by KATHLEEN CASEY
It was exciting on the second day of our Holy Land pilgrimage to view an authentic site for the baptism of Jesus at Bethany Beyond the Jordan.*
This sits in a perennial riverbed named the Wadi Al-Kharrar towards the southern area of the Jordan river. It is now part of a large excavation site which cannot be entered but can be viewed from both ends.
We almost had the place to ourselves: it was peaceful. But this was not always so. Until 1996 the area was a minefield on the front between Jordan and Israel, with the river as the boundary. The 1994 peace treaty opened doorways for archaeologists and Church officials.
Encouraged by the Jordanian royal family, the country has built a new road from the Dead Sea area, walkways and a visitor centre. Several new churches are being built in the wider area including a very large Catholic church, assisted by Vatican funds. Pope Francis visited there last year, asked to stand where Jesus was baptised, and did this on his own, to pray.
Bethany Beyond the Jordan was this year designated a World Heritage site.
When we walked around the site to view from the further platform, excavated remnants of three churches were visible, one with Roman flagstones, another with a section of early, highly crafted mosaic flooring. The original church has a nave with four pillars and steps to one side. The area is subject to earthquakes and floods and the latter would have destroyed much over the centuries.
Authenticating the site was assisted by writings of early Christian pilgrims travelling on a route from Jerusalem to Jericho, across the Jordan and then to Mt Nebo. As far back as AD 333 pilgrims wrote of the baptism site of Bethany Beyond the Jordan. Theodosius in the sixth century described a church built by Byzantine emperor Anastasius as square-shaped and built on high arches to allow floods to pass underneath. Archaeologists believe now they have the remains of the piers on which this church was built. Latter pilgrims spoke of a small church said to have been built “on the place where the Lord’s clothes were placed”. Some gave distances from other landmarks.
Arising as a spring in barren desert to create a small oasis, the Wadi Kharrar flows 2km east to the Jordan River. Its fresh water would have been more suitable for baptisms than the murkier Jordan, which was subject to seasonal flooding.
Between the fourth and sixth centuries a monastery with four churches developed on St Elijah Hill, just above the springs feeding the stream. Pilgrims staying in the local hostel would immerse themselves in the waters and before the 1917 revolution the site was much revered by Russian pilgrims. Many hermits lived in caves in the area, celebrating a weekly common liturgy.
In the Baptism Archaeological Park, an area of several square kilometres, the Jordanian Department of Antiquities has excavated this monastery with four churches and chapels, a prayer hall, pools and a sophisticated water reticulation system. One church appears to have been built around a cave with fresh spring water.
For our group of 29 pilgrims led by Pat and Suzie McCarthy, it was special to celebrate Mass with Fr Bernie Thomas, OFM, in the large thatched shelter nearby on the quiet banks of the river. We renewed our baptismal vows and were sprinkled with water from the Jordan, a time for memories and emotion.
Many of us paddled in the quite muddy looking and narrow river. The peace agreement gave Israel the right to 60 per cent of the water, so much is taken off for agriculture before it reaches Jordan. The opposite side is the West Bank, lost to Israel in the 1967 war.
We touched ancient and sacred history. * Not to be confused with the Bethany of Jerusalem.
by KATHLEEN CASEY