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Bethany Beyond the Jordan was a spiritual experience my lapsed Catholic self was not expecting. It reminded me that while I don’t believe in religious constructs, I always have believed in and liked Jesus and his teachings of kindness, acceptance, and love.
Not only was I raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools, but I also got my teaching degree at the Catholic University in Sydney and taught in Catholic schools.
But since I’m no longer practicing, I wasn’t in the “this is a big deal” kind of thinking. In fact, I thought it was going to be the most uninteresting part of our Jordan Escape by Globus tour.
Well, the sacred energy of this Holy Land immediately snuck into my nonchalant perspective and grounded me down into a spiritual experience. Being at the place where Jesus was baptized by St John the Baptist (the name of the school I attended) was quite monumental and moving.
In a lifetime of travel experiences through 50+ countries, this is one that will sit with high definition clarity at the top of my memory box. It is a hidden gem of Jordan. No, make that the Middle East. No make that the World.
In reflection, I only wish I soaked it up more.
Many times with my travels, it’s in looking back where I feel the true value of the experience. I always wonder, “Why didn’t I embrace this fully at the time?” Do you find that often with yourself?
I think it’s probably because your five senses are taking everything in at once, making it hard to process it all at the time and understand what it means, or how it’s moving you.
That’s why making time for reflection is so valuable – and our memories are so precious. As we say,
“Travel More. Create Better Memories.” (and learn to be a better human.)
What is Bethany Beyond the Jordan?
Al-Maghtas, otherwise known as Bethany Beyond the Jordan, has been a place of pilgrimage for Christians since St John the Baptist conducted his ministry and baptized Jesus of Nazareth.
This pristine wilderness is on the eastern back of the River Jordan, about 9km /5.5 miles north of the Dead Sea and near Mt Nebo where Moses showed the Israelite’s the Promised Land.
The Baptism Archeological Park is also a national park and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015.
There are two areas in this archaeological site:
- Tell Al-Kharrar, also known as Jabal Mar-Elias (Elijah’s Hill)
- The area of the churches of Saint John the Baptist near the Jordan River.
These two areas are connected by a stream called Wadi Kharrar, which is where it is believed Jesus was baptized. I promise you, there is a sacred energy here!
The History of Jesus’ Baptismal Site (and how it went missing!!)
Can you believe this incredible historical site kind of went missing for a few centuries? It was only rediscovered about twenty years ago!
As history is wanting to do, ruling power changed and around the 14th Century the area returned to the control of local tribes. East of the Jordan river was no longer a safe place to visit and so the pilgrims stopped coming.
With the discovery of the (nearby) Madaba Map in 1897, pilgrims started to return hoping to find clues to the location of the baptismal site.
The site once again became a no-go area with the two World Wars and the Palestinian – Israeli conflict.
Once the 1994 Peace Treaty was signed, the area which was full of mines began the process of de-mining, which opened the way for archaeological investigations.
Archeologists have uncovered a wealth of sites that include Byzantine churches, baptismal pools from the Roman and Byzantine periods, caves of monks and hermits, and lodges for pilgrims.
The overwhelming biblical, archeological, and historical evidence has led many religious leaders throughout the world to recognize this location as the authentic site of Jesus’ baptism.
Our guide spoke often, and with profound respect, as to how this area is protected and managed by the Kingdom of Jordan, a predominantly Muslim country.
I remember feeling a similar awe attending ANZAC Day in Gallipoli, Turkey. I was humbled and in awe of how much the Turkish people do to help us honor our fallen soldiers who invaded their land. There is more honor, love, and forgiveness in this world than you realize.
Tour of the Baptism Archeological Park
The site is open year-round and charges a modest entry fee which includes a one hour guided tour (choose from 7 different languages) and a compulsory shuttle bus ride. Tours depart about every 30 minutes.
The ticket office is at the Visitors’ Centre, which has plenty of parking.
All private cars are prohibited within the archaeological zone so an electric minibus brings visitors to their choice of three different sites: Tell Mar Elias, the Baptism Pools, and John the Baptist’s Church.
Alternatively, you can walk the 2.5km from the Visitor Centre to Tell Mar Elias, then along the south bank of the Wadi Kharrar for another 2km to John the Baptist’s Church and the Jordan River. Our guide said this was very beautiful.
Be aware that this area is located right near the Dead Sea, in other words, the lowest point on earth, at over 350m below sea level. This means a dry, hot environment with little shade!
We visited during winter so had pleasant temperatures. Allow for 2-3 hours to tour the site.
Our Globus tour group had a private tour with Rustom Mkhjian, the Director General of Bethany Beyond the Jordan.
He enthusiastically shared with us the history of this area, pointing out notable sites as we toured, and how they showed evidence that this was the true site of Jesus’ baptism.
We visited early in the morning and had the place to ourselves. I am so grateful as our experience was that of a deeply peaceful meditative place perfect for contemplation, exploration, and learning.
There were a few people arriving as we left, but the reports I’ve read of Bethany Beyond the Jordan is that it is a peaceful experience without chaotic crowds.
We started our tour at Elijah Hill and then proceeded to the baptismal site and then down to the river Jordan.
But first let me start with the most moving experience.
Baptismal Site of Jesus at Bethany Beyond the Jordan
Jesus’ baptismal site is believed to be in the springs of Wadi al-Kharrar, which flows to the Jordan. They assume the River Jordan was too dangerous and murky to perform baptisms.
We took a bus from Elijah Hill down to the baptismal area, where we followed a meandering and tranquil covered walking trail.
I was immediately overcome by a quiet, all-knowing spiritual energy, feeling the sacred site before I saw it.
The crumbling remains of churches and chapels here signify (based on bible and pilgrim accounts) that this was the spot. Notice in the photo above how the baptismal pool is shaped like a cross.
As we were there early before the crowds and on a private tour arranged by Globus, Rustom allowed us to walk down the ancient steps to the original water level and bless ourselves with it.
Being at the front of the line, I was stressed I was going to mess this up, but thankfully, I remembered to make the sign of the cross. My years of church attendance not completely lost on me.
It was only later that it hit me how monumental it was to be at the place where one of the most well-known, influential, and historically significant figures of all human history was baptized.
Even an atheist would respect the magnitude of a moment like that.
I wish I spent less time grappling with my phone to capture the essence and more time standing silently to soak it all up. I recommend taking your time in quiet reflection in this spot.
Really think about Jesus’ true message of kindness, acceptance, tolerance and love. He was a friend to ALL.
As our guide Ruston kept reminding us,
“It’s up to each of us to build bridges of love and peace”
Elijah’s Hill – Tell Mar Elias
Tell Mar Elias, or Elijah’s Hill, is where it is said the prophet Elijah rose into the heavens on a fiery chariot in the 9th Century BC.
It is marked by a rebuilt arch representing the 5th to 6th century pilgrim chapel. Pope John Paul II authenticated Bethany Beyond the Jordan here in 2000.
The small hill has the ruins of three churches, three caves and three baptism pools, accessible by a wooden catwalk.
Nearby is a 3rd-century rectangular prayer hall, one of the earliest Christian places of worship ever discovered. Also nearby is a system of water channels, pools, a well, and a large cistern with its original plastered interior
The site and the surrounding area has been a place where many Prophets have passed through.
St John’s Cave
On the western side of Elijah’s Hill, is a small cave where John lived, and where Jesus was known to visit him. This is considered a very Holy site and therefore a church was built around the cave, which you can see the remains of.
Here, you can also see the Rhotorios Monastery with several churches and other buildings, all within a surrounding wall. The entrance in the northern wall leads to the living quarters of the monks. The mosaic floor includes a cross made of diamond shapes and a Greek inscription dating it to the time of Rhotorious.
It was the first monastery east of the Jordan River on the early Christian pilgrimage route between Jerusalem and Mount Nebo.
Another significant point is that during the period of Islamic rule, monks lived in the monastery performing their daily duties freely, portraying the kind of coexistence between Christians and Muslims that is still the case in modern day Jordan.
Visually the site is very similar to how it would have looked in the time of Jesus and John.
Church of St John the Baptist
From the baptismal pool, you can walk down to the actual Jordan River. The presence of several churches in this area – for eons – is another piece of evidence used to ascertain that this is the sacred baptismal spot.
Why else would they dedicate so many resources to build church after church here?
The most well known is the beautiful domed Greek Orthodox Church of St John the Baptist, built on Byzantine ruins in 2003 right near the Jordan River. The Byzantine‐style frescos inside are stunning, especially the Jesus Christ one on the ceiling under the dome.
Jordan River, on the Israeli – Jordan border
Walk out the church door to the banks of the Jordan River. Huge Israeli and Palestinian flags wave above a platform at the West Bank site, Qasr Al Yahud, another popular place for pilgrims to visit.
Nearby Jericho in Israel was considered the place of Jesus’ baptism before the uncovering of Bethany Beyond the Jordan.
With its thicket of reeds and tamarisk bushes lining the banks and surrounding birdsong, it feels more like a tropical jungle down here than the desert.
There is not a lot to see, it’s more like a murky creek than a river. What enamored me the most were the gum trees along the river.
Apparently, due to mines, this is the only place in Jordan where you can get access the Jordan River. Despite warnings, people do perform baptisms in the river. Instead, there is a font of water from the river where pilgrims renew baptismal promises.
Pilgrims to the site can request a religious ceremony at either of the two new baptism pools that have been built along Tell Mar Elias, or at the ancient Large Baptism Pool midway along the wadi.
Getting to Bethany Beyond the Jordan
The site is about an hour west of Amman, on the border with the Palestinian Territories. You can get a taxi from Amman, rent a car, or take a minibus to Madaba. Check rental car prices here.
It’s pretty easy to get a taxi from the Dead Sea or Madaba, both are relatively close.
While in this area, visit the other notable nearby sites in the Holy Land: Madaba, Mt Nebo, and the Dead Sea.
DAY TOURS OF BETHANY BEYOND THE JORDAN
MULTI-DAY TOURS OF JORDAN (includes Bethany Beyond the Jordan)
Where to stay near Bethany Beyond the Jordan
As this area is near Dead Sea, my recommendation is to stay there. It’s a stunning place, it’s near many of the Holy Land sites, and you get to swim in the Dead Sea.
I Loved, loved, loved the Movenpick Resort Dead Sea – fantastic amenities, swimming pools, and views with your own private beach on the Dead Sea.
More Jordan travel tips
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