“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 pilgrims’ and historians’ accounts throughout history. But today’s pilgrim arriving in Jordan has easy access unlike visitors of old. Even though early Christians followed the traditional pilgrimage route from Jerusalem to Mount Nebo through 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 and after the late Father Michele Piccirillo accompanied H.R.H. Prince Ghazi Bin Mohammad to the site, Jordan started de-mining the area and the systematic excavation of the settlement on the eastern side. These excavations that started in 1996 led to the re-discovery of many archaeological sites closely linked to the important Biblical events that took place here.
From the time of Jesus until the 6th Century AD, the area and its settlements were known by several names, including Bethabara / Bethany beyond the Jordan (John 1:28 & John 10:40), and Ainon and Saphsaphas according to 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 Churches built in memory of the baptism of Jesus 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 and Elisha received the Prophecy (2 Kings, Chapter 2), and where John lived and started his ministry coming in the spirit and strength of Elijah (Luke 1:17).
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 retrace the footsteps of the early Christian tradition by visiting the cave where John the Baptist lived and started his ministry and enjoy the “wilderness” he described himself living in the way we have described in the Bible. The cave was transformed into a church during the Byzantine period indicating its importance.
Early pilgrims such as Antonino from Piacenza, Italy also described a spring that John drank from and used for baptisms next to the cave where he lived, they called it “John the Baptist spring”.
Where the spring met the river Jordan, one can see the remains of five memorial churches and a unique Cruciform Baptistry built by early believers. They were carefully described by pilgrims and travelers throughout history, linking them with Jesus’ baptism. Three 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. Many heads of different denominations have visited the site since the year 2000. The most recent was in 2014, when H.H. 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 met Christian and Muslim refugees from Syria and Iraq at the new Church of the Baptism of Jesus, a yet unfinished Latin church.
“Whatever we write or say about the site, if one doesn’t physically visit and walk in the trails of John and Jesus and live the Biblical stories, he wouldn’t experience the spirituality we wish you to experience.”
For more information and an online tour, please visit www.baptismsite.com.