“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know.He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
The Baptism of Jesus is surely one of the great motifs of Christian art. One can hardly find a great master of the Renaissance who has not worked on this paradigmatic biblical scene, from Giotto to Verrocchio; from Piero Della Francesca, through Perugino, to Leonardo. All them include the classic, fundamental elements found in Scripture: as John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan, the skies open and the Spirit, shaped as a dove, hovers over the waters, in a distinctive reference to both the Creation and the Flood. The baptismal waters of the river here symbolize both chaos and a new cosmos, the death of sin and the rebirth into a new life. But can we really know where this singular event is said to have taken place?
Tradition, and a very singular map, can surely help us.
Half an hour south of Amman, one finds Madaba, a city that is home to the biggest Christian community in all of Jordan, proportionally speaking: both Catholics and Greek Orthodox make up around 10 percent of its total population. The city one stood on the very borders of the Moabite empire, but during Roman (and consequently, Byzantine) rule, it belonged to the broader Arabian Province, founded by Trajan to substitute the Nabatean Kingdom. It was during those centuries, from the 2nd to the 7th, when the Christian community of the city established itself. In fact, one already finds “Medaba” mentioned as an Episcopal See in the acts of the Council of Chalcedon, in the 5th century.
The Greek Orthodox church of St. George in Madaba, Jordan, is not only home to some of the most beautiful icons in the region. It’s also the place where the most intriguing and revealing map of the Holy Land is found: the famous “Madaba Map,” an intricate floor mosaic dated in the 6th century, the oldest cartographic depiction of the Holy Land preserved to this day. It covers most of the region, from Lebanon to the Nile delta, from North to South, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Eastern Desert, from West to East. In it, more than 150 towns, villages, cities and places of interest are featured, including some exceptionally intriguing symbols that, according to some archaeologists, represent pilgrimage places.
This map shows two fish facing each other. One of them seems to be swimming back from the Dead Sea, while the other swims towards it, in the Jordan River. But it is well known that fish cannot survive in the Dead Sea (it’s not called the “Dead Sea” out of sheer arbitrariness, after all). Therefore, most historians and archaeologists interpret this to symbolize a meeting point for Christians.
Some say this is the key to finding the exact spot where Jesus’ baptism took place.
The place is known as Al-Maghtas. The expression means “immersion” and, by extension, “baptism” in Arabic. Baptism by immersion is a method of baptism that is distinguished from baptism by affusion (pouring) and by aspersion (sprinkling), and biblical scholars generally agree that the early church preferred baptisms by immersion, surely inspired by Jesus’ own. Although it is documented the early church also used other forms of baptism, immersion was probably the norm. Since Byzantine times, this place has been considered as not only the original location of the baptism of Jesus, but also as the area in which John the Baptist lived and ministered, and as the site of the Ascension of the Prophet Elijah to Heaven.
Situated on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, the Jordanian shore, this archaeological site consists of two areas. One of them is Jabar Mar-Elias, “Elijah’s Hill.” This is the place tradition claims Elijah ascended to heaven in the 9th century BC. Scriptures claim that Elijah would return before the coming of the messiah, so when John the Baptist began baptizing people there, villagers came to inquire whether or not he himself was the messiah. He replied, “I am a crying voice in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord.” One of the many caves in the area is said to be the one John himself lived in. A monastery was built around it in the 5th century; the first monastery on the Eastern bank of the River.
The other area, in which we find the church of St. John the Baptist, near the river itself, is that of the Baptism Site. This is the place where archaeologists discovered the ruins and foundations of a major Byzantine church and monastery built during the reign of Emperor Anastasius (491-518 AD). According to different historical sources, this church was considered the most notable memorial church of St. John the Baptist on this side of the river, including the testimony of Theodosius, who wrote:
“5 miles north of the Dead sea in the place where the Lord was baptized there is a single pillar and on the pillar an iron cross has been fastened, there too is the church of Saint John the Baptist, which the Emperor Anastasius built.”
Although the pillar marking this place has not yet been discovered, the archaeological and architectural remains match with what was described by Theodosius.
It is no coincidence that Jesus’ baptism took place at the River Jordan. The Israelites first entered the promised land by crossing the river as they made their way through the Holy Land. Just like the crossing of the Red Sea, the crossing of the Jordan is not precisely an escape: it is rather an arrival. Spiritually speaking, crossing the Jordan means the arrival to something new: for Christians, the metaphoric crossing of the River Jordan in baptism means not simply having fled sin, but becoming children of God and, consequently, dwelling in a new place, a new home: the house of the Father.