Page last updated at 12:50 GMT, Tuesday, 15 September 2009 13:50 UK

Baptism battles on River Jordan

The baptism site of Yardenit
Israel and Jordan each claim the spot where John the Baptist was baptised Jesus is on their territory

By Edward Stourton
BBC News

It is a gentler conflict than the shooting war that divided Jordan and Israel not so very long ago.

But there is a real edge to the war of the baptism sites between the two countries that lie either side of the Jordan River.

Israel's strongest competitive offering has traditionally been the site at Yardenit, just down river from the Sea of Galilee.

It is extremely well-equipped - with a shop selling white baptismal smocks for those planning total immersion.

The waters of the Jordan at this point are as fresh as one could wish, and the river runs clean and deep green beneath the trees flanking its course - I even saw a pair of otters busying themselves along the bank.

A sign at the Bethany beyond Jordan site
Bethany Beyond Jordan is more likely to be the place of Jesus' baptism

An embankment has been built along the western edge of the river, with steps allowing pilgrims easy access to the water.

Most of the baptism ceremonies I saw were restrained and dignified, although there was something slightly comic about the white-smocked figure standing in the river with a video-camera, recording as one head after another disappeared under the water.

Some members of the Irish group I spoke to saw their outing as a day of tourism rather than pilgrimage and if you come here for secular rather than religious pleasures, there is a perfectly decent restaurant.

The problem with the Yardenit site is that we can say, with something very close to certainty, that it never was a real baptism site.

All the evidence suggests that the place where John the Baptist preached and where Jesus sought him out was well downstream.

Just below Yardenit the Jordan River undergoes a sad and sudden transformation.

At the end of a rather dreamy stretch of the river where families picnic and swim there is a dam controlling the flow of water to the Dead Sea - and immediately below that two altogether less appealing sources join the river; salinated waste water and stinking effluent from a sewage plant.

In the total immersion market, it definitely gives Yardenit an edge over its competitors downstream.

Claim to authenticity

Bethany Beyond Jordan, on the Jordanian side of the river, probably has the best claim to authenticity.

A baptism at Yardenit

Until the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel in 1995 the area lay in the middle of a heavily militarised frontline, but the Jordanians have used the opportunities offered by peace very productively.

Energetic archaeological excavations have revealed the remains of no less than 21 ancient buildings in this remote place - evidence, at the very least, of a strong tradition associating it with pilgrimage.

At the heart of the complex are the ruins of five churches built over a period of 700 years.

Beneath one of them is a baptismal pool in the shape of a cross, for the Jordanians a clinching piece of evidence that they are the custodians of the place where Christ was baptised.

Pilgrim accounts from the early centuries of Christianity speak of crowds of 60,000 gathering here to celebrate the feast of the Epiphany.

The Jordanians are trying to recapture some of the sense of that today by encouraging Christian denominations to build new churches and monasteries.


The plan is going well - although for baptisms the problem of the polluted water remains.

And there is competition now from the Israeli-controlled side of the border.

A baptism at Bethany beyond Jordan
Military infrastructure has been removed from the Jordanian site

Just across the river - and it is only a matter of a few metres at this point - gleaming Jerusalem stone steps and terraces are being installed and facilities for large scale tourism are being built.

At Ksar-al-Yahud they will tell you that Jesus was baptised on their side of the river.

The Israeli authorities' long-term plans for the site envisage 600,000 pilgrims a year - it is already open on some feast days.

But there is one big deterrent to tourism and pilgrimage here; unlike the Jordanians, the Israelis have not dismantled the area's military infrastructure.

To get to the river you have to drive through several miles of minefields, passing eerily empty churches and monasteries as you go.

It is perhaps not quite the way to create the right mood for those coming to Jordan's waters in search of spiritual sustenance.

You can listen to Edward Stourton's programmes on the River Jordan on BBC Radio 4 starting on Monday 14th September at 1100.

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