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The 2011 Ceremony at the Baptism Site

According to Gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist was active in the Judean desert (3:1), and when Jesus came to him he baptized him in the Jordan River (Mat. 3:6).  That means the baptism site has to be in the Jordan River, but in the proximity to the Judean desert. The only possible location could be in small strip of southern part of the Jordan River, near Jericho.

The Gospel of John even mentions the baptismal site by name (“Bethany beyond the Jordan“, 1:28), but this place name is not known in contemporary sources.

In the Byzantine period a tradition developed that the Baptism of Jesus took place at a site 8.5 km SE of Jericho, whose Arabic name today is El Maghtas (“The Baptism [place]”). A monastery site near the baptism site is called “Qaser el-Yahud” (“The fort of the Jews”) echoing a tradition that this also is where the Israelites crossed the Jordan river to enter the promised land. This baptism site was a popular pilgrimage destination in the Byzantine and Crusader periods, and again in the 19th-20th centuries. But after the Six day war (1967), the Jordan River became the border between the state of Israel and the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. Barbed wire and mines were planted along the river, including at the traditional baptism site. Visits to the  site were forbidden, and dengerous. The baptism site was abandoned.

Yet in 1994 Israel and Jordan signed a peace contract, and last summer (August 2010) the ministry of tourism completed a project of clearing the mines and setting the site for baptism once again.

Being so, the traditional “Epiphany” ceremony of 2011 was more festive then ever.

The “Epiphany“, (“manifestation” in Greek), referred originally to the visit of the Magi to baby Jesus (Mat. 3). By tradition this event took place on the 6th of January. The Eastern Church follows a Julian calendar, and so they celebrate the event on January 18th. The Eastern Church also argues January 18th (their January 6th) is the day Jesus was baptized, and so they celebrate the Baptism of Jesus on that day.

More then 10,000 excited pilgrims of the Greek-Orthodox and the Ethiopian orders assembled in the morning and waited for the Greek-Orthodox patriarch. At 11:00 his car passed through the crowds and drove to the monastery of Qasr el-Yahud. While the Greeks conducted a special service at the monastery the Ethiopians began their march to the Jordan River itself, singing and playing the drums. At the water some baptized in excitement in front of the cheering crowds.

Ethiopians in a ceremonial march towards the Jordan river at the Traditional site of the Baptism of Jesus. © Ron Peled. Photo taken by Gad Rise.

A young Ethiopian rising from the water after been baptized in water of the Jordan river. © Alice Hahn.

Next the Greek-Orthodox parade slowly advanced towards the Jordan. A band of Arab Christians from Beit Sahour dressed in scouts uniform led the way, playing drums and the Scottish pipe. They were followed by the Greek-Orthodox clergy, including the Patriarch.

A ceremonial band of Arab Christians from Beit-Sahour (a village next to Beth-lehem), leading the parade of the Greek-Orthodox church towards the Baptismal site. © Ron Peled. Photo taken by Gad Rise.

Theophilus III, the Patriarch of the Greek-Orthodox church in Jerusalem, reaching the Jordan river at the baptizing site. © Ron Peled. Photo taken by ad Rise.

At the Site the Patriarch waved palm fronds, sprinkled some water on the cheering crowds, and released several doves, echoing the account of the Baptism of Jesus at the site: “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Mat. 3:16-17).

Russian pilgrims in ceremonial clothes watch the patriarch releasing three doves at the baptism site. © Ron Peled. Photo taken by ad Rise.

In the nearby Deir Hajla monastery a free lunch was offered to the all the attendants, including the tourists. The renewed tradition of the baptisim ceremony seemed this year more colorful and popular then ever.