Bethany Beyond Jordan: A Pilgrimage

Last weekend I took my first trip to Jordan. I surely hope it’s not my last. Jordan was inviting and laid-back. A perfect destination for a weekend of relaxation and reflection.

We arrived in Amman’s airport about fifteen miles south of the city and directly started our descent into the Jordan River Valley. The descent did a number on my ears as we slipped below sea level and bottomed-out at the lowest point on earth – the Dead Sea. I’ll get to the Dead Sea in another post, but I wanted to focus on one of the reasons I was drawn to the area – Bethany Beyond Jordan, the Baptismal Site of Jesus.

When I first saw this tourist site on the map, I immediately thought how can anyone know for sure where John the Baptist baptized Jesus? Well, there are clues. Strong ones, actually, including historical references to the site being several miles north of the Dead Sea. In addition, history favored this site by having a Byzantine Church built there in commemoration of the baptism as early at the 5th century AD. Excavated remains are right above the baptismal location.

So on our second morning at the Dead Sea, we boarded a tourist bus around nine A.M., and after the should-have-been-expected stop at a tourist trap full of Dead Sea items, we arrived at the baptismal site at 9:50 only to be told that the 10 A.M. shuttle to the site had already left. We would have to wait until 10:30 for the next shuttle. Since when does anything around here run early? Oh well.

We battled the flies waiting for the shuttles while reading the pamphlets about the history of Bethany-Beyond-Jordan. When the shuttles arrived, a tour guide herded us onto the bus and took us to the site. Guides are required because it is literally on the border between Jordan and Israel – certainly a security region – so no wandering tourists allowed without being on an official tour.

During the five minute shuttle ride, we passed Elijah’s Hill – yes,¬†that¬†Elijah, and that was the hill, which according to Biblical history, where Elijah was caught up into heaven on a chariot of fire. It started to feel surreal being in this setting, tucked between the rugged cliffs of the Jordan Valley, with Jericho, the world’s oldest city in the foreground to the northwest and Jerusalem, the City on a Hill in the distance to the southwest, and Mt. Nebo, the place where Moses glimpsed the Promise Land to our back. The Holy Land, a place for pilgrimage and reflection, walking in the footsteps of larger-than-life characters which were such a large part of my childhood. It was enough to make one pause and reflect upon this land full of untold significance.

We exited the shuttle into a beautiful, scraggy, arid landscape with picturesque churches on the hillside. We walked the opposite way along a covered walkway until we saw the first glimpse of the Jordan. The poor river is a mere shadow of its previous self. You would not need an Old Testament Prophet to part the waters to cross. A mere hop and dash would do the trick. The mighty Jordan has had its water siphoned off by all of the surrounding countries, making it a trickle while at the same time lowering the Dead Sea water by significant amounts each year.

Our guide mentioned how Jordan, in Arabic, means meandering because that’s what the river does – it meanders in curved, snake-like fashion. This picture below proves it. I’m standing in Jordan taking this picture. The water in the foreground is the Jordan River. On the other side of the water is Israel. However, you see that church in the background? That church is in Jordan. Weird, isn’t it?

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We arrived at the site of the baptismal, the place where people of faith believe that Jesus received his anointing, baptized by John, as the Holy Spirit in the form of dove descended from heaven. It’s a site of foreshadowing – descent into death and resurrection to life. The type of site a faith pilgrim could ponder for days. But we had to keep moving.

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The Baptismal Site of Jesus. The 5th Century Byzantine Church in the Background.

We arrived at a Greek Orthodox church built recently on the banks of the Jordan. At this site, we came face-to-face with pilgrims from Israel. Many donned white bath robes and dunked themselves into the water. A small church service on the Israeli side with a fiery preacher, beautiful singing, and baptisms in the river filled out the scene.

Before we knew it, we were being crammed on the shuttle back to our awaiting bus. It was only later that I was able to reflect upon what it was that I actually saw that day.

Bethany-Beyond-Jordan was only opened to the public within the last two decades. This is a site of beauty and reflection for all, even if you do not have a particular religious persuasion. Just to stand in the land which gave birth and life to so much of the world’s history and influence is an awe-inspiring experience in itself.

Put Bethany-Beyond-Jordan – the Baptismal Site of Jesus – on your must visit list. After all, it’s in Jordan, and Jordan’s awesome.

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