BETHANY BEYOND THE JORDAN (Reuters) - Bethany beyond the Jordan, a site on the east bank of the Jordan River that Pope Benedict visited on Sunday, claims to be the exact spot where Jesus was baptised.
Extensive excavations since the mid-1990s have unearthed ruins of churches, baptismal pools and caves that show it was a Christian pilgrimage site as early as the fourth century.
Here are a few facts about Bethany beyond the Jordan:
— John’s Gospel (1:28) says John the Baptist baptised Jesus in “Bethany beyond the Jordan,” a name distinguishing it from Bethany village near Jerusalem where Jesus was said to raise Lazarus from the dead. That situated the site on the east bank of the Jordan but the exact spot was not known.
— Over the centuries, churches for pilgrims were eventually built on both sides of the Jordan. One west bank site, now called Qasr al Yahud, was assumed to be the baptism site.
— Both banks were closed military zones between 1967 and an Israel-Jordan peace treaty in 1994. Two years later, Jordanian archaeologists following John’s Gospel and accounts by ancient pilgrims began digging at the Bethany site.
— On his Holy Land pilgrimage in 2000, Pope John Paul said Mass at Bethany beyond the Jordan but also made a quick visit to Qasr al Yahud while touring the Palestinian territories. Pope Benedict plans to visit only the Jordanian site, indirectly bolstering its claim to be the true location.
— The site stands on a wooded flood plain several metres higher than the present-day Jordan River, which is much lower than it was in biblical times because dams upstream divert water for industrial and agricultural use.
— At the site where a stream meets the Jordan, a marble stairway leads down to the baptismal pool. Accounts from ancient pilgrims said the faithful would descend the stairs to bathe in the water.
— The baptism site itself has ruins of five churches. The area also has ruins of two monasteries, a cave church and cells for monks, two other churches and baptismal pools.
Editing by Sophie Hares