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Bethany: the Baptism Site

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One of the most important recent discoveries in Middle Eastern archeology has been the identification of a site on the east bank of the River Jordan, near the Dead Sea, as Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, the place where John the Baptist lived, and where he most likely baptized Jesus Christ. Archeologists have uncovered a wealth of sites – 21 at the last count – along Wadi Kharrar, a small side-valley of reeds and flowing water that runs for 2km from its source down to the River Jordan. These discoveries – eleven Byzantine churches, five baptismal pools from the Roman and Byzantine periods, caves of monks and hermits, and lodges for pilgrims – plus a wealth of medieval accounts of pilgrims and travellers to the area, rapidly convinced both Jordanian and international opinion as to the veracity of the site.

This is almost the lowest point on earth, over 350m below sea level; the air is thick, hot and heavy. On the banks of the Wadi Kharrar, you’re in the midst of the biblical Plains of Moab; views across the baked ground, punctuated by the occasional wizened tree, enable you to pick out individual buildings and cars in the Palestinian city of Jericho, across what is now an international border. Underfoot is a soft, chalky marl that seems to deaden sound; only when you get close to Wadi Kharrar itself can you hear the chirping of birds and the soughing of the dense beds of reeds and tamarisk that line the watercourse. Flanking the River Jordan itself is a jungle-like thicket, tropically hot and humid – more akin to Southeast than Southwest Asia.

Visiting outside winter (Nov–Feb) means that you’ll have to cope with scorching temperatures, often topping 45°C in summer. The best advice is to arrive at 8am and explore in the relative cool of the morning. There can also be lots of flies. Nonetheless, for its historical resonance, natural austerity and religious power, this is an extraordinary place.

Biblical accounts of the Baptism Site

This stretch of desolate plain flanking the River Jordan has been a focus for spirituality since Old Testament times: Judaism, Christianity and Islam all recall momentous events which took place in this relatively small part of the southern Jordan Valley. The first mention is in Genesis, when Lot separated from Abraham and “chose the plain of Jordan” to pitch his tents, after which Jacob wrestled with God a little way north at Penuel. A sizeable proportion of the Book of Numbers is set at the Israelites’ camp, “pitched in the plains of Moab by Jordan opposite Jericho”, following which Moses delivers a long address in Deuteronomy before going up “from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo”, where he died. Joshua led the tribes across the river, which miraculously halted its flow, an event mirrored centuries later in 2 Kings, when the prophets Elijah and Elisha again stopped the flow of the river, as a chariot and horses of fire took Elijah up to heaven – according to ancient tradition, from the rounded hillock alongside Wadi Kharrar now known as Tell Mar Elyas (Elijah’s Hill).

It was because of the associations with the prophet Elijah that, a thousand years later, John, an ascetic holy man with a prophetic vision, took up residence near the same hillock, using the numerous small springs of sweet water to symbolically cleanse people of sin; locals soon flocked to this John the Baptist. Most biblical mentions describe the baptisms taking place “in Jordan”, which probably referred loosely to this general area. The River Jordan, which often flooded to a width of 1km or more, would have been deep and rapid (in Aramaic, yardeen – from which “Jordan” is derived – means “fast-flowing water”), offering no easy access from the often steep bank. By contrast, the dozens of tiny side-springs, some of which rise within pools barely 100m from the river, are protected and more manageable as immersion points.

The Gospel of St John mentions “Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, where John was baptizing”; the spot – unconnected with Bethany near Jerusalem – was also known as Bethabara or Beit-Abara, “the House of the Crossing-Point”. A later account says that Jesus “returned again across the Jordan to the place where John had first started baptizing”. There is no explicit mention of when or where John baptized Jesus, but the accumulated weight of tradition and historical evidence places it in or near Wadi Kharrar, with plentiful supplies of spring water, alongside the Roman road between Jericho and Nebo (thereby within easy reach of potential converts), but far enough out of reach to mean that John could criticize King Herod with impunity.

Pilgrim accounts of the Baptism Site

As early as 333 AD, the anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux identified the site of Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan as lying five Roman miles (just under 7.5km) north of the Dead Sea, corresponding almost exactly to the point where the Wadi Kharrar enters the river: “here is a place by the river, a little hill on the far bank, where Elijah was caught up into heaven”. From then on, many ancient texts mention several churches in the same area dedicated to John the Baptist and Elijah. The sixth-century pilgrim Theodosius described the riverside “Church of St John, which the emperor Anastasius built [in about 500 AD]; this church is very lofty, being built above chambers on account of the flooding of the Jordan” – a description which corresponds almost exactly with one of the churches uncovered recently. Other pilgrims at this time talked of the whole valley being “full of hermits”. The place was important enough to merit inclusion on the Madaba mosaic map.

The accounts continued through the Middle Ages, with Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan taking its place in a pilgrimage route linking Jerusalem, Jericho, Hesban and Mount Nebo. From the twelfth to the eighteenth century, Bethany was home to Greek Orthodox monks, who were reported still to be present as late as the beginning of the twentieth century (the whole site is still in the custody of the Greek Orthodox Church), but most ruins lay undiscovered while knowledge of the whereabouts of Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan faded from collective memory.

Archeological investigations at Tell Mar Elias and along Wadi Kharrar had to be abandoned at the outbreak of war in 1948, and for many years the site lay in a militarized border zone. It was only after the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel that the area could be swept for landmines and again opened for study. The momentous discoveries that rapidly followed convinced the Jordanian authorities, and then the broad mass of specialist opinion worldwide, that the long-lost “Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan” had been rediscovered.

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