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A visit to the site of the baptism of Jesus of Nazareth

Photo Credit: aFadi Sahouri – Visit Jordan – Courtesy

Those interested in the intersection of history, culture, and religion will find what they are looking for when they visit Al-Maghtas, Jordan. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Al-Maghtas is mentioned in the Gospels as Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the place where, according to tradition, Jesus of Nazareth was baptized by his cousin, John the Baptist.

By merely stepping onto the banks of the Jordan River, visitors can delve into a history that extends thousands of years, even before the era of the Bible. Archaeological evidence indicates that the site has been inhabited by humans for a considerable period of time, with settlements dating back to the Neolithic period. However, it is the scriptural significance of Al-Maghtas that draws pilgrims and tourists alike.

The Gospels recount the story of John the Baptist, the fiery preacher who called for repentance through baptism in the Jordan River. According to scripture, people flocked to him, including Jesus of Nazareth. Accounts in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove upon Jesus after his baptism, thus marking the beginning of his ministry. Al-Maghtas has been deemed as the site of this pivotal event since at least the Byzantine era. The early Christians constructed churches and pilgrimage centers at the site, thereby attesting to its early (and enduring) significance within this tradition.

St John the Baptist, the “new Elijah”

Those with an interest in history will doubtless be intrigued by the connection between Al-Maghtas and the celebrated Madaba Map. This remarkable 6th-century mosaic map, housed in St. George’s Church in Madaba, Jordan, is the oldest preserved map depicting the Holy Land.

In it, two fishes adorn the map, facing each other. One fish appears to be escaping the Dead Sea and heading towards the Jordan River. However, it is unlikely that any fish could survive in such an environment, which is highly saline.

Medaba Map
1954 reproduction of the drawing of the Madaba map created by Paul Palmer, architect in Jerusalem, in 1901, published in 1906 in Zeitschrift des deutschen Palästinavereins

Historians believe that these fish represent a significant location for Christians: Bethabara, or Bethany-Beyond-The-Jordan. This spot is known for being the crossing point for biblical figures like Elijah and Elisha (2 Kings 2). In the Gospels, John the Baptist is portrayed as a prophetic figure in the tradition of Elijah.

It is therefore unsurprising that John the Baptist began his ministry in the places related to Elijah’s own, including the Jordan River and its surrounding area. Scholars believe the map identifies Al-Maghtas as the site of Jesus’ baptism, further cementing its historical significance.

A living legacy: Al-Maghtas in the present day

Al-Maghtas is situated approximately 30 kilometers east of Jericho, which is approximately an hour’s drive from the capital city of Jordan, Amman. It is easily accessible for day trips. The Baptism Site Commission manages the site and offers visitor information and guided tours. There is a modest entrance fee.

As is the case with most places in Jordan, Al-Maghtas offers a blend of archaeological wonder and spiritual depth. Visitors may explore the ruins of Byzantine churches, monasteries, and baptismal pools, which are remnants of a vibrant early Christian community. However, there are also relatively modern chapels, built by various Christian denominations, which testify to the site’s continuing significance across Christian traditions.


A walk along the banks of the Jordan River, on the Jordanian shore, allows for quiet contemplation. Many visitors choose to be baptized in the very waters where Jesus is believed to have been baptized. Al-Maghtas offers an unforgettable experience for travelers from all walks of life, whether for its historical significance or its spiritual appeal.

A visit to Al-Maghtas is more than just sightseeing; it is an opportunity to gain insight into a place that has resonated with believers for centuries. Those planning a visit should pack hiking boots, a sense of wonder, and be prepared to be touched by the history permeating the banks of the Jordan River.


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