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A river runs through it: Jordan develops its baptism site on the river

A baptism site popular with Christian tourists on the Jordan River has received UNESCO recognition in Jordan, but more tourists flock to the Israeli-run side
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  August 14, 2015 Z  (       R     e     u       t     e     r     s        ) Jordan touts its UNESCO-recognized baptism site  10   AUGUST 14, 2015 COVER A baptism site popular with Christian tourists on the Jordan River has received UNESCO recognition in Jordan, but more tourists flock to the Israeli-run side • SETH J. FRANTZMAN I n 1873 the British surveyor, explorer and soldier Claude Conder was in the Jericho area exploring for ruins.“I rode day by day over almost every acre of ground between Jericho and the Dead Sea. The whole is white desert, except near the hills, where rich herbage grows after the rains.”There was no grass, it was January.“In all that plain I found no ruin, except the old monastery of Saint John and a little hermit’s cave, and it seems probable that no other ruins will be found.”More than 140 years after Conder was so discouraged by his failure to find much of anything, the Jordan Valley is bustling with activity. Cities like Jeri-cho have blossomed along it, as have innumerable villages and towns on both sides of the river. Resorts now dot the Dead Sea. Tourists are flocking to the region from all over the world.The single largest attraction in the last few years has been a quiet site on the bank of the small muddy Jordan River, a site that commemorates the baptism of Jesus.On July 3 the 21 countries sitting on the UNESCO World Heritage Committee unanimously voted to declare the Jordanian site on the river a World Heritage Site. Visitors flocking to both sides of the river to commemorate the baptism now number more than half a million a year, meaning the place is one of the single largest draws for tourism in Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.   11 It is best to see the Jordan River as part of a region, not a border, argues engineer Rustom Mkhjian, the assistant commis-sion director of the baptism site in Jor-dan.“We truly believe religion has no bor-ders. It is a reminder there were no bor-ders here at that time. One of the oldest maps shows Jerusalem as the center and shows Jordan and Syria and up to the Red Sea and Egypt.“Unfortunately, some people think the Holy Land is just west of the Jordan [River], and we want the world to know [that] this is an integral part of the Holy Land. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Je-sus’s last days were in Jerusalem. But Christianity started here.”Mkhjian is a thin Armenian Christian who speaks almost as incessantly as he smokes. We are sitting in his air-condi-tioned office in a small squat building in  Jordan, a few kilometers from the river.Mkhjian and his commission rule over a small preserve – around 14 square kilometers of desert and scrub brush – that abuts the river. Around 3 make up the UNESCO site. He has a skel-eton staff.The building has posters for oth-er tourist attractions in Jordan such as Umm Qais and Petra. Another wall shows the dozens of famous dignitar-ies, including the pope, royals such as Prince Charles, and various heads of churches who have visited the baptism site. Mkhjian appears in some of them.An engineer by training, he studied in England, and in Rome became an expert in monument restoration. He still re-calls that people in Europe didn’t always know where the Hashemite Kingdom of  Jordan is.“When I studied in Britain my girl-friend had not heard of Jordan, but peo-ple had heard of King Hussein.”Mkhjian returned to his country in the 1980s and has worked in the antiq-uities department since 1986.“When the archeological team came down here, I was doing rescue preserva-tion works.”He was familiar with the baptism site, but the River Jordan was a site of con-flict. After the 1967 war the area around the river was heavily mined and there were clashes between the Israeli army, Palestinian groups and the Jordanian army. As time went on an uneasy qui-et set in, and in 1994 Israel and Jordan signed a peace agreement.“In 1997 the digs began,” recalls Mkh-jian. “This had been a closed military area and Jordan had to de-mine the area before archeologists could come here. They knew the importance of the site.”The site found patronage from the Jor-danian royal family. Soon after the treaty was signed Prince Ghazi bin Muham-mad, cousin of today’s King Abdullah II, was on a visit to Mount Nebo, which overlooks the Jordan Valley when he met a Franciscan monk and archeologist named Father Michele Piccirillo. The prince had a deep interest in religious history and the monk convinced him to take a look around the area of what was thought to be the baptism site. When they found evidence of ruins, that was enough to convince the prince to en-courage de-mining and further develop-ment.“The site is still a baby,” says Mkhjian.The managers of the area believe it has a message for peace and tolerance in the region.“I was srcinally a civil engineer. Al-though I knew bridges, here bridges of peace are built. Badly needed today, too. So I think it is a blessing for me to be at this site,” says Mkhjian. Visitors flocking to both sides of the river to commemorate the baptism now number more than half a million a year  A JORDANIAN FLAG flutters in front of the Greek Orthodox Church on the Jordanian side of the river. (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)  12   AUGUST 14, 2015 COVER Director Dia al-Madani agrees. “When you talk about religion, forget about politics and geography. It is located in  Jordan, but it doesn’t belong to Jordan but to all of the world, Christians, Jews, Muslims – to avoid these wars of com-petition.”The Jordanians want to avoid the word “competition.” The managers of the site feel they have been impugned in the media since the UNESCO recog-nition, as if somehow they are “compet-ing” with the Israelis to draw tourists to the Jordan River.Most of the coverage in July described it as a kind of victory for the kingdom. “UN backs Jordan’s claim on site where  Jesus was baptized,” wrote Ishaan Tha-roor at The Washington Post  . A story in the Associated Press that particularly bothered the Jordanians notes: “UNES-CO backs Jordan as Jesus’ baptism site as debate goes on.”“We don’t compete, we complete each other’s Holy Land,” says Mkhjian.A University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill archeologist told report-ers that the issue has “nothing to do with archeological reality…. We don’t have any sites with any evidence of archeological remains that were con-tinuously venerated from the first cen-tury on.”The baptism of Jesus took place in the water, and it was not until many years afterward that pilgrimage tradition began to commemorate it, so there is little reason one would expect to find archeological evidence from the period.What’s interesting is that even though media outlets portrayed the  Jordanians as “winning their claim,” the UNESCO petition itself says noth-ing of competing claims to the same site. Included in a tentative list at the initiative of the kingdom, the site is noted under the name “Baptism Site, Bethany Beyond the Jordan-Al-Magh-tas.” The site is described as containing two archeological areas, one at Tell el-Kharrar, also known as Jabal Mar Elias, and the area of the churches of St. John the Baptist. “The property is believed to be the location where Jesus of Nazareth was baptized by John the Baptist and is a popular pilgrimage destination,” the petition states.The Jordanian petition was reviewed by the International Council on Mon-uments and Sites, a professional body located in Paris which advises UNESCO. ICOMOS noted that “the property best represents the tradition of baptism, an important sacrament in Christian faith, and with it the continuous practice of pilgrimage to the site. This tradition is illustrated by the archeological evi-dence, which references the practice of baptism since the 4th century, a prac-tice that is continued again at the pres-ent time.”What is most interesting is the note “ICOMOS considers that the claims concerning the authenticity of the site as the baptism site of Jesus or the loca-tions of Elijah’s ascension cannot be confirmed from an archeological point of view but have been accepted by the majority of Christian [denominations], which seems more relevant for the his-toric and present practice of the cultural tradition.”The conclusion was that the site has attributes of “outstanding universal val-ue” and that there are archeological re-mains that associate it with the practice of pilgrimage, hermit life and religious veneration.There was no mention of “competi-tion” or objection from the Israeli side A DILAPIDATED Ethiopian Orthodox church on the Israeli side of the Jordan River still has signs warning of mines in the area. (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post) RUSTOM MKHJIAN, the assistant commission director of the baptism site in Jordan.  (Seth J. Frantzman)   13 or the Palestinians, who now have del-egations at UNESCO. This is because the Israeli side of the Jordan River is not inside the Green Line, and Israel could not lay claim to a “world heritage site” which is located in territory the inter-national community does not recog-nize as part of Israel. Similarly the PA does not administer the western side of the Jordan and has no way to petition UNESCO to recognize “its side.”Those interviewed for this article on both sides of the Jordan, including gov-ernment authorities who would not pro-vide official responses, noted that there was no dispute or contest over the site. One official in Israel noted: “I wouldn’t make much of it. There was no feeling that ‘it’s not fair’; we got Beit She’arim in the last UNESCO vote,” noting that UN-ESCO added the Israeli site in the Lower Galilee to its list this year as well.IT WAS an outrageously hot day when we took a tour of the Jordanian site. A group from an American NGO that provides as-sistance to sites like this was also on the tour, a reminder that Mkhjian’s opera-tion survives on a bare-bones budget.Usually visitors not on an orga-nized tour of the site must park a dis-tance away in a sun-bleached parking lot and await a shuttle bus that leaves every 30 minutes and does a circular route to see the area. The entrance fee is 12 dinars for foreigners, three di-nars for Jordanians.We piled into Mkhjian’s black Toyota Hilux, which he lauds as the best of the various vehicles he’s used over the years.“When you have a UNESCO site, there is the property and the buffer zone,” he explains. In the distance we can see the towers of several new churches still un-der construction. “The new churches are in the buffer zone.”Here is the area where Elijah reputedly ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire. As it says in II Kings 2:11, “he went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” Commemo-rated as a Jewish prophet, Elijah, or Elias in Arabic, is also important in Christian and Muslim traditions.The commemoration of Elijah’s as-cent to heaven reminds us that so much of the western side of the Jordan is a mirror image of the east. There is a Beth-any next to Jerusalem, and a Bethany beyond the Jordan on the eastern side. The city of Sodom that God destroyed may have existed on either side of the Dead Sea. Some believe Lot escaped into the caves in Tall el-Hammam, north-east of the Dead Sea, after the destruc-tion. Elijah, whose works are so closely connected to Mount Carmel, is also commemorated in Jordan. Even Moses, who reputedly saw the Holy Land from Mount Nebo, is considered by Muslims to be buried at Nebi Musa, on the road to Jerusalem.When pope John Paul II came to this site in Jordan, he stood under a stone arch. “I will keep all the people of Jor-dan, Christians and Muslims, in my prayers, especially the sick and the el-derly.” Today a large mosaic commemo-rates the pope’s visit, as well as the work of Piccirillo in aiding excavations and identification at the place.An explanatory note at the site men-tions that John the Baptist “came in the spirit and strength of Elijah,” and that he lived in a cave near the present hill and “baptized believers in the spring near-by. Jesus visited John in this cave many times and a church was built around the cave in the Byzantine period.”The site, under the blistering sun, in-cludes a wooden walkway where visitors can see the old baptism pool, a church from the 5th century and the remains of the Rhoturios Byzantine monastery.Mkhjian notes that the pathways they built of wood cost only $10,000. Even the money they received years ago from USAID to develop the site, he notes, went into road building around the preserve. “Money is not the solution for sites like this; we kept it simple.”The concept was not to reconstruct, as was done in Jerash where 90 percent of the Roman city was rebuilt, but to show what was found. The big word in restoration is “reversible”; the wooden structures they built can be dismantled, unlike cement, which is permanent.“We can see here the cave where John the Baptist lived and the pools in the reeds where he baptized the people.” However, the churches that once dom-inated the landscape were destroyed by earthquakes that plague the Jordan Rift Valley.Mkhjian thinks that eventually the baptism site will outpace Petra as Jor-dan’s largest tourist attraction. “We could reach one million visitors [a year] by 2025.”However, the statistics his commis-sion keeps on file show a dismal de-cline. They reached a quarter of a mil-lion visitors a year in 2011, the year of the Arab Spring. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February 2011. The drop in tourism at the baptism site began almost immedi-ately. First it was a 7% decline and then 40%. Whereas in 2010 they had 25,000 a month, only 3,039 came in June of 2015. The majority of tourists are from Europe, and they estimate it is about 40% Catholics and 40% Greek Ortho-dox, with the other 20% being made up of Protestant denominations and those like Armenians and Copts.Hajjara Awad, who has worked as a tour guide for most of the last decade and tailors biblical tours for tourists, notes that most people have heard of Petra in  Jordan, but he hopes that with the UNESCO recog-nition, the baptism site’s tourism potential will in-crease.Nevertheless, fears of spillover from the Syrian Civil War and terrorism by groups such as Islamic State make tourists fearful.“Jordan is safe,” says Awad. “The me-dia has a big affect [on the tourism de-cline]. People think Syria is just across the street, but there is a great distance.”He argues that Jordanians themselves are keen on security. “Every Jordanian considers himself a policeman; they take responsibility. If they see some-thing suspicious, they report it.”Our little tour group makes its way from the site of John the Baptist’s cave toward the Jordan River. Perched on a hill overlooking the site are several churches. Lutheran, Armenian and Coptic churches have been mostly com-pleted. Each represents the architectur-al tradition of its home. The Armenian one has a round shape, while the Coptic one has a giant tower. Each church also seems to represent the relative wealth or lack thereof of the home country. The Coptic church, for instance, has never been completed and looks like a ghostly cement hulk. The cornerstone for a Syrian church was laid in 2013, and the Ethiopians have a ‘Jordan is safe... people think Syria is just across the street, but there is a great distance’ MANY OF THE pre-1967 churches on the Israeli side of the river have yet to be refurbished. (Seth Frantzman) JORDANIAN TOUR guide Awad Hajjara, who specializes in Biblical tourism. (Seth J. Frantzman)
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