The Baptism Site (Arabic: el-Maghtas) on the Jordan side of the Jordan River is one of the most important recent discoveries in biblical archaeology. Excavations only began here in 1996, following Jordan's peace treaty with Israel in 1994, but have already uncovered more than 20 churches, caves and baptismal pools dating from the Roman and Byzantine periods.
Although the identification is not absolutely certain, archaeology has shown that the area known as Wadi Kharrar has long been believed to be the biblical Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, where John the Baptist lived and Jesus was baptized.
This area is also associated with the ascension of the Prophet Elijah into heaven, which is commemorated at a hill called Tell Mar Elias.
Note: This Bethany should not be confused with Bethany in Jerusalem where Mary Magdalene lived and Lazarus was raised from the dead.
In the Bible
Then Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here; the Lord has sent me to the Jordan." ... Fifty men of the company of the prophets went and stood at a distance, facing the place where Elijah and Elisha had stopped at the Jordan. Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed overon dry ground. ... As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, "My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!" And Elisha saw him no more. (2 Kings 2:6-12)
Now some Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, "Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?" "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 1:25-28)
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. (John 10:40-42)
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." ... People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. (Luke 3:1, 5-6)
And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. ... At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert... (Mark 1:4-5, 9-12)
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:13-17)
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. (Luke 3:21-23)
The first historical mention of this site is in the writings of the anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux in 333 AD, which say Jesus was baptized five Roman miles (7400m) north of the Dead Sea, which is where Wadi Kharrar enters the Jordan River.
The pilgrim Theodosius was the first to mention a church at the Jordan River, which was built at the end of the 5th century by the Emperor Anastasius (491-518) to commemorate St John the Baptist. Built on arcades and square in shape, the church had a marble column with an iron cross marking the spot where the people then thought that Jesus had been baptized.
Various other church writers and pilgrims in the 5th through 7th centuries mentioned churches in the lower Jordan River-Bethany region commemorating the baptism of Christ.
The 7th-century pilgrim Arculf mentioned seeing the ruins of the church at this spot on the east bank, a wooden cross in the river, and steps leading into the water from the west bank. Another nearby chapel was said to have marked the spot where Jesus' clothes were kept while he was being baptized.
In more recent times, the site was long off limits due to its position along a disputed border that was dotted with thousands of land mines. It was only in 1996, following the peace treaty of 1994 and two years of clearing the mines, that archaeologists were able to excavate Wadi Kharrar.
Using some pre-1948 studies and the early pilgrim accounts as their guide, archaeologists quickly uncovered an astonishing 21 ancient sites. These include five baptismal pools (shallow pools lined with plaster) from the Roman and Byzantine periods; a Byzantine monastery; 11 Byzantine churches (many with mosaics and Greek inscriptions); caves of monks and hermits; and lodgings for pilgrims.
These findings have led most scholars to conclude that this is the biblical Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, where John baptized Jesus Christ. This is not certain, however, as the ruins do not date to the time of Christ and there are some early sites across the river as well. Some still believe Jesus was baptized on the west bank in Israel, but the majority opinion firmly rests with this site in Jordan.
In January 2000, on Epiphany, more than 40,000 people gathered at the Baptism Site along with church leaders from 15 world churches in a massive pilgrimage. Shortly after, the Armenian Church officially declared the site to be the location of the baptism of Christ. And on March 20, Pope John Paul II held an outdoor Mass at the site with 25,000 worshipers in attendance.
Since the excavations of the late 1990s, the site has been extensively developed by the Jordan Tourism Authority, but sensitively so - visitor numbers are controlled and the Visitors' Centre has been located at some distance from the site in an effort to preserve its sanctity. Other facilities include a restaurant, shops, and even a plush VIP Lounge.
The ticket office is at the Visitors' Centre, which has plenty of parking. All private cars are prohibited within the archaeological zone itself, so an electric minibus brings visitors to their choice of three different sites: Tell Mar Elias, the Baptism Pools and/or John the Baptist's Church.
Alternatively, you can walk the 2.5km from the Visitor Centre to Tell Mar Elias, then along the south bank of the Wadi Kharrar for another 2km to John the Baptist's Church and the Jordan River.
Would-be walkers should note that the Baptism Site is located in a desolate and difficult climate. It is nearly the lowest point on earth, at over 350m below sea level. The ground is dry and chalky and vegetaton is sparse except on the banks of the river. The air is thick and hot, with temperatures soaring to 45°C anytime but the winter.
The first stop on most tours of Bethany is Tell Mar Elias ("el-yass"), Elijah's Hill. The small hill has the ruins of three churches, three caves and three baptism pools, accessable by a wooden catwalk. Starting on the west side, a cave forms the apse of a small Byzantine church, with small south and east apses and a few fragments of a mosaic floor.
Northwest of this are the covered ruins of a larger Byzantine church. Built into the apse is a black stone, commemorating the fire that accompanied Elijah's ascent into heaven. The mosaic floor includes a cross made of diamond shapes and a Greek inscription dating it to the time of Rhotorious (which is the early 6th century).
Up a couple steps on the northeastern side of the tell are two pools from the Roman period, one cut later with the addition of a 14m-deep well. Further around the tell is a large rectagular pool, plastered on the bottom and with four steps leading into it. This is believed to have been used for group baptisms.
A few meters south of the tell are a number of other sites of interest. The major one is a large freestanding arch, which was constructed in 1999 out of 63 stones to commemorate the death of King Hussein, who was 63 years old. On March 21, 2000, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass beneath this arch, and ever since it has been known as the Church of John Paul II.
A few meters from the arch are the foundations of a large rectangular building that has been called a prayer hall, with some fragments of a mosaic floor.
Also nearby is a system of water channels, pools, a well (pulled out of its original round shape by movements of the earth), and a large cistern with its original plastered interior. A smaller cistern was later built nearby. Water was channeled to these from several kilometers away in order to serve all the baptisms that took place here.
Paths lead down from from Tell Mar Elias to a path on the south side of Wadi Kharrar, which passes several Byzantine sites as it heads west towards the Jordan River. One of these, about 500m west of the tell, is a complex of hermits' cells.
Nearby is the Large Baptism Pool, fed by spring water. It is made of rough stone on the bottom section but finely dressed ashlars at the top. Directly above the pool is a promontory on which a building was excavated. Affording fine views of the valley, it may have been a pilgrims' hostel. Baptisms still take place here today.
Just west of the pool is the zor, a deep flood plain flanking the River Jordan on both sides. Steps provide access to two Byzantinehermits' caves with prayer niches. One of them also has three apses.
An 8th-century account records the sojourn here of a monk who fell ill on his way from Jerusalem to Mount Sinai. While recovering from fever in one of these caves, he had a vision of John the Baptist, who said to him, "This little cave is greater than Mount Sinai, for our Lord Jesus Christ himself visited me here."
As Wadi Kharrar approaches the Jordan River, the change in the environment is dramatic and it becomes clear why Prophet Jeremiah described "the jungle of the Jordan" (Jer. 49:19). The dry desert transforms into a tropical climate as the paths lead into a thicket of reeds and tamarisk bushes. The air here is filled with sounds: birdsongs, buzzing insects, and the sound of running water from the 14 springs that flow all around. The name "Kharrar" for this area may actually be an imitation of these sounds.
After five or ten minutes' walking, the path leads into a clearing marked by a modern pool and the ruins of the 7th-century Church of John the Baptist. Here you can see the original altar and mosaic floor, which was originally placed atop an arch to prevent flooding. The support pillars of the arch lie on the north side of the church, in the very spot they fell many centuries ago.
A marble fragment inscribed "IOY. BATT." was found in the church, confirming its dedication to John the Bapist. A Byzantine marble stairway leads from the apse of the church to the Spring of John the Baptist.
Next to this are two more churches, the lower one of which features marble tiles in geometrical shapes. Nearby are marble Corinthian capitals.
About 150m west of the Byzantine church, via a new path through the tamarisks, is the River Jordan itself. Today it is little more than a muddy stream, since much of it is removed upstream for use by Israel and Jordan.
The opposite bank is Israel, where a small 1950s chapel, "baptism site" (for which no archaeological evidence has been found), and copious fences can be seen.
A modern Orthodox church dedicated to St. John the Baptist has been built next to the Jordan River as part of the development of the site. The small church has a golden dome and is painted with Byzantine-style murals inside.
Pilgrims to the site can request a religious ceremony at either of the two new baptism pools that have been built along Tell Mar Elias, or at the ancient Large Baptism Pool midway along the wadi. You can bring your own priest or minister or ask (ahead of time) for a local Greek Orthodox priest.