(Photo: Bethany baptismal pool with ruins of ancient basilicas in rear, a staircase to the water and, at right, two of the four massive pillars that used to hold a church above the baptism site, 6 May 2009/Tom Heneghan)
In John’s Gospel, verse 1:28, it says that John the Baptist used to baptise people in “Bethany beyond the Jordan” and Jesus went there for his own baptism. Seen from the perspective of Jerusalem, “beyond the Jordan” means on the river’s east bank, in present-day Jordan. Those words were added to distinguish that Bethany from the village near Jerusalem where Jesus was said to have raised Lazarus from the dead. Despite that, pilgrims have long visited a spot on the river’s west bank, now in an Israeli military zone in the Palestinian territories, and considered it the true site where Jesus was baptised.
For about a decade or so, Jordan has been contesting that claim with excavations at a site on the river’s east bank that it argues must be the real place. Following John’s Gospel (the others only speak of the river itself) and descriptions from pilgrims dating back to the fourth to twelfth centuries, Jordanian archeologists have uncovered ruins of five ancient churches and a wide array of other remains and artifacts pointing to the area’s use as a pilgrimage site. (Photo: Israeli flag on west bank across Jordan River and Greek Orthodox church on the east bank Bethany site, 6 May 2009//Jamal Saidi)
Pope John Paul’s visit to Bethany in 2000 was a coup for Jordan, which is keen to establish its site as a major centre for Christian pilgrims. But he also slipped in a quick visit to Qasr al Yahud, the west bank site across the river, to avoid any impression of partiality. Pope Benedict doesn’t seem to have the same concern — he’s coming to Bethany only and not planning any stop at the rival site. See our news story on this here.
If you ever visit the site and have a stroke of luck, as a group of English pilgrims did when I toured the area on Wednesday, you’ll come across a bundle of energy named Rustom Mkhjian who explains the site’s claim to authenticity with nothing short of missionary zeal. Mkhjian, a Jordanian engineer and Armenian Orthodox Christian, is assistant director of the Baptism Site Commission. For the past 12 years, he has been working at the site unearthing the foundations of ancient churches and matching passages from the Bible to facts on the ground. He was showing me around when the English group came up to the baptismal pool and their Jordanian guide introduced him as the real expert to tell the story.
With that, Mkhjian, a wiry man of 49 who studied civil engineering in Britain and monument restoration in Rome, launched into a short presentation quoting the gospels of John and Luke and the main testimonies from pilgrims down the ages. This historical background is well explained on the informative Baptism Site website. The site also shows plans for the new churches being built a short walk from the baptismal site and a gallery of photos of VIP visitors to date.