The air is silent, the buff-coloured soil punctured by groves of diffident tamarisk trees. The road passes bleak, abandoned buildings and crosses crown gateways; a lion of Judah , symbol of the Ethiopian Church , roars silently on a blue-tiled background, a lone lord of all he surveys. That is the scene here at the Jordan River near Jericho on an ordinary day, in an ordinary month.
But things change on Epiphany, the day of Jesus' baptism, when “the heavens opened, and he saw the spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.” Celebrated in January on separate dates by the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Churches , the holy day transforms the area as thousands of pilgrims flock to what is one of the most sacred and least visited places in Israel .
This site is best known by the Arabic name Qasr Al Yahud . Some say this means “castle of the Jews.” Others note that al Yahud does mean “the Jews,” but the first word comes from an Arabic word meaning “break.” Thus, this is none other than the place where the Jews “broke” the waters – that is, where Joshua led them across the Jordan . Qasr al Yahud is also the name given to the area's major landmark, the fifth-century Monastery of St. John .
Many traditions come together here. That is typical in the Holy Land , going to times when pilgrims could not travel freely and often stayed put at sites they were able to reach there, frequently from the safety and coolness of a cave, they read and pondered all the biblical tales that took place in the vicinity. The traditions at this site include, in addition to the baptism of Jesus by John and the crossing of the Jordan by Joshua, Elijah being fed by ravens and his ascent to heaven.
Here, where the muddy waters of the Jordan eddy lazily along, about 12 feet deep, you are so close to the other side you can fly a paper airplane across and have it land in the lap of a pilgrim sitting on the wooden dock, hung incongruously with two orange life-saving rings, on the Jordanian side. The dock leads to a walkway, and up to a beautiful little gold-domed chapel built by the Jordanians in the year 2000, based on ancient accounts that marked the baptism on the east bank of the river. Since 1994, this has been a peaceful international border between Israel and Jordan .
The excitement of being in a place of such authenticity, where just a stone's throw away, John the Baptist preached, will hopefully impress modern visitors more than it did Mark Twain, who described his 1867 visit here in Innocents Abroad.
“ With the first suspicion of dawn every pilgrim took off his clothes and waded into the dark torrent, singing ‘On Jordan 's stormy banks I stand/ and cast a wistful eye/ To Canaan 's fair and happy land/ Where my possessions lie .' But they did not sing long. The water was so fearfully cold that they were obliged to stop singing and scamper out again… So we saw the Jordan very dimly.”
This vivid description by the famed curmudgeonly writer reinforces the inescapable impression that little has changed here since the 19 th century. And that is its charm. Uriel Aharonov, the Megilot-Dead Sea Regional Council engineer who is working together with the Jordan Valley Regional Council to create the essential tourist amenities here, pledges to protect this authenticity. “Except for shoring up existing walls and a simple wooden ramp, there will be no construction at the water line itself, but rather at a distance. And all construction will blend in with the area's natural colours,” says Aharonov.
Mark Twain had another complaint about the Jordan : “We knew by our wading experience, however, that many streets in America are double as wide as the Jordan .” But the seasonal situation Twain observed at the end of eight rainless months is now the default status of the Jordan , due to the pumping of water since the 1960s from the Sea of Galilee . Connected by the diminishing Jordan to the Sea of Galilee, the unique Dead Sea is drying up too, a matter of great concern to those who love this landscape. Israel is considering various solutions to the problem, and Aharonov says the best would be to implement existing plans for desalination plants on the Mediterranean, so more water could be released into the Jordan , “The Jordan is more than a hydrological resource,” Aharonov says. “It is an irreplaceable symbol for Bible-loving people around the world.”
Leaving the Jordan River and driving south along the main road (Highway90) to the Dead Sea, don't miss another of the region's gems, the monastery of Dir Hijleh (possibly from Beit Hoglah of Joshua 18:19, once of the border points of the tribe of Judah).
In the shady courtyard, you may find Christian families from Nazareth picnicking at one table and a Jewish desert study tour at another. Inside the church, which dates from 1885, the altars are adorned with snapshots of the sick, left there by family members hoping for miracles of healing associated with the monastery's founder, Gerasimos, a leader of the early movement of Christians to the desert. This massive movement was born of the desire to go back to the simplicity of the first Christians, a present-day aspiration that is sure to lead many visitors to this pristine part of the most famous river in the world.
Visit to the Jordan River must be pre-arranged. Ask your travel planner to do so by calling the Megilot Regional Council at 02-994-5000. Visit the council website at www.dead-sea.org.il .