As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. II Kings 2:11
This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. John 1:28.
There’s a small hill in the Jordan valley just north of the Dead Sea, on the eastern side of the river. What it lacks in size, however, it makes up for in biblical importance. For this is the place where, tradition tells us, Elijah was taken up into heaven — and where John lived in a small cave while he was carrying out his ministry of repentance and baptism.
Nearby is the site where many authorities believe that Jesus was baptized by John.
This area, called “Bethany beyond Jordan” in John’s gospel, was rediscovered within the last 15 years after a peace treaty between Jordan and Israel demilitarized the area. Following years of mine clearing, excavations have revealed remains of churches and monasteries built by Christians over the centuries as sites of pilgrimage.
Today, thanks to the good graces of Jordanian authorities and the hard work of archaeologists, this area has again been opened to visitors who wish to experience this important site in much the same state it might have been encountered two thousand years ago by crowds crossing the Jordan River from Judea: a desert expanse punctuated by a small, green valley that begins near Elijah’s hill and ends at the Jordan.
As Rustom Mkhjian, Assistant Director of the Baptism Site Commission, described the commission’s perspective to a touring group of American religion writers, “We don’t want this place to be a tourist site — we want it to be a place of pilgrimage.”
Even the drier parts of this area include shrubs that provide an excellent habitat for bees, recalling half of the “locusts and wild honey” diet ascribed to John. (Unfortunately, at least for authenticity’s sake, the other half of the diet was absent on the day of the tour.)
As a result, one can easily imagine the area as it might have appeared when John lived there.
True, the excavated remnants of structures built on these holy sites by Christians in the Byzantine era keep the sites from looking “pure,” but the Baptism Site Commission has limited its restoration work to keep the sites as uncluttered as possible.
At the same time, the ruins of buildings built in the distant past, some more than 1,500 years ago, lend their own power to the authenticity of the site. One can not only imagine John and Jesus in this location, but also the many monks, pilgrims, and other Christians who have visited and worshiped in this spot over the centuries.
The historical context is further enhanced by hermit caves that dot the vertical faces of nearby bluffs. These caves were used by monks from nearby monasteries as dwellings and as places of prayer and worship.
The baptism site itself, a few miles from Elijah’s hill, is, at first glance, unimpressive. It is a dry depression, located amidst some short, ancient pillars, a distance away from the current flow of the Jordan River. Yet this is where pilgrim accounts and archaeological excavations point.
The pillars are square and, when viewed from above, form the four corners of a slightly larger square; the space among them forms a cross, the shape of early baptisteries. Accounts from the 6th Century describe a small church with a square footprint sitting on the four pillars.
Nearby are the remains of four other churches that had been built at different times, also pointing to the importance of this site to Christians historically.
As simple and rustic as the site may be, Mkhjian, the assistant director of the site commission, made clear its significance for Christians: “This is the place where the triune God was first proclaimed ― Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
A short walk away from the baptism site is the Jordan River. The river is narrow at this section, in part because so much water is siphoned from its watershed upstream. (The baptism site is only a few miles from where the Jordan empties into the Dead Sea.)
Visitors in Jordan view the greenish-beige water from under a simple, open-roof structure, which contrasts with the modern structure on the Israeli side, built on the low bluff above the river, from which extensive concrete terracing leads to the water’s edge. On the tour for American writers, the view included individuals being baptized in an enclosed area of the river on the Israeli side, where the water is only around three feet deep.
Given the stillness of the narrow river, the fencing is probably more to preserve the international boundary than to prevent unwary pilgrims from stepping into water over their heads.
There are also modern structures near the baptism site in Jordan, though most are a mile or more from the excavations. These include a large, concrete baptistery. Modern pilgrims can, through prior arrangement, be (re-)baptized in the baptistery, into which officials pump water from the Jordan River, or in the river itself.
The Baptism Site Commission hopes one day to allow baptisms in the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism, when they are able to do so without damaging the stone pillars surrounding it.
Other modern structures include numerous churches built by various denominations in the past 15 years, most a mile or two from the baptism site itself. The denominations represented include many from Eastern traditions, including Armenian, Coptic, and Melkite Catholic. But other, larger bodies from the West have also built churches, including Roman Catholics and Anglicans.
An impressive Greek Orthodox church sits by itself, a mile or more from the other churches, and much closer to the baptism site.
Several denominations, including Russian Orthodox, have guest houses for pilgrims.
Visitors to the site since its rediscovery include Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.
More secular visitors have included several European heads of state, most notably, at different times, three presidents of Russia: Boris Yeltsin, Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin.
Oddly, there is no visitor center to orient sightseers and pilgrims. The most impressive structure besides the churches is a state-of-the-art conference center opened in 2010 that seats up to 350 people. This facility seems misplaced until one considers the number of visitors to the baptism site. In fact, it is much too small for the thousands who come every year for Epiphany, when the baptism of Jesus is celebrated in many traditions.
The baptism site is but one of many historical places of the holy land now located in the modern nation of Jordan. This region was the location of such biblical kingdoms as Edom (south), Moab (center), and Ammon (north, from which the city of Amman derives its name).
Other important biblical sites in Jordan include:
- Gadara, in the north near the Sea of Galilee, the “country of the Gadarenes” where Jesus freed a man of demons that then went into a herd of pigs;
- Petra, a traditional site of Aaron’s tomb and the spring created when Moses struck a rock during the wilderness wandering (and better known for the elaborate rock sculptures of its later residents, the Nabataeans);
- the Dead Sea; and
- Mt. Nebo, where Moses died after glimpsing the promised land that God would not allow him to enter.
The view of Israel/Palestine to the west from Mt. Nebo is impressive, revealing a line of hills rising from the Jordan River valley. On clear days, cities such as Hebron, Bethlehem, Nablus, and Jerusalem (the Mount of Olives) are visible, along with Jericho near the river itself.
One wonders what Moses might have been thinking as he took in the sight before him. It seems unlikely that he could begin to imagine the drama that would unfold in this area over the coming centuries.
And yet, as he gazed at the valley before him, his eyes undoubtedly crossed over the area where one day pilgrims, including this writer, would come to Elijah’s hill, John the Baptist spring, and the baptism site of Jesus to see where the triune God would first be proclaimed.
Jack Marcum is coordinator of Research Services for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He traveled to Jordan on behalf of Presbyterian News Service as part of a religious journalists tour of Jordan sponsored by the Jordan Tourism Bureau and organized by the Associated Church Press.