The modest sight of the Jordan River in this section, hides behind it some of the greatest stories of Judaism and Christianity, together. It seems that, at this small geographical juncture, figures and events gathered together, drove history and became great symbols. A visit to the site is, more than anything, a journey between eras, cultures and beliefs. It’s a journey, much of which takes place in the imagination.
From Joshua Ben Nun to Jesus
Our journey begins, like many stories, in the Bible, at the moment when the 40 years in the desert ended and the nation of nomads were just a few steps away from becoming permanent occupants. Moses stayed behind, and the Israelites entered the Promised Land, with the miracle of the flooded Jordan River halting its flow, and the Israelites passing through the wilderness. According to tradition, this moment of wonder took place right here, in a place today called; Qasr al-Yahud.
Our next point is in the Book of Kings (2). Elijah the Prophet rose in a chariot of fire up to the heavens – right here in this place – and left prophecy in the hands of the Prophet Elisha. In Elisha’s time, the Jordan was mentioned, for the first time, as having purification and healing powers. Na’aman, the army general of the King of Aram, was a leper, and was cured after Elisha baptized him, 7 times. in the Jordan waters.
The next character to come here is John Ben Zachariah. You probably know him by his nickname, John the Baptist. John was born into a Cohen family (biblical priests) and his father served in the Temple. John, however, deviated sharply from family tradition and chose to wear course camel-hair garments and retire to a monk-like existence. He began calling on people to come and be purified by baptism, and made this spot on the Jordan River, the center of his activities. Many people came to confess their sins and cleanse themselves by baptism, but the most famous of them all is, of course, Jesus. In the New Testament, it is said that when Jesus was baptized, the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit took the shape of a dove and went down to inform Jesus that he was the ‘Chosen One’.
Those few moments in which John baptized Jesus, became defining moments, not only in the lives of those two persons, but also in the future of all Christian believers from all denominations. A small point in time, which became an event of immense symbolic significance. That point is also the one that turned Bethabara the New Testament name for the place, into what we now know as the baptismal site that Christian believers come to. They come to connect to the moment when Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan, and emerged from them as a pure man, chosen by the Lord.
Journeys to the Biblical Site
When did Christian believers start to arrive at the baptismal site? During the Byzantine period, believers began to come to the site to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Around that time, many monasteries and churches were built around the site, in which pilgrims stayed. Pilgrim journeys to the baptismal site continued, with ups and downs, for centuries, until the outbreak of the Six Day War (1967 war between Israeli and neighboring countries). The area was nicknamed; “The Land of Pursuits” and became a point of friction and conflict.
Monasteries and churches were abandoned, pilgrims stopped arriving, mines were planted in the area and the baptismal site was deserted. In the 1980s, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Diodoros contacted the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria and sought to renew the tradition of baptism at the site at Easter. Following the Greek Orthodox declaration, other denominations began to arrive as well. The site began to fill up with life again.
Baptismal Celebrations during Epiphany and Easter
Today, pilgrims come to the site all year round, but there are two main times when the site is filled with crowds of believers, for a colorful and spiritual celebration – the Epiphany Feast and Easter. Believers – members of the various denominations – come singing, dancing and wearing colorful clothes. They take a dip in the river and release pigeons into the air.
Epiphany symbolizes, in eastern churches, the baptism of Jesus and, in Western churches, the moment when the three wise men came to Jesus and told Mary that her son is the Son of God. Epiphany celebrations take place from 18-19 January. On the 18th the Greek Orthodox, Russian, Romanian and Ethiopian churches arrive. On the 19th the Armenian, Syrian and Coptic churches arrive. Another time when many believers come is Easter, which marks the resurrection of Jesus.
The Land of Monasteries
South of the baptismal site is a road about one and a half kilometers long, and on both sides are the remains of beautiful buildings, whose glory is still evident through the dust and neglect. These are the remains of the churches and monasteries that once bustled with life and hosted hordes of pilgrims who came to the site. After the Six Day War, the area was defined as a border line, mines were planted and entrance to the monasteries was, of course, banned. The descent from the road and entrance to the buildings is still prohibited, due to the fear of mines, but works have been carried out there in recent years, in the hope that this area will soon be revived, also.
The largest and most important monastery of them all, is the one that also gave the place its name – Qasr Al Yahud, which means, the Palace of the Jews. Built in the fifth century, it was destroyed in 1024 by an earthquake and rehabilitated in the 12th century by Templar Knights who gave it the fortress-look it has today. Other interesting buildings include the Franciscan chapel, a Syrian Orthodox monastery, a Coptic monastery, an Ethiopian monastery and others.
Tip for Pros
Just before the turnoff to the road leading to Qasr al-Yud is the Deir Hajla Monastery. It’s a Greek Orthodox monastery that’s still active and can be visited. The monastery is a beautiful gem with a landscaped garden, sculptures, an ornate church and, strangely, a wooden cabinet filled with human skulls. The monks are welcoming and will be happy to allow you to explore the monastery, as long as you keep quiet and dress modestly. The visit there is an experience in itself but, when combined with a visit to Qasr Al Yahud, it illustrates what pilgrims’ journeys once looked like, with all the monasteries still full of life and fully operating. You can easily imagine the people arriving on foot at the monastery concourse, preparing themselves for the final leg of the journey to the baptismal site.
A Journey through the Time Tunnel
We mentioned earlier that this journey takes place mostly in the imagination. The terrain we’ve walked through is extremely limited, but the spaces of time and imagination we’ve been through are almost endless. The thought that our feet have trodden where Joshua Ben Nun, Elijah the Prophet, Elisha, John the Baptist and Jesus have walked, is astonishing.