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Bethany-beyond-Jordon: time to open the Bible

June 19, 2010

The Baptism

Since Damascus (and even just before) I have stepped onto the old pilgrims’ route.  This morning instead of thumbing my Lonely Planet, remembering how much I should pay and how far I’d need to hike, I took a pocket New Testament borrowed from Mar Musa monastery with me to the bus stop.

Here’s the info I had on my destination:

“He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness […] And they asked him, and said unto him, Why baptisest thou then, if thou be not Christ, nor Elias, nor that of a prophet?  John answered them, saying, I baptise with water: but there standest one among you, whom ye know not: He is it, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latch I am not worthy to unloose. These things were done in Bethany beyond Jordon, where John was baptising.

I guess the Lonely Planet had more information but with the New Testament I got brevity, four ways of seeing the event, and the opportunity to approach the baptism site (as it’s sign-posted) with no expectations, assumptions – no knowledge of what had happened to the place between then and now.

As I move towards Jerusalem this is how I’m going to visit all of the New Testament sites.  I don’t know whether that makes me less of a tourist but I know that it makes it different somehow and that it’s the way I have decided to manage my experience (and I’m starting to hate that word now…).

I was the first arrival at the baptism site.  From Hamman it was a forty minute bus ride and a fifteen minute hitch.  It was 8.30am and I was told to join a mandatory tour that would take me along the Jordon river to the site that John Paul II stamped with the approval of the Catholic Church in 2002, as the exact point where Jesus was baptised.


My first view in the direction of the Jordon River

I asked the guide why there were so few tourists and he told me that Jordon was not easily considered as a safe tourist destination. Many tourists, religiously motivated or otherwise, chose to visit the river Jordon but from the Israel bank.  These tourists/travelers/pilgrims missed seeing the first Byzantine church, the spring from where John the Baptist preached and the point of Jesus’s baptism but at least they could consider themselves safe.

Alone with the guide I was free to take my time and to ask questions.  Most of the answers would have been easily answered if I’d spent ten minutes reading the guide – but if I had then the barbed wire ahead of the baptism site wouldn’t have seemed so aggressive and out of place nor the muddy stale river seemed so low.

Hassad was patient with me: until 1994 conflict between Jordon and Israel had meant that this river and this holy place had lain in no man’s land, empty apart from the mines and the military.  Now that there is peace excavation work has begun and the remains of an early Byzantine church that marked the point of the baptism has been discovered.  Some of the chicken wire is the necessary stuff of any Middle Eastern border, the rest is just left-overs of a conflict that eclipsed the sanctity of this place.

I don’t like it when churches shut you out. Yesterday I banged on the doors of a convent in Amman only to be told that I wasn’t welcome.  After I went to the King Abdullah Mosque and hung out in the section where men aren’t allowed/where women are required to stay. As I’ve found in every mosque these women are fascinated by your presence.  They throng round you, ask questions (in Jordon with a much wider vocabulary than in Syria) and invite you to be in photos (all the time gently telling you about Islam…)

The first view that you have of the Church of the John the Baptist at the Jordon River is through chicken wire topped with barbed wire.  It’s not a welcoming sight.

Ach.  I’ve run out of time.  I will try to continue this post tomorrow but until then will post my pictures with some words:

the Jordon River - apparently in September it is hardly a trickle. 2000 years ago it was 200m wide - a more effective border.

the Spring of John the Baptist and the remains of the Byzantine church. It was here that Jesus was baptised - in his day the Jordon river met this spring. Now it's a 500m walk away. For the past three years the spring has dried up at the end of the summer.

This is the Israeli side of the river - apart from the border guards I could have waded my way across. There were a lot of tour groups there, people filling bottles, priests, congregations singing... 'wade in the water'...

and me alone (the border guard took the photo!) on the Jordon side.

More tomorrow I hope.  X

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