The Baptism – Almagtas on the Jordan side of the Jordan River is one of the most important recent discoveries in biblical archaeology. Excavations only began here in 1996, following Jordan's peace treaty with Israel in 1994, but have already uncovered more than 20 churches, caves and baptismal pools dating from the Roman and Byzantine periods.
Although the identification is not absolutely certain, archaeology has shown that the area known as Wadi Kharrar has long been believed to be the biblical Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, where John the Baptist lived and Jesus was baptized.
This area is also associated with the ascension of the Prophet Elijah into heaven, which is commemorated at a hill called Tell Mar Elias.
It is important to notice that the Bethany should not be confused with Bethany of Jerusalem, where Mary Magdalene lived and Lazarus was raised from the dead.
The first historical mention of this site is in the writings of the anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux in 333 AD, which say Jesus was baptized five Roman miles (7.4KM) north of the Dead Sea, which is where Wadi Kharrar enters the Jordan River.
The pilgrim Theodosius was the first to mention a church at the Jordan River, which was built at the end of the 5th century by the Emperor Anastasius (491-518) to commemorate St John the Baptist. Built on arcades and square in shape, the church had a marble column with an iron cross marking the spot where the people then thought that Jesus had been baptized.
Various other church writers and pilgrims in the 5th through 7th centuries mentioned churches in the lower Jordan River-Bethany region commemorating the baptism of Christ.
The 7th-century pilgrim Arculf mentioned seeing the ruins of the church at this spot on the east bank, a wooden cross in the river, and steps leading into the water from the west bank. Another nearby chapel was said to have marked the spot where Jesus' clothes were kept while he was being baptized.
In more recent times, the site was long off limits due to its position along a disputed border that was dotted with thousands of land mines. It was only in 1996, following the peace treaty of 1994 and two years of clearing the mines, that archaeologists were able to excavate Wadi Kharrar.
Using some pre-1948 studies and the early pilgrim accounts as their guide, archaeologists quickly uncovered an astonishing 21 ancient sites. These include five baptismal pools (shallow pools lined with plaster) from the Roman and Byzantine periods; a Byzantine monastery; 11 Byzantine churches (many with mosaics and Greek inscriptions); caves of monks and hermits; and lodgings for pilgrims.
These findings have led most scholars to conclude that this is the biblical Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, where John baptized Jesus Christ. In 2000, on Epiphany, more than 40,000 people gathered at the Baptism Site along with church leaders from 15 world churches in a massive pilgrimage. Shortly after, the Armenian Church officially declared the site to be the location of the baptism for Christ. And on March 20, Pope John Paul II held an outdoor Mass at the site with 25,000 worshippers in attendance.
Since the excavations of the late 1990s, the site has been extensively developed by the Jordan Tourism Authority, but sensitively so - visitor numbers are controlled and the Visitors' Centre has been located at some distance from the site in an effort to preserve its sanctity. Other facilities include a restaurant, shops, and even a plush VIP Lounge.
All private cars are prohibited within the archaeological zone itself, so a minibus brings visitors to their choice of three different sites: Tell Mar Elias, the Baptism Pools and/or John the Baptist's Church.
The first stop on most tours of Bethany is Tell Mar Elias, Elijah's Hill. The small hill has the ruins of three churches, three caves and three baptism pools, accessible by a wooden catwalk. Starting on the west side, a cave forms the apse of a small Byzantine church, with small south and east apses and a few fragments of a mosaic floor.
Northwest of this are the covered ruins of a larger Byzantine church. Built into the apse is a black stone, commemorating the fire that accompanied Elijah's ascent into heaven. The mosaic floor includes a cross made of diamond shapes and a Greek inscription dating it to the time of Rhotorious (which is the early 6th century).
Up a couple steps on the northeastern side of the tell are two pools from the Roman period, one cut later with the addition of a 14m-deep well. Further around the tell is a large rectangular pool, plastered on the bottom and with four steps leading into it. This is believed to have been used for group baptisms.
A few meters south are a number of other sites of interest. The major one is a large freestanding arch, which was constructed in 1999 out of 63 stones to commemorate the death of King Hussein, who was 63 years old. On 21 March 2000, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass beneath this arch, and ever since it has been known as the Church of John Paul II.
A few meters from the arch are the foundations of a large rectangular building that has been called a prayer hall, with some fragments of a mosaic floor.
Also nearby is a system of water channels, pools, a well, and a large cistern with its original plastered interior. A smaller cistern was later built nearby. Water was channeled to these from several kilometers away in order to serve all the baptisms that took place here.
Paths lead down from from Tell Mar Elias to a path on the south side of Wadi Kharrar, which passes several Byzantine sites as it heads west towards the Jordan River. One of these, about 500m west of the tell, is a complex of hermits' cells.
Nearby is the Large Baptism Pool, fed by spring water. It is made of rough stone on the bottom section but finely dressed ashlars at the top. Directly above the pool is a promontory on which a building was excavated. Affording fine views of the valley, it may have been a pilgrims' hostel. Baptisms still take place here today.
Just west of the pool is the zor, a deep flood plain flanking the River Jordan on both sides. Steps provide access to two Byzantine hermits' caves with prayer niches. One of them also has three apses.
An 8th-century account records the sojourn here of a monk who fell ill on his way from Jerusalem to Mount Sinai. While recovering from fever in one of these caves, he had a vision of John the Baptist, who said to him, "This little cave is greater than Mount Sinai, for our Lord Jesus Christ himself visited me here."
As Wadi Kharrar approaches the Jordan River, the change in the environment is dramatic and it becomes clear why Prophet Jeremiah described "the jungle of the Jordan" (Jer. 49:19). The dry desert transforms into a tropical climate as the paths lead into a thicket of reeds and tamarisk bushes. The air here is filled with sounds: birdsongs, buzzing insects, and the sound of running water from the 14 springs that flow all around. The name "Kharrar" for this area may actually be an imitation of these sounds.
After five or ten minutes' walking, the path leads into a clearing marked by a modern pool and the ruins of the 7th-century Church of John the Baptist. Here you can see the original altar and mosaic floor, which was originally placed atop an arch to prevent flooding. The support pillars of the arch lie on the north side of the church, in the very spot they fell many centuries ago.
A marble fragment inscribed "IOY. BATT." was found in the church, confirming its dedication to John the Baptist. A Byzantine marble stairway leads from the apse of the church to the Spring of John the Baptist.
Next to this are two more churches, the lower one of which features marble tiles in geometrical shapes. Nearby are marble Corinthian capitals.
About 150m west of the Byzantine church, via a new path through the tamarisks, is the River Jordan itself.
A modern Orthodox church dedicated to St. John the Baptist has been built next to the Jordan River as part of the development of the site. The small church has a golden dome and is painted with Byzantine-style murals inside.