The Jordan Trail is a 700-km hiking trail traversing Jordan from north to south. It is a Holy Land-based long-distance hiking and pilgrimage camino brimming with biblical references and adventure. It is divided into eight regions that can be covered in around 40 days – going from the Red Sea through Petra all the way to ancient Gadara.
While traveling the second region, from Aljoun to As-Salt, one finds the remains of the ancient fortified palace of Mkawir, on the eastern side of the Dead Sea, about 16 miles southeast of the mouth of the Jordan River, and not too far away from Al-Maghtas, the place officially known as Bethany Beyond the Jordan, Jesus’ baptism site, the area in which, according to both Scripture and tradition, John the Baptist preached and ministered.
The relationship of Mkawir (Maxairous, in Greek; Machaerus, in Latin) with Jesus’ baptism site might not be evident for those who do not know the place.But, since the Byzantine period, Bethany Beyond the Jordan has been regarded the original location where John the Baptist baptized Jesus.
Testimonies like those of Theodosius the Cenobiarch (an early monk, abbot, and saint) back what the Latin Patriarchate and UNESCO have unanimously claimed: that Bethany Beyond the Jordan is the place where John the Baptist baptized Jesus Christ. Theodosius’ text reads:
5 miles north of the Dead Sea in the place where the Lord was baptized there is a single pillar and on the pillar an iron cross has been fastened, there too is the church of St. John the Baptist, which the Emperor Anastasius built.
The pillar remains to be discovered, but all archaeological and architectural remains found in Al-Maghtas match Theodosius’ description. Moreover, the Gospel of John explains the Baptist’s ministry took place “at the other side of the Jordan” – that is, in Bethany beyond the Jordan. The text reads:
“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.John 1:26-28
Al-Maghtas (meaning “immersion” and, by extension, “baptism” in Arabic) is the name given to the place that has been considered, since Byzantine times, to be the original location of the baptism of Jesus. It is also where tradition claims the Prophet Elijah was assumed into Heaven – a place clearly thick with layers and layers of millennial biblical references, traditions, and history.
Situated on the eastern bank of the River Jordan, just nine kilometers north of the Dead Sea, the site consists of two great areas. One of them is Jabar Mar-Elias, “Elijah’s Hill.” Scriptures say Elijah would return before the coming of the messiah, so when John the Baptist began baptizing people in the area, villagers came to inquire whether or not he himself was the messiah. One of the many caves in the vicinity of the baptism site is said to be the one John himself lived in. A monastery was built around it in the 5th century, the first monastery on the eastern bank of the river.
The other area, in which we find the church of St. John the Baptist closer to the river, is the baptism site itself. This is the place where archaeologists found the ruins of a major Byzantine church and monastery, built during the reign of Emperor Anastasius (491-518). According to historical sources, the church was once considered the most notable memorial church of St. John the Baptist on this side of the river.
The baptism of Jesus is one of those motifs repeated over and over again in Christian art. One can hardly find a great master who has not worked on it, all of them trying to reproduce most of the elements found in the biblical scene: as John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan, the skies open and the Spirit, shaped as a dove, hovers over the waters, in a distinctive reference to both the Creation and the Flood. The baptismal waters of the river symbolize both chaos and a new cosmos, the death of sin and the rebirth into a new life. Here, in Al-Maghtas, all this biblical imagery comes alive. But how do we know this was the place?
Finding the baptism site
Half an hour south of Jordan’s capital city, Amman, one arrives at Madaba. The city is home to the biggest Christian community in all the country, proportionally speaking: Catholics and Greek Orthodox make up around 10% of its total population. The city once stood on the very borders of the Moabite empire, but during Roman (and consequently, Byzantine) rule, it belonged to the broader Arabian Province, founded by Trajan to substitute the Nabatean Kingdom. It was during those centuries, from the 2nd to the 7th, when the Christian community established itself. One already finds “Medaba” mentioned as an episcopal see as early as in the acts of the Council of Chalcedon, in the 5th century.
The Greek Orthodox church of St. George in Madaba is home to some of the most beautiful icons in the region. It is also the place where the famous Madaba Map, a floor mosaic dated to the 6th century, is found. This is the oldest cartographic depiction of the Holy Land preserved to this day. It covers most of the region, from Lebanon to the Nile delta, from North to South, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Eastern Desert, from West to East. In it, more than 150 towns, villages, cities and places of interest are featured, including some intriguing symbols. One of those symbols represents, scholars have discovered, the baptism site.
This map shows two fish facing each other. One of them seems to be swimming back from the Dead Sea, while the other swims towards it, in the Jordan River. It is well known that fish cannot survive in the Dead Sea (it’s not called the “Dead Sea” for nothing). Most historians and archaeologists interpret this to symbolize a meeting point for Christians (the fish symbolizing Christ in early Christian art). The fish in the map meet at exact spot where Jesus’ baptism took place: Al-Maghtas.
To learn more about the various pilgrimage sites and itineraries the country offers, visit the Holy Jordan dedicated site. For specific travel deals, promotions, and pilgrimage packages available, visit the Holy Jordan Travel Deals site.
Make sure to visit the slideshow below to discover 10 exceptional pilgrimage places in Jordan.