UNESCO declared Bethany Beyond the Jordan, on the eastern side of the Jordan River, as a World Heritage site and the location of Jesus’ baptism. “The decision is logical. The Eastern side is where all the Byzantine antiquities and churches are located,” said Franciscan Father Eugenio Alliata, professor of Christian archaeology at Jerusalem’s Studium Biblicum Franciscanum. He said pilgrimages to the Western side began only about 600 years ago. “But for us it is the Jordan River, the middle, which is the most holy place.” For years, Israel and Jordan have been at odds as to which side of the Jordan River is the actual site of Jesus’ baptism, as both sides vie for the title to increase tourism. Israel upgraded its shoreline with changing rooms and a wooden deck access to the murky waters. But three popes have visited Jordan’s eastern shore as a sign of the Catholic Church’s official recognition of the site known as Bethany Beyond the Jordan. The Gospel of John (1:28 and 10:40) records this place as where John the Baptist carried out his baptisms, including that of Jesus. Pope John Paul II made the first visit to the site on his millennial pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2000, followed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 and Pope Francis last year. The remains of more than 20 Christian sites over six centuries and dating to Roman and Byzantine periods have been discovered near the site. They include several churches, a prayer hall, baptismal pools and a sophisticated water reticulation system.
I was privileged to visit there last April.As I mentioned then:
This was a memorable visit to one of the most important places in the world—the place where Jesus began his ministry, and where the ritual that defines all Christians was first carried out. Our faith was born in the wilderness. This was an extraordinary opportunity to visit that very wilderness and, in some small way, offer a quiet prayer of gratitude. I often tell parents when I preach at baptisms: “Take lots of pictures. Remember this day forever. Because after this day, your child’s life will never be the same.” I realize now that because of what happened in this wilderness, amid those swaying reeds all those centuries ago, my life will never be the same, either.