In a rustic wooden structure perched on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, Father Gianluigi Corti leads a group of Italian pilgrims in renewing their baptismal vows. The river is now little more than a muddy stream, drained over the years to meet the demands of the growing populations of the Holy Land. The air is still, apart from the singing of Italian hymns and a chorus of chirping insects. The latter is a constant sound in this dry, hot region of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan known as the Valley of Trickling Water, or Wadi el Kharrar in Arabic.
As Father Corti concludes the simple renewal service, he dips a plastic bottle into a heavy stone basin filled with water from the river and slowly pours its contents on the heads of the pilgrims. As a parish priest, he has led many such tours to the Holy Land.
“The Bible was not lived in Europe,” he says. “If you don’t know the land of the Bible directly, you cannot know what the Bible is.”
A short walk from the pilgrims lie the remains of an early Christian church.
Uncovered in the late 1990’s by a team of archaeologists led by Dr. Muhammad Waheeb, the ruins belong to a complex built at the end of the fifth century. They mark the site where early Christians believed Jesus was baptized — the same complex described in pilgrims’ accounts from the fifth to seventh centuries.
Above the brush, not far from the river’s edge, rises the golden dome of a new church built on land donated by the Jordanian royal family. Dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the Orthodox shrine is the most prominent monument in an area long believed to be the biblical Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where John lived, preached and baptized his cousin, Jesus. It also stands as a reminder of the Hashemites — Jordan’s royals who descend from the prophet Muhammad — and their personal commitment to develop the kingdom’s holy places, Christian, Jewish and Muslim.
Jordan is home to a mosaic of biblical places. For example, near the Zerqa River, Jacob wrestled the angel and received the name Israel. At Mount Nebo, Moses looked upon the Promised Land. The Prophet Elijah ascended to heaven on a chariot of fire from the Jordan River’s eastern bank, which also later served as the center of John the Baptist’s ministry.
These holy places, coupled with the country’s arid landscape, drew thousands of early Christians, such as St. Mary of Egypt, who led lives of penitence and prayer. Their monastic cells, caves, chapels and tombs in turn became important venues of pilgrimage for generations of Christians, who traveled along a well–beaten circuit from one site to the next for much of the first millennia of the Christian era.
Today, these sacred areas draw considerable numbers of pilgrims and tourists each year, but less traffic than one might expect. Most of the locations receive scant publicity and are overshadowed by better–known holy sites in Israel and Palestine. And, until recently, some of the most important sites in Jordan have been long lost or neglected.