Israel opens baptismal site

Israel offers new access to what it says is Jesus' baptism site. Jordan's baptism site is nearby.

NORTHERN VIRGINIA, July 17, 2011 - Israel announced last week that Qasr El-Yahud, the designated Holy Land sites where Jesus baptism was done by John the Baptist, is now open daily for visitation.

Located at a Israeli military location that has rarely been open to the public since Israel took the West Bank area from Jordan in the 1967 war, it is now the most accessible it ever has been for pilgrims and others in modern times.

Israel said it has spent over two million dollars to remove mines in the area and improve the visitor experience. Wooden ramps into the Jordan River now allow pilgrims easy access to the waters for baptism; shaded areas have been erected for prayer sessions; and bathroom, shower and parking facilities have been upgraded. Yardenit, a site on the river near Tiberias, has long been a favored pilgrim baptism site, but has never been regarded as the site where Jesus received the sacrament.

Little more than arm’s length across the river from Qasr-El Yahud is Jordan’s Bethany Beyond the Jordan baptismal site. It has been open for visitation over a decade. Several modern memorial churches have been built on the site near the archaeological ruins of Byzantine churches from the early centuries of Christianity.

Bethany beyond the Jordan (Image: Ruth Hill)

Bethany beyond the Jordan (Image: Ruth Hill)

Testimonials from spiritual leaders, including various pontiffs, Pastor Rick Warren, the Archbishop of Canterbury as well as the patriarch of Moscow add to the biblical and early pilgrim accounts, along with archaeological evidence, favoring the Jordanian side.

Scholars generally believe the Byzantines knew what they were doing when they built their churches in the third and fourth centuries at sacred sites.

Fueling claims by both sides, however, is Madaba Mosaic Map, the 6th century map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. As the oldest surviving original cartographic depiction of the region, the map resides near Amman and is a must see stop on a Holy Land itinerary.

This treasure is inside the early Byzantine church of Saint George at Madaba, and speculation is that it was used by early pilgrims as a guide to sacred sites. 

Both baptism locations appear on the map - the western bank as Bethabara (House of the Ford, or of the Crossing) and the eastern bank as Aenon or Sapsaphas (Place of the Willows). Scholars say the Jordan River has changed course many times over the centuries, so the precise spot where Jesus was baptized is difficult to locate.  

Thus, it remains only for the faith traveler of today to contemplate both river sites as they are presented, and focus on an event that likely happened somewhere nearby. It’s the baptismal event – the advent of Jesus’ earthly ministry – more than a precise map point that is significant.

Read other columns by Ruth Hill at Contemporary Christian Travel in the Washington Times’ Communities pages. Follow her at

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Ruth Hill

Ruth Hill writes for magazines and newspapers about the business and pleasures of travel. Read more about her views and news of Christian heritage travel around the world at

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