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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Bethany Beyond the Jordan

Ancient sites associated with Jesus and John the Baptist receive a face-lift and await 21st-century tourists.

Muhammad thumbs through his well-worn New Testament and reads aloud two passages from the Gospel of St. John.

“This happened in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing,” Muhammad declares. “[Jesus] went back across the Jordan to the place where John first baptized, and there he remained.” “Here,” he adds, “was where John proclaimed Jesus the ‘Lamb of God,’ and where Jesus returned to find an enthusiastic reception after the hostility of Jerusalem.”

Muhammad also talks with ease about the Trinity, and points out that its only self-revelation, as such, took place at the baptism of Jesus, when the Father’s voice from heaven proclaimed the beloved Son, upon whom the Spirit descended in the form of a dove.

Archeologist Dr. Muhammad Waheeb is the excavator of the most recently investigated major site associated with the life of Jesus. The two Gospel passages state that John the Baptist was baptizing at Bethany beyond the Jordan River, i.e., on the east side of the river, as seen from Jerusalem. This Bethany should not be confused with the home village of Mary, Martha and Lazarus on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem.

For many centuries pilgrims have identified the location of the baptism of Jesus with a spot on the western bank of the Jordan River near Jericho. But over the past five years Dr. Waheeb has shown that for most Christians of the Byzantine period – the fourth through the seventh centuries – the activity of the Baptist was located at a site on the eastern bank known today in Arabic as Wadi el-Kharrar, about four and a half miles northeast of where the river empties into the Dead Sea.

The evidence of some pottery shards and other remains from the time of Jesus himself – what historians and archeologists call the Roman period in this region – is not yet sufficient to make an absolute identification of the site with the Gospel’s Bethany. And indeed it is difficult to “prove” archeologically the exact location of many, if not most, events of both the Old and New Testaments.

The earliest shrine-building efforts of newly free Christians, however, following the Romans’ issuing of an edict of religious tolerance in 311, as well as monastic settlements, bear witness to the attraction of particular sites to the faithful by at least the second quarter of the fourth century.

Dr. Waheeb, in his own words a “committed Muslim,” is Director of Cultural Resources Management for the Jordanian Department of Antiquities. As a believer in the one God, Muhammad sees his mission in life as bringing his science of archeology to bear on the sacred texts; to locate, excavate and above all to preserve sacred places as the heritage of all believers in the God of Abraham. With his conservation engineer, Rustom Mkhjian, an Armenian Apostolic Christian, Waheeb designed and developed the 25-acre Baptism Archeological Park to commemorate not only the baptism of Jesus, but also the ascent of Elijah in the fiery chariot, just as did the ancient Byzantine monastery at the site.

In Byzantine times, as at so many other sites then associated with biblical events, an active monastic and devotional life thrived in the Wadi el-Kharrar. Fresh waters, perfect for baptizing, flow for about a mile down into the much dirtier Jordan River, almost at the end of its long course from the Sea of Galilee.

A monastery with four churches developed in the fourth through the sixth centuries on Tell Mar Elias (St. Elijah Hill), just above the springs. Three baptismal pools were supplied with additional water by ceramic pipe aqueducts.

A hostel between the monastery and the river provided lodging for pilgrims, and at the riverside itself four successive churches were built over a period of four centuries. One after another was washed away by winter floods or destroyed by earthquakes.

Hermits lived nearby in caves carved into the soft limestone. They gathered weekly for a common liturgy and provisioning of food and work materials. One of the caves may even have been that of St. Mary of Egypt, a reformed prostitute who lived in the region for 47 years until her death.

Numerous pilgrims have passed the site, some leaving written descriptions. These helped Waheeb and Mkhjian identify what they found and prepare appropriate conservation measures. Repairs of ancient structures, beautiful walkways and modern baptismal facilities now provide easy access for modern pilgrims just as did the monastic buildings and pools of 1,500 years ago.

But ease of access was not always characteristic of Bethany Beyond the Jordan. Although the Byzantines had followed a traditional route from Jerusalem to Jericho and across a ford to the baptismal site and beyond, by the eighth century pilgrims no longer ventured across the river. With the collapse of Byzantine rule and the shift of trade routes, the eastern side of the river turned dangerous; pilgrims from Jerusalem tended to stop on the western bank where tradition eventually and conveniently moved the site of the commemoration of the baptism of Jesus. Even in modern times access was difficult, and from 1967 until 1994 the region was a military frontier, heavily mined on both sides.

The Jordan-Israel peace treaty of 1994 allowed Dr. Waheeb’s crew to conduct an archeological survey in 1997. When he realized that the surface evidence coincided strongly with Byzantine pilgrims’ accounts, Waheeb was able to convince his superiors in the Department of Antiquities and the Ministry of Tourism of Jordan of the unique importance of the site. With encouragement from the Jordanian royal family as well as church leaders, a plan was prepared for excavation, conservation and development of the facilities for today’s pilgrims.

Although the official opening of the Baptismal Archeological Park is slated for January 2002, roughly 5,000 to 10,000 tourists already make the pilgrimage each month. Indeed, the world’s best known pilgrim, Pope John Paul II, visited the park in March 2000 with an entourage of thousands. The event was televised around the world.

Given that Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem are on the western side of the Jordan River, most Christian pilgrims do not realize that the “East Bank” of the river, today the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, also played a significant role in biblical accounts of God’s history with his people.

Jesus did not just visit Bethany Beyond the Jordan: From his childhood, he probably traversed this eastern bank of the Jordan with his parents on their pilgrimages to and from Jerusalem from Galilee. We know from the Gospels that during his public life he moved through the regions then called Perea and the Decapolis, preaching, healing and exorcising.

Long before Jesus, however, other biblical figures were active in the eastern part of the Promised Land. According to the Book of Joshua, the Israelite tribes of Reuben and Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh were allocated territories there by Moses. The biblical judge Gideon pursued the Midianites into the east, and Yair judged for 22 years in Gilead, just north of Wadi el-Kharrar. Gilead also produced the judge Jephtha, who defeated the Ammonites but sacrificed his own daughter to pay his vow to Yahweh.

The most famous ninth-century Gileadite was Elijah, born at Listib where another Byzantine monastery at a second Tell Mar Elias commemorated his birth. Both sites were designated holy places of pilgrimage for the Jubilee Year 2000. Although only ruins of later villages exist at Listib, a Jordanian expedition at Tell Mar Elias is currently excavating the Byzantine church, with its columns, mosaics and other ruins, in order to make it more accessible.

Closer to the eastern desert’s edge is Amman, the capital of the kingdom and a modern city of more than one million people. But its strongest biblical association was with the siege of Rabbath Ammon, as the Old Testament calls it, by the Israelite army under Joab. It was here that, on the orders of King David, Bathsheba’s husband Uriah was set up by Joab to be killed in battle. The ruins of that 10th-century Ammonite citadel still survive, looking down upon the modern city’s traffic jams around a Roman theater and nymphaeum in what was known in Jesus’ time as the Decapolis city of Philadelphia.

Southeast of the Wadi el-Kharrar, Moses himself looked out upon the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo and died there, just a few miles from the new baptism park. Today’s pilgrims can visit and pray in the Byzantine monastery, excavated by the Franciscans, that commemorates the biblical story and appreciate the beautiful mosaics that graced so many churches of that period in the area.

To the east and south of Mt. Nebo is the land of biblical Moab, birthplace and home of Ruth before she accompanied her mother-in-law Naomi to Bethlehem.

Also south of Mt. Nebo, seated on a barren hilltop within signaling range of Masada and Herodion across the Dead Sea, Herod the Great built the Perean frontier fortress of Machaerus, another pilgrimage site of Jubilee 2000. Here his son Antipas beheaded John the Baptist to reward Salome’s dancing, according to accounts in the Gospels and in the writings of the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.

Farther south, in the mountainous biblical kingdom of Edom, an ancient tradition has located Mt. Hor at Jebel Haroun, with its mountaintop memorial to Aaron. A small but highly visible Muslim shrine constructed from the ruins of a Byzantine or medieval chapel overlooks the ruins of Nabatean Petra to the northeast; to the west lies the Wadi Arabah, part of the route of the Israelite Exodus. Just below Nebi Haroun on a small plateau was yet another Byzantine monastery, now under excavation by a Finnish expedition. Medieval travelers write of monks living there until the 15th century.

The story of Job takes place in the land of Uz, probably southeast of Edom. In short, “Transjordan,” as the entire country was once known, is a region rich in biblical associations and pilgrimage destinations of spectacular scenery and mosaics.

In a world in which religious conflict makes the headlines almost daily, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan stands out as an example of mutual respect, friendship and cooperation between its Muslim majority and Christian minority.

Muhammad Waheeb and Rustom Mkhjian are themselves models of Jordanian society: Working together, they maintain a profound commitment to their respective faiths, yet emphasize what they share in common far more than what separates.

A biblical archeologist, Father Charles Miller is Rector of the Ratisbonne Pontifical Institute in Jerusalem.

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