nearby. Jesus visited John in this cave many times and a church was built around the cave in the Byzantine period.”

Eritrean men enter the Jordan River on the Israeli side (Seth J. Frantzman)

Eritrean men enter the Jordan River on the Israeli side (Seth J. Frantzman)

The site, under the blistering sun, includes a wooden walkway where visitors can see the old baptism pool, a church from the 5th century and the remains of the Rhoturios Byzantine monastery. Mkhjian notes that the pathways they built of wood cost only $10,000. Even the money they received years ago from USAID to develop the site, he notes, went into road building around the preserve. “Money is not the solution for sites like this; we kept it simple.” The concept was not to reconstruct, as was done in Jerash where 90 percent of the Roman city was rebuilt, but to show what was found. The big word in restoration is “reversible”; the wooden structures they built can be dismantled, unlike cement, which is permanent.

“We can see here the cave where John the Baptist lived and the pools in the reeds where he baptized the people.” However, the churches that once dominated the landscape were destroyed by earthquakes that plague the Jordan Rift Valley. Mkhjian thinks that eventually the baptism site will outpace Petra as Jordan’s largest tourist attraction. “We could reach one million visitors [a year] by 2025.” However, the statistics his commission keeps on file show a dismal decline. They reached a quarter of a million visitors a year in 2011, the year of the Arab Spring. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February 2011. The drop in tourism at the baptism site began almost immediately. First it was a 7% decline and then 40%. Whereas in 2010 they had 25,000 a month, only 3,039 came in June of 2015. The majority of tourists are from Europe, and they estimate it is about 40% Catholics and 40% Greek Orthodox, with the other 20% being made up of Protestant denominations and those like Armenians and Copts.

Hajjara Awad, who has worked as a tour guide for most of the last decade and tailors biblical tours for tourists, notes that most people have heard of Petra in Jordan, but he hopes that with the UNESCO recognition, the baptism site’s tourism potential will increase. Nevertheless, fears of spillover from the Syrian Civil War and terrorism by groups such as Islamic State make tourists fearful. “Jordan is safe,” says Awad. “The media has a big affect [on the tourism decline]. People think Syria is just across the street, but there is a great distance.” He argues that Jordanians themselves are keen on security. “Every Jordanian considers himself a policeman; they take responsibility. If they see something suspicious, they report it.” Our little tour group makes its way from the site of John the Baptist’s cave toward the Jordan River. Perched on a hill overlooking the site are several churches. Lutheran, Armenian and Coptic churches have been mostly completed. Each represents the architectural tradition of its home. The Armenian one has a round shape, while the Coptic one has a giant tower. Each church also seems to represent the relative wealth or lack thereof of the home country.

Orthodox Church constructed in 2003 at the river Jordan (Seth J. Frantzman)

Orthodox Church constructed in 2003 at the river Jordan (Seth J. Frantzman)

The Coptic church, for instance, has never been completed and looks like a ghostly cement hulk. The cornerstone for a Syrian church was laid in 2013, and the Ethiopians have a plot of land as well. A Maronite church is also in the plans. All this is a reminder that although part of the site closer to the river is the property of a wakf or religious endowment owned by the Orthodox Church, the Jordanians have been generously providing plots of land to the other faiths for use as churches. As we drive down the sandy bluffs into the actual valley of the river, where greenery abounds, there is a small structure to the left. “That is an Islamic shrine to Jesus,” notes Mkhjian. He emphasizes that Jordan has used the site to showcase its tolerance. “The continuing building of churches is an example of the harmony; Muslims see this as examples of Muslims taking care of a Christian site, which is not happening elsewhere.”

Madani agrees. “We are here to protect this place in a Muslim country; the king’s family line goes back to Muhammad. They are the ones who pushed to go to UNESCO, to protect Christianity in the land of Jordan, the land of peace and love and co-living. The land of all. The land of peace for everyone.” Awad adds that the baptism site is not the only pilgrimage site; there are also Mount Nebo, a site near Ajlun, and the site in the Jordan Valley where John the Baptist was beheaded. The veteran tour guide also explains that our conception of Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River is a misconception. “In the old days the river was 40 meters wide. It comes down 1,100 meters above sea level [from its sources in the north] to 400 meters below sea level [where it enters the Dead Sea], so it was going fast and no one could cross it. “In the old days they would use tributaries of the river, or pools when it floods; it fills up various branches around it, and Jesus was baptized in one of these dead-end [estuaries] not far from the river itself.”

The Jordanian site makes tourists experience the kind of privation Jesus or Elijah might have found here. Although Mkhjian was nice enough to pile us onto a golf cart to drive down to the Jordan River, most tourists must disembark at a parking lot near a Greek church and amble down to the river.

There are several things to see on the way, including the ruins of the Laura of St. Mary the Egyptian. Mary reputedly ran away from her home in the fourth century and worked as a prostitute in Alexandria. Even on pilgrimage to Jerusalem she traded sexual services along the way to fund her journey. Denied entry to the Holy Sepulchre by an unseen force, she retired to the Jordan Valley to live out her days as a hermit.

The Jordanians have several baptism sites on offer, depending on the inclination of the pilgrim. Some are drawn to the handsome Greek Orthodox church dedicated in 2003 that is opposite the baptism site on the Israeli-Palestinian side. Here a Jordanian soldier stands guard over the river, and a light armored SUV sits in the shade.

Across the small muddy Jordan dozens of Eritrean pilgrims were baptizing their children. Wearing white robes soaked in the water, they bobbed back and forth as two IDF soldiers looked on. It would be easy to swim across by mistake, if not for a small net that keeps baptizers on their respective sides. “You see, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church recognizes this side, but they go to the Israeli side,” pointed out Mkhjian.  Outside, the terribly hot air was making our clothes cling to us with sweat, as though we had gone into the river.

We were shown the reputed bones of a priest that are displayed in the cool air of the Orthodox church. “When they celebrate Epiphany 10,000 Greek Orthodox come here,” said the guide. Not far away are more uncovered ruins of an ancient monastery, one of the few truly impressive ruins. At the bottom of a muddy incline are four giant stones, so that the water between them forms a cross. “In 1999 we began this excavation….This is where the spring runs and meets the Jordan. We found the chapel with a typical Byzantine vault system and this cruciform.” One of the Jordanians with us remarks that compared to the new roads and new construction on the Israeli side, which is a kind of “Disneyland,” this side of the river remains pure; simply dirt paths and revealed archeology. “Heritage belongs to humanity, take good care of it and help us preserve it,” reads a sign with a quote attributed to “his majesty King Hussein Bin Talal.” It’s clear that there is a quiet feeling that the Israelis made their site too accessible with a nice road and paving and building stone steps. It is “too easy” to be a pilgrim to the Israeli side.

A Jordanian-American family at the baptism site near the new Catholic hostel being built (Seth J. Frantzman)

A Jordanian-American family at the baptism site near the new Catholic hostel being built (Seth J. Frantzman)

One of the disputes the Jordanians are facing is how to develop places for pilgrims to stay. The Russian Orthodox Church has built a large “pilgrims’ residence” near the river, next to a more private baptismal area. When we went there a group of Jordanian-Americans were baptizing their young sons. The pretty white-painted Russian hostel with its golden domes has around 50 rooms for rent. There were ideas to develop hotels near the site, but Mkhjian notes he “thanks God” that his commission was able to preserve the site without large accommodations and shops.

However, the Catholic Church is building a large building next to the Russian residence that could accommodate 1,000 pilgrims, supposedly. But Mkhjian wants change to move slowly. “We are here to protect it. It’s so peaceful here at night. You are walking where Jesus and Elijah walked and it is important to keep this landscape as it was. The theme is the spiritual values for this area. We want [pilgrims] to feel the site, not just to see remains.”

IT IS another hot August day, one of the hottest recorded in recent memory in the Jordan Valley. An Israeli tour guide is trying to keep his sleepy and sweaty American audience awake as they sit on the steps of the western side of the Jordan. “I spent many nights here on reserve duty in the army. It was just after 1967 and we would be here watching for Palestinian terrorists every month.”

For him the place has melancholy meaning. “I had a friend who was a kibbutznik, and he was going to get married. We got an order to go to Jordan and fight the Palestinians, and I told him to stay, due to the marriage, and he said he would not leave me alone.” His friend was responsible for manning the .50 caliber machine gun atop their armored vehicle and he didn’t want to leave his friends to fight and die without him. “He was killed not far from here in battle that night and buried on Mount Herzl. So this place was really a place of war; we had operations here and songs about it, and Jordanians and Palestinians died. Now it is peaceful and you can’t recognize it; it is so quiet, and now we have a kind of peace, not a full peace, but this is amazing – to see how quiet it is.”

The tour guide noted that the Israeli side had only recently been opened and “not so many people know about it, so we don’t have thousands of people here, but in a few years it will be the main attraction, more than the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.”

The Israeli and Palestinian side’s site is complicated by the fact that it cannot be advertised as an official Israeli tourist site abroad, since it is considered to be in occupied territory.

Nevertheless, the Israeli government has invested in developing pilgrimage facilities at what is called Qasr el-Yahud. The concept is to provide pilgrims easy and comfortable access, including changing facilities and bathrooms. Around NIS 8 million has been invested according to the Tourism Ministry. It is run by cooperation between the civil administration and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and there is active consultation with the Jordanian authorities. Unlike the Jordanian side, entrance is free of charge.

For many years, since the 1980s, the place that Christian pilgrims went for baptism was at Yardenit at the southern tip of the Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), which claims that over half a million tourists and pilgrims visit it every year.

The opening of the pilgrimage site on the eastern side of the Jordan in 2011 by the IDF increased the options for pilgrims. The Israeli side was initially supposed to open around the year 2000, coincidentally the year John Paul II made his pilgrimage to the Jordanian side and put it on the map. (Since then, two more popes have visited the Jordanian side.) Driving up to Qasr el-Yahud, one drives past the Saint Gerasimos monastery, known in Arabic as Deir Hajla and in Greek as Mar Yohanna Hajla. This was one of 15 monasteries located in the area in Byzantine times. When Conder went there in the 1870s, he found one Greek monk sent down from Mar Saba to guard the ruins. By 1882 a new monastery was being built, he noted, and the monks had “deliberately scraped off all the frescoes” he had seen years before. Now the Greek Orthodox Church is building a giant amphitheater to overlook the Jordan River from the monastery, called Alexander the Great Macedonian Theater.

The several-kilometer drive to the Jordan River passes through barren desert. After crossing the military fence, there are yellow signs warning of mines on both sides. In the distance one can see the ruins of the Ethiopian and Coptic churches that hosted pilgrims here before 1967. A Greek church is being refurbished.

Like its Jordanian counterpart the Israeli side is a bare-bones operation, with just a few employees present, two soldiers and a small shop. When the site first opened in 2011, around 135,000 people visited it. Last year the number climbed to 466,000, of whom around 10% were Israelis and Palestinian locals. The majority of tourists in the past year were from Russia. The Russian government Orthodox authorities have been investing heavily in the area. On Epiphany around 18,000 pilgrims come to the river.

This is a far cry from the late 19th century, when the peak reached a maximum of 13,000 a year. In nearby Jericho the Russians have invested in a new Russian center and museum, recently opened. Now pilgrims make their way from Jericho to the Jordan. In 2014 according to the Tourism Ministry, there were 251,100 Christian tourists from Russia, a number rivaled only by the 262,800 American Christians. It was at Qasr el-Yahud that the Jewish tribes reputedly crossed the river to lay waste to Jericho under Joshua. It was here that the Prophet Elisha told Naaman the leper: “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee and thou shalt be clean.” Today the river is providing a more prosaic tourism pull to both Israel, the PA and Jordan.

If the statements of all those involved with the baptism sites are to be believed, they are a symbol of coexistence, tolerance and a bridge completing the Holy Land pilgrimage. For tourists, the actual bridge will have to wait, because crossing back and forth at the nearby Allenby Bridge is a time-consuming, expensive and frustrating experience. But Mkhjian is hopeful for the future. “I am still looking for the remains of the [ancient] bridge that once connected the two sides of the Jordan, even though the huge floods that periodically inundate the river likely destroyed it.”

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