I don’t necessarily consider myself religious, but I find religion fascinating. I don’t know if it’s so much my Catholic schooling as it is my love for history, old things and anything with deep roots. So, when I was in Jordan this summer, I just couldn’t resist a visit to one of the world’s holiest sites: the UNESCO-protected Bethany beyond the Jordan AKA the Baptism Site AKA where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. It’s around a 40-minute drive from Amman and needless to say, my inner Catholic school girl completely geeked out.
I booked this Bethany beyond the Jordan private tour with Musement, just a six-hour quasi day trip from Amman that includes two other stops, but I’ll get to those after. Located just a few miles from the Dead Sea on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, the archeological site is massive. It’s not one of those places you can just arrive at, pop in, see the spot and leave. It’s organized. You arrive and catch a bus that brings you to the archaeological site, then walk for, what seemed like in the blazing August heat, miles–but it wasn’t really that long and most of the pathways are covered as there’s not much natural shade. We popped into the gorgeous Orthodox church of St. John the Baptist then parked ourselves at a spot on the Jordan River bank and just opposite us were pilgrims in the West Bank dunking themselves in the water.
Bethany Beyond the Jordan itself is 100% authenticated, thanks in part to a sixth-century mosaic map of the Holy Land on the floor of Saint George’s Madaba (another stop on the tour) in 1897 and before long, pilgrims began returning to the site. Yet the tumultuous 20th century prevented visitors until the Peace Treaty of 1994 which de-mined the area. Excavations began in 1996 and before long, remains of churches were unearthed which matched pilgrim accounts from as far back as the fifth century. Pope John Paul II sanctified the spot and held an onsite open-air mass in 2000. Each subsequent pope has since visited.
Today, much of the Jordan dried up, but it’s fascinating to see the steps leading down to the ancient river level. Historically, much is said to have happened here. It’s said the first five apostles met here and it’s also beloved to be the spot where, in the Old Testament, Elijah (quite dramatically) ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire.
In addition to Madaba, the tour also includes a visit to Mount Nebo, where Moses died. It’s here that God showed him the Holy Land that he would never actually reach.
The religious part comes down to a matter of faith, but the rich history is moving regardless of your beliefs. When in Amman, go visit!