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Lonely Planet review for Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan (Al-Maghtas)
Whatever one’s religious persuasions, it’s hard not to be moved by this minimal pile of ruins with its preposterously long name. This is the site, archaeologists assure us, where John the Baptist preached, where Jesus was baptised, where the first five apostles met and where, thereby, the foundations of the early Christian faith were laid. They chose an auspicious spot as many also believe that this was the place from where prophet Elijah (who was born in Mar Elias in north Jordan) ascended to heaven in a whirlwind. Although John was later beheaded by Herod at Machaerus and Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, the meeting between the two men at this spot in the fertile Jordan Valley was one of hope and new beginnings. It is little surprise, then, that it became a focus for early pilgrimage, and remains so to this day. The name Bethany comes from the Aramaic Beit Anniya (House of the Crossing). As you stand by the almost-stagnant river at this point, Israel and the Palestinian Territories is almost within arms’ reach. Pilgrim churches, guesthouses and a 6th-century pilgrim road developed around the crossing as pilgrims broke their journey between Jerusalem and Mt Nebo. Today, there’s little visible evidence of the early passage of pilgrims but the sense of crossing is still disturbingly apparent: as one traveller, Nathalie Ollier, remarked, 'It's hard for Christian visitors on either side of the water to pray when watched over by Jewish and Muslim guards intent on making sure you don't cross the border.' The site has only relatively recently been identified. Some ancient ruins were discovered in 1899 but it wasn’t until the clearing of landmines (following the 1994 peace treaty with Israel and the Palestinian Territories) that the remains of churches, caves, extensive wells and several baptism pools were unearthed. After much debate, scholars identified the site of John the Baptist’s mission and Jesus’ baptism from descriptions in the Bible and from 3rd- to 10th-century pilgrim accounts. Pope John Paul II sanctified the claim with an open-air mass at the site in the spring of 2000. Entry to the site includes a one-hour guided tour and shuttle bus service to the main complex, close to the sensitive border with Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Collect a brochure and map at the main gate, where there are toilets, souvenir shops and a restaurant. The flies here are of plague proportions in spring.