“When you see the Jordan river don’t go too close to it or do anything outrageous that provokes the Israeli soldiers,” cautioned our guide, Salaheddin Abunaffaa, as we headed towards the site where John the Baptist baptised Jesus into the Christian faith. The Israelis, he pointed out, were just across the holiest of holy rivers, which, from where we were, seemed nowhere in sight. With its soft sandstone mountains and sparse, desert-like vegetation of shrubs and stray trees, it was possible to visualise the terrain as the battlefield between Israel and Jordan. In 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank, turning the region where our vehicle was driving through the dusty road into a war zone where soldiers from both sides must have stared down at each other, not oblivious of its disputed legacy.
After 1994, the Jordanian archaeologist, Dr. Muhammad Waheeb, excavated the area around the east bank of the Jordan river and discovered a wide range of buildings, making him conclude that this was truly the place where Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist. He relied on the New Testament to direct him to where Jesus was baptised – in ‘Bethany Beyond the Borders’, which is also called Al-Maghtas. Roman remains were found near this point, suggesting that pilgrims visited this place near the Jordan river that reached its zenith during the Byzantine period.
As evidence began to build about it being the original site of Jesus’ baptism into the Christian faith, Pope John Paul II, too, visited the area in 2000 and put his imprimatur to seal the controversy, much to the chagrin of Israel that had been monopolising tourism dollars, claiming the West Bank as John the Baptist’s original abode. In 2015, UNESCO also declared Al-Maghtas a heritage site, putting its authenticity beyond the new interpretations of scriptures and technological interventions. UNESCO’s certification brought great delight to Jordan Tourism that had been savaged by wars in the neighbourhood.
After walking through a canopied track of red soil we found ourselves in a small clearing with a few benches set up against the wooden railings. “So here is the Jordan river,” Salaheddin announced with a flourish. It was a river that could only be noticed by climbing the benches to peer beyond the bushes. Though this was selfie time, the river was plainly disappointing. Surely, the world’s holiest river deserved more water and a better view perhaps. From our perspective, the Jordan river that served as the marker between Jordan and Israel was not more than three metres wide.
A little later, we were in a bigger clearing. This was the excavated portion that helped Jordan earn its due in the Christian world as the place where Jesus was baptised. A holding area of sorts with an elevated platform where John must have had his abode was cordoned off for the visitors. Just below this dug-out structure was a little puddle of water. Did Jesus take a dip in this joke of a pool?
Salaheddin quietly explained that the Jordan river was once far bigger and wider than what is now left of it. We could believe this. We later learnt about the Israeli enterprise to draw water from different points that had even degraded the Dead Sea, which many believe can die during our lifetime unless water from the Red Sea revives it.
On the walkway there is a picture from 2000 of the Pope in his car, gazing at John’s former abode. A little distance from here is a spankingly new Russian Orthodox Church, which was visited by President Vladimir Putin some years ago. A few metres away from the church flows the Jordan river – or what is left of it. In many ways, it is like a miniature Ganga Ghat, where Christians take a dip to rid themselves of their sins. On the other side of the bank is Israel. A good long-jumper could cross over to the other side without wetting his shorts, but could get a bullet in some part of his body in the process. Too much firepower all around!
Many American Christians from the Israeli side, attired in white or black cloaks, were being chaperoned by their priests into muddy but holy waters to be baptised. On the Jordanian side there were only traumatised Christian refugees driven by the Islamic State from the Iraqi city of Mosul, seeking God’s intervention to make their life’s journey easier and less painful. As Salaheddin ushered us to our next destination, these Iraqi Christians sprinkled themselves with some water from a fount located a few steps away from the tiny river and headed to a life of uncertainty, hoping that the Lord will be their shepherd.