On a sunny January day on the western bank of the Jordan River, a group of Christian tourists sang hymns, another group of pilgrims in white gowns waded into the revered waters, and many others looked on, snapping photos. This site, Qasr al Yahud, and a site across the river on the Jordanian bank called Bethany Beyond the Jordan, have been drawing Christian pilgrims since at least the fourth century CE, as many believe that this is the location of the New Testament’s story of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus.
But among the mostly Christian visitors that day at Qasr al Yahud was the Marcus family, an Orthodox family from Boca Raton, Florida, clad in kippot and the modest attire typical of such communities. Their tour guide opened a Bible and read from the Book of Joshua about the Israelites crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land, ending an exodus of 40 years. Just as the Red Sea opened for the Israelites when they left Egypt, the Jordan River, too, stopped flowing so they could cross into the land of Israel, according to the Bible. And this all happened around here, their Israeli tour guide, Ari Gruen, explained, highlighting the lesser-known Jewish connection to this famous baptismal site.
“It’s really special for us to be here,” Yehuda Marcus, a physician who was with his wife and five children, told me after Gruen finished speaking. “We were really able to visualize the miracle.” Marcus has been to Israel many times, but this was his first time here, as Gruen convinced him to add this stop to an already packed day of exploring the Dead Sea and the Ein Gedi nature preserve.
“The site has obviously been developed for Christians, but it’s also something Jews should take advantage of,” Gruen said. “This place really helps to bring to life a significant episode in our history, in the Tanakh.”
Jewish interest in the site has been growing in recent years, especially as infrastructure improvements and an ongoing project to clear landmines in the area have made Qasr al Yahud more accessible, according to tour guides. On any given day, Israeli school and yeshiva groups can be seen here, along with Jewish tourists from abroad. One small group has even tried to create a new religious event here each year to mark the Hebrew calendar date of when the Israelites are believed to have crossed the river into Israel.
There is no known historical or textual evidence of Jewish pilgrimage to the site in ancient times, in Talmudic times, or even during the Second Temple period, according to Rehav Rubin, a professor of geography who specializes in maps and pilgrimages of the Holy Land.
“Jews never came to Qasr al Yahud in the past centuries as pilgrims, it’s only something just from the last decade,” said Lior Chen, a graduate student in anthropology at Hebrew University who is completing a dissertation and fieldwork on the site. In his research Chen has found that motivations of the Jewish visitors range from interest in the Bible to politics to simply getting a close-up view of the border with Jordan, which is just a few meters across the water from Qasr al Yahud, demarcated by a rope running down the middle of the river.
But this particular place on the Jordan, just north of the Dead Sea, has preserved its connection to the Jewish people in its name. In Arabic, Yahud means Jews, and Qasr can be translated as either “castle” or “place,” according to Rubin.
The site also sits across the desert from Jericho, about five miles away, making it seemingly match up with the location described in the Book of Joshua as the place the Israelites crossed the river. In fact, some say that it was perhaps because of this story in the Book of Joshua that John the Baptist chose this location to baptize Jesus.
In any case, over the years, the site developed a distinctly Christian character, with the first pilgrims visiting this part of the Jordan River in the fourth century. Churches and monasteries offering lodging to pilgrims were later built on both banks, and various debates have broken out over the years about which side of the river was really the site of Jesus’ baptism.
But political tensions have also taken their toll on the site and on the Jordan River. Following Israel’s takeover of the West Bank from Jordan in the Six-Day War in 1967, Qasr al Yahud fell under Israeli control. A few months later, Israel evacuated the monasteries and shuttered the baptismal site, making it part of a closed military zone. The Israeli military also placed hundreds of landmines on the bank of the river and in and around the churches to prevent infiltrators from the Palestine Liberation Organization in Jordan from entering Israeli territory. In the 1990s, enough mines were cleared to open up an access road to the baptismal site, but it could only be entered by groups with pre-arranged permission and an Israeli military escort. It was not until mid-2011 that the site opened again to the public, operated by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Once again, Christian pilgrims began visiting the site, accessing it on a narrow road just off the main Jordan Valley highway, lined with chain-link fencing and yellow signs warning of landmines in the surrounding land and churches, which remained dangerous and off-limits.
Also, by the time the site reopened, the Jordan River had shrunk considerably, reduced to little more than a muddy stream just several meters wide. Due to increased water use by the growing populations of Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, and Syria, the Jordan was no longer the raging river depicted in the Bible, or even in the accounts of 20th-century visitors.
When the site reopened, two activists for Jewish settlement and heritage in the West Bank— Hagai Ben Artzi, a lecturer in Jewish thought at Bar Ilan University, and Erna Covos, who lives nearby in a two-house settlement called Beit Hogla—tried to start a new tradition at Qasr al Yahud. On the 10th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, the day when the Bible says that the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, Ben Artzi and Covos gathered with several friends and supporters at Qasr al Yahud to commemorate this miracle with songs.
“It’s a very important event that we are commanded to remember,” said Covos. “But many people don’t know anything about this site, they don’t know this is a biblical site.” Over the years, the event has grown, with the celebration in 2018 drawing close to 1,000 people, Covos said, including former general Uzi Dayan and influential Zionist rabbis.
Covos and Ben Artzi are pushing to change the official Hebrew name of the site, now simply a transliteration of the Arabic Qasr al Yahud, to HaMaabarot, Hebrew for “the crossing place.” They have also raised money and commissioned a sculptor to create a monument of 12 stones, echoing the biblical account of one man from each of the 12 tribes picking up a stone from the middle of the river and placing them in a pile on the place where the Israelites camped their first night in the Promised Land. Just as the Bible says that this monument will spur future generations to ask questions and hear the miraculous story of the Jordan River crossing, so will the modern monument, Covos said.
“We have to add to this site the Jewish and biblical dimension,” said Ben Artzi, who is also the brother of Israel’s first lady, Sara Netanyahu. “I’m so upset by the fact that 50 years after the Six-Day War there is not one word on the signs there about the Jewish people.”
They are still awaiting permission to erect the monument from the Civil Administration, the Israeli Ministry of Defense body that oversees civilian activity in the West Bank. Covos and Ben Artzi admitted that they are likely on a long road, but say they are not giving up until they get what they want.
“It takes time to start a new tradition,” Covos said.
Most Jewish visitors to Qasr al Yahud do not have the same deep passion and commitment as Covos and Ben Artzi. “I think many people don’t know there is a Jewish side to it,” said Shelley Brinn, manager of Tour Adumim, an agency that specializes in sites in the Jordan Valley. “I think it’s really underplayed, as far as marketing that side.”
Yishay Avital, an Israeli tour guide, also sees growing interest from clients to visit the site, but the interest doesn’t always stem from fervent religious or political reasons. Many just want the adventure of seeing the border with Jordan, and to look from afar at the churches put off limits by landmines in what was once a war zone, he said.
“It’s very sexy, very exciting,” said Avital, who served in this area in the army in the 1970s. “It’s amazing that this area is open again, and you can just go in.”
The site, on land that the Oslo Accords put under full Israeli military control until a final peace agreement is reached with the Palestinians, is also open to Palestinians from the West Bank, with both Muslims and Christians visiting. But many Palestinians feel that this site, and other Israeli-run tourist sites and residential settlements in the West Bank, are an unfair use of land that could become part of a future Palestinian state.
“Palestinians really don’t have access to build any new development and infrastructure in these areas,” said Nada Majdalani, Palestinian co-director of EcoPeace Middle East, a joint Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian nonprofit organization promoting regional cooperation and environmental protection in the Jordan River Valley and around the Dead Sea. A recent World Bank report said that allowing Palestinian development in Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank could boost their economy by more than a third by 2025.
Navigating the contested nature of the land has also been a large part of the current project to de-mine the churches and has at times made the work slow, according to HALO Trust, an American-British nonprofit organization overseeing the clearing of more than 2,600 antitank and antipersonnel mines. Since it began work in March, HALO has cleared three churches of mines, and expects to finish the project in the whole area by the end of 2019. Both Israeli and Palestinian officials are involved in the project.
At the baptismal site, armed Israeli soldiers look on as tourists and pilgrims wander, pray, and take photographs. There is a sign on the shore warning of “border ahead,” and just a few meters away, armed Jordanian soldiers patrol the other bank. Despite the overtly sensitive nature of the site, it drew more than 721,000 visitors in 2018, up from about 635,500 in 2016, and just 313,000 in 2012, its first full year of operation, according to the Israeli parks department.
“I try to bring Jewish groups here as much as possible to help them feel more connected to the end of the Exodus and crossing of the Jordan into Eretz Yisrael,” said Israeli tour guide Judy Auerbach, who was showing around secular Jewish visitors from abroad. “It’s also interesting to see the baptisms here, and how this has become a holy place for others.”
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Sara Toth Stub is a Jerusalem-based American journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, Associated Press, and other publications.