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A project of Peace in Jordan
for the Great Jubilee

The sanctuary of Bethany beyond the Jordan,
where John the Baptist baptised will be reopened

by Michele Piccirillo (Studium Biblicum Franciscanum)

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Left: Aerial view of the Jordan with Wadi Kharrar extending to the East.


Notwithstanding the peace openings that the Middle East has been living for the past years, the effects of the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 are still felt. The passage over river Jordan is still not practicable for pilgrims who used to land at Amman Airport and then proceed towards Jerusalem. This was the way which was followed by the Custos of the Holy Land and Pope Paul VI during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1964. The Pope stopped in prayers on the river bank before proceeding towards the Holy City. Today the crossing can be made only under military escort as the river is still a fortified border. In antiquity the pilgrims used to reach the river from Jericho coming down from Jerusalem. We find a description of the crossing in the Life of St. Mary Egiziaca, anxious to arrive in the land of peace. "And having said these things - recounts the saint to Zosimus the monk - I heard the voice of someone who shouted from afar: 'if you cross the holy Jordan you will find peace'... I came out of the atrium of the church and started to walk in haste. Then, as I came out, someone saw me and gave me three coins, telling me: Take these mother. So I took them and bought three loaves which I took as a sign of blessing for my journey. I asked the one who was selling bread: From where one can go and which is the road, o man, which leads to the Jordan? And having been informed which was the gate of the city which lead to that direction, I starting my journey running and crying.... When the sun was nearing its sunset, I saw the church of John the Baptist which was at the Jordan; and entering that sanctuary to pray I went down immediately to the Jordan and with that holy water I washed my hands and face. I took then the vivifying and most pure sacraments of Christ the Lord in the same basilica of John the Baptist, the Forerunner. Then I ate half a loaf , drank from the water of the Jordan and lied down on the ground for the night. As soon as the light of dawn arrived, the following morning, I passed to the other side...."

Left: the spring at Wadi Kharrar


The sources of the time all agree in recounting how the pilgrims, on arriving at the river, used to immerse themselves in the waters, a devotional practice in "imitatio Christi" (imitation of Christ) and as a ritual of baptism. John Mosco remembers this practice in his "Spiritual meadow" when he writes about the hermit George who arrived in the Holy Land from the North of Seleucia with his disciple Taleleus, an ex-sailor: "Having venerated the Holy Places, they went down to the Jordan and there washed themselves. Three days later, Taleleus died and the hermit buried him in the Laura of Copratha. Some time later even George the hermit died and the monks of the Laura of Copratha buried him in their church".

This devotional practice, common among the pilgrims of the sixth century, arrived to our days and which Eusebius of Caesarea, bishop of Palestine, mentions as a sacramental practice in the beginning of the IVth century. In the Onomasticon of Biblical Sites at the voice Betabara ("which is beyond the Jordan where John baptised for penance") it adds that the place is known to "many believing brothers, wishing to be reborn, are baptised there in the living current". A wish which, in the words of the same Eusebius, was also that of Emperor Constantine as he himself confided to the bishops gathered at Nicomedia: "Finally time is ripe (to receive) the salvific seal (baptism) which once I thought that I might receive in the waters of the Jordan, in which we are reminded that the Saviour was baptised for our example" (Vita Costantini IV, 62, 1-2). The practice is also mentioned by Egeria placing it at the spring of Aenon in Samaria: "numerous brothers holy monks from various regions come here for the baths".

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Bathing in the river became almost part of the solemn liturgy of the blessing of the water on the day of Epiphany. We find reference to this in the Pilgrim of Piacenza: "at dawn, after matins, the sacred objects are brought in the open, the deacons supporting the priest. The priest goes down to the river and blesses the water... After the baptism (of the waters) all go down in the river for the blessing dressed in the shroud and many other objects which they preserve for their burial".

Left: the Greek Orthodox Community
celebrating at the river banks


During the crusader period the Russian abbot Daniel (1106) finds the water of the river delicious for drinking and harmless: "at the Jordan there is a place for the immersion where the Christians who arrive there bathe and there is also a wading spot to cross the Jordan towards Arabia... the water is very dark and sweet to drink and he who drinks from this holy water his thirst is not quenched; it does not provoke any sickness and does not harm man's intestines".

Right: A view of the site of the Baptism twenty years ago.


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The German pilgrim Teodoricus (1172) is witness of a spectacular mass devotion: "wishing to purify ourselves together with the others in the waters of the Jordan we came down after sunset at dusk and looking down from that height (from the Mount of Quarantena), we saw that in that plain, according to our estimate, there were more than sixty thousand persons almost all carrying candles in their hands, which the pagans living in Transjordan certainly could see from the mountains of Arabia".

The bathing in the river was preceded by a ceremony which the witnesses call "baptism of the cross". The ceremony, according to Ludolphus of Sudheim (1335), consisted of the immersion of the holy cross in the water of the river: "At the same place, on the day of Epiphany, all the Christians and the inhabitants and indigenous of the region meet and the cross is baptised by the archbishop, and all the Christians are baptised, to be cured from their infirmities". The Franciscan Br. Francesco Suriano (1485) describes the rite as an immersion of the cross in the current: "At the time of Epiphany, we (friars) together with all the Christians of the country went to baptise the cross in the Jordan, we set up tents and sang masses. After submerging the cross in the river and after the office, all the people, male and female, are baptised in the water".

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Left: different moments with the Franciscans crossing the river at the site of Wadi Kharrar prior to the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.


The Franciscans in fact, adapting themselves to the traditions of the local Christians, went to the river on the octave of Epiphany to celebrate the Holy Mass on the bank of the river. A practice which was broken by the war of 1967. In 1985 the occupying Israeli authorities exceptionally granted to visit the site processionally once a year, the last Thursday of October for the Catholics and on Epiphany for the orthodox community.

An exceptional measure beyond the Bar Lev line that might be an indication that something is gradually changing. The new peaceful spirit in the Near East, and the closing in of the Great Christian Jubilee of the year 2000, has set in motion a process which we augure can bring about the day in which there will be a pacific flow of pilgrims between the two banks of the river at the traditional baptismal site in front of the monastery of St. John.

We had dreamt of this during our first visit to the east bank of the Jordan during the Summer of 1995 and were looking at the Chapel built by the Custody of the Holy Land on the western bank. We went accompanied by prince Ghazi ben Muhammed, nephew of King Hussein of Jordan. I mentioned to the prince the pictures of the multitude of russian pilgrims who bathed in the waters of the river on the day of Epiphany before World War I and the russian revolution. I remembered also when we came down in procession to the river banks prior to the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. Here, using the "boat of the Greeks", our superior could go out on the waters and bless the river. Peace permitting, the pilgrims will again be able to visit the shrines on the eastern demilitarised bank.

A dream which is becoming true just two years after thanks to the positive and contagious enthusiasm of the nephew of King Hussein who is the head of the palace office for the conservation of the religious heritage of the reign. A decree issued by King Hussein on 10 September 1997, established a "Royal Commission for the development of the park of the Baptism of the Lord the Messiah (on him be peace) in the Jordan valley". The commission, presided by Prince regent Hassan Ben Talal is made up of ten members. Together with Prince Ghazi Ben Muhammad there are also various Ministers, the Minister of Islamic worship, the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities and the Minister of Waters who is responsible of the Jordan Valley, the head of the armed forces, a representative of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem and a representative of the Franciscan Friars of the Custody of the Holy Land who was the mind behind the project.

Left: Our first visit to the site accompanied by Prince Ghazi Ben Muhammad (at the centre) in Summer 1995, where we are examining the remains at Wadi Kharrar.


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The Commission met for the first time in a very suggestive atmosphere on 11 November 1997 under a specially set up tent on the eastern bank of river Jordan. The aim of this meeting was to see how the project can be terminated in the minimum time possible. The Jordanian Government in fact has chosen the river and the long forgotten sanctuaries as symbol for the Jordanian participation in the Great Jubilee of the year 2000: Jordan, the Land and River of the Baptism (as is inscribed in the logo chosen for the occasion).

Left: At the ruins of Mar Liyas


The meeting was preceded by a visit to the excavation which is under way at the ruins of tell Mar Liyas near the spring at the beginning of Wadi Kharrar. The archaeologists of the Department of Antiquities have already brought to light the foundations of the Laura of Sapsafas with mosaiced areas and cisterns built on the sides of the platform on which the church of the monastery was built. This was the church visited by the pilgrims of old! On the banks of the river, after the first rains, the prince heard the accounts given by Metropole Timothy and Fr. Michele Piccirillo about the pilgrimage to the river prior the war of 1967 when the river became a cease-fire border.

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Top: Crown Prince Hassan at the site


Under the specially set up tent the meeting was introduced by Crown Prince Hassan who underlined the novelty of the initiative patronised by King Hussein in the spirit of recon- ciliation betwen the three monotheistic religions who consider river Jordan as holding common memories and heritage. It is Minister Munthar Haddadin, under whose responsibility is the river and the Jordan Valley, who will have the honour and burden to carry out the project for the year 2000 respecting the natural environment of the valley which has been protected by the inaccessibility to the area. The Christians present for the meeting thanked all those responsible for the decision to reopen a long forgotten Gospel related holy site.

Archaeological soundings are under way also on the southern side of Wadi Kharrar where, during our numerous visits to the site during the past two years, we were able to collect sherds pertaining to different first century pottery typologies and some fragments of stone vases belonging to the Jewish period. These are well known typologies which result to be the first archaeological witness to establish a dwelling area by the spring during the roman period. As an archaeologist, these sherds and the later writings of the Byzantine period can make us seriously consider this site as being the site of the village of Bethany beyond the Jordan mentioned in the Gospel of John (1,28). All this notwithstanding the historic weight of the witness given by Origene who most probably gave heed to his informers and had concluded that the village did not exist. He also proposed to emend the Gospel text substituting Bethany with the toponym Bethabara by the river: "we cannot forget that in almost all the examples (of the Gospel) we find: 'these things took place at Bethany' and this seems also to be the case before: so much so that even Heraclion reads Bethany. After going to the places to look for the traces of Jesus, his disciples and the prophets we are convinced that we cannot read Bethany but Bethabara. For Bethany, the village of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, as the Gospel too affirms, lies 15 stadi from Jerusalem, the Jordan on the other hand lies 180 stadi away; now at the Jordan there is no site which carries the name of Bethany. It is said that on the heights of the Jordan there is Bethabara where, it is affirmed, John baptised". The few sherds which we have collected might help us realise that the two topographic realities do non exclude each other: Bethabara in relation to the crossing of the river and the sanctuary of the Baptism at Bethany/ Sapsafas by the spring of Wadi Kharrar as the mosaicist of the Madaba Map had concluded!

Top right: Sherds collected at the site during the initial exploration at Wadi Kharrar
Bottom right: The area of Wadi Kharrar with it's vegetation.


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The time is not far when pilgrims can once more recount like the russian abbot Daniel their encounter with the river : "God gave me the opportunity to be three times by the holy Jordan and was there exactly on the feast of Epiphany, I saw the grace of God, which came down on the waters of the Jordan and a countless multitude of people arriving at the water; all night long there was singing and there is a great number of lit lamps and at midnight there is the baptism in the water; so the Holy Spirit arrives on the waters of the Jordan and the good men who are worthy see him (the Holy Spirit) while the multitude of the people does not see anything, but there is only joy and happiness in the hearts of each Christian when they say: "in the Jordan you were baptised Lord", at which all the people (jumps) into the water and is baptised at midnight in river Jordan as Christ was baptised at midnight".


The Park of the Baptism- Ainon Sapsaphas
(Bethany across the Jordan) in Wadi Kharrar

The Project
Architects Vito Zonzoni and Laura Zonzoni (from Bergamo - Italy) together with Engineer Enzo Motta under the direction of Fr. Michele Piccirillo has been asked to prepare a project to be carried out at the site. For this reason the above have visited the site between the 4th and 11th of March 1998.

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Above: Architects Laura and Vito Zonzoni
measuring the area.


The concept is intended for two groups of visitors:
A. The normal tourist who is more interested in the natural environment of the area: plateau of the ghor al-Kafrein, the wadi Kharrar, the kattar, and the zor with the river Jordan.
B. The pilgrim for whom a sacred simple symbol is added to the natural environment. This symbol will help to remind the site visited by John the Baptist, Jesus and by the pilgrims.
1. The Park is introduced and reached through a respected area. Here, the only legal restriction for the owners is the no-building activity. 2. The Park of the Baptism is a strictly protected area. Visitors will arrive by bus or by car at a spot not far from the two main sites: Sapsafas-Bethany and the Place of the Baptism.

Buses and cars will proceed to a nearby parking area (A and B) located at a certain distance among trees (Pontiana and Palm trees). There will be built the facilities for visitors.
At the end of the visit/celebration, the visitors are picked up by buses.
NB. Roads are the one way and one lane existing tracks used by the army, to avoid destruction of the environment.

A. The Chapel John the Baptist (Maqam Naby Yahya)
The small maqam built in honour of John the Baptist venerated as a Prophet by Christians and Muslims alike, will be the reference point of the Park.
It will be built at the eastern beginning of the Wadi Kharrar overlooking the Spring of Ainon Sapsafas and the Tell Mar Liyas with the recent excavations.
From there a pedestrian track will give the possibility to visit the site and to approach the Spring. From the Spring will start the stream going down to the River Jordan.
The stream and the pedestrian walk will unite the two main points of the Park of the Baptism indicated by the Maqam and by the Column.

Right:Sketch of the project
being prepared for Wadi Kharrar
by the Italian architects.


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B. The Baptism Site on the Jordan river

After the visit, the bus comes and picks up the visitors to proceed to the Jordan river using the not asphalted road which crosses the kattar. Visitors can stop at a Belvedere (panorama view) overlooking the zor.
The bus leaves the visitors at a certain point not far from the river and continues to the Parking Area B. Visitors walk to the Baptism Site.
The main focus of the Baptism Site is the Column in the river seen by pilgrims of the Byzantine-Umayyad times where ends the stream coming down from Wadi Kharrar (and from the Jordan river itself).
In front of the Column two levels of commemoration and celebration are envisaged. On the upper level there is the meeting point for the commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus, which is composed by large steps covered with tent canvas around a central stone basin to which flow three branches of the stream coming down from Wadi Kharrar.
On the lower level, in front of the Column, there is the celebration point of the Baptism. This is the sacred spot to be used only by christian believers for the liturgical baptism. It will be reached through rows of steps, and through a ramp by handicapped people.

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Top: A sketch of the project in its initial stages

 
 


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