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The Sites

Israel and Palestine – In Jerusalem

Israel and Palestine – Outside Jerusalem

Jordan

Egypt

Extras

Jerash

Jordan

 

Jerash, one of the largest and best-preserved Roman cities in the Middle East, lies in a broad valley among the biblical mountains of Gilead, about 50 kilometres north of the Jordanian capital, Amman.

Ruins of ancient Jerash with modern city in the background (Britchi Mirela / Wikimedia)

Ruins of ancient Jerash with modern city in the background (Britchi Mirela / Wikimedia)

Under the name of Gerasa, it was one of the 10 cities of the Decapolis. This league of Greek cities, which came under Roman control in the 1st century BC, is mentioned in the New Testament.

People from the predominantly pagan Decapolis followed Jesus during his ministry in Galilee (Matthew 4:23-25). Although Jesus visited the region (Mark 7:31), there is no evidence that he entered Gerasa.

The city became Christian in the Byzantine period, when its 25,000 inhabitants had more than 20 churches and bishops who took part in early Church councils. Ruins of most of the churches can still be seen.

Conquests by Persians and Muslims in the 7th century, followed by devastating earthquakes in the 8th century, caused the city to be abandoned. It was rediscovered only at the beginning of the 19th century, remarkably preserved after being buried in sand for centuries.

 

Triumphal arch stands outside city

Hadrian’s Arch (Zairon / Wikimedia)

Hadrian’s Arch (Zairon / Wikimedia)

Jerash is divided by the Wadi Jerash, with the ancient city on the west side of the valley and the modern city — dating from the first half of the 20th century — on the east.

Outside the ancient city’s South Gate stands a grand triumphal arch with three openings, built to mark a visit by the emperor Hadrian in AD 129-130.

Adjacent to this is a hippodrome, constructed in the 2nd century for horse and chariot races, with a seating capacity of 15,000.

This 245-metre by 52-metre arena is now the venue for the twice-daily (except Tuesdays) Roman Army and Chariot Experience, in which authentically dressed actors perform as legionaries, gladiators and chariot drivers.

Oval Plaza at Jerash (Zairon / Wikimedia)

Oval Plaza at Jerash (Zairon / Wikimedia)

Inside the ancient city, the Temple of Zeus at the south end of the cardo overlooks a vast colonnaded Oval Plaza that served as Jerash’s forum. Nearby is the South Theatre, seating more than 3000 spectators and still in use.

The main street, the Cardo Maximus, extends for 800 metres in a northerly direction from the Oval Plaza.

Halfway along the Cardo, a monumental staircase leads to an esplanade with the remains of an open-air altar. Beyond are the tall Corinthian columns of the hilltop Temple of Artemis, which dominated the city. To the right is the North Theatre.

An abundance of churches

Jerash had more than 20 churches, all built between AD 368 and AD 611, with some even sharing walls. Their abundance may be due to a practice of the Byzantine Church — still the custom in some Eastern churches — to permit only one eucharistic service at each altar every day.

Gateway to the Roman temple which was rebuilt as the church now called the Cathedral (Dennis Jarvis)

Gateway to the Roman temple which was rebuilt as the church now called the Cathedral (Dennis Jarvis)

Most of the ruined churches are to the west of the Cardo Maximus, between two side streets, the South Decumanus and the North Decumanus. They include:

The so-called Cathedral (though there is no evidence that it was the seat of the bishop). The oldest church in Jerash, it was built on the ruins of a Roman temple, on the southern side of the esplanade leading to the Temple of Artemis.

Its outdoor atrium contains a small pool, believed to have been filled with wine when the miracle at the wedding in Cana was celebrated.

Against an outer east wall is a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary, with an inscription mentioning Mary and the archangels Michael and Gabriel.

The Church of St Theodore is to the west of the cathedral, and on a higher level.

An inscription that was over the main door reads: “The one passing by this place used to close his nose because of the bad smell; today he raises his right hand and draws the sign of the Holy Cross.” This is probably a reference to the sacrifices previously burnt on the nearby altar in front of the Temple of Artemis.

General view of the Church Complex (Fadi Shawkat Haddad)

General view of the Church Complex (Fadi Shawkat Haddad)

The Church Complex, west of the Church of St Theodore, has three adjoining churches that share an atrium. All were built between AD 529 and AD 533.

The Church of St George, on the south side, was still in use in the 8th century, when its mosaics were destroyed by iconoclasts opposed to the representation of humans and animals.

The mosaic floor of the Church of St John the Baptist, in the middle, is also damaged, but images can be seen of the four seasons, plants and animals, and the Egyptian cities of Alexandria and Memphis.

The Church of Sts Cosmas and Damian, twin brothers who were doctors, is on the north side. Its mosaic floor, the most splendid in Jerash, has survived. Besides gazelles, rabbits, peacocks, sheep and other animals, the images include the churchwarden Theodore and his wife Georgia, praying with outspread arms.

West of the Church Complex is the Church of St Genesius, built in AD 611 — just three years before the Persian invasion that was the beginning of the end for Jerash.

 

Tel.: 962 2 635-1272 (Visitors’ Centre)

Open: Apr-Oct 8am-6pm; Nov-Mar 8am-5pm. Last entry to site one hour before closing time.

 

References

Bourbon, Fabio, and Lavagno, Enrico: The Holy Land Archaeological Guide to Israel, Sinai and Jordan (White Star, 2009)
Caffulli, Giuseppe: “Jerash, Pompeii of the East”, Holy Land Review, spring 2010
Dyer, Charles H., and Hatteberg, Gregory A.: The New Christian Traveler’s Guide to the Holy Land (Moody, 2006)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Haddad, Fadi Shawkat: A Christian Pilgrimage Journey in Jordan (published by author, PO Box 135, Amman 11733, 2015)

 

External links

Jerash, Jordan (AtlasTours)
Jerash (VisitJordan)

Church of the Ascension

Jerusalem

Tower of the Russian Church of the Ascension (Seetheholyland.net)

Tower of the Russian Church of the Ascension (Seetheholyland.net)

The 64-metre tower that dominates the Mount of Olives skyline belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension. It was built to this height in the 1870s so that pilgrims unable to walk to the Jordan River could climb its 214 steps and at least see the river.

Atop the freestanding square tower is a sharply-pointed belfry. It contains an eight-ton bell, cast in Russia and pulled and pushed — mainly by women pilgrims — on a circular wagon from the port of Jaffa. It was the first Christian bell to ring in the Ottoman city of Jerusalem.

While the church is dedicated to the Ascension of Jesus — an event most Christians believe took place about 200 metres further west at the Dome of the Ascension — it also claims a connection to St John the Baptist.

An old tradition says the Baptist’s head was buried on the Mount of Olives and discovered on the site of the church by two Syrian monks in the 4th century.

Since 1907 the church has been in the custody of a community of Russian Orthodox nuns from a variety of nations. They are renowned for their singing and their icon-writing.

 

Chapel marks finding of John’s head

The Russian complex of the church and associated buildings, including a pilgrims’ hostel, is set among gardens with a large olive grove.

Access is from Rabi’a al-Adawwiyya Street (which begins directly opposite the entrance to the Church of Pater Noster) and along a lane on the right called Alley 7. To the left of a big green gate at the end of the lane is a door with a keypad to request entry.

Hollow in floor where John the Baptist's head is believed to have been found (Matanya - Wikimedia)

Hollow in floor where John the Baptist’s head is believed to have been found (Matanya – Wikimedia)

The cross-shaped church is surmounted by a dome containing a striking representation of the Ascension. Stains on flagstones from an earlier Byzantine church are believed to be the blood of nuns slain during the Persian invasion of 614.

Attached to an outside wall, protected by a grate, is a rock on which the Orthodox believe Mary, the mother of Jesus, was standing when her son ascended to heaven.

Behind the church is a chapel built on the site where the head of John the Baptist is said to have been found.

The tradition holds that a follower of Christ called Joanna saw Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas, throw John’s head on a rubbish heap. Joanna recovered it and buried it in a clay pot on the Mount of Olives.

In the 4th century John is said to have appeared in a dream to two Syrian monks who had come to Jerusalem as pilgrims, showing them where his head was buried.

Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine, was in Jerusalem at the time and ordered a chapel to be built on the spot. The present chapel has a Byzantine mosaic floor with a hollow said to mark the place where the head was discovered.

Three other Ascension sites

Lutheran Church of the Ascension (Isaac Shweky / Wikimedia)

Lutheran Church of the Ascension (Isaac Shweky / Wikimedia)

The Ascension of Jesus is commemorated at three other sites on the Mount of Olives:

* The Dome of the Ascension, a small octagonal structure in a walled compound about 200 metres west of the Russian church. A church has stood here since around AD 380, but the present building is now part of a mosque.

* The Lutheran Church of the Ascension, further north towards Mount Scopus. Also known as Augusta Victoria (after the wife of the Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany who initiated plans for the church in 1989), its fortress-like compound with a tall bell tower now hosts a hospital for the Palestinian population of Jerusalem.

* The Greek Orthodox Viri Galilaei Church, between the Russian and Lutheran churches. Its name means “men of Galilee”, a reference to the question posed to the apostles by two men in white after the Ascension: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up to heaven…?”

 

Related sites:

Dome of the Ascension

Sebastiya

 

In Scripture:

Jesus ascends to heaven: Acts 1:9-11

 

Administered by: Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem

Tel: 02-628-4373 or 628-0111

Open: Apr-Sep, Tues and Thur, 10am-1pm; Oct-Mar, Tues and Thur, 9am-12 noon. Women must wear skirts.

 

 

References

Bar-Am, Aviva: Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem (Ahva Press, 1998)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Hilliard, Alison, and Bailey, Betty Jane: Living Stones Pilgrimage: With the Christians of the Holy Land (Cassell, 1999)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Rossing, Daniel: Between Heaven and Earth: Churches and Monasteries of the Holy Land (Penn Publishing, 2012)

 

Machaerus

Jordan

 

The hilltop fortress of Machaerus, on the eastern side of the Dead Sea and 53 kilometres southwest of Amman, is recorded as the place where John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded.

Machaerus

Herod’s stronghold of Machaerus (© Visitjordan)

John preached a baptism of repentance at the Jordan River and foretold the coming of Jesus the Messiah, who was his cousin.

He also criticised Herod Antipas, the governor of Galilee and Perea, for unlawfully marrying his half-brother’s wife, Herodias — thereby earning her enmity.

Herod Antipas imprisoned John, but Mark’s Gospel says he protected him, “knowing that he was a righteous and holy man”, and “liked to listen to him” (6:20).

The governor’s birthday banquet for the leaders of Galilee gave Herodias her opportunity to get rid of John. Her daughter, Salome, danced for the gathering and so enthralled Herod that he offered her whatever she wanted — “even half of my kingdom” (6:23).

Machaerus

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1531 (The Yorke Project)

Salome, who was probably no older than 14 (so her dance might not have been the erotic performance usually imagined), sought her mother’s advice and then asked for John the Baptist’s head.

Herod, “deeply grieved”, gave the order. John was executed and his head brought in “on a platter”. John’s disciples took away his body for burial. (6:26-29)

According to the historian Josephus, John’s execution took place at Machaerus. An early Christian tradition says his body was buried at Sebastiya in Samaria, which Orthodox Christians believe was also the venue for the banquet.

 

Herod built ‘breathtaking’ palace

Machaerus (the name means “black fortress”) was one of a series of hilltop strongholds established by Herod the Great — the father of Antipas — along the edge of the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea.

Machaerus

Ruins of Herod’s palace on Machaerus (© Dan Gibson)

Protected on three sides by deep ravines, it afforded seclusion and safety in times of political unrest. Fire signals linked Machaerus to Herod’s other fortresses and to Jerusalem.

On top of the mountain, more than 1100 metres above the Dead Sea, Herod erected a fortress wall with high corner towers. In the centre he built a palace that was “breathtaking in size and beauty”, according to Josephus. Numerous cisterns were dug to collect rainwater.

When Herod the Great died in 4 BC, Machaerus passed to his son Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee and Perea (an area on the eastern side of the Jordan River) until AD 39.

 

Jesus appeared before Antipas

Herod Antipas had married Phasaelis, daughter of King Aretas of Nabatea, the kingdom whose capital was Petra. But while visiting Rome in AD 26 he stayed with his half-brother Herod Philip I and fell in love with Philip’s wife Herodias.

When Phasaelis learnt that Antipas intended to divorce her and marry Herodias, she obtained permission to visit Machaerus and from there fled to her father in Nabatea.

Machaerus

Herod Antipas, by James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

Antipas’s rejection of Phasaelis added a personal note to existing disputes with King Aretas over the boundary of Perea and Nabatea. In AD 36 Aretas attacked Antipas and completely destroyed his army.

According to Josephus, some of the Jews saw this devastating defeat as divine retribution for killing John the Baptist.

Some time before the war with Aretas, Jesus was arrested in Jerusalem and brought before Pontius Pilate. When Pilate learnt that Jesus came from Galilee, he sent him to Herod Antipas, who was also in Jerusalem at the time.

Luke’s Gospel says Antipas “had been wanting to see him for a long time” and “was hoping to see him perform some sign”. He questioned Jesus at length, but Jesus gave no answer. Antipas then mocked Jesus and sent him back to Pilate in an elegant robe. (23:8-11)

Romans captured fortress by deception

In AD 39 Herod Antipas was accused of conspiring against the Roman emperor Caligula, who exiled him to Gaul.

At the time of the First Jewish Revolt (AD 66-73), Machaerus was in the hands of Jewish rebels. Roman forces took the fortress only by deception — they captured a young Jewish defender and threatened to crucify him if the rebels did not surrender.

Machaerus

Columns from Herod’s palace on Machaerus (© Dan Gibson)

When the rebels agreed to abandon Machaerus, the Romans systematically dismantled the Herodian fortifications.

Excavations at the site have uncovered remains of Herod’s palace, including rooms designed around a central courtyard, an elaborate bath and floor mosaics.

Below the hilltop ruins on the eastern side is the village of Mukawir, where excavations have found evidence of three Byzantine churches built in the 6th century.

 

In Scripture

Herod Antipas executes John the Baptist: Mark 6:14-29; Matthew 14:1-12; Luke 3:18-20

Jesus appears before Herod Antipas: Luke 23:8-11

 

References

Brisco, Thomas: Holman Bible Atlas (Broadman and Holman, 1998)
Cox, Ronald: The Gospel Story (CYM Publications, 1950)
Eber, Shirley, and O’Sullivan, Kevin: Israel and the Occupied Territories: The Rough Guide (Harrap-Columbus, 1989)
Kilgallen, John J.: A New Testament Guide to the Holy Land (Loyola Press, 1998)
Maier, Paul L. (trans.): Josephus: The Essential Writings (Kregel Publications, 1988)
Meyers, Carol L., Craven, Toni, and Kraemer, Ross S. (eds): Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books and New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001)
Rainey, Anson F., and Notley, R. Steven: The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Carta, 2006)

 

External links

Machaerus: Beyond the Beheading of John the Baptist (Biblical Archaeology Society)
Mukawir Fortress (Nabataea.net)
Where Saint John the Baptist was Beheaded (Hungarian Review)
Lost biblical fortress of Machaerus restored after 50 years of excavations (Jordan Times)

Sebastiya

West Bank

In the Palestinian village of Sebastiya, Christians and Muslims alike honour a connection to John the Baptist at a location earlier known for the worship of Phoenician gods and a Roman emperor.

Sebastiya

Cathedral of St John the Baptist, with tomb crypt under dome in centre (© ATS Pro Terra Sancta)

Sebastiya (with various spellings including Sebaste and Sebastia) is about 12 kilometres northwest of Nablus, to the east of the road to Jenin.

An early Christian tradition, from the first half of the 4th century, says John the Baptist’s disciples buried his body here after he was beheaded by Herod Antipas during the infamous banquet at which Salome’s dance enthralled the governor (Mark 6:21-29).

An Orthodox Christian tradition holds that Sebastiya was also the venue for the governor’s birthday banquet, though the historian Josephus says it was in Herod’s fortress at Machaerus, in modern-day Jordan.

Sebastiya

Village of Sebastiya (Shuki / Wikipedia)

Overlooking the present village of Sebastiya are the hilltop ruins of the royal city of Samaria. The city is mentioned more than 100 times in the Bible. Excavations have uncovered evidence of six successive cultures: Canaanite, Israelite, Hellenistic, Herodian, Roman and Byzantine.

The surrounding hill-country, its slopes etched by ancient terracing, has changed little in thousands of years.

When the early Christian community dispersed during the persecution that followed the martyrdom of St Stephen, the deacon Philip preached the Gospel in Samaria and was joined there by the apostles Peter and John.

 

City renamed by Herod the Great

Omri, the sixth king of the northern kingdom of Israel, built his capital on the rocky hill of Samaria in the ninth and eighth centuries before Christ.

His son Ahab fortified the city and, influenced by his wife Jezebel, a Phoenician princess, built temples to the Phoenician gods Baal and Astarte. Ahab’s evil deeds incurred the wrath of the prophet Elijah, who prophesied bloody deaths for both Ahab and Jezebel.

Sebastiya

Steps to where the Temple of Augustus stood (© ATS Pro Terra Sancta)

During its eventful history, Samaria was destroyed by Assyrians in 722 BC (ending the northern kingdom of Israel), captured by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, destroyed by the Maccabean King John Hyrcanus in 108 BC, and rebuilt by the Roman general Pompey in 63 BC.

Herod the Great expanded the city around 25 BC, renaming it Sebaste in honour of his patron Caesar Augustus (Sebaste is Greek for Augustus). Herod even built a temple dedicated to his patron, celebrated one of his many marriages in the city, and had two of his sons strangled there.

The pattern of destruction and rebuilding continued during the early Christian era. Sebaste became the seat of a bishop in the 4th century, was destroyed by an earthquake in the 6th century, flourished briefly under the Crusaders in the 12th century, then declined to the status of a village.

 

Pagans desecrated John’s tomb

Christian sources dating back to the 4th century place John the Baptist’s burial at Sebastiya, along with the remains of the prophets Elisha and Obadiah.

Sebastiya

Crypt of the reputed tomb of John the Baptist (bottom centre) and other prophets (© ATS Pro Terra Sancta)

Around 390, while translating the Onomasticon (directory) of the holy places compiled by Eusebius, St Jerome describes Samaria/Sebaste as “where the remains of John the Baptist are guarded”.

By then, according to a contemporary account by the historian Rufinus of Aquileia around 362, pagans had desecrated the tomb during a persecution of Christians under emperor Julian the Apostate. The Baptist’s remains were burnt and the ashes dispersed, but passing monks saved some bones.

In the 6th century two urns covered in gold and silver were venerated by pilgrims. One was said to contain relics of John the Baptist, the other relics of Elisha.

Two churches were built during the Byzantine period. One was on the southern side of the Roman acropolis (on the site the Orthodox Church believes John was beheaded).

Sebastiya

Greek Orthodox church, with apse at right and entrance to underground cave in centre (© Sebastiya Municipality)

The other church, a cathedral built over the Baptist’s reputed tomb, was just east of the old city walls and within the present village. Rebuilt by the Crusaders, it became the second biggest church in the Holy Land (after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem).

But after the Islamic conquest of 1187 the cathedral was transformed into a mosque dedicated to the prophet Yahya, the Muslim name for John the Baptist. The mosque, rebuilt in 1892 within the ruins of the cathedral, is still in use.

Tomb is under cathedral ruins

Sebastiya

Walls of Cathedral of St John the Baptist (© ATS Pro Terra Sancta)

Pilgrims still visit the tomb associated with John the Baptist and other prophets. Under a small domed building in the cathedral ruins, a narrow flight of 21 steps leads down to a tomb chamber with six burial niches set in the wall. Tradition places John the Baptist’s relics in the lower row, between those of Elisha and Obadiah.

The remains of the cathedral’s huge buttressed walls dominate Sebastiya’s public square.

In the extensive archaeological park at the top of the hill are remnants of Ahab’s palace, identified by the discovery of carved ivory that was mentioned in the Bible (1 Kings 22:39). The ivory pieces are displayed in the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem.

Sebastiya

Visitors and residents during Sebastiya’s first Heritage Day in 2010 (© ATS Pro Terra Sancta)

Also to be seen are the stone steps leading to Herod the Great’s temple of Augustus, an 800-metre colonnaded street, a Roman theatre and forum, and a city gate flanked by two watchtowers.

Interest in Sebastiya’s heritage and community — now entirely Muslim except for one Christian family — has been revived in the early 21st century by a project involving the Franciscan non-profit organisation ATS Pro Terra Sancta, funded by Italian aid.

 

In Scripture

King Omri moves his capital to Samaria: 1 Kings 16:23-24

Ahab erects an altar for Baal: 1 Kings 16:32

Ahab’s ivory house: 1 Kings 22:39

John the Baptist is beheaded: Mark 6:21-29

Philip preaches in Samaria: Acts 8:5

Peter and John go to Samaria: Acts 8:14

 

 

References

Blaiklock, E. M.: Eight Days in Israel (Ark Publishing, 1980)
Brisco, Thomas: Holman Bible Atlas (Broadman and Holman, 1998)
Dyer, Charles H., and Hatteberg, Gregory A.: The New Christian Traveler’s Guide to the Holy Land (Moody, 2006)
Eber, Shirley, and O’Sullivan, Kevin: Israel and the Occupied Territories: The Rough Guide (Harrap-Columbus, 1989)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Prag, Kay: Israel & the Palestinian Territories: Blue Guide (A. & C. Black, 2002)
Saltini, Tommaso (ed.): Sabastiya — The fruits of history and the memory of John the Baptist (ATS Pro Terra Sancta exhibition catalogue, 2011)
Walker, Peter: In the Steps of Jesus (Zondervan, 2006)

 

External links

Sebastia in the news (ATS Pro Terra Sancta)

 

Jordan River

Israel/Jordan

Jordan River

Jordan River near Chorazin (Seetheholyland.net)

The Jordan River runs through the land and history of the Bible, giving its waters a spiritual significance that sets it aside from other rivers.

The Jordan is significant for Jews because the tribes of Israel under Joshua crossed the river on dry ground to enter the Promised Land after years of wandering in the desert.

It is significant for Christians because John the Baptist baptised Jesus in the waters of the Jordan.

The prophets Elijah and Elisha also crossed the river dry-shod; and the Syrian general Naaman was healed of leprosy after washing in the Jordan at Elisha’s direction.

 

River flows below sea level

Jordan River

Excavated baptismal site at Bethany Beyond the Jordan (Seetheholyland.net)

Flowing southward from its sources in the mountainous area where Israel, Syria and Lebanon meet, the Jordan River passes through the Sea of Galilee and ends in the Dead Sea. A large part of its 320-kilometre length forms the border between Israel and Jordan in the north and the West Bank and Jordan in the south.

The river falls 950 metres from its source to the Dead Sea. For most of its course down the Jordan Rift Valley, it flows well below sea level. Its name means “Dan [one of its tributaries] flows down”.

Though an old song says the River Jordan is “deep and wide”, the modern river is neither. In places it is more like a creek than a river — less than 10 metres across and 2 metres deep.

From Jesus’ time until the mid 20th century, seasonal flooding in winter and spring expanded its width to 1.5km. Dams in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel now preclude flooding.

 

Site identified in former military zone

Jordan River

Yardenit baptism site (Seetheholyland.net)

The place where Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist is believed to be in Jordan, on the east bank of a large loop in the river opposite Jericho.

A site less than 2km east of the river’s present course, at Wadi Al-Kharrar, has been identified as Bethany Beyond the Jordan. This is where John lived and baptised, and where Jesus fled for safety after being threatened with stoning in Jerusalem.

Until the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, the area was a Jordanian military zone. After clearing nearby minefields, the Jordanian government has made the place accessible to archaeologists, pilgrims and tourists.

Jordan’s new Baptism Archaeological Park contains the remains of a Byzantine-era monastery featuring at least four churches, one of which is built around a cave believed to be the one that ancient pilgrims called “the cave of John the Baptist”.

While the Jordanian location was inaccessible, a modern site commemorating Christ’s baptism was established at Yardenit in Israel, at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee.

Maintained by a kibbutz, it is a popular place for Christian pilgrims to renew their baptismal promises — or for new Christians to be baptised, often in white robes and undergoing total immersion in the mild waters of the Jordan.

 

Various

The course of the Jordan River (Wikimedia)

Jordan is diverted and polluted

Because its waters are a vital resource for the dry lands of the region, the Jordan has been a source of contention among Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians.

In modern times more than 90 per cent of its natural flow has been diverted for domestic and agricultural use. The lower Jordan is heavily polluted by sewage and industrial run-off.

In 2007 the World Monuments Fund listed the lower Jordan in the top 100 most “endangered cultural heritage sites”. In support, a regional environmental organisation, Friends of the Earth Middle East, said: “The region’s current policies treat the river as a backyard dumping ground.”

Related site:

Bethany Beyond the Jordan

 

In Scripture:

The Israelites cross the Jordan on dry ground: Joshua 3:14-17

Elijah crosses the Jordan on dry ground: 2 Kings 2:8

John baptises Jesus: Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34

Naaman’s leprosy is cured in the Jordan: 2 Kings 5:1-14

 

 

References

McCormick, James R.: Jerusalem and the Holy Land (Rhodes & Eaton, 1997)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)
Khouri, Rami: “Where John Baptized: Bethany Beyond the Jordan”, Exploring Jordan: The Other Biblical Land (Biblical Archaeology Society, 2008)
Waldocks, Ehud Zion: “Jordan River to run dry by next year”, Jerusalem Post, May 3, 2010

 

External links

The Baptism Site of Jesus Christ (official site)
Bethany-Beyond-The-Jordan (Sacred Destinations)
Yardenit Baptismal (BibleWalks)
Yardenit Baptismal Site

Ein Karem

Israel

 

Church of the Nativity of St John the Baptist

Church of the Visitation

Ein Karem

Mary meets Elizabeth, at the Church of the Visitation (Seetheholyland.net)

Christian tradition places the birth of John the Baptist — who announced the coming of Jesus Christ, his cousin — in the picturesque village of Ein Karem 7.5km south-west of Jerusalem.

Luke’s Gospel tells of the circumstances of John’s birth (1:5-24, 39-66).

The angel Gabriel appeared to the elderly priest Zechariah while he was serving in the Temple and told him that his wife Elizabeth was to bear a son. Zechariah was sceptical, so he was struck dumb and remained so until the baby John was born.

In the meantime, Gabriel appeared to the teenage Virgin Mary in Nazareth, telling her that she was to become the mother of Jesus. As proof, he revealed that Mary’s elderly cousin Elizabeth was already six months’ pregnant.

Mary then “went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country” — a distance of around 120km — “where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.” (Luke 1:39-41)

 

Two sites for two houses

The two main sites in the “Judean town” of Ein Karem are linked to the understanding that Zechariah and Elizabeth had two houses in Ein Karem (also known as Ain Karim, Ain Karem, ’Ayn Karim and En Kerem).

Their usual residence was in the valley. But a cooler summer house, high on a hillside, allowed them to escape the heat and humidity.

The summer house is believed to be where the pregnant Elizabeth “remained in seclusion for five months” (Luke 1:24) and where Mary visited her.

The house in the valley is where John the Baptist was born. Here, also, old Zechariah finally regained his power of speech after his son was born, when he obediently wrote on a writing tablet that the baby’s name was to be John.

Ein Karem is still a tranquil place of trees and vineyards, but the municipality of Jerusalem has spread to incorporate the former Arab village. It is now a town of Jewish artisans and craftspeople, but Christian churches and convents abound.

 

Church of the Nativity of St John the Baptist

Ein Karem

Church of St John the Baptist in the centre of Ein Karem (© Israel Ministry of Tourism)

There are two churches of St John the Baptist in the town. Best-known is the Catholic Church of the Nativity of St John, identifiable by its tall tower topped by a round spire. It is also called “St John in the mountains”, a reference to the “hill country” of the Scripture.

The church combines remnants of many periods. An early church on this site was used by Muslim villagers for their livestock before the Franciscans recovered it in the 17th century. The Franciscans built the present church with the help of the Spanish monarchy.

The high altar is dedicated to St John. To the right is Elizabeth’s altar. To the left are steps leading down to a natural grotto — identified as John’s birthplace and believed to be part of his parents’ home.

A chapel beneath the porch contains two tombs. An inscription in a mosaic panel reads, in Greek, “Hail martyrs of God”. Whom it refers to is unknown.

The other church, built in 1894, is Eastern Orthodox.

 

Church of the Visitation

Ein Karem

Church of the Visitation, Ein Karem (Seetheholyland.net)

The Virgin Mary’s visit to Elizabeth — depicted in mosaic on the façade — is commemorated in a two-tiered church, on a slope of the hill south of Ein Karem.

Completed in 1955 to a design by Antonio Barluzzi, the artistically decorated Church of the Visitation is considered one of the most beautiful of all the Gospel sites in the Holy Land.

This is believed to be the site of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s summer house, where Mary came to visit her cousin. On the wall opposite the church, ceramic plaques reproduce Mary’s canticle of praise, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) in some 50 languages.

In the lower chapel, a vaulted passage leads to an old well. An ancient tradition asserts that a spring joyfully burst out of the rock here when Mary greeted Elizabeth.

A huge stone set in a niche is known as the Stone of Hiding. According to an ancient tradition, the stone opened to provide a hiding place for the baby John during Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents — an event depicted in a painting on the wall.

 

Mary’s Spring and the Desert of St John

In a valley on the south of the village is a fresh-water spring known as Mary’s Spring or the Fountain of the Virgin. Tradition has it that Mary quenched her thirst from this spring before ascending the hill to meet Elizabeth.

The water has become contaminated and is no longer safe to drink.

The spring gives the village its name — from the Arabic “ein” (spring) and kerem (vineyard or olive grove). Built over the spring is a small abandoned mosque, another reminder that this was once an Arab village.

South-west of Ein Karem, off Route 386, a Greek Melkite monastery and a Franciscan convent mark the Desert of St John, a site where John the Baptist is believed to have lived in seclusion.

 

In Scripture:

The birth of John the Baptist: Luke 1:5-24, 39-66

Mary visits Elizabeth: Luke 1:39-45

The Magnificat: Luke 1:46-55

 

Administered by: Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land

Tel.: Visitation Church 972-2-6417291; St John’s Church 972-2-6323000

Open: St John’s Church, 8am-noon, 2.30-5.45pm (4.45pm Oct-Mar); Visitation Church, 8-11.45am, 2.30-6pm (5pm Oct-Mar)

 

 

References

Brownrigg, Ronald: Come, See the Place: A Pilgrim Guide to the Holy Land (Hodder and Stoughton, 1985)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Kloetzli, Godfrey: “Ain Karim”, Holy Land, winter 2003
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Ain Karem – Saint John the Baptist (Custodia Terrae Sanctae)
Ain Karem – The Visitation (Custodia Terrae Sanctae)
Ain Karem – Saint John in the Desert (Custodia Terrae Sanctae)
Ein Karem (Wikipedia)

Bethany Beyond the Jordan

Jordan

The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, the act that launched Jesus’ public ministry, most likely took place on the Jordanian side of the Jordan River, in a perennial riverbed called the Wadi Al-Kharrar.

Bethany Beyond the Jordan

Shelter over remains of a church at the Baptism Site (Alicia Bramlett)

Here the remains of more than 20 Christian sites have been discovered, including several churches, a prayer hall, baptismal pools and a sophisticated water reticulation system. These date back to the Roman and Byzantine periods.

Excavations at Bethany Beyond the Jordan began only in 1996. Before then the area had been a minefield on the front line between Jordan and Israel, whose border is the Jordan River.

The 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel prepared the way for access by archaeologists and church officials. Jordanian authorities have built a new road, a visitors’ centre and walkways. Several Christian denominations have built churches, the most prominent being the gold-domed Greek Orthodox Church of St John the Baptist.

The baptismal site of Bethany Beyond the Jordan (John 1:28) is near the southern end of the Jordan River, across from Jericho and 8 kilometres south of the King Hussein (or Allenby) Bridge. It is 40 minutes by car from the Jordanian capital of Amman.

It should not be confused with the Bethany on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, near Jerusalem, where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.

 

Stream flows from oasis

At the head of the Wadi Kharrar, springs emerge from the barren landscape to create a small oasis of tamarisk and palm trees, reeds, grasses and shrubbery. From here the Wadi Kharrar stream flows eastward to the Jordan River, its 2-kilometre route flanked by thick vegetation and identified by the murmur of running water.

Bethany Beyond the Jordan

Lush vegetation beside the Jordan River (© Visitjordan.com)

The fresh water of the Wadi Kharrar stream would have been more suitable for baptisms than the murkier Jordan River, which in John the Baptist’s time was also subject to heavy seasonal flooding.

The area adjacent to the baptismal site of Bethany Beyond the Jordan (called Al-Maghtas in Arabic) has many other biblical associations.

Near here, it is believed, Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan River to the Promised Land after the waters miraculously stopped flowing (Joshua 3:14-16).

Elijah — a prophet who is often associated with John the Baptist — also crossed the Jordan River on dry ground in this area, and was then taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:8-11).

In the New Testament, Jesus withdrew to Bethany Beyond the Jordan after being threatened with stoning in Jerusalem (John 10:31-40).

Early Christian pilgrims visited Bethany Beyond the Jordan on a route that went from Jerusalem to Jericho, across the Jordan River and then to Mount Nebo.

 

Precise spot is unknown

Bethany Beyond the Jordan

Pilgrims renew baptismal promises around a font of water from the Jordan River (Seetheholyland.net)

John the Baptist “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). The Jordan River has changed course over the centuries and the precise spot where John baptised Jesus will probably never be positively identified.

All four Gospel writers mention Jesus’ baptism, but only John specifies the location as Bethany Beyond the Jordan. Documentary evidence favours identifying this location as Wadi Al-Kharrar or Al-Maghtas.

Not all scholars accept this identification. Some prefer a location north of the Sea of Galilee, by the Yarmouk River, where Elijah, hiding from the wrath of King Ahab, is believed to have been fed by a raven (1 Kings 17:2-6).

Identification was made more difficult by the Christian scholar Origen, who lived in Palestine in the 3rd century. Unaware of any Bethany on the east side of the Jordan River, he suggested the placename in John’s Gospel should be Bethabara (which was on the west of the river). Some New Testament translators followed his suggestion. It even appears in the King James Version of the Bible.

Jesus’ baptism is also commemorated on the western bank of the Jordan River, at a site in Israel called Qasr Al-Yahud (see below).

Church was built on arches

Pilgrims as far back as 333 described visits to the baptism site of Bethany Beyond the Jordan. An account in 530 said it was marked by a marble pillar on which an iron cross had been fastened.

The 6th-century pilgrim Theodosius described a church built there by the Byzantine emperor Anastasius I. He said this square-shaped church was built on high arches to allow flood waters to pass underneath. Archaeologists believe they have uncovered remains of the piers on which the church was built.

Later pilgrims referred to a small church said to have been built “on the place where the Lord’s clothes were placed”.

The Wadi Al-Kharrar was also the centre of an active monastic life. Hermits lived in caves carved into the soft limestone, gathering weekly for a common liturgy.

A monastery with four churches developed between the 4th and 6th centuries on Tell Mar Elias (St Elijah Hill), just above the springs that feed the stream. A hostel between the monastery and the river provided lodging for pilgrims, who would immerse themselves in the waters.

The baptismal site was particularly revered by Russian pilgrims prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917. They would arrive carrying their shrouds which they would wear as they baptised each other in the river.

 

One church was built around a cave

In an area of several square kilometres, now called the Baptism Archaeological Park, the Jordanian Department of Antiquities has surveyed, excavated and conserved a series of ancient remains.

Bethany Beyond the Jordan

Mosaics from a church floor (© Visitjordan.com)

These include a walled monastery containing at least four churches and chapels, a prayer hall, a sophisticated water reticulation and storage system and three plastered pools. The wall was intended to prevent erosion, rather than protect against attack.

The discoveries include remains of foundations and walls, mosaic floors, fine coloured stone pavements, Corinthian capitals, column drums and bases, and hermits’ cells and caves.

One of the churches appears to have been built around a natural cave containing fresh spring water — possibly the cave that Byzantine pilgrims called “the cave of John the Baptist”.

The development of facilities for pilgrims has been encouraged by the Jordanian royal family. These facilities include a new road from the Dead Sea area, a visitors’ centre, and paths and walkways to the most important religious and archaeological sites.

In 2015 Bethany Beyond the Jordan was designated a World Heritage site.

 

Commemoration moved to western bank

Bethany Beyond the Jordan

Greek Orthodox Church of St John the Baptist at Bethany Beyond the Jordan (Seetheholyland.net)

The religious sites in the Wadi Al-Kharrar area were gradually abandoned from the time of the Muslim conquest, in the middle of the 7th century. Pilgrims from Jerusalem no longer ventured across the Jordan River, so they commemorated the baptism of Jesus near Qasr Al-Yehud on the western bank.

This site is marked by the large medieval-era Greek Orthodox Monastery of St John the Baptist, built on Byzantine ruins and clearly visible from across the river.

Access to the area around Qasr Al-Yehud has also been difficult in modern times. From 1967 until 1994 it was also in a military zone and heavily mined. It was open only twice a year for pilgrims celebrating their feasts of the baptism of Christ, in January for the Orthodox and October for the Catholics. In 2011 it was opened to the public.

By the end of 2018, access to three of the seven monasteries in the area — Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian and Franciscan (Catholic) — had been cleared of mines.

While Qasr Al-Yehud was inaccessible, the long-established Kibbutz Kinneret began running a substitute site at Yardenit, near the southern end of the Sea of Galilee, with modern facilities and shady eucalyptus trees. It has been receiving more than half a million visitors a year, many receiving baptism or renewing their baptismal promises in the Jordan River.

 

In Scripture:

Elijah is taken up to heaven: 2 Kings 2:1-14

The preaching of John the Baptist: Luke 3:2-14

John baptises Jesus: Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34

The witness of John the Baptist: John 1:19-28

Jesus retreats beyond the Jordan for safety: John 10:40

 

Administered by:

Department of Antiquities of Jordan; Jordan Valley Authority; Greek Orthodox Church

Tel.: 962-5-3590360

Open: Winter 8am-4pm (last entry 3pm); summer 8am-6pm (last entry 5pm)

 

References

 

Beitzel, Barry J.: Biblica, The Bible Atlas: A Social and Historical Journey Through the Lands of the Bible (Global Book Publishing, 2007)
Fletcher, Elaine Ruth: “Searching for the site of Jesus’ Baptism”, Religion News Service, January 1, 2000
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Khouri, Rami: “Where John Baptized: Bethany Beyond the Jordan”, in Exploring Jordan: The Other Biblical Land (Biblical Archaeological Society, 2008)
Laney, J. Carl: “The Identification of Bethany Beyond the Jordan”, from Selective Geographical Problems in the Life of Christ, doctoral dissertation (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1977)
Lazaroff, Tovah: “Israel clears landmines from seven monasteries by Jesus’ Baptismal site”, Jerusalem Post, December 9, 2018
Miller, Charles: “Bethany Beyond the Jordan” (CNEWA World, January 2002)
Pixner, Bargil: With Jesus Through Galilee According to the Fifth Gospel (Corazin Publishing, 1992)
Rainey, Anson F., and Notley, R. Steven: The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Carta, 2006)
Walker, Peter: In the Steps of Jesus (Zondervan, 2006)
Wooding, Dan: “Thousands visit Bethany Beyond the Jordan”, Assist News Service, January 15, 2007

 

External links

The Baptism Site of Jesus Christ (official site)
Baptism Site: Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan (Sacred Destinations)
Bethabara (Wikipedia)
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