I remember the day clearly. I was in Tour Guide School and we were touring sites in the Northern Dead Sea Area in the winter of 2009. We headed down a road between some date palm plantations before coming to a closed, locked chain-link gate. After a few minutes, an army jeep met us and opened the gate for our bus. “This area will be opened up for tourists soon, but as of now, it is under the strict control of the army.”
This was my introduction to Qesr al-Yehud, the baptism site on the Jordan near Jericho.
You may be more familiar with the Yardenit site near the Sea of Galilee. Turns out, that site was only developed recently in 1981 because of the inability to reach Qesr al-Yehud, and the desire of Christians to touch the holy waters of the Jordan. Qesr al-Yehud, however, is the better candidate for the actual historical place of Jesus’ baptism. It is also the best candidate for the Children of Israel’s crossing of the Jordan which you can read about here.
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him saying, “I need to be baptized by you, why do you come to me?”
But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Because of the importance of the site, starting in the 5th century CE, monasteries were established here. These monasteries served pilgrims coming to trace the steps of Jesus and to celebrate the Epiphany (anniversary of Jesus’ baptism according to the Orthodox churches). Antonius of Piacenza (c. 570 CE) tells us that there was a celebration of the holiday here including baptisms, blessings of ships and a general dipping of all participants into the waters of the Jordan.
With time and different powers who came to rule the region, the economic and security conditions either encouraged or dispelled pilgrims. A general decline in the state of Christian institutions through the last 800 years led to a sorry state for these monasteries at Qesr al-Yehud.
Like many other improvements which came with the British, this area of importance for many different Christian sects, was earmarked for renovations. In the 1930’s, the British carved up the land around the site and gave each denomination (Franciscan, Coptic, Ethiopian, Greek Orthodox, Romanian, Russian Orthodox, Syrian, and Armenian Apostolic) a plot of 10,000 square meters to build homes for the priests and monks, and structures for conducting services, performing baptisms and celebrating Epiphany.
After a brief period of revival, however, the location on the Jordan across from the country of Jordan proved to be a negative for the site. After Israel’s Independence War, the area of Qesr al-Yehud was included in the West Bank controlled by Jordan (the country). During this time, there was still some tourism and activity at the monasteries.
But, after Israel captured the territory in the Six Day War in 1967, Qesr al-Yehud became the cease fire line between Israel and Jordan, with Israel controlling this site. Jordanians, in the subsequent years, would try to sneak across the waters of the Jordan in order to infiltrate into Israel and carry out attacks against Israeli citizens and property. In order to stop these attacks, Israel placed 2,600 anti-tank mines in the area all along the Jordan stream bed, including Qesr al-Yehud. Landmines not only kept the terrorists away, but excluded the monks and the pilgrims, causing the many monasteries here to go out of business.
A change in thought came in the year 2000 on the eve of the impending visit by Pope Paul II. Israel and Jordan had a peace treaty by this time and so the road leading to the waters of the Jordan was cleared in anticipation of His Holiness’ visit.
Israel subsequently saw the potential for developing this site for Christian tourists and embarked on the arduous task of clearing the mines around the churches and monasteries. It costs $10 to lay a mine but $2000 to clear one. This work has been contracted to Halo, the world’s largest humanitarian mine clearance organization. Halo also serves as a neutral body outside the purview of either the Israelis or the Palestinians as, although this area is in full Israeli control as stated in the Oslo accords, is still claimed by the Palestinians. Israel has given $535,000 to Halo for the project which is carried out by Georgians in order to maintain neutrality. The churches themselves have also contributed to the project. Currently the areas of the Franciscans and the Ethiopians have been cleared with more areas hopefully coming soon.
I’m always amazed by this site every time I visit. Hopefully soon, the entire site will be open for pilgrims and tourists to come and walk through history.