The Baptismal Site (Bethany beyond the Jordan)

Date of Submission: 18/06/2001
Criteria: (i)(iii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. Department of Antiquities.
Coordinates: Utm East:742960 - Utm North:3525000 UTM Zone:36
Ref.: 1556
Word File

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The Site is about 45minutes drive from Amman, and about 50 the west of Amman and 10 km. north of the Dead Sea. For the three past year and a half, the Jordanian Department of Antiquities has systematically surveyed and partially' excavated a series of ancient sites that collectively represent one of the most important archaeological discoveries in modem Jordan — the settlement and region of Bethany (or Beth abra), where John the Baptist lived and baptized. The Bethany area sites formed part of the early Christian pilgrimage route between Jerusalem, the Jordan River, and Mt. Nebo. The area is also associated with the biblical account of how the Prophet Elijah (Mar Elias in Arabic) ascended to heaven in a whirlwind on a chariot of fire, after having parted the waters of the Jordan River and walked across it with his anointed successor the Prophet Elisha. The site of this Bethany east of the Jordan River is not to be confused with the Bethany near Jerusalem, which was the home town of Lazarus. John 1:28 explicitly mentions Bethany cast of the river as the place where John the Baptist lived and baptized ("...Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing") while John 10:40 mentions an incident when Jesus escaped from hostile Jews in Jerusalem and "went away again across the Jordan to the place where John at first baptized..." The DOA team, headed by Cultural Resources Management department has now identified nearly 20 related sites within an area stretching some four kilometers east of the Jordan River. More sites remain to be discovered through systematic surveying. After excavations and conservation work is completed at the sites, the region will be prepared for tourist and pilgrimage trips, probably including visits to the Jordan River itself and the spot where tradition believes that Jesus was baptized and the Jordan River was crossed by Joshua, Elijah and Elisha. The site of Bethany, as mentioned in the book of John, is also known by other names. It is called Beth-Abara or Bethabara (Beit el-'Obour in Arabic) meaning 'house of the crossing', referring to the Joshua and Elijah crossings of the river, and Arabic Bible translations call it Beit 'Anya. Some Greek Bible texts call it Bethania. and in the Old Testament the same area is also referred to as Beth-Barah in Judges 7:24-25, the place where Gideon defeated the Midianites and sled two of their leaders or princes. These same fords across the Jordan are thought to be the place referred to in Judges 12:4-6, where Jephthah the Gileadite seized these fords during his battle against the Ephraimites (Gilead is the area roughly between the Amman region and the Yarmouk River, in the north of what is today Jordan). The Bethany area was known as Bethennabris in the Roman period. The 6th Century AD Byzantine Madaba mosaic map of the Holy Land labels it as 'Ainon where now is Saphsaphas'. The name Saphsaphas ('the place of willows') (also, Saphsas or Sapsas), comes from the Arabic word for willow tree. The Madaba map depicts a ferry crossing Just north of the Bethany area (one of two such ferries on the map), corresponding to the location of the current King Hussein Bridge (also known as the Allenby Bridge). Bethany/Bethabara may also have referred to a region, rather than only a specific settlement. Western travelers to the region at the turn of the century reported that the Greek Orthodox clerics and monks who lived in the south Jordan Valley, and the native ghoranis themselves, referred to the whole area around the river and east to the start of Wadi Kharrar as Bethabara, It seems that the original settlement in the 1st and 2nd Centuries AD was known as Bethany. but in the 3rd Century AD it was more commonly known as Bethabara, and by the 6th Century AD it had become known as Aenon and Saphsapha (or Sapsas, Sapsafas). John the Baptist's town The main complex being investigated comprises structures on and around a small natural hill located two kilometres east of the Jordan River, adjacent to the spring and small oasis at the head of the Wadi Kharrar. The hill has long been known as Elijah's Hill. or Jabal Mar Elias or Tell Mar Elias in Arabic. The current excavations have identified a settlement that was inhabited from the time of Christ and John the Baptist (early Roman era), throughout most of the Byzantine period, into the early Islamic era, and again in Ottoman centuries. The site was also visited by scholars earlier this century; the late director of antiquities Lankester Harding identified Byzantine remains on the surface, and the survey team of James Saner, Kheir Yassine and Moliawiyah lbrahim in the 1980s collected pottery there dating from the early Roman through the late Byzantine periods. A visit to the area by Father Michcle Piccirillo of the Franciscan Archaeological Institute also confirmed the presence of much early Roman pottery on the plateau immediately south of Bethany, pointing to the existence of a Roman era village at the time of Christ. The later settlement from the Byzantine era continued to use these pools, and also comprised new structures such as churches and other buildings with plain white and colored mosaic floors, some with crosses in the mosaics .The early Roman era cisterns were modified during the Byzantine period, with internal walls added and the steps removed in places. Several 5th-6th Century AD Byzantine churches have been excavated, one with an inscription mentioning ROTORIUS as the "head of the monastery", though this person is not known from any other ancient sources. The hill at the heart of Bethanv was already revered in antiquity as a holy site marking the spot from which Elijah ascended to heaven (2 Kings 2:5-14); perhaps that is why John the Baptist lived and baptized there, for the personalities, lifestyles, and missions of John and Elijah are frequently associated in the New Testament. The Byzantine writers Jerome and Eusebius mentioned 'Bethabara beyond the Jordan' in the 4th Century as a pilgrimage destination where people went to be baptized in the same waters that John the Baptist used for his mission. Pilgrims' accounts as early as the 4th and 6th Century' AD mention the hill at Bethany east of the river where Elijah ascended to heaven. In the late 3rd or early 4th Century' AD, according to much later sources from the I1th and 14th Centuries. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, is said to have crossed the Jordan River and visited Elijah's Hill and the cave where John the Baptist lived, and built a church there to commemorate John the Baptist. Byzantine era writers also called the hill 'Hermon Hill'. Stone and mud structures on the summit of Elijah's Hill and on adjacent hills to the south and east date from the mid-to-late Ottoman period (16th-ISth Centuries), when Greek Orthodox monks established a monastery' at the site comprising different structures for worship, residence, and accommodating visiting pilgrims. The Madaba map depicts two concentric circles at the site, which have variously been interpreted as symbols for the hill itself, the nearby caves, or the spring. Pilgrim's route The 20 sites identified from the Jordan River to Wadi Kharrar and eastwards to Wadi Gharahah formed stations along the pilgrim's route from Jerusalem to the Jordan River and finally to Mount Nebo. That itinerary commemorated places associated with the lives of some of the greatest prophets, including Moses, Joshua. Elijah. Elisha, John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. When the French priest-scholar Denis Buzy visited the area in 1930. he reported seeing white mosaic cubes along most of the route from the river to the start of Wadi Kharrar at Bethany.Tile exact place of Jesus' baptism is not known), and is assumed to have occurred in the Jordan River at or near the site now called el-Maghtas in Arabic. Whether Jesus entered the water from the east or west banks of the river when he was baptized by John, and whether his 40 days of wanderings in the wilderness (desert) occurred east or west of the river, remain very much debated today. The biblical texts are not precise on the locations of these events. Some scholars even question whether Jesus was baptized in the river itself. The river in antiquity was often not easily accessible, due to flooding and its setting down within a deep gorge, so John routinely baptized at his lace of residence at Bethany. John the Baptist's settlement at Bethany is now well identified, as arc a string of associated sites marking the sacred nature of the area cast of the river. It is generally assumed that the steps leading down to the river from the west bank of the river reflected the fact that most Byzantine and more recent pilgrims arrived at the river from Jerusalem, and entered the water from the west bank, as the Madaba map indicates. The primary evidence for Roman and Byzantine era sacred and secular structures associated with the baptism of Jesus and the mission of John the Baptist now appear to be clustered mostly on the east bank. The evidence from Byzantine and medieval days also indicates that this tradition was the dominant one throughout most of recorded history since the days of the Baptist. The ongoing survey and excavations along the Wadi Kharrar in Jordan, by a Department of Antiquities team headed by Cultural Resources Management , have identified the remains of several churches and other structures between Bethany and the river. The 20 sites identified from the Jordan River to Wadi Kharar and eastwards to Wadi Gharabah formed stations along the pilgrim's route from Jerusalem to the Jordan River and finally to Mount Nebo. The remains of a large church immediately adjacent to and east of the river include fine colored stone pavements and mosaics, Corinthian capitals, and column drums and bases, all from the [ate Byzantine period. This church may have been built in the Byzantine period to mark the exact spot where people believed that Jesus was baptized. and where John lived and preached his baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins. This site also has Islamic era pottery from the 8th-9th Centuries AD, indicating the continued use of the pilgrim's route, or merely the crossing of the river at these fords, in early Islamic centuries. This church is also possibly to be associated with the legend of the life of St Mary the Egyptian, a former prostitute whose repentant transformation and miraculous conversion at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem was recounted in Greek by Sofronius the Patriarch of Jerusalem. He said that the voice of the Virgin Mary told her to cross the Jordan River in order to "find rest", and at the river she stayed at the Church of John the Baptist. She lived for 47 years in this area. Before dying she was found by the monk Zosima, to whom she told her story, and when she died Zosima buried her with the assistance of a lion, according to the legend. The presence of lions in the Jordan Valley is attested in biblical passages, and a lion or leopard is depicted on the Madaba mosaic map. Jeremiah 49:19 uses the phrase " a lion coming up from the jungle of the Jordan." The writings of the anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux in 333 AD give the location of the site of Jesus' baptism as five Roman miles (7400 metres) north of the Dead Sea shore, which is the area near where Wadi Kharrar enters the Jordan River. Church writers and pilgrims in the 5th-to-7th Centuries AD mentioned churches in the lower Jordan River-Bethany region commemorating the baptism of Christ. The pilgrim Theodosius was the first to mention a church at the Jordan River built at the end of the 5th Century by the Emperor Anastasius (491 - 518 AD) to commemorate St John the Baptist. Built on arcades and square in shape, the church had a marble column with an iron cross marking the spot where the people then thought that Jesus had been baptized. The pilgrim Arculf in the 7th Century mentioned seeing the ruins of the church at this spot on the east bank, a wooden cross in the river, and steps leading into the water from the west bank. Another nearby chapel was said to have marked the spot where Jesus' clothes were kept while he was being baptized. Sacred caves About a kilometre east of the river, just beyond the thick belt of trees and bushes called "the jungle of the Jordan" or "the pride of the Jordan" in the Bible (Jeremiah 12:5; Zecharaiah 11:3), the landscape suddenly changes into a soft, chalky but stark whitish marl, a barren area called the 'wilderness' in the Bible. Here the survey team identified at least two natural caves that had been transformed into hermits' and monks' cells and small churches or chapels, and other caves certainly remain to be identified. One cave had three apses inside it. Many ancient texts from the Byzantine and Crusader eras mention the presence of Christian hermit monks living in caves and cells in this area, alongside springs. John Moscus, writing in his 7th Century book The Spiritual Meadow, mentions a monastic complex (or laura) in this area with many cells inhabited by hermits, built near a cave after a vision by a monk from Jerusalem who was on a pilgrimage to Sinai via Aila/Aqaba. The monk suffered a fever and took refuge in one of these caves east of the river. John the Baptist appeared to him in a vision and told him to cancel his trip and stay in the cave, saving that "this little cave is greater than Mount Sinai. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself has come in here to pay me a visit." The feverish monk recovered and in gratitude converted the cave into a church for the hermits living in the area. John Moscus said that the area was called the Laura of Saphsaphas, or Sapsas. The traveler Antonin de Plaisance in 570 AD mentioned a 'fountain' some two miles east of the river, thought to be the spring at Bethany. The monk Epiphanius, writing in the late 8th or mid-9th century AD, mentions a cave located near a spring nearly three miles east of the river, where John the Baptist lived and baptized. The early 12th Century traveler Abbot Daniel mentions a grotto of St. John the Baptist, and in 1157 Jean Phocas wrote about a shrine and cave of John the Baptist located east of the river. In ancient accounts both John and Elijah are associated with caves and springs in this area. (Some scholars believe that this is also the area where Elijah sought refuge, upon God's command, and was fed meat and bread by the ravens even' morning and evening ( I Kings 17:2-7). If so, the biblical Brook of Cherith (or Kerith Ravine) might be associated with the Wadi Kharrar. though most scholars associate it with Wadi Yabis, in the north Jordan River Valley. Thus, from the 4th through the 12th Centuries AD, for which there is documented textual evidence, there was a consistent tradition locating John the Baptist's home town of Bethany at and around the spring source of Wadi Kharrar, some 2-3 kilometres east of the Jordan River, in an area that was dotted with caves. Early Christian tradition also consistently recognized the sacred associations of the territory east of the river with the baptism of Jesus. This is why Christian monks, hermits and monasteries have been attested east of the river since the earliest Christian centuries. In fact, the entire area of Bethany from the river to Elijah's Hill is owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, affirming the church's recognition of the sacred nature of this terrain. (Scholars and Greek Orthodox church officials both note, however, that the precise spot of Jesus' baptism in the river is difficult to determine, in part because the course of the Jordan River has changed over time; this is also why we have different accounts in ancient texts of Bethany's distance from the river.) Fragmentary remains of several other small structures with tiles, pottery and cut stones — possibly churches or monks' residences — have been identified between the river and Bethany. Denis Blizy in 1931 traced the remains of hundreds' of small dwellings or buildings along a 500-metre-long stretch of the south bank of Wadi Kharrar, which he identified as remains of the 1st Century AD village of Bethany. Another traveler to this region in search of John the Baptist's village of Bethany was Father R.P. Federlin, who explored the area from his base in Jerusalem in 1899 onwards. He thought that Bethany was located at Tell el- Medesh, a few kilometres north of Bethany, cast of the river. He had walked through the Wadi Kharrar and documented some of the ancient remains, including nicely cut building stones on Elijah's Hill and adjacent hills. Buzy in the 1930s said that the stones mentioned by Federlin were no longer there, because they had been used by Greek Orthodox monks at the site who were building new facilities for themselves and/or for pilgrims. The Greek Orthodox Church has long officially sanctioned the presence of monks in ascetic cells (units smaller than monasteries) east of the river, and church documents attest that three monks lived in the area between Bethany and the river in 1905. The Monastery of St. John was also located cast of the river in the Bethany area, probably close to the river than to Elijah's Hill, but its remains have not yet been conclusively identified. It is likely to be one of the sites being excavated. Pilgrims' facilities East of Bethany, on Wadi Gharabah, are the remains of the water channel that reached Bethany itself and, and also served several pools and a large rectangular building measuring some I8 x 30 metres. It is believed that this was a Byzantine pilgrims' station for use by travelers on the road between Jerusalem, Mt Nebo and Madaba. East of this site the ancient route reached the Byzantine town of Livias, now called Tell Rama, which has surface evidence of pottery or mosaic stone cubes from the Byzantine and early Islamic eras, but has never been excavated The excavations and surveys are continuing, as are conservation and protection measures to preserve the well- being of this important area, which promises to become a focal point of tourism . Jordan's slogan for the Millennium "Jordan - the River and the Land of the Baptism", which would stress the Bethany and Jordan River are as well as Mekawir (ancient Machaerus), the hilltop Herodian fortified palace south of Madaba and east of the Dead Sea, where John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded. Priority for protection measures The Jordanian government has pondered several options for the development and protection of the sites. A royal commission for the protection and development of the site is responsible for any long-term decisions on it. Among the proposals suggested to date is a three-pronged approach that would designate the immediate area of Bethany and Elijah's Hill as a holy area, the zone around it and the associated sites along the pilgrim's route a protected area, and the wider environment for several kilometres in each direction a nature reserve. The land in question is all registered in the name of the Greek Orthodox Church; and the Jordan Valley Authority and the Department of Antiquities both share jurisdiction in terms of licensing any construction or development. The basic principle being followed to date is that any development of the area for tourism and pilgrimage should comprise minimum construction or alteration of the landscape, and the placement of visitor services well away from the core of the site. Given the unique spiritual and environmental character of the site, its moving natural beauty, and its international, importance, the challenge of excavating and protecting it while also allowing visitors access to it is a major test of Jordan's role as privileged custodian of a unique holy place that is sacred to the world 2.5 billion Christians and Muslims One of the urgent priorities for the development and conservation of this unique area is to formulate a long-term strategy for the protection of the antiquities and the very dramatic and well preserved natural environment.