Peraea and the Dead Sea
17. Aenon, where now is Sapsaphas - (Wadi Kharrar)
According to the Gospel, John the Baptist was preaching and baptising "in Bethany beyond the Jordan" (Jn 1:19-34). The place was located and visited by the Christian pilgrims two miles from the east bank of the river at the beginning of the Wadi Kharrar in the territory of Livias - al-Rameh.
The place was known as Sapsas or Sapsaphas ('the place of Willows'), as is written in the Madaba Map, which identifies it with Ainon. A laura (a monastic complex) with many cells inhabited by hermit monks was built on the spot near a cave after a vision.
The fact is narrated in The Spiritual Meadow of John Moschus (VII Century). On his way to go on pilgrimage to Sinai by way of Aila, a monk from the monastery of Saint Eustorgius in the environs of Jerusalem took the road to Arabia. Having crossed the Jordan river he was stricken by a violent fever and forced to take refuge in a cave. Three days later, Saint John the Baptist appeared to him in a dream and tried to dissuade him from continuing his pilgrimage. He said to the monk: "This little cave is greater than Mount Sinai. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself has come in here to pay me a visit". Convinced, and recovered from his infirmity, the monk transformed the cave into a rupestrian church for the hermits living in the neighbourhood. "It is the place which is called Sapsas near the Jordan" concludes John Moschus.
The Pilgrim from Piacenza writes that two miles from the river there is a valley with a spring were Saint John baptized. The valley was at the time inhabited by many hermits: "In that part of the Jordan is the spring where Saint John used to baptize, and which is two miles from the Jordan, and Elijah was in that valley when the raven brought him bread and meat. The whole valley is full of hermits."
The sanctuary in wadi Kharrar was visited until the Crusader Period. In 1106 Abbot Daniel a Russian pilgrim was well impressed by the place:
"Not far away from the river, at a distance of two arrow throws, is the place where the Prophet Elijah was taken into heaven in a chariot of fire. There is also the grotto of Saint John the Baptist. A beautiful torrent full of water flows over the stones towards the Jordan; the water is very cold and has a very good taste, it is the water that John drank while he lived in the holy grotto". The place was later abandoned for security reasons. However, the memory of the place was not lost; as we can read in the itinerary of Grethenios in the year 1400 AD: "It is said that beyond the Jordan one can find the grotto of Saint John, it is the place where he baptised the people. We did not go there for fear of the Arabs".
Modern exploration of the sanctuaries across the Jordan river started only at the end of the last century. Father Féderlin of the White Fathers at Saint Anne in Jerusalem was the first to identify and photograph in 1899 the foundations of a small chapel built on arches across the Jordan river in front of the monastery of Saint John the Baptist located on the west bank. The chapel was identified as the church seen by Arculf in the VIIth Century.
In the same year, 1899, Father Féderlin could also visit the ruins on the tell Mar Liyas at the beginning of Wadi Kharrar indicated by the discovery of the Madaba Map two years earlier. The later explorers, the latest in 1947, could only see some walls and collect mosaic tesserae and Byzantine sherds on the tell Mar Liyas and in the surroundings of the spring.
The rediscovery of the site in 1995
After 50 years on August 11th, 1995, accompanied by Prince Ghazi Ben Muhammad a team of archaeologists could visit once again both sites guided by the soldiers guarding the border. In the field south of tell Mar Liyas they could collect some sherds of the Roman period, the first evidence of the possibility that the area had been inhabited at the time of John the Baptist and Jesus.
The visit and the interest shown by the Prince to the sanctuaries in Wadi Kharrar, resulted in a royal decree being issued by King Hussein on December 10th, 1997 creating a commission to develop the Park of the Baptism of Christ on the occasion of the Christian Jubilee. In the meantime, the department of Antiquities started archaeological excavations in the area directed by M. Waheeb.
Michele Piccirillo, "Aenon Sapsaphas and Bethabara", in The Madaba Map Centenary 1897-1997, Jerusalem 1999, 219-220 (extract: see also the complete article)
E. Alliata ("The Pilgrimage Routes During the Byzantine Period in Transjordan", in The Madaba Map Centenary 1897-1997, Jerusalem 1999, 122)
In the old place across the Jordan, the memory of the "cave of the Forerunner" was kept alive at least until the eighth century, as the pilgrim Epiphanius reports (IX,19-20). A cave, and a fountain is represented in the Madaba map, on the east bank of the Jordan river, at the site of Saphsaphas, recently rediscovered. Pilgrims attest that in the same place there was a memory concerning the hiding place of the Prophet Elijah, in the valley of Cherith. (See also the complete article)
Noël Duval ("Essai sur la signification des vignettes topographiques", in The Madaba Map Centenary 1897-1997, Jerusalem 1999, 122)
"Ainôn, actuellement Sapsaphas". La source, l'un des lieux ou Jean aurait baptisé, est représentée par une conque avec le flot qui s'écoule. On ne montre ni l'église, ni le monastère mentionnés par les pèlerins. (See also the complete article)
P. O'Callaghan (Supplément au Dictionnaire de la Bible, ad v. "Madaba", col. 647)
Sapsaphas is the original name of this place. Certainly, this name is only the Aramaic Sapsapha, "willow"; infact, a "willow" is represented on the right side of the letters. Next to it, we can conjecture a grotto. In reality, John Moschus, in the 7th century (P.G. 87, 2853) narrates the vision of a monk of St. Eustorch in the year 500. Feeling a sudden attack of fever, the monk lay down in that place, about one mile from the river Jordan. Having been healed by a visit of St. John the Baptist, the monk founded a monastery (laura) there. J. Moschus called this place Sapsas. The memory of St. John the Baptist in this site echoes also in Epiphanes in the 9th century. Nearby, there is Wadi Kharrar, a site where the tradition of the 4th century localizes the ascension in heaven of the prophet Elia on the cariot of fire (2 Kings 2,5-14). Nevertheless we need not conclude that the name Kharrar reflects the Chorrath of the Septuagint version of the Bible and the Kerith of the Massoretic text, as if the prophet, on this very place, would have been nurished by the crows (1 Kings 17,2ff.). (trans. from French)
Map of the Jericho region
showing the location of Wadi Kharrar
For more sources and bibliography see:
F.-M. Abel, Géographie de la Palestine. II (Paris 1938), s.v. "Sapsaphas", 448.
Map Section 3 Place Sources