A mere hour from Bethlehem and 40 minutes from Jerusalem, a journey to the baptismal site of Christ at the Jordan River near the city of Jericho is a descent to the lowest point of elevation in the world. It is also one of the most sacred places in Christianity. The Jordan River holds a special place in Christian tradition, for it is here that Christ was baptized by his cousin, John the Baptist, as recalled in Matthew 3:13-17, after which Christ fasted in the Judean Desert for 40 Days. In many ways, this moment marked the beginning of the ministry, and is so commemorated on the Feast of Epiphany in the Catholic and Protestant traditions, and as Theophany in the Orthodox Christian tradition; with both feasts being held in January. The specific location of this baptism along the Jordan River has been known in local tradition since at least the early Byzantine era, and has been referred to by its Arabic name, Qasr al-Yahud. Throughout over a millennium and a half of Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the tradition of symbolically renewing the rite of baptism in the Jordan River has been an essential part of this journey. Pilgrims at the time of the Crusades were known to have brought back phials of water from the Jordan River, while a continuing tradition in Greece and the Balkan Chrisitian communities is to add the prefix “Hadji” or Hatzi” – pilgrim – to one’s family name once the symbolic baptism had been conducted.
Many contemporary pilgrims are familiar with the Yardenit baptismal park located near the mouth of the River Jordan at the southern bank of the Sea of Galilee. While the site is impressive and also gives its visitors a better idea of what the size of the Jordan River near Jericho would have looked like in ages past, when the water table was much more substantial, the park was constructed for the benefit of pilgrims during the years when access to the traditional baptismal site of Qasr al-Yahud was inaccessible. From 1948 to 1967, the site was administered by the Kingdom of Jordan (then sometimes referred to as Transjordan). Following the Six-Day War of 1967, the state of Israel took over control of the West Bank, including the literal “west bank” of the Jordan River, including the baptismal site. Several monastic communities and churches belonging to different denominational communities were abandoned, and pilgrimage to the site was restricted to the Feast of Epiphany and Theophany for the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches of the Holy Land due to the security situation between Israel and Jordan. However, as relations normalized between the countries, plans to reopen the site began to take form. Following the Papal visit of Saint Pope John Paul II in 2000, this process accelerated until the site was opened under the management of the Israeli government in 2011. Today, pilgrims can visit the location on a daily basis, where they can conduct the ritual of baptism in their own language, cultural and religious tradition in a special cordoned-off section of the river, or find a place in the shade of the many sitting areas at the site to look at the River and reflect. Any visitor will also be interested to note how narrow and shallow the Jordan River is, with the Jordanian side just a few meters to the east. Also visible at the site is the ambitious development project that the Kingdom of Jordan has undertaken to increase pilgrimage tourism to their partition of the Jordan River; allowing virtually every Christian community to build a church and visitor center or guesthouse along an allotment of land parceled to their denomination. The result has been a view of the different architectural styles of each denomination in this unique desert setting.
To visit the baptismal site is to partake in one of the most important Christian traditions, and to witness the merger of many people and traditions from different lands, but all with the same purpose: to be renewed in their faith through the waters of the Jordan River.
Michael Tours offers guided private tours to the baptismal site of Qasr al-Yahud and the surrounding area; to book this tour or other Holy Land destinations, contact us.