By Tom Tracy, Florida Catholic Freelance Writer
BETHANY BEYOND THE JORDAN, JORDAN | With its rustic boardwalk through what looks a bit like a Florida mangroves nature trail, visitors to the Jordan River site on the border with Israel will get the impression they are dropping in on something quite new.
There are as yet no tourist shops or hoards of tourist buses arriving, nor any towering ruins or crusader churches or a museum to suggest this is a major Bible land destination.
But a dozen Christian churches and pilgrim centers under construction nearby —including a new Catholic church that will be one of the largest in the Holy Land — suggest that the Jordan River baptismal site at Bethany Beyond the Jordan is a destination in development, and could possibly become a top-priority holy place for Christian pilgrims.
A thorough archaeological excavation and survey, along with Biblical references, centuries-old writings of early pilgrims to the area, and the buried remains of Byzantine churches, have convinced scholars both here and in neighboring Israel that this is most accurately the place where John the Baptist lived and baptized Christ.
It is also the site where the Old Testament prophet Elijah ascended into heaven on a chariot of fire some eight centuries earlier.
Christian pilgrimage routes to Jerusalem, Mount Nebo and the Jordan River were linked by Bethany Beyond the Jordan, but the actual site was lost to history for centuries. It was only in the mid-to-late 1990s that a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan allowed full removal of land mines from a once-volatile border region.
Both Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI visited the site, which planners say will never be turned into a commercial-looking tourist trap, but will be a spiritual oasis and place of authentic pilgrimage, according to the staff of the Baptism Site Commission of Jordan.
“The site was a military zone, was a closed military area — civilians could not get here,” Rustom Mkhjian, Jordanian archaeologist and assistant director for the Baptism Site Commission of Jordan, told an ecumenical group of U.S. journalists visiting Jordan recently in cooperation with the Jordan Tourism Board USA.
It took Jordan and other countries four years to remove the mines in the area east of the Jordan before they could discover many sites “linking everything together and completing the entire picture of the borders of this site across the river from Jericho,” Mkhjian said.
The remains of more than 20 old Christian sites have been discovered, including several churches, a prayer hall, baptismal pools and a sophisticated water system, but the actual course of the Jordan River has changed over the centuries. (Bethany Beyond the Jordan is not to be confused with the Bethany on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, near Jerusalem, where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.)
“When we ask where was Jesus baptized we have to be very careful so therefore we depended on four sources: the Bible, pilgrim accounts, the old Holy Land mosaic map (found in Pella, Jordan) and archaeological discoveries,” Mkhjian explained.
Established in 2000 and with Jordan’s King Abdullah II serving as chairman of the board of trustees, the world heads of churches have said Bethany Beyond the Jordan is one of the holiest sites for Christians on earth. Major denominations have requested land to build their new churches, monasteries and baptistries in a place where early Christians may first have gathered in caves and monasteries.
This wilderness of John the Baptist, the locals are known to say, is the “lowest place on earth but the closest to heaven,” where the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended and the voice of God was heard.
The actual Jordan River now is only 10 meters (32.8 feet) wide, but had swelled to some two miles wide during a 2003 flood. Pilgrims can dip their toes or have a ceremonial immersion in the river while looking across to the Israeli side where other pilgrims are doing the same. They are not permitted to cross the river’s border, however, even though it is a stone’s throw to the other side.
Nearby, the Church of the Baptism of Jesus Christ (Maghtas Project) with a visitors’ complex is a Roman Catholic construction effort that Pope Benedict XVI blessed during his visit to the Holy Land in 2009. The complex features three interlocking piazzas, with the church in the middle piazza, designed in the shape of the cross, and the two monasteries at both sides.
With major funding from Jordan businessman and Marriott Hotel Jordan owner Nadim Muasher, John the Baptist Church will be finished by the end of next year. All the designs of the 13 new churches had to be approved by the commission, and four are already completed, including the Greek Orthodox and Russian Pilgrimage House complexes.
Archeologist Mkhjian, who has poured much of his life’s work into the project, said he hopes to one day be buried near the site — once a place of armed conflict but now a peaceful recognition of the very foundations of the Christian faith.
“What is better,” he asked, “to have minefields, or hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visiting the site?”
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Tom Tracy, a freelance correspondent for the Florida Catholic in Miami, traveled to Jordan Sept 22-29 with a 12-person ecumenical delegation of U.S.-based journalists convened by courtesy of the Virginia-based Jordan Travel Board. The group toured several major biblical and historical sites in Jordan’s Holy Land. They also met with the priest-founder of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center in Amman and a head archaeologist of the Baptismal Site Commission at Bethany Beyond the Jordan on the Jordan River.