"In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As He was coming up out of the water He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit dislike a dove descending upon Him. And there came a voice from heaven: "You are my beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased."(Saint Mark 1:9-11).
"Bethany beyond the Jordan ", located 25 kilometers from the Jordanian capital, is a Christian shrine housing the place of Christ's baptism. Remains of Roman and Byzantine origin, such as churches and chapels, a monastery, caves that served as refuges for hermits and baptismal pools, testify to the religious value of the place.
For a long time abandoned and then challenged about the veracity of its location, the sanctuary has finally regained its attractiveness. In normal times, its blessed waters, which serve as a natural boundary between the Holy Land and Jordan, attract crowds who come to immerse themselves or to be baptized there, following the example of Christ's contemporaries who came from all over "the region of Judea, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem" (St. Mark 1:5). In February 2016, its classification as a UNESCO World Heritage Site makes Bethany, on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, a place to see.
The place where Christ's public life started, however, was for centuries a historical detective novel. Today, Orthodox, Catholics, Syriacs, Copts and Armenians immerse themselves in the Jordan River in remembrance of Our Lord Jesus Christ’s baptism, without caring more than necessary about the side of the river where Christ came down to join St. John the Baptist. Yet for centuries, this was not the case for politicians, researchers and archaeologists who questioned themselves on the subject. Tensions were even created because each of the States, Jordanian and Israeli, claimed "the privilege of protecting the place of Christ's baptism." East Bank, West Bank? No one knows.
On this subject, the Gospels of Saint Mark and Saint Matthew agree on the indication of the Jordan River but do not provide more precise indications. Crowds came to be baptized in "the water of the Jordan" (St. Mark 1:5) and John the Baptist "preached in the wilderness of Judea" (St. Matthew 3:1). Only St. John names the place: "All this happened at Bethany, beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing." (Saint John 1:28)
But which bank of the Jordan River was he talking about? If the exact place had been known to Jesus' disciples, it seems that the memory of the first Christians has been lost with time. It was only in 1996, after the signing of the peace treaty between the Holy Land and Jordan, that the amazing history of the place took a new turn. Archaeological excavations uncovered remains (monasteries, nine churches, baptismal basins, hydraulic installations) dating back to Roman and Byzantine times, which had been damaged following the Arab conquests of the 7th century and buried after earthquakes. These discoveries are put to the test in the writings of medieval pilgrims, which describe, among other things, a church on the east bank of the river whose altar is a cross-shaped basin, and in those of Theodosius, written in the 5th century A.D., which speak precisely of the church of St. John the Baptist built by the Emperor Athanasius on the spot where Jesus would have been baptized.
Doubt fades with each discovery. It must be the true place of Christ's baptism. A truth that many popes who had been there had not doubted, including Pope John Paul II in 2000, Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 and Pope Francis in 2014.
Every pilgrim who today travels to Bethany has the chance to admire a dozen places of worship, from the Lutheran temple to the Catholic chapel, which surround the steps leading down to the Jordan River. In spite of the beauty of the domes and the bright colors of the mosaics, the banks of the river retain a great simplicity of the time of Christ. The nearby caves, where hermits took refuge, also reinforce the contrast with the splendor of the more recent religious monuments.
Today, thanks to UNESCO, everyone is concerned about preserving the site of Bethany. No more sanctuaries can be built and the Jordanian authorities preserve the environment of the Jordan River as close as possible to its natural state.