It was just after eight on a hot Sunday morning as we pulled out of our driveway and spotted our friend Ahmad who was delivering the daily newspapers. ‘We can’t chat as we have important business at Qasr Al Yahud, we’re baptising our friend’s baby this morning’. ‘Is it being born in the river?’ he asked, ‘I’ve heard of some people doing that’. And just like that, an already unusual morning got a little bit stranger as we tried to imagine someone giving birth in the murky waters of the Jordan river with two sets of border guards overlooking the site.
Qasr Al Yahud, the ‘Baptism Site’, is where John is said to have baptised Jesus. The site sits on the Jordan river a few miles from Jericho and only a 30-minute drive from Jerusalem. The religious history is already fascinating enough but the heavy weight of political history adds to the intrigue of the site.
Despite being part of the Palestinian West Bank, the site was occupied by Israel during 1967 and they still administer the site today as one of the Israeli national parks. It was only during 2020 that the site was finally cleared of the hundreds of landmines that had lain dormant since the ’67 war.
When you turn off the main road towards the river, the desert stretches for miles on either side, barren except for the dot of date palms in cultivated areas. Several fascinating looking churches line the route. We notice that the landmine signs are gone but the area still doesn’t invite aimless wandering around, and we continue onwards to the entrance of the Baptism site.
The river here is much narrower than I expected, we’re talking less than 10 metres wide. It flows gently and is heavy with a clay-like mud that make it a milky coffee colour. Down the middle of the river runs a frayed rope that marks part of the border with Jordan, and it is policed on both sides less someone attempt to cross it – as I am sure many have contemplated or even attempted.
On both riverbanks, wooden platforms have been built to allow visitors access to the river to immerse themselves in the holy water in a ritual similar to Jesus’ baptism. Visitors on both sides perform a similar process, looking across and even hearing the other side but separated by a border that they can’t cross. The symmetry of the site is slightly unnerving and mans’ efforts to separate and divide seem somehow laughable here.
We had visited the site once before, back in 2019, when religious groups poured into the site daily and brought with them a fervency that was atmospheric. On the day we visited, a group from Africa, all donned in the customary white smocks, were singing gospel songs and exuding emotion. Some cheered whilst others wept, and we felt humbled to witness such an important moment in their lives. On that day, it had been winter and full submersion in the water took a bit of courage and commitment.
It has been some time since the site has welcomed religious groups and when we appeared, a group of four families, there were only two other women wallowing in the waters. We had come without much spiritual guidance, planning to wet the head of our friend’s baby in a symbolic rather than a religiously binding act.
We enthusiastically purchased the (very reasonably priced) white smocks from the gift shop which added to the sense of ceremony whilst ensuring that we respected the religious modesty of the site. We then tentatively sang a few songs like the unpractised congregation that we were, heard a Bible reading and proceeded to wet the baby’s head with the holy water as we dunked ourselves to varying degrees in the water. The water was cool and welcoming. Temperatures in the Jordan Valley frequently rise above 40 degrees and it was already mid-30s before 0900 in the morning.
As we left, we felt privileged to have enjoyed such a memorable experience in such a special location. It was as authentic and full of love as any Baptism could hope to be.