A brief history of the Baptismal site
Lost and found
The Baptism Site was a major Pilgrim Station from the days of John the Baptist. Even after he died, many of his followers stayed in the area which was the birthplace of Christianity. During the history monks lived in caves, and pilgrims visited the site and churches were built near the site. This tradition continued until around the 14th Century. After the crusaders the site was neglected and the control of the area was taken over by local tribes. East of the Jordan was no longer a safe place to go, and with no guarantee of safety, pilgrimage to the site became less and less frequent, and then virtually stopped.
A scholar from Jerusalem discovered the Madaba Map (in Madaba present day Jordan), in 1897. This map was a 6th century Mosaic, depicting a map of the Middle East. The discovery and subsequent analysis of the map led to a renewed interest about the exact location of the Baptism Site. Pilgrims started to return to the area east of the River Jordan hoping to find clues to the location of the site. In the late 19:th century the site was rediscovered. But World War I, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, World War II and then the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict with wars in 1948, 1967 and 1973, made the Baptism Site a no-go area for most of the century. The Baptism Site was a militarized zone, full of mines when Jordan and Israel signed their peace treaty in 1994. The treaty allowed for the de-mining of the area.
On a personal trip to Mount Nebo, HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad met the archaeologist and franciscan monk, Father Piccirillo. Father Piccirillo explained to HRH Prince Ghazi the significance of the Baptism Site, and the possibility of looking for it now that the peace treaty had been signed. HRH Prince Ghazi arranged a visit for them with the military on the site. On their visit, they found mosaics and ruins of a church. It was more than enough for HRH Prince Ghazi to order further investigation. Soon after, an archaeological team was given access to the site, and following information gained from the local Bedouin tribes, many more archeological remains was discovered: Pottery, mosaics, marble, and caves. Most of these were on a small hill known by the locals as ‘Elijah’s Hill’. On one site near the river Jordan, mosaic remains were found; then marble remains; then more remains. In total, the remains of five different churches, built at separate times, were found.
The succession of uniquely designed churches at the edge of the river at that time, is a testimony of the forces of nature and of the determination of the believers. To build unique memorials at the spot they believed Jesus was baptized was a constant battle with a harsh enviroment.
The rediscovery was complete.
The Baptism Site Commission
After the rediscovery of the Baptismal site H.M. King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein appointed the Baptism Site Commission (an independent board of trustees) to take care o f the site. H.R.H. Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad chairs the Commission.
The board of trustees of the Baptism Site Commission donated specific pieces of lands where the new churches are being built. These were given to each denomination as a “waqf“ land which cannot be sold or used for another purpose and the proceedings of which must be used for charitable purposes. The costs of building the structures will be met by each particular denomination. There will be twelve new churches in all, with some of them having guest houses, and residence for sisters or brothers/priests. The churches are designed in traditional architectural form, which clearly reflects the heritage of each particular denomination.
World Heritage Site
In 2015 the Baptismal site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. In that UNESCO-declaration the importance of baptism in the Christian faith and tradition is emphasized.
“The Baptism Site, “Bethany Beyond the Jordan” (Al-Maghtas) is directly associated with the Christian tradition of baptism. The property is of highest significance to the majority of Christian denominations as the baptism site of Jesus of Nazareth and since millennia has been a popular pilgrimage destination. Its association to this historic event, believed to have taken place in the property, and the contemporary rituals which are continued at the Baptism Site illustrate the direct association with the Christian tradition of baptism.”