Take Me to the River

Mines, politics and acts of nature kept it closed for decades. But the renovated Qasr al-Yahud site, where Jesus is said to have been baptized, is scheduled to reopen in the coming months.

"The Jordan expanded by hundreds of meters, overflowed and destroyed the pilgrims' pavilion that stood on the hill, and along with it several new buildings we had put up. Plans for renovations stopped and were renewed only several years later. Nevertheless, despite the frustration, I will never forget that crazy flood - how beautiful it was."

In the winter of 2003, Saar Kfir, director of the Qasr al-Yahud site, stood not far from the swelling Jordan River. It was indeed beautiful, but the rising waters caused considerable damage to the comprehensive plan for upgrading and expanding the site, located east of the town of Jericho, where John the Baptist is said to have baptized Jesus. The project, which was originally approved in advance of the millennium celebrations - and was delayed because of the intifada and, later, by the 2003 floods - is now in its final phases.

When it is completed, hopefully before Passover, it will be possible for pilgrims to visit the third-most-important Christian site in Israel at their convenience: any day of the week, without advance coordination and without a military escort, as were necessary in the past.

Qasr al-Yahud, or "the Jews' fortress" (a corruption of the Arabic meaning, "the Jews' break"), is traditionally the place where the Israelites crossed over (that is, "broke") the Jordan River and where Elijah the Prophet ascended to heaven, as well as where Jesus was baptized.

On January 18 and 19, the Orthodox Churches will celebrate Epiphany at the site, marking the "revelation" of Jesus to the three kings from the East. "This is one of the only authentic celebrations that remain in this country," says Udi Izak, director of the school system in the Megillot regional council, in the Dead Sea region.

According to the Gospel of Mark (1:10), Jesus rose from the baptismal waters and "saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him." The dove and its relatives are perhaps the only creatures that have been able to enjoy freedom of movement at the site in recent decades. Political justifications for limitation of access came and went, but in their wake land mines, which do not understand politics, were laid in the vicinity and made visits to the place difficult.

Adjacent to the baptism site is "the land of monasteries," an area in which there are scores of abandoned churches and monasteries, whose construction was undertaken in Byzantine times by different Christian sects. Prior to and under Jordanian rule, monks lived there, and thousands of pilgrims from this region and abroad would flock there every year to conduct various religious rites. Israel captured the area during the Six-Day War, and in period that followed, the land of the monasteries served as a passage through which Palestinian refugees infiltrated, and as a hiding place for a number of terrorists on their way to attacks in Israel.

In the '70s, the Israel Defense Forces decided to clear out the area, after it erected a security fence in its western part (which is off-bounds to the public) and placed land mines in it. Over the years, the mines moved due to soil erosion. Today, if the authorities want to remove them, it will not be possible to rely on the IDF mining maps.

Up until 1980, says Kfir, the area was closed and abandoned, and no rituals were held at the baptism site. From that year until 1999, in the wake of numerous applications from local church heads, celebrations were conducted there on Epiphany and Easter. In 2000 Pope John Paul II landed there in a helicopter, and held private worship at the site. For this reason, say sources at the Civil Administration, it is the Israeli site and not the Jordanian site on the opposite bank of the river that is sacred for Christians.

After the papal visit, Israel realized the potential inherent in the place and decided to open it, in cooperation with the Nature and Parks Authority and the Civil Administration. Among other things, a stone pavilion, stairs down to the river, bleachers for seating, a wooden pier and railings leading into the water were built at the site. In recent months construction work has been under way on a parking lot and changing rooms, where pilgrims will be able to shower after the baptism. In the near future, security cameras will be installed as well, and there will be a change in the cumbersome procedure requiring advance coordination with Kfir and an escort of soldiers.

Ofer Meital, head of the border crossing and seam-line department at the Civil Administration, estimates that since 2000, about NIS 7 million has been invested in the site. The funding came mainly from the Tourism Ministry and later also from the Ministry of Regional Cooperation.

Initially, says Meital, it looked as though the chances of receiving funding were close to nil. To the left and to the right were land mines and a security fence, and there was also an intifada in progress. However, in recent years and with great persistence, when the various authorities saw how the place was developing, they managed to loosen the purse strings.

Yariv Avraham, director of the Ein Gedi Field School, to the south, says the new setup will make things much easier for group tours in the area, whereas Izak, from the Megillot regional council, is thinking mainly about the pilgrims: "Most of them are poor people from Eastern Europe and Africa, and therefore I am full of admiration for the bodies that have fought to rehabilitate the place. It is they who will make it possible tomorrow for the poorer tourist, for whom this is perhaps the first and last time he will leave his own country, to receive baptism at the place where he believes the Savior was baptized, without fear that the gate of the security fence will close."