Bethany - The site of Jesus' Baptism near the Jordan River, the biblical "Bethany beyond the Jordan" and Wadi Kharrar in our times, is slated for a soft opening to tourists next month.
One source at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said a recently-formed Royal Commission to oversee the development and preservation of the site is expected to convene this week. The commission, headed by HRH Prince Ghazi Ben Mohammad, will deliberate on the final details concerning the opening, and will issue its recommendations to a committee in charge of managing the facilities and infrastructure.
The new tourist facilities include three parking lots, two restaurants, lavatories, 19 souvenir shops, offices and a lecture hall, while a proposed museum will have to wait a little longer.
Funded with public money and a $6 million grant from the US Agency for International Development, the development of this six-square-kilometre area has also included the construction of a special, $1 million plant to make the Jordan River water clean and potable for the pilgrims.
Five baptismal pools have been unearthed so far, dating to both the Roman and Byzantine periods, and will be open to visitors, while two new pools are being built for those who will want to renew their faith in the same waters that saw the preaching of John the Baptist and the beginning of Jesus' ministry.
But archaeological work will continue well after the soft opening, and, five years into the excavations, Bethany still holds many surprises for archaeologists and historians alike.
After last month's discovery of a staircase attached to the remains of the Byzantine Church of St. John the Baptist and presumably leading to the spring where Jesus was baptised, the all-Jordanian team at the site has more recently unearthed the foundation of an imposing marble column described in the pilgrims' manuscripts as marking the exact place of the baptism.
"What makes our work so exciting is that our discoveries match 100 per cent the descriptions of pilgrims [in Roman and Byzantine times]," says project director Mohammad Waheeb.
Since the first survey in 1996 gave him hopes to unearth the original Baptism site, Waheeb and his team of some 60 archaeologists, engineers, and labourers have untiringly worked every day, even in the scorching heat of the Jordan Valley's summers.
"We do not know what's underground. So far, we have discovered 15 sites, but we expect to find much more," Waheeb says.
The Baptism site team believe that the square white stone foundation recently uncovered belonged to the "marble column with an iron cross fastened on its top" which Theodosius in 530 AD mentioned in his "Topography of the Holy Land" as marking "the place where the Lord was baptised." The foundation is located near the remains of a collapsed wall that used to protect the intriguing staircase.
"The staircase was protected on both sides by walls, designed to safeguard this sacred path from the recurrent floods of the Jordan River," explains Waheeb.
"The first 10 steps lead down to a flat area, followed by three more steps and then another flat area.
"So far, we have 22 steps, two-and-a-half-metres wide." This is where excavations have reached until today, but where did the staircase lead to? "Not to the river, which flows 60-70 metres south of here," says Waheeb. "Perhaps to a spring east of the river, a tributary of the river where John used to baptise." Archaeologists' work here is not only a fight against simmering temperatures and flies, but also a race against time: The last tract of the staircase lays exactly at the same level as the water bed of the Dead Sea.
"With the beginning of October, the water bed will rise. We are trying to take measurements and we will eventually divert the water as much as we can," Waheeb says.
The staircase is attached to the third and most recent of the three successive churches of John the Baptist, stubbornly built almost one on top of each other through less than a 100 years, starting from the reign of Anasthasius (491-518 AD), as if the highly sacred character of this specific spot was worth defying the frequent and powerful floods of the nearby Jordan River.
Archaeologists found also evidence of an earlier staircase, attached to the second church and also running in the same direction as the more recent one.
Where the more recent staircase starts, at the east end of the third church, a floor lavishly decorated with marble - which was stolen at some point in history - marked a ceremony or service area behind the church's altar, whose foundation is well visible.
"This room is a unique feature of this church, nothing similar has been found in any other churches in the region," explains Waheeb. "It was perhaps a changing room for the pilgrims before going into the water through the staircase for the baptism." The two wings of the church were floored with fine mosaics of and geometrical motifs, parts of which remain intact.
"We are now absolutely sure that this is the Church of John the Baptist, built, as the pilgrims said, on arches and vaults to stand the floods of the river," declares Waheeb.
"This church is so rich and expensive that it must have been paid for by a government, not a person. The marble comes from different areas, the work is fine, and engineers were needed." This would yet again match the pilgrims' diaries and scripts, according to which Empress Helena ordered the building of a church dedicated to John the Baptist during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Not far from St. John's Church is the site of Mary the Egyptian, a VI Century saint who left a life of sin after a revelation and spent the last 47 years of her life as a hermit beyond the River Jordan.
The area where two rooms presumably hosting Mary the Egyptian have been found has been referred to by local residents as the "Lady's Palace" for centuries, notes Waheeb.
"The legend told by Sophronius [Patriarch of Jerusalem in the VI Century] says that when Mary the Egyptian died and her body was found lifeless by a monk, God sent a lion to dig a grave for her," he continues.
One can also visit the hundreds of caves scattered around the area and where monks and hermits found refuge from either worldly life or persecution. Just remember, when entering the caves, that you might be disturbing the daily sleep of tens of bats.
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