By the time our group hit the Jordan River, I felt more heretical than holy. Already I had swallowed Jonah’s whale story at Jaffe (Joppa), sampled Pilate’s playpen (Caesarea), missed the Armageddon Express at Megiddo, and learned that landmines in the Golan Heights prevent anyone from actually following in all of Christ’s footsteps. We even sampled Nazareth Village, a reenactment of what life “might” have been like during Jesus’ time replete with actors (and yes, I’m using the term loosely), a commercial venture that seemed clearly geared to lure in the tourist trade than welcome the wandering pilgrim.
Hence, I dialed down any expectations that the River Jordan would remotely resemble the mighty flowing body of water depicted in Christian hymnody. At Abu-Kayak in Jordan Park, the kayaks and lifejackets were in storage as we were there during the off-season. But we would not have been able to launch a kayak anyway because the river was so low in places that one would have difficulty operating even a toy sailboat.
Over at Yardenit, a key hotspot for Christian tour operators looking to immerse their clients, interested parties can purchase a baptismal robe with accompanying certificate provided they possessed the proper cha-ching. After paying the entry fee, the soon-to-be baptized get escorted lemming-like through a white circle gate where they await their turn for a divine dunking. Those of a more charismatic bent can purchase fish shaped tambourines to add a special happy-happy-joy-joy sound while the more somber in spirit can don a crown of thorns. Then the newly cleansed can preserve this memory courtesy of spiritual kitsch ranging from a stuffed camel donned in army gear to bottled holy water. Tempted though I was to test the theological theory if one can actually bottle the essence of holy water, we had to leave before I had a chance to hand over my shekels.
One hundred degrees of holy
In light of the Christian cheese set before me in Israel, I set my spiritual sights very low when I connected with a press trip to Jordan ten months later. Even though I knew Bethany Beyond the Jordan would be small in stature, the site still held considerable sway in Christian circles. After all, this holy site represents the spot where, according to New Testament accounts, the religious rubber hit the road thanks to John’s baptismal business.
While Abu Kayak and Yardenit were about the only two places in Israel where I didn’t spot any armed soldiers, we had to pass through several checkpoints to get to this site. No matter how many times I pass by a display of guns ‘n’ Moses, I still find this image jarring whenever I venture onto a designated holy site.
En route to the river (or creek depending on your geological assessment), we passed by ruins of ancient churches in various stages of excavation. Clearly we were by no means that only ones looking for a personal connection to the divine.
By now the earthiness of the place hit me square in the face. Even though it was September, the temperature approached 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Then again, we’re at the bottom of the Jordan Valley and situated very close to the Dead Sea which at 1,312 feet below sea level is the lowest place on earth. No wonder the stagnant air and water made it hard for me to breathe.
Back to the beginning, or beginning of the end?
Despite these less than holy conditions, when I actually ventured down a cobbled walkway and touched the Jordan River, I felt a sense of peace pass over me. (Or perhaps I was about to pass out. One never knows when it gets this hot and holy.) I tried to sit still but the flies had a special hankering for wet skin and showered me with their blessings. Here one finds the genesis for the humor inherent in the Israelites mocking the Canaanite ruler by calling him Beelzebub (Lord of the Flies).
Then a couple from New Jersey trotted down with gallon jugs in hand, thus obliterating any possibility for a nanosecond of silence. I tried to collect my thoughts but our guide indicated it was time to go. After a vain search for even a water fountain, we relieved ourselves by paying homage to the Our Lady of the Fan that was set up inside a diminutive chapel.
As we departed Bethany Beyond the Jordan, our guide told us that the land on the other side of the river was in fact, Israel. I would have skipped across but with an armed guard watching us, my passport in the van, and a two night stay at a five-star resort on the Dead Sea on the agenda, I didn’t dare break away.
Since this visit by our group of journalists, according to the Jordanian Tourist Board, Bethany Beyond the Jordan reported a 50 percent increase in visitors. In 2009, Baptist World Alliance (BWA) leaders and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair joined Jordanian and international officials to dedicate the new Baptism Center. Also in this same year, Pope Benedict XVI blessed the cornerstones of two new Catholic churches. The Baptism Center and the Catholic churches join the fully operational Greek Orthodox Church and others already under construction. In addition, 3-star hotels will be built to supplement the 4 and 5-star hotels around the Dead Sea Resort. Also, 350 dunham (88 acres) of land has been set aside for the pilgrim village that will be constructed just outside the baptism site reserve.
If all goes according to plan, the site can expect to receive more than a million visitors a year. So, once these improvements become permanent, will future pilgrims be able to capture a moment of silence? Or will Bethany Beyond the Jordan morph into Yardenit 2.0?
If you go:
See more on Jordan’s holy sites and religious attractions here.
Becky Garrison is the author of Jesus Died for This? and a panelist for The Washington Post’s On Faith column. Other writing credits include work for The Guardian, Killing the Buddha, Religion Dispatches, and US Catholic. When she takes a break from her laptop, Becky can often be found kayaking, fly-fishing, biking or hiking.
Israel is in my Passport, but is it in Me? by Emily Matchar
Setting Foot on Celtic Sod by Becky Garrison
Not The One in the Bible by Jessica Lee
When in Jordan… by Shari Caudron
Other Middle East travel stories from the Archives