Every year, on January 18th, thousands of Orthodox Christian pilgrims go down to Qasr Al Yahud, the traditional baptism spot on the Jordan River where the most fascinating and impressive of all the baptism ceremonies taking place in the Holy Land takes place. The feast of Epiphany (the Greek word for “appearance”) symbolizes two important events in the life of Jesus: one is the visit of the 3 Magi (Wise Men) to Bethlehem when Jesus was born, and their recognition of him as the Messiah, and the other is the day that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
This area on the Israeli side of the Jordan Valley is called the Land of Monasteries because of the vast number of abandoned chapels and churches that have been in ruins since a big earthquake hit the area about 50 years ago. In addition, the Israeli army mined the area in the 1970s due to frequent terrorist incursions. The fences and “Beware of Landmines” signs remain as testimony to those days, staggered amid the biblical beauty of this amazing area.
The 4 Gospels of the New Testament vary in their account of the baptism. In Matthew 3 it says: “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’” Orthodox Christians celebrate this festive event every year on January 18th at the famous site on the Jordan River, Qasr Al Yahud.
Qasr Al Yahud means Jewish castle. According to another tradition, it is at this spot that the Israelites, led by Joshua, crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land 3,200 years ago. Others say that the first word (qasr) comes from an Arabic word meaning “break” and that this is the place where the Jews “broke” the waters. The mass descent to the Jordan River on the morning of Epiphany is impressive and colorful. Ethiopian monks in traditional costume accompanied by thousands of Ethiopian pilgrims go to the River singing and dancing to the sound of drums. The main procession follows, led by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and monks, and dozens of young people playing pipes, beating drums and singing. It is a fascinating sight to see the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized.
The baptism site is the third most important Christian site in the Holy Land, after Jerusalem and Bethlehem. For hundreds of years, believers have made their way from there to Jerusalem via Jericho. The Judean Desert, which is situated between the Jordan River, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem, is the smallest desert in the world, and it is there that Jesus secluded himself, as did many monks during the Byzantine era, such as Saint Hariton and Saint Euthymius.
After the procession and the religious ceremony, the Patriarch continues with his entourage to the waters of the Jordan River. There is a clearing surrounded by trees for the pilgrims, and across the river, on the Jordanian side which is a mere few feet away, there is a platform.
From here, you can see the Jordan River flowing at its fullest and the thick vegetation that grows on both banks. Thousands of pilgrims on the Israeli side watch the traditional baptism ceremony from a distance of a few feet. When the Patriarch appears with his entourage, carrying palm branches, you hear the sound of church bells ringing on the Jordanian side of the River. The Patriarch then releases 3 white doves, one after the other, and the gathering begins to sing in several voices and languages, such as Greek, Russian, and even Rumanian.
The atmosphere is strange. On the one hand, there’s an ancient, traditional ceremony with thousands of moved pilgrims singing and the Jordan River that most people have only ever heard about from ancient texts. On the other hand there are Jordanian soldiers just a few feet away from us. And all the while, an unending chorus of over 20,000 East European and Greek pilgrims orchestrates over the entire scene.