The Baptism Site of Jesus Christ – Bethany beyond the Jordan

[From the official website of the Baptism Site Commission, Jordan www.baptismsite.com]

History

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 in Christ.

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 redemption.

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 redemption.
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.”

Archaeology

· 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

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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".

Elijah's Hill

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 the river.

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)".

Rhotorios Monastery

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.

Northern Church

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 him mercy".
The floor was covered by a coloured mosaic with a frame and cross marks depicted with geometrical designs.

Western Church

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.

Prayer Hall

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 period.

Water System

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 system.
A canal feeds a cylindrical well, located near the northwestern corner of the cistern dating from the Byzantine period.

The Pools

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 March 2000.

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 water pool.

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.

Ancient Pool

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.

Cave Cells

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 worship).

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.