This weekend, more than 20,000 people made a pilgrimage to Qasr al-Yahud, the site on the Jordan River where many believe Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. While pilgrimages of this kind have been common throughout Christian history, the site was closed to traffic for many decades due to landmines left over from the Six Day War of 1967. Now, after much money and effort spent clearing the mines, tourists and pilgrims can visit the site without fear of these deadly vestiges of war. For several pilgrims, Epiphany 2020 gave them a chance to do just that.
“We’ve come to the baptism site, the most important site after the birthplace of Jesus,” Brother Atallah Wakila, a resident of Jaffa, Israel, told reporters. “That’s important since it demonstrates that the Christians are an integral part of the Palestiniain people who live here.”
Pilgrims came from far-off places, including the United States. “This is our first time for many of us here in the Holy Land and to have an experience like this is once in a lifetime. You are all in our prayers, just know that,” a pilgrim from the Nativity of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church in Plymouth, Michigan said.
Epiphany 2020 Secured by Israeli Defense
The ceremonies are monitored and secured by uniformed members of Israel’s Civil Administration, and specifically the Jericho District Coordination and Liaison (DCL), in collaboration with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Israeli police, and the Nature and Parks Authority. “We see it as historically significant that we, above all as the Civil Administration, and secondly as the State of Israel, are enabling all the communities that live in Israel to celebrate their holidays and observe their customs and historical traditions,” said Brigadier General Ghassan Alian, Head of the Civil Administration.
The denominations observing the celebrations of Epiphany and making the trek to Qasr al-Yahud this weekend included the Greek, Eritrean, Syriac, and Ethiopian Orthodox churches. In Orthodox Christianity, Epiphany was celebrated this most recent weekend (January 19th) as these groups follow the Julian calendar (this is also why Orthodox churches celebrated Christmas on January 7th).
Last week, pilgrims from the Catholic tradition traveled to the site after being welcomed by local clergy from the area (the city of Jericho lies just 10 kilometers west of the site). Saher Kawas of Independent Catholic News explains the significance of pilgrims being able to travel to the site once again:
The Franciscan pilgrimage to this site can be traced back to 1641. As a result of the of Six Day War, the location, which includes eight Churches and monasteries, (Franciscan, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Greek, Romanian, Syriac and Russian) was closed off in 1968 and the last recorded Mass in the Franciscan monastery took place on January 7, 1968.
In 2000, the Israeli controlled site was briefly opened for the occasion of the pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land. The heavily mined area did not receive any visitors until 2011, when the Israeli authorities cleaned a small area near the site to make it accessible to pilgrims. It was not until March 2018, when the Israel National Mine Action Authority and the humanitarian mine clearance organization Halo Trust started working to clear the landmines in the area after securing the approval of the Israelis, Palestinians and all the Churches.
Epiphany 2020 celebrations aren’t over yet, either. Today, the Coptic Christian Church celebrates Epiphany, and the Civil Administration is expecting more pilgrims through the end of the month.
The History of the Site
The site is home to eight Christian denominations and regarded as one of the holiest sites in Christianity. Notable Christian leaders have visited, including Pope Francis.
Qasr al-Yahud is the Hebrew name for the baptismal site and refers to the Israeli side (western bank of the Jordan River). The name translates to “Castle of the Jews.” The name gives a nod to the nearby Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. John the Baptist, which has a castle-like appearance. According to Jewish tradition, the Israelites crossed the Jordan River at this point, which accounts for the “of the Jews” part of the name. This side of the site is managed by the Israeli Civil Administration and the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and sits in a national park.
Al-Maghtas is the Arabic name for the Jordanian side of the site (also known as Bethany beyond the Jordan), which is on the eastern bank of the Jordan River. The arabic name translates to “immersion.” Al-Maghtas is a UNESCO world heritage site. “It features Roman and Byzantine remains including churches and chapels, a monastery, caves that have been used by hermits and pools in which baptisms were celebrated, testifying to the religious character of the place,” UNESCO’s site explains.