Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be moving to a foreign country to live, let alone a country in the Middle East. Over the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, my husband Roger and I discussed what we wanted the next part of our life to be like. He thought that before retiring, he would like to do one more airport project but only if he could find something very interesting. I half-jokingly agreed that would be fine but could he try for an exotic location? As usual, Roger came through and soon we were headed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This blog is a recap of our "leap-of- faith" wanderings around the Middle East and beyond. We joyfully share these expat experiences.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Travel to Jordan . . . JORDAN JOURNEY – BETHANY-BEYOND-THE-JORDAN – The Baptismal Site

One of the best things about traveling with your own tour guide is changing the itinerary if you find something interesting along the way. After the first day of our 8-day odyessy through Jordan, we realize that we are close by a very sacred site and change our itinerary to include a visit to Bethany-Beyond-The-Jordan (BYB). This is the site much revered by Christians and Jews. How we missed putting this on our itinerary from the beginning is a mystery. It proves to be the most inspirational place we visit.

“This took place in Bethany beyond Jordan, where John was baptized.” (John 1:28)

   “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.”
(Matthew 3:13)
As acknowledged by archeologists and theologians, Bethany-Beyond-The-Jordan is the site where John the Baptist lived and baptized, as well as where the baptism of Jesus took place. Also, many believe this is the site where Elijah ascended into heaven.

Then Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Please stay here for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan River. But Elisha replied as before ‘I swear to God that I won’t leave you… so they went together and stood beside the Jordan River... As they were walking along talking, suddenly a chariot of fire, drawn by horses of fire, appeared and drove between them separating them and Elijah was carried by a whirlwind into heaven. (2 Kings 2:6-8, 2:11)
For centuries BYB has been the destination of many pilgrims.  In fact, on our visit there is a group from France praying in unison at the open-air pavilion perched on the banks of the Jordan River. Even though neither Roger nor I speak French, when we recognize the Lord's Prayer being said, we join them praying in English. The peaceful presence felt at this site is heightened by the steady cadence of the prayer chanted in French and English.   

Before entering the site, we spend a brief time in the souq, an open air market that sells an amazing number of religious articles. Each vendor has a plethora of white tunics with iconic images, related to this site, printed on their fronts.  I wonder, “Who would buy one of those? They look like very uncomfortable night shirts made out of a rough material.”

After serious consideration, Roger decides to purchase rosaries to dip in the holy Jordan River. He selects a rustic wooden one for himself, and a beautiful blue one to be given as a very special birthday gift to our granddaughter Lindsey.

Rosaries play a big part in my family’s life. My grandmother Nanny was deeply devoted to the Blessed Virgin and always had her beads clicking! When she died, her rosary was passed on to my father who carried the rosary’s cross in his wallet for years. The cross became a family icon as it was pinned to baptismal and wedding gowns in hopes that the wearer would be granted special graces. When my father passed, he left me the rosary. I have two others—both gifts. One, made of clear stones, was blessed and given to me by a friend who made a pilgrimage to Medugorje. The second one is made of pale blue stones and was given to me as a high school graduation gift from Monsignor MacKeaver, our pastor at St. Sebastian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA.

Before leaving for Dubai, I decide to take only one and leave the others in safe keeping. Cousin Mary Keller has Nanny’s rosary, and she is now the official chief “bead clicker” of the family. The blue one, which is my favorite keepsake, I leave with granddaughter Lindsey who promises to pray a rosary once in awhile for me and her Poppa Roger.  

We reach the baptismal site by riding in the back of an old, open-air truck converted to accommodate very hard, wood benches for sightseers.  Our group is comprised of an older couple from New Zealand with their handsome, stocky 20-something son, another older couple from a Baltic country, two young women from Germany.

It is still early, but you can feel the heat rising and everyone is dressed in comfortable tourist garb as befits their country of origin. This means that it is a pretty mixed bag of non-matching, baggy shorts and shirts with competing patterns complete with walking shoes in various degrees of wear and tear. Roger and I have fun guessing from what country a tourist has come by the unique way they match the colors and patterns of their clothing! 

Our guide warns us strongly not wander off as we are right on the Israeli border, and there are armed guards on both sides of the fence whose only mission is to prevent anyone from crossing the border in either direction. And indeed, when we reach the Jordan River, we are practically within arm's reach of Israel where we can see an Israeli flag waving on the opposite shore. At this point the river is about 10 feet wide.  It is very murky, an uninviting, dull greenish color and almost-stagnate. I am certain it was much more appealing in the days of John the Baptist.  Now it is just a small stream guarded by Israeli and Jordanian soldiers intent on keeping their borders secure. This is the only place where you can actually touch the Jordan River.  My Lonely Planet tour book tells me that the remainder of the river runs through “a military no-man’s-land.” How ironic is that!

Bethany-Beyond-The-Jordan was discovered after the 1994 peace treaty was signed between Israel and the Palestinian Territory. As they were clearing land mines from the area, they uncovered the ruins of churches, caves, wells and baptism pools. Scholars were summoned and they determined that this was indeed the site of Jesus’ baptism. In 2000, Pope John Paul II officiated at an open air Mass to sanctify this claim.  A mosaic on the wall commemorates this event.  The site is now overseen by the Jordanian Ministry of Antiquities. Bethany-Beyond-The-Jordan is considered one of the most important recent archeological discoveries in Jordan. 

As we enter the site, we see several churches in various stages of construction. In an ecumenical furor, everyone is building a church right now – the Roman Catholics, the Episcopalians, the Armenians, and even the Russians are constructing a pilgrimage house. I know they will all bear architectural designs significant and reverent to this sacred site, but the already built gold-domed medieval-era Greek Orthodox Monastery of St John the Baptist is stunning. Astute and alert as ever Roger points to the church’s steps, “Even the Holy Ghost has arrived!” I dutiful record this spiritual event.

The sacred site of BYB is comprised of three buildings. A pavilion houses the modern baptismal font where we prayed with the French pilgrims. Another pavilion protects the excavation site of three ancient churches – one built on top of another.  All that remains of these today are patches of their mosaic floors. And finally, steps lead down to a structure marking what is believed to be the actual site of  Jesus’ baptism.

This area is dry at the moment, but archeologists point out that the river has changed it course many times throughout its history and was certainly a flourishing part of the river during Christ’s time. 

Did you know you can be baptized in the Jordan? You must really want to be baptized because the river is quite polluted. Also, you are required to have a member of the clergy with you to perform the ceremony.

The Baltic couple disappears behind the trees and reemerges wearing the white tunics we saw in the gift store. They gleefully walk down the wooden steps and jump into the river. We don't actually see any religious ceremony performed, but the couple appears to enjoy just floating around. It is really hot by this time so maybe they just want to cool off.

Now I understand what all those white robes were in the shops – baptismal gowns! Moved by the “Baltic’s experience,” the New Zealand man and his son strip down to their shorts and jump in too.

Roger ignores the swimmers and ceremoniously proceeds to the edge of the river and reverently dips the rosaries in the murky sacred waters. He is quietly moved by the experience. We remain at the site for a while until the French pilgrims finish praying.   

Back in our car, the ride to our next destination is very quiet as Roger and I each reflect on the privilege of walking on the same ground as Jesus, John the Baptist and the early Christian followers, touching the sacred waters that baptized Jesus, and sharing prayers with others at such a sacred site. We are humbled.

Jordan is truly a holy place. It is shameful that there cannot be peace in a part of the world whose history is sacred to so many religions. This is a place that should be all about peace and love. 

Post script. . .
Lindsey and the Rosary . . . For Roman Catholics, October is the month dedicated to the Rosary. Lindsey has dutifully been studying and praying the rosary with her classmates at Annunciation Catholic Academy. Her birthday gift arrives on the last day of October and her mother gives her permission to open it. I understand she is quite touched by the gift and it provides the perfect finale to the religious month as she shares it’s tale with her classmates.
More Jordan travels .  .  . the 8-day Jordan trip proves to be more than I can write about in one blog. I will try to catch up. Stay tuned for other tales from our Jordan adventure including the one about the donkey ride up...and down the mountain in Petra! Jordan should be on everyone's bucket list!    


  1. Katie, I can't wait to hear more about your Jordan trip. I can feel a lump in my throat as I read your blog and I recall my Jordan experience that wasn't that long ago. If any of your readers wants to read more while they're waiting for your next installment, I did a piece for Suite101 -

    Keep writing Katie! It's riveting.
    Anne :)

  2. Katie,
    Jon and I too loved Jordan and the spot where Jesus was baptized. It really is a shame that the world and its people cannot love each other. Perhaps someday.

    We loved Petra! Stayed at the hotel right outside and went into Petra with flashlights So beautiful!'

    Continue to have fun. You too seem so much in love and this experience is helping to make it grow even more.

  3. Just heard some exciting information our touring Petra. Marguerite van Gelderalsen, author of Married to a Bedouin, will conduct tours of Petra for small groups. She takes you to the more out of the way places. Anyone want to come????

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