The Baptism Site of Jesus Christ – Bethany
beyond the Jordan
[From the official website of the Baptism Site Commission, Jordan
The Baptism Site
In this place, past, present and future are interwoven. Here God and
man meet in the journey of redemption. The Old and the New
Testaments meet, bound together in this redemptive line. Thus, all
of time is a single reality, without division, a reality of spirit
and faith, which becomes more firmly rooted in the hearts of
believers as time passes.
The area of the baptism site is a holy place which has a mysterious
“life” of its own, as if it were a haven of the Spirit. Here the
Spirit continuously bestows that life and revives those who believe
The prophetic periods succeeded uninterrupted, one after another,
and generated a tangible history beyond symbols. When the Messiah
arose, the shadows of the ancient symbols disappeared. What remained
was the reality of God and the reality of revelation in the path of
Upon Mount Nebo God revealed Himself to Moses, as He had previously
revealed Himself at Sinai, and Moses stood and looked over the
Promised Land stretched out in front of him. He was allowed to enjoy
the vision of this land before he encountered, through death, the
celestial promised land. He saw the Jordan River before him,
descending from the heights of Mount Hermon into the depths of the
Jordan valley. The river would give life to the surrounding trees
and vegetation and quench the thirst of men and creatures while it
awaited the events that would occur along its banks in the path of
After Moses passed away, Joshua, the son of Nun, crossed with the
Israelites into the Promised Land, and this crossing was a symbol of
Christ’s crossing, with all of humanity, from death to life—crossing
from the slavery of sin to the freedom of being sons of God.
But soon after their entrance into the Holy Land the people turned
from the worship of God and took to worshipping strange gods. God
sent to them many prophets to bring them back to true belief in His
oneness and observance of His commandments. One of the most famous
of these prophets was Elijah, who lived during the time of the rule
of King Ahab in Israel. Ahab and his wife oppressed Elijah, and when
Elijah grew old, God inspired him to leave and settle in what is
today Jordan. So he left with his appointed successor, Elisha, who
carried on his spirit and message. When they arrived at the River
Jordan, Elijah struck it with his cloak and parted the waters of the
river. He and Elisha crossed the dry land, and as they were speaking
together upon the other side of the river, a fiery chariot came and
carried Elijah into the heavens.
Time passed and the Babylonian armies crossed the river heading
toward Jerusalem. They besieged and occupied the city. The
Babylonian army transferred the people of the city to Babylon, but
after some seventy years, the captives were allowed to return to
Jerusalem to rebuild it and worship the one God therein.
Again, hundreds of years passed and John the Baptist appeared at
Bethany (Bayt ‘Anya) on the far side of the Jordan River. He
continued the path of faith and took the message from Moses –
representative of the Holy Law – and from Elijah – representative of
the prophets of the Old Testament. John was the last prophet in the
manner of the Old Testament prophets and the first prophet of the
New Testament. He called the people to repent in preparation for the
arrival of Christ, the Redeemer, and began to baptize in the Jordan
River and the surrounding springs. The baptism he administered was a
symbol of repentance and belief in God. Fleeing the authorities
because of his sermons, he made for Bethany. He would sleep and rest
in a cave close to the springs of the Valley of Kharrar (what is
today known as “Sapsaphas”) and the cave of Elijah. The Bible states
that here people from Jerusalem, Judea and the surrounding regions
of the Jordan flocked to John for baptism.
Around this time, Jesus left Nazareth, went to Bisan and crossed the
Jordan River to the east bank. He slept his first night near Bela
(the region of Fahl), then continued his journey on the eastern side
of the Jordan valley until he reached Bethany and went to John for
baptism. Jesus joined in the line of penitents asking for baptism,
yet he was pure, free from all sin. He was the one who would say to
the Jews, “Who among you can provide evidence that I have committed
a sin.” John knew of Jesus from the revelation and inspiration of
the Holy Spirit. John, however, objected to baptizing Jesus saying,
“I am the one that needs you to baptize me!” But upon Jesus’
continued insistence, John acquiesced and baptized Jesus in the
Jordan River. Therefore, the water of the Jordan became holy and all
the waters that flow along the baptism site were purified, reviving
the souls of people at every place and time and saving them from the
slavery of sin.
As Jesus was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens open up and
the Holy Spirit descending like a dove. He heard a voice from above
say, “You are My beloved...with whom I am well-pleased.” Then the
Spirit took Jesus into the wilderness where he remained for forty
days, and where Satan tempted him. In the wilderness Jesus dwelt
among the wild beasts, but the angels looked after him.
Then the Jews in Jerusalem sent some of the Scribes and Pharisees to
question John, and John said to them, “I am not the Messiah, I am
only a voice crying out in the wilderness saying, ‘Follow the path
of God and make firm His path.’”
After Jesus came back from the wilderness to Bethany he found John
sitting with two of his students. When John saw Jesus he said to his
students, “This is the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the
world.” Hearing this, the two students decided to follow Jesus and
were in turn followed by three others, among them Peter.
Jesus carried the torch of faith from John the Baptist, the torch
that had also been carried by Moses, Elijah and the other prophets.
From Bethany Jesus declared the good news of God, saying, “The Hour
draws near and the Kingdom of God is at hand! So, repent and have
faith in the good news of God!”
Jesus loved his stay across the Jordan at Bethany. He had beautiful
memories of his time there and made many friends. After returning to
Jerusalem, a dispute developed between Jesus and the Jews during the
festival of the renovation of the Temple. When this happened Jesus
fled back across the Jordan to Bethany where John was still
baptizing. Jesus was received warmly by the people and many came
from the surrounding towns and villages, from Salt, Amman, Madaba
and Hisban. They brought their sick to him. He cured them, and many
people came to believe in him.
From Bethany Jesus returned to Jerusalem only to have to flee again,
this time to Ephraim (al-Tayyibah) near Ramallah. Later he returned
to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and the events of his passion, death
and resurrection would follow.
God has granted to the land of Jordan many special places. The north
of the country can boast of the homeland of the Prophet Elijah, and
in the northern and central regions they take pride in the fact that
Christ performed many miracles there and preached in their towns.
The south is also very proud that John the Baptist was martyred in
Makawer Castle, which is south of Madaba. In the Jordan River Jesus
was baptized by the hand of John and there he met five of his
disciples, including Peter. From here he set out preaching about the
Kingdom of God, beginning the public part of his life.
The Christians are descendants of this land and the inheritors of
faith in Christ. They treasure the heritage of the Prophets and the
mysteries of the Incarnation and the Redemption. They related these
things to the generations of Christians who came after them and who
hailed from far away lands. All of these places—the site of the
celestial ascension of the prophet Elijah, the Jordan River,
Bethany, etc.—are places for spiritual contemplation and worship,
and the faithful make pilgrimages to these amazing sites, where they
encounter the Spirit and receive blessings from the earth and the
water of this land.
Some pilgrims have written accounts of their journeys to these
places and some of these accounts have been preserved to this day.
In the second Christian century, Melton who was the Archbishop of
Serdees, said, “I traveled to the Orient. I saw the places mentioned
in the Bible, and everything became full of spiritual meaning.” In
the third century, these holy places became of interest from a
scholarly perspective. The most important teacher of the time,
Origen, came to Palestine for the purpose of studying and tracing
the steps of Christ and the Prophets. In his writings, he mentioned
Bethany across the Jordan, but he believed that it was the same as
Bayt ‘Abara (The Place of Crossing) where John was baptized. In
fact, Bethany and Bayt ‘Abara are different sites, each one having
its own importance. Bayt ‘Abara is on the Jordan River, but Bethany,
according to what we can see of it on the 6th century mosaic map in
Madaba, is in the Valley of Kharrar.
At the end of the third century and the beginning of the fourth, the
famous Church historian Eusebius mentioned certain Gospel sites in
his geographic dictionary, Onomasticon. He mentioned that many of
the brothers in Christ, who were desirous of rebirth, were baptized
in the Jordan or submerged in the flow of the living river in
imitation of Christ who was baptized in this same place.
An anonymous pilgrim, who arrived from Bordeaux in 333, and another
pilgrim named Tudius in 530 (as well as others) described the
baptism site of Jesus, indicating that the place where Christ was
baptized was five miles from the Dead Sea. They also mentioned the
small hill that lies to the East of the river as being near the site
of the baptism, as well as being the place from which Elijah
ascended to Heaven. Tudius also described the church of Bethany,
which was built on platforms during the reign of the Emperor
Anastasius (d. 518) to prevent any damage that might be caused by
the flooding of the river. Recent archeological excavations have
uncovered remains of this church on the eastern bank of the river.
All the pilgrims mention the pole implanted in the middle of the
river bearing the sign of the Cross (as an indication of where
Christ’s baptism took place). Another pilgrim from Piacenza wrote in
570 that the site of Jesus’ baptism was opposite the monastery of
Saint John, and the Madaba map mentions ‘Ayn Anun (Aenon) and
Sapsaphas, the poplar tree.
The Egyptian Saint Mary also journeyed to this holy place. She
dwelled there, penitent and worshipping in silence, seeking peace
with God and with her own soul.
From ancient times, visiting these holy sites and obtaining the
sacrament of baptism in the River Jordan has been a sign of worship,
prayer, and the renewal and strengthening of the vows of faith.
These rituals remain a sacred tradition, and on the feast day of the
Baptism, as part of the celebration, the Holy Cross is submerged in
the waters of the river.
We can conclude from the testimonies of the pilgrims and their
writings that there is a distinction between the various events that
took place on the banks of the river and those that took place in
the region of the Valley of Kharrar. Today, upon the banks of the
river, a memorial stands to commemorate the baptism of Christ and
also the Israelite’s crossing to the Promised Land. Near the spring
of the Kharrar valley is the cave of John the Baptist. A church and
monastery were built to preserve the memory of Bethany, where John
baptized his followers and where Jesus went to meet him. Here, monks
live lives of piety and reverence, abstaining from the world, and
praising and glorifying God.
The ancient realities of faith are always present and always new.
The Christians, as the are the inheritors of faith, preserve the
ancient traditions, making pilgrimage to the Baptismal site each
year to commemorate Christ’s baptism, John the Baptist, the sacred
site of Bethany and the Prophet Elijah. In March of 2000, John Paul
II, the successor of the apostle Peter, became the first pope to
make a pilgrimage to this very site, where Christ first met Peter.
He blessed the people there with water drawn from the river, water
that is sacred for every Christian. At the end of his prayer, as he
bid farewell to the Jordanian people, he said, “I will remember the
people of Jordan in my prayers, Christians and Muslims together, and
especially the sick and the aged. I beseech God to bless his
majesty, the King of Jordan, and all the people. God bless you all,
and God bless Jordan.”
· The Bethany Sapsaphas
· Elijah's Hill
· Rhotorios Monastery
· Northern Church · Western Church
· Prayer Hall
· Water System
· The Pools · Laura ( Hermit Cells)
· Church of the Arch (John Paul II)
· The Pilgrim’s Station
· Ancient Pool · John the Baptist Spring
· Cave Cells
· Site of Saint Mary the Egyptian
· John the Baptist Church
The Bethany Sapsaphas
The 7th-century writer John Moschus narrates the story of one monk’s
personal experience in the monastic caves (Laura) of the area. On
his pilgrimage to Sinai by way of Alia (Aqaba) in south Jordan, a
monk from the monastery of Saint Eustorgius in Jerusalem crossed the
Jordan River, was struck by a violent fever, and had to take refuge
in a cave at Bethany beyond the Jordan. Three days later, Saint John
the Baptist appeared to him in a dream and tried to dissuade him
from continuing his pilgrimage. John told the monk: "This little
cave is greater than Mount Sinai. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself has
come in here to pay me a visit". Convinced and recovered from his
illness the monk transformed the cave into a church for the hermits
living in the area. "It is the place which is called the Laura of
Saphsaphas near the Jordan", concludes John Moschus.
There are several other legends about the caves and hermits living
in the area. One was told by the Pilgrim of Piacenza around 570 AD:
"On the bank of the Jordan River there is a cave with cells for
seven virgins. They have people outside to look after them. The
virgins are taken there when they are very young. When one of them
dies, she is buried in her cell, and another cell is carved from the
rock so that another girl can be replaced to keep the number of
virgins always seven. With great reverence, we entered the caves to
pray there, but we did not see the face of a single one of them. It
is said that the cloth, which the Lord wore on his face, is kept in
this place. On both banks of the Jordan below the mountains there
are serpents from which people make antidotes against poisoning".
Wadi al-Kharrar is the modern name for the site of “Safsafas”, which
is depicted on the 6th century mosaic map of the Holy Land in Madaba.
The site lies east of the Jordan River, just west of the village of
Al-Kafrayn and within sight of the famous town of Jericho west of
At the beginning of Wadi al-Kharrar, near the monastic complex, or
"Laura", Christian pilgrims have traditionally been shown a hill
(known as Jebel Mar Elias in Arabic) where the Prophet Elijah
ascended into heaven. Here, you can see a sanctuary that attracted
pilgrims well into the medieval period.
The Russian pilgrim Abbot Daniel was impressed by the place and in
1106 he wrote: "Not far away from the river, at a distance of two
arrow throws, is the place where the Prophet Elijah was taken into
Heaven in a chariot of fire. There is also the grotto of Saint John
the Baptist. A beautiful strong fast stream (torrential rain) full
of water flows over the stones towards the Jordan; the water is very
cold and has a very good taste; it is the water that John drank
while he lived in the holy grotto".
The memory of the place was not by the writer Theodosius either, who
wrote around 530 AD: "Where my Lord was baptized there is, on the
far side of the Jordan, the 'little hill' called Hermon, where Saint
Elijah was taken up".
Similarly, the Pilgrim from Piacenza wrote around 570 AD: "This is
the place where…Elijah was taken up (to heaven). In that place is
the 'little hill of Hermon' mentioned in the Psalm. At the foot of
the mountain at seven o'clock in the morning, a cloud forms over the
river, arriving over Jerusalem at sunrise, above the basilica on
Zion, the basilica at Christ's Tomb and basilica of Saint Mary and
Saint Sophia (once the Praetorium where Christ's case was heard).
Above these places the dew comes down like showers, and sick people
collect it. In the hospices all the dishes are cooked in it, and in
the places where this dew falls many diseases are cured. For this is
the dew of which the Psalmist signs, 'it is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion' (Psalm 133.3)".
Here you can see the Byzantine Monastery (5th - 6th centuries AD)
with several churches and other buildings, all within a surrounding
wall. The entrance in the northern wall leads to the living quarters
of the monks. The complex had a fine water system.
The Northern Church has two sections: a chancel screen (just in
front of the altar) and a nave (the central part of the church). It
has two entrances, in the northern and western walls. A
distinguishing feature of the church is a complete Greek inscription
set in a mosaic floor. It reads: "By the help of the grace of Christ
our God the whole monastery was constructed in the time of Rhotorios,
the most God-beloved Presbyter and Abbot. May God the Saviour give
The floor was covered by a coloured mosaic with a frame and cross
marks depicted with geometrical designs.
The Western Church consisted of two parts. In the first part, a
semi-circular apse was cut into the natural rock under the
northwestern pool. The apse included lamp niches carved from its
southern and western walls. Foundation remains of the door of the
chancel screen in front of the apse can still be seen. The second
part of the church consisted of four column bases built of
well-dressed, square-cut sandstone blocks, creating a nave and two
aisles. Broken pieces of pottery indicate a Byzantine date.
This presumed Prayer Hall is the earliest worship facility at the
site, perhaps dating from before the 4th century AD. A rectangular
structure built of undressed fieldstones; it is located near the
south eastern corner of Tell al-Kharrar. A plain white mosaic
pavement covered the floor, and the ceiling was probably wooden. The
manner of construction and location suggest that the structure
functioned as a prayer hall or chapel in the very early Byzantine
A well, a cistern and settling basins were located between the
prayer hall and the nearby small chapel. The cistern was dug out of
the natural lisan marl rock; it is the largest reservoir discovered
at the site, built during the 5th – 6th centuries AD. Well-cut
sandstone ashlars were used to build its inner sides, while a thick
layer of lime was added and covered by a smooth layer of plaster to
prevent any seepage. Apparently the pool was roofed by a vault
A canal feeds a cylindrical well, located near the northwestern
corner of the cistern dating from the Byzantine period.
Three pools can be seen on the Tell. The first one is located on the
lower southern slope, dating to the Late Roman period during the
3rd-4th centuries AD. The other two pools are located on the top of
the northern edge of Tell al-Kharrar. Rectangular in shape, the
southern pool had an inner staircase on the eastern side, and four
steps extending the full width of the pool can be seen. Pilgrims
would descend into the pool to be baptized.
Two square pools also date from the same Roman period. Ashlars were
added near the southwestern corner of the northwestern pool in later
periods, possibly to form a staircase to go down into the pool. The
pools receive their water supply through aqueducts.
Excavations under the damaged floor of the pool revealed a
well dating from the Early Roman to Late Byzantine periods. Circular
on top, it is built of well-cut sandstone ashlars.
Laura (Hermit Cells)
Not far from Tell al-Kharrar, at a distance of 300m to the west on
the southern edge of Wadi al-Kharrar, some architectural remains
were discovered. They consist of a small structure with foundations
built from local fieldstones and upper courses built from mud
bricks. Wooden beams were fixed to roof the structure that evidently
was used by monks as living and prayer quarters, and for offering
necessary services to the pilgrims visiting the site. Such
facilities formed a Laura, or a monastery comprised of many
individual hermit monks’ cells in a defined area.
Church of the Arch (John Paul II)
A rectangular church (or chapel) is located on the saddle of land
south of the main site, connecting it with the surrounding plain. It
was built during the 5th–6th centuries AD, and was used by incoming
pilgrims for prayer and worship. It had a mosaic floor with cross
decorations and arches supporting the roof, of which one has been
reconstructed. This church was named after His Holiness Pope John
Paul II to commemorate his visit and blessing of the site on 20th
The Pilgrim’s Station
From the 4th century onwards, Christian pilgrims visited the region
east of the Jordan River, which includes Saphsaphas (al-Kharrar),
Wadi Gharabah, and Livias (Tell al-Rameh), on their way to Mount
Nebo. Most pilgrims visited the Jordan River on their way from
Jerusalem to Jericho. Others crossed eastwards, visiting and
describing the remains along Wadi al-Kharrar.
A pilgrim’s station was built during the Byzantine period (5th–6th
centuries AD) between the Jordan River and Tell al-Kharrar.
This caravanserai for pilgrims visiting the area had a number of
rooms around an open courtyard, which were served by an adjacent
Two Roman roads were built during the era of Emperor Hadrian. Around
129 AD, a road was built to connect Hesban with Livias (Tell al-Rameh),
Jericho, and Jerusalem. Hadrian possibly used this road when he
returned from Petra.
A large pool was uncovered during the excavation in the lower area
of Bethany beyond the Jordan flanking the Jordan River, called the
Zor area. This large stone-built and plastered pool measures over 20
x 10 metres, and is believed to have been used for group baptisms in
the Byzantine period, since it could accommodate 300 persons. A
well-built canal directed water into the pool from a nearby spring
to the north, and carried water out of the pool’s southern wall.
Material recovered from the pool dates the structure to the
Byzantine period, during the 5th-6th centuries AD.
John the Baptist Spring
Travellers and historians described this spring as flowing from a
point near Tell Mar Elias and reaching the area near John the
Baptist’s Church. Pilgrims said the water of this spring was used
for drinking and for baptism. Several structures and pools were
built along the route of the fresh water. Ancient writers referred
to the site as Aenon.
Two monks’ caves (cells) were discovered dug into the upper layers
of the cliffs on the eastern side of the Jordan River. These types
of caves are found in monasteries in “the wilderness”, near the
banks of the Jordan River. The monks used these caves as places of
pious devotion, as dwellings, and for prayer. Prayer niches were
carved into the eastern walls of the two caves, perhaps as an
indication of the caves being converted into a church (place of
Site of Saint Mary the Egyptian
The most famous legend regarding the area of Wadi al-Kharrar is
about the life of Saint Mary the Egyptian who chose to live a
disreputable life in Alexandria in her youth. She abandoned her life
of sin during a visit to Jerusalem and went on to become a model of
repentance. After consulting the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem, she had
heard a voice telling her: “Cross the Jordan and you will find
rest”. She crossed to the east bank of the Jordan River, and spent
the last 47 years of her life living alone, praying and fasting in
the Jordanian desert where she could be close to God. Before dying
she was found by the monk Zosima from a nearby monastery, who prayed
with her, listened to her story, and gave her Holy Communion shortly
before she died. Zosima buried her, reportedly with the help of a
lion that helped him dig her grave with its paws.
John the Baptist Church
At the Jordan River, modern explorers discovered the ruins of a
Byzantine monastery with a church built at the time of the Emperor
Anastasius (491-518 AD). The site on the east bank of the river
commemorating John the Baptist’s ministry and his baptism of Jesus.
This church was considered the most notable memorial church of St.
John the Baptist on the east bank of the Jordan River. It is located
at the traditional site where the baptism of Jesus is said to have
taken place, and more particularly where Jesus is said to have left
his clothes during his baptism.
Excavations have revealed the foundation of arches and walls. Partly
preserved mosaic and marble floors can be seen. Materials such as
pottery, coins and marble floor tiles date the site to the later
Byzantine period, between the 5th–6th centuries AD.