|Have Jordanian archaeologists found the place Jesus was baptized?
|New evidence may have finally pinned down the legendary 'Bethany beyond the Jordan'
Substantial new evidence from archaeological excavations may have located where Jesus was baptized. Scholars long identified Jesus' baptism as taking place at the lower reaches of the Jordan River, east of Jericho - prompted by a combination of biblical references, Byzantine and other mediaeval texts, and the uninterrupted traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church, which has custody of the area.
Following the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace agreement, archaeologists promptly resumed the search for the place the Bible called "Bethany beyond the Jordan." That search had begun over a century earlier.
In a region of some 8 square kilometers on the east bank of the Jordan River, archaeologists have identified and examined over 30 different archaeological remains. Numerous artifacts confirm the area was inhabited in the Early Roman period, the time of Jesus and John the Baptist.
Located some 11 kilometers north of the Dead Sea shore, about a 40-minute drive from Amman, Bethany beyond the Jordan is fast becoming a major new destination for Christian pilgrims.
The key discoveries are the Byzantine monastery and earlier Roman-era remains at Tell al-Kharrar; several smaller Byzantine churches, chapels, monks' hermitages, caves, and hermit cells; a large Byzantine multi-church complex; a ceramic pipeline bringing water to the site from several kilometers east; a large plastered pool and adjacent khan halfway between Tell al-Kharrar and the Jordan; another pilgrims' rest station and khan several kilometers east, on the ancient pilgrimage route to Mount Nebo.
The discoveries have excited archaeologists and biblical geographers alike. This seems the only site where textual, archaeological and traditional evidence converge.
The puzzle about the precise site of Jesus' baptism is complicated by several factors: the different ancient names used to designate the area, the imprecise narrative in the biblical text, and the different modern sites where pilgrims commemorate the baptism.
John 1:28 explicitly names "Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing" as the location - though John is unclear as to whether the itinerant preacher was passing through, or lived there on a semi-permanent basis. John 10:40 mentions Jesus' escaping Jerusalem and going "away again across the Jordan to the place where John at first baptized ..."
This place where Jesus found refuge on the east bank of the Jordan seems to be Bethany beyond the Jordan.
The main mound at Tell al-Kharrar has long been called Elijah's Hill, Tell Mar Elias in Arabic. This reflects its identification as the place from where the Prophet Elijah ascended to heaven (2 Kings 2:5-14). Today the area is called Al-Maghtas, "the place of baptism" or "of immersion."
Byzantine-era Christian testimony remains one of the strongest sources of evidence for placing Jesus' baptism here. Starting in the 3rd century, Christian writers and pilgrims associated this region with Elijah's ascension and Jesus' baptism. The anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux in 333 located the site of Jesus' baptism at five Roman miles (7,400 meters) north of the Dead Sea shore - near where Wadi al-Kharrar joins the Jordan River.
According to the pilgrim Theodosius' account (dated around 530), in the late-5th century the Emperor Anastasius built the first church to commemorate Jesus' baptism on the east bank of the Jordan. The Pilgrim of Piacenza (570) first specified that the baptism site was directly opposite the monastery of St. John, whose rebuilt remains still stand on a hilltop some 800 meters west of the river, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The Pilgrim of Piacenza was the first to mention the spring of John the Baptist at the site of Tell al-Kharrar, 3 kilometers east of the river. Writing between the 9th and 11th centuries, the monk Epiphanius mentioned a cave near a spring nearly 4.5 kilometers east of the river, where John the Baptist lived and baptized. The early 12th-century traveler Abbot Daniel mentioned a grotto of St. John the Baptist east of the river.
The rich textual evidence from the 4th through 12th centuries reveals a consistent tradition locating John the Baptist's settlement near the spring source of Wadi al-Kharrar, in an area characterized by springs and caves some two kilometers east of the Jordan River.
The excavated main complex at Tell al-Kharrar comprises structures on and around the small hill adjacent the spring at the head of Wadi al-Kharrar. Artifact evidence shows that the site was inhabited from the Late Hellenistic/Herodian and Early Roman periods (2nd century BC to 2nd century AD), through the Late Byzantine and early Islamic periods (5th to 8th centuries AD), and again in late Ottoman centuries.
The strongest evidence for a Chrstian-era settlement here comes from the excavated remains of heavy stone jars, a distinctive feature of local Jewish communities. Father Michele Piccirillo of the Franciscan Archaeological Institute in Jerusalem and Mount Nebo, one of those who rediscovered the site in August 1995, identified these fragments. He believes that, along with remains of large ceramic storage jars, they are clear proof of a settled population, which he identifies as Bethany beyond the Jordan.
According to Dr. Mohammad Waheeb, formerly of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, the tell site was transformed into a walled monastery during the Byzantine period. Waheeb directed the first five years' excavations at Tell al-Kharrar. His team identified at least four churches and chapels, a possible early Christian "prayer hall," a sophisticated water conveyance and storage system, three pools, and a surrounding wall.
One of the three churches, discovered in 1999 on the west side of the hill, was built around a natural cave used in John the Baptist's days. This may be the cave Byzantine pilgrims called "the cave of John the Baptist." A man-made water channel started at the front of the cave, and traveled for about 6 meters until it spilled its water into the south bank of the Wadi al-Kharrar.
Over 30 Byzantine-era sites identified from the Jordan River eastwards to Wadi al-Kharrar and Wadi al-Gharabah. They formed stations along the pilgrims' route from Jerusalem to the Jordan River and Mount Nebo. Perhaps the key discovery related to the commemoration of the baptism tradition on the east bank of the river is the large multi-church Byzantine-era complex, about 100 meters east of the Jordan. It comprises the remains of four distinct churches from the 5th-6th century. Three are superimposed on each other, comprising the original church and two re-builds. The fourth is a smaller structure built about 30 meters east.
The original church here was almost certainly the Church of St. John the Baptist, described by Byzantine texts as built by Emperor Anastasius. Byzantine-era accounts said the church was built on arched arcades on stone piers. These have been exposed by recent excavations.
Rami G. Khoury
The Daily Star