“I baptize with water,’ John replied, ‘but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’ This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”
— John 1:26-28
The location of John the Baptist’s settlement at Bethany beyond the Jordan, opposite Jericho, has long been known from the Bible and from Byzantine and medieval texts. But today’s pilgrim has easy access unlike visitors of old. Even though early Christians followed the traditional route from Jerusalem to Jericho and across a ford to the baptismal site, the end of the Byzantine era and the shifting of trade routes brought about a decline east of the river that led to a change in the traditional pilgrimage journey: a convenient stop on the western bank to commemorate the baptism of Jesus. As late as 1994, the banks of both sides of the river were heavily mined, but a fruit of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty was the de-mining of the area and the systematic excavation of the settlement on the eastern side. These excavations led to the 1996 re-discovery of the location where John had been living and carrying out his baptisms.
From the time of Jesus until the 6th Century AD, the area and its settlements were known by several names, including Bethabara, Bethania, Ainon and Saphsaphas. It is depicted and named on the 6th Century Madaba Mosaic Map of the Holy Land as “Ainon (spring) where now is Saphsaphas.” Today the area’s Arabic name is al-Maghtas – the Place of Baptism.
The actual site has now been identified as the area that extends between Tell al-Kharrar (Elijah’s Hill) and the Church of St. John the Baptist that was mentioned by the early pilgrims. Tell al-Kharrar is believed to be the very spot where Elijah ascended to heaven in a whirlwind on a chariot of fire. Wadi al-Kharrar is believed to be Kerith Ravine, the natural stream “east of the Jordan” where God commanded Elijah to seek refuge from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Centuries later, Jesus himself would seek refuge here after being threatened with stoning in Jerusalem. John 10:40-42 provides this account: “Then Jesus went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days. Here he stayed and many people came to him. They said, ‘Though John never performed a miraculous sign, all that John said about this man was true.’ And in that place many believed in Jesus.”
Refuge, redemption and rebirth – all constant biblical themes connected to this sacred settlement. Today, pilgrims can re-trace the footsteps of the early Christian tradition by visiting the cave where John the Baptist lived and carried out his works. Early pilgrims noted that water flowed from the cave, which John drank and used for baptisms. The cave was transformed into a church during the Byzantine period. The water channel and the church, which is built around the cave, have been excavated and are open to viewing.
Closer to the Jordan River are the remains of five memorial churches built by early believers. They were carefully described by pilgrims and travelers throughout history, linking them with Jesus’ baptism. Some of these churches existed and were described well into the Islamic periods, a sign of Christian-Muslim coexistence in Jordan that continues to this day. In 2014, Pope Francis visited the baptism site on the first day of his “Pilgrimage of Prayer” to the Holy Land. Here, he paused for reflection at the River Jordan; visited the ruins of the early churches built to commemorate the very place where Jesus was baptized; and enjoyed worship at the new Church of the Baptism of Jesus, a yet unfinished Catholic church.*
*Once completed, the Church of the Baptism of Jesus could become one of the most visited places in the Holy Land for Catholic pilgrims and the local faithful, according to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. The holy building will be able to hold about one-thousand worshippers, and the large square cloisters opposite it should hold at least two-thousand people. On both sides of the transept, two monasteries have been built, for two monastic communities – one male and one female – of the congregation of the Incarnate Word. Each of the monasteries can accommodate 30 pilgrims on retreats. The apse of the church is no more than thirty meters from the Jordan River. Behind the apse, in the open air, a large baptismal bath has been built, for community celebrations, connected to the river by a small channel. Near the church, a large welcome center for pilgrims has been planned, with a restaurant, theater, museum and souvenir shops.
For more information and an online tour, please visit www.baptismsite.com.