(PHOTO BY RICK DELVECCHIO/CATHOLIC SAN FRANCISCO)
Jordanian archaeologist Rustom Mkhjian on the banks of the Jordan River. He says there is compelling evidence that a spot just east of the river is the site of Jesus’baptism as noted in John 1:28.
Christian archaeologist in Jordan invites believers to site of Jesus’ baptism
January 6th, 2010
By Rick DelVecchio
BETHANY BEYOND THE JORDAN, Jordan – The dignitaries drove through the underbrush in a caravan of 13 golf carts. In the third vehicle was Pope Benedict XVI. He was taking the path of countless pilgrims before him in coming in physical contact with St. John’s wilderness and the site near the Jordan River where Jesus is said to have been baptized.
Welcoming the Holy Father was Rustom Mkhjian, a Catholic Jordanian of Armenian descent who serves as the site’s assistant director and is supervisor of archaeological works for the Jordanian royal commission that oversees it.
Mkhjian, greeting Christian journalists on a Jordan Tourism Board-sponsored press tour in September, recounted his bold invitation to the pope last May 10. He said how he believes that John’s wilderness – the legendary meeting place of the Old and New Testaments, the crossroads of the prophets from Joshua to Jesus, the site of monastic grottoes said to include the envangelist’s cave – is the wellspring of the faith and deserves to be the pre-eminent pilgrimage site in Christianity.
“One of the things I said to the pope was, ‘Christianity started here,” Mkhjian said. “Peter, according to the Bible, was one of the four apostles who accompanied Jesus when he was baptized, so Christianity spread all over.”
The pope “thanked us honestly,” the curator of the wilderness said, recalling how he chatted with the Holy Father about some of the early and medieval pilgrims who documented that believers converged on the site over at least eight centuries. These pilgrims wanted to touch the spot where they were convinced that John had his ministry in the reeds east of the Jordan, opposite a ford where travelers crossed from Jericho. There, near a spring that flowed below the high ground called Elijah’s Hill, tradition holds that Jesus was baptized.
The documentary evidence for the location, Mkhjian said, is in line with the John’s Gospel’s reference to “Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing.” According to the evangelist, Jesus reached the site after two days’ journey from Nazareth, was baptized with other penitents and saw the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove as he came out of the water. He heard a voice say, “You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.” And John said, “Behold, the lamb of God.”
“(The pope) enjoyed and experienced the thing we would like every visitor to experience – the grace of the site and its meaning,” Mkhjian said.
Mkhjian could not be more passionate about his desire that pilgrims of all faiths should touch the baptism site as the pope did. He is part of an effort by the Jordanian government to welcome one million visitors to the site by 2018. Mkhjian is encouraged that the site drew 150,000 pilgrims in 2008, an increase of 53 percent over the previous year, not including the Epiphany celebrations marked at the river every year since 2000.
Jordan’s main airport in Amman is being expanded, there is a new direct flight from Mexico, and there are plans to build three-star hotels on the northeastern shores of the Dead Sea. At the same time, an 87-acre area is dedicated for a building a pilgrims’ village just outside the baptism site, which has strict bylaws not to harm the environment.
“We believe it will once again become a pilgrimage station like it was throughout history, eventually receiving millions of pilgrims annually,” said Mahfouz Kishek, marketing manager for the Jordan Tourism Board.
The baptism site would be the centerpiece of a pilgrimage trail that would include Mekawar Castle, where John was martyred; Madaba, where the Church of St. George preserves the famous 6th century Byzantine map of Holy Land pilgrimage routes; and Mt. Nebo, where God revealed himself to Moses and Moses looked out over the Promised Land. Sites in the north where Jesus preached and performed miracles also may be included.
“Our biggest propaganda and promotion is the Old and New Testament,” Aktel Biltaji, an advisor to King Abdullah II and a former Jordanian tourism minister, told journalists in Amman. “If there is a biblical road map, it’s in Jordan.”
Religious tourism, like most issues in the region, has its political side. Jordan competes for Holy Land sacred space with the Israelis and the Palestinians. Physically separated from East Jerusalem and its holy sites since 1967, the kingdom since its 1994 peace agreement with Israel has been highlighting the religious heritage east of the river.
The baptism site, which competes with Israel’s Qasr el Yahud for the claim, is emerging as Jordan’s greatest international pilgrimage draw. Jordan is promoting the biblical, historical and archaeological evidence for the authenticity of its baptism site, which is backed by testimonials from Christian leaders ranging from U.S. evangelical Pastor Rick Warren to the Archbishop of Canterbury to the patriarch of Moscow and all Russia.
Retracing ancient pilgrimage routes for modern-day believers is an important part of the effort by the Jordanians, who count Elijah as a native son and are proud of the role their land plays in the Bible. But it is not the only goal. Jordanians also value their sacred places, and the baptism site in particular, as symbols of the peaceable common ground between East and West that is too often forgotten amid religious and political conflict.
Mkhjian also made sure the pope knew that side of the story. He noted that of the many churches established on the baptism site, two basilicas were built during the Muslim era. His point: That Christians, although a minority, were free to worship in their own way then as they are in Jordan now. The spirit of acceptance is being renewed as the spires and domes of 10 churches of Christian denominations rise at the baptism site.
“Please spread the word,” Mkhjian asked the visiting journalists. “This is what I personally ask you, because we believe the site has a lot do in building the bridges of love and peace between religions and cultures. We’ve got to raise our voices against the extremists who destroy everything. Let’s not encourage them, let’s talk about co-existence, let’s talk about tolerance.” Mkhjian offered a tour of the site that brought the Bible to life and added an archaeological detective story.
In the biblical chronology, the Jordan at this spot parted for Moses’ deputy Joshua as he crossed from the east to conquer Canaan, and again for Elijah and Elisha as they fled back to the east side to escape Ahab. Elijah was taken up to heaven on a chariot in a fiery whirlwind, and tradition marks the spot as Elijah’s Hill. Later the Babylonian armies crossed the river to besiege Jerusalem. Many centuries passed, and John appeared to call the people to repent in preparation for the arrival of the redeemer.
For Mkhjian, the Gospel, pilgrims’ records and now archaeological evidence converge on a spot 398 meters below sea level where five churches were built one after another over eight centuries. It is the lowest worship site on Earth, Mkhjian remarks – “and the closest to heaven.” The remains of the churches have been revealed since the Jordanians began excavating the site in 1999 after clearing minefields from the 1967 war.
The digging has shown that architects built churches again and again despite devastating earthquakes and floods. What drove them? Mhkjian speculates that it had to be their desire to have a permanent church that would enclose a baptistery like the one where Jesus was anointed.
“We have remains of five churches uniquely designed as baptisteries in a place where we had no community to serve,” Mkhjian said. “Why did they try so hard to build one church after another?”
The exact site of John’s ministry is difficult to determine because the course of the Jordan has changed so much over time and the water level has dried to a virtual trickle. But Mkhjian is convinced that where the churches were built is the likeliest spot. He pinpoints a dry pit revealing ancient foundations that were designed so that flowing water formed the shape of a cross.
“The bottom line,” said Mkhjian, overlooking the cruciform baptistery, “is that is where Jesus was baptized. All the churches are converging to this point. That is what I believe personally.”
As he ended his tour Mkhjian against implored believers to visit the site where the presence of Jesus is tangible.
“We’d like to receive them to make them feel the grace of the site, to see the site the way John and Jesus saw it, because that is the only way to come in physical contact with what you have in the Bible, in the Gospels,” he said. “We welcome all Christians and non-Christians to visit this heritage that belongs to humanity, that was discovered as a result of peace, and we believe this site will build bridges of peace between different cultures throughout the world.”
From January 8, 2010 issue of Catholic San Francisco.