The site of Jesus’ baptism – a pilgrimage venue in Jordan
”These things were done in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptising.” John 1:28
It has been 2,000 years since Jesus of Nazareth lived and worked in the Holy Land. John’s gospel describes the site of Jesus’ baptism: ”beyond Jordan”, not on the western side where many today travel to see and experience the site of Jesus’ baptism, but on the east side of the Jordan River. The Jordan River has also changed its course and now flows further to the west than at the time of Jesus.
After the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan was signed in 1994, the area was cleared of landmines and archaeological excavations began. From Amman, the Jordanian capital which is about an hour’s drive away, there have been roads down to the Jordan valley and onwards to Jerusalem from time immemorial. The archaeologists found the remains of stables, lodgings, churches, monasteries and hermitages. And they even found the place where it is reasonably certain that Jesus of Nazareth was baptised. In 2015, UNESCO declared the baptismal site in Jordan as a World Heritage Site.
The area is located in the Jordan Valley, which geographically lies a short distance from Amman and Jericho and further up into the mountains to the west of Jerusalem.
The gift of the Jordanian nation through King Hussain
When the archaeologists presented their findings, King Hussain decided that the area would be protected. The area is managed by the Jordanian government and is a nature conservation area. But the king also wanted something more. He was concerned about Christians’ continued ability to live in Jordan and throughout the Middle East. King Hussain therefore offered Christian communities in Jordan the opportunity to build churches in the area.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) accepted the king’s offer, together with other churches that are active in the country. In January 2014, the Lutheran church at Bethany beyond the Jordan was inaugurated in the presence of, among others, Archbishop Anders Wejryd. The Russian Orthodox Church has also built in the area. They have contributed a pilgrim hotel with an orthodox chapel. The Armenian Church has a fully built church on the site. The Anglican Church, Roman Catholic Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and several other Orthodox churches have projects underway. The area also has a Muslim ”Jesus shrine”, i.e. not a mosque but a smaller building.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land
ELCJHL is a very small church with congregations in e.g. Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah. The church also has a congregation in Amman, the capital of Jordan. The church is led by Bishop Munib Younan, who is also the chairman of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and is therefore considered one of the world’s leading church leaders, despite the small size of his church.
ELCJHL has long-standing and good relations with the Swedish church. Strängnäs Diocese in particular has a good collaboration in a formalized cooperation agreement. The Good Shepherds Swedish School in Bethlehem has been supported for many years by the Swedish Jerusalem Society and is one of the schools that ELCJHL helps to run.
Bishop Munib Younan is very eager for Bethany beyond the Jordan to become a place that bears witness to the Christian presence in the Middle East. Arab Christians have always been present in the Holy Land and it is important that their security and continued ability to live and work in the area is made possible in various ways. Jordan, with the current King Abdullah, believes that the Christian presence there contributes greatly in various ways to Middle Eastern history and culture.
The Lutheran Church in Jordan
From the site where the Lutheran Church in Bethany is situated, there are views out over the Jordan Valley, which lies well below sea level. It is possible to see Jericho, the waters of the Dead Sea and one can sense the presence of Jerusalem up in the mountains to the southwest.
From the Lutheran church, you can walk down into the valley along wining paths through rugged and tangled vegetation. Where the thickets open, there is a large hollow filled with water. Four stone foundations can be glimpsed in the hollow, just below the surface of the water. On the other side of the hollow there is a robust shelter that was erected recently to protect the unique mosaics that formed the floor of the church and which were unearthed by archaeologists in the 1990s. There were probably wooden churches erected at different times on the foundations close to the water. The churches on the stone foundations were destroyed by fires, earthquakes or floods. It is believed that the baptism took place down in the pit between the four stone foundations. Jesus of Nazareth was probably baptised here.
The Swedish Church has been strongly involved in establishing the Baptismal site as a Christian pilgrimage venue. Rolf and Kerstin Pearson moved there in September 2014. They have extensive experience working for the Church of Sweden’s mission and later for the Church of Sweden’s international work. They have both been stationed in Jerusalem in recent years. Rolf is a minister in the Church of Sweden and has worked as an international ecumenical secretary for Bishop Munib. Kerstin, who is a deacon, has worked as a curator at the Swedish Theological Institute in Jerusalem.
Since the beginning of 2015, Rolf and Kerstin Pearson can receive pilgrims at Bethany beyond the Jordan.
There is peace between Israel and Jordan. Bethany beyond Jordan is located in a security zone and visitors pass through a check-point before entering. Amman is a large, bustling and noisy city, but it is charming and friendly.
There is civil war in Syria, which has borders with Jordan. Occasional visitors will not notice much evidence of this. There are large refugee camps at the border between Jordan and Syria, but this does not affect the situation at the baptism site in Amman.
Already, very many groups of various kinds have visited the Lutheran church at Bethany beyond the Jordan.
Tyresö Parish visiting the baptism site
In 2014, Rolf and Kerstin Pearson contacted the Stockholm Pilgrim Centre in Tyresö outside Stockholm for advice and support about how to develop the site for pilgrims. Elected officials and staff from the Tyresö Parish travelled to Jordan in June 2015 to visit the baptism site, to continue the discussions with Rolf and Kerstin and to visit ELCJHL’s diocese in Amman. The cooperation continues.
Experiences awaiting visitors
1. The Biblical story
It is becoming clearer where and in what environment the biblical story unfolded. In Israel-Palestine, many of the holy sites are both historically uncertain and have been overexploited by pilgrims and tourists since the 4th century onwards.
2. The history of the first church
The archaeological excavations at Bethany beyond the Jordan testify to the early Christian period, church building art and spirituality.
3. Hermits and monastic founders
The area has many sites where hermits lived and worked. One can learn a great deal about our earliest monastic founders and their context.
4. Baptism and baptismal theology
There are plenty of opportunities to see and experience different Christian traditions’ approach to baptism and baptismal practice in this area, where so many come to see the place where Jesus of Nazareth was baptised.
5. The Israel-Palestine conflict
The difficult conflict between the State of Israel and Palestine becomes very clear in the meeting with Palestinian Christians. If you want to try to understand the conflict’s many layers, it is obviously important to visit the area, and to see and talk with the people who actually live there.
The area is a unique location with opportunities for intriguing experiences in nature, an amazing bird life and the possibility to swim in the Dead Sea.
– We who have already been there would really encourage congregations, dioceses and others to go there. In addition, Rolf and Kerstin have the ability to provide meaningful spiritual experiences and bring to life the site’s unique history, and their knowledge of current political developments in the Middle East is impressive, says Michael Öjermo, The Rector of the Parish of Tyresö.