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The settlement of Bethany beyond the Jordan has also been known by other names since antiquity. It was sometimes called Beth-Abara or Bethabara (Beit el-‘Obour in Arabic), meaning ‘house of the crossing’, referring to the Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha crossings of the Jordan River.
Arabic Bible translations call it Beit”Anya. Some Greek Bible texts call it Bethania. This may be the same area called Beth-barah in the Old Testament, where Gideon defeated the Midianites and slayed two of their princes (Judges 7:24-25).
The Bethany area was known as Bethennabris in the Roman period. The 6th Century AD Byzantine Madaba mosaic map of the Holy Land labels it as ‘Ainon where now is Safsafas’. The name Safsafas (‘the place of willows’) (also, Saphsas, Sapsafas, or Sapsas), comes from the Arabic word for willow tree. The Madaba map depicts two concentric circles at the site, which have variously been interpreted as symbols for Elijah’s Hill and/or the caves and springs at the site.
Bethany/Bethabara may also have referred to a region, rather than only a specific settlement. Western travelers to the region at the turn of the century reported that the Greek Orthodox clerics and monks who lived in the south Jordan Valley, and the native valley residents themselves, referred to the whole area around the river and east along the Wadi el-Kharrar as Bethabara. Thus the original settlement was known as Bethany beyond the Jordan during and immediately following the days of Jesus and John the Baptist in the Ist Century AD; after the 3rd Century AD it was more commonly known as Bethabara, and by the 6th Century AD it had become known as Aenon and Safsafa.
The general area from the river eastwards associated with the ministry of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus is known as el-Maghtas today in Arabic. The natural hill that forms the core of the site of Bethany beyond the Jordan also has been known by several names. It is called Elijah’s Hill in English, and Tell Mar Elias or Tell el-Kharrar in Arabic. In the Byzantine period it was also known as Hermon.
With the opening of the Baptism Archaeological Park (where John the Baptist preached and baptized during the early days of his ministry ) to the public, people from throughout the world can visit the site for themselves, and experience the unique continuity of spirituality that is measured in this land in thousands of years. Pilgrims and other visitors will be able to reach the Byzantine monastery at Bethany beyond the Jordan, the churches and other ancient remains on the pilgrims’ route, the Wadi el-Kharrar, and the “Jungle of the Jordan” region alongside the Jordan River Service facilities that have been provided by the Jordanian government include a new road from the Dead Sea area, a visitors’ center, paths and walkways to the most important religious and archaeological sites, and all necessary sanitary and transport facilities
THE CHURCH OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
Adjacent to the Jordan River itself the archaeologists excavated a 6th- 7th Century Byzantine church complex with at least four churches, including remains of foundations and walls, mosaic floors, fine colored stone pavements, Corinthian capitals, and column drums and bases. This is identified as the church that ancient pilgrims said had been built by the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius (491-518 AD) to commemorate the baptism of Jesus, in particular the place where Jesus had left his clothes on the river bank.
The firm identification relies on the Byzantine texts’ description of a church peculiarly built on raised stone arches, in order to withstand the seasonal flooding of the Jordan River. The remains of those massive stone arches are still on the ground today, where they were first erected and then collapsed in the 6th or 7th Century AD. The church had a marble column with an iron cross marking the spot where people thought Jesus was baptized. This river- side site also has Islamic era pottery and architecture from the 8th-9th Centuries AD, reflecting the continued use of the pilgrim’s route and river crossing in early Islamic centuries.
Three pools are seen on the Tell. The first one is located on the lower southern slope dating to the Roman period during the 3rd- 4th centuries AD. The other two pools are located on the top of the northern edge of Tell Al-Kharrar. Rectangular in shape, the southern pool had an inner staircase on the eastern side, and four steps extending the full width of the pool can be seen. Pilgrims would descend into the pool to be baptized. Two square pools also date from the same Roman period. Ashlars were added near the southwestern corner of the northwestern pool during later periods, possibly used as a staircase to go down into the pool. The pools receive their water supply through canals carried over arches. More excavations under the damaged floor of the pool have revealed a cistern dating from the Early Roman to Late Byzantine periods. Circular on top, it is built of well-cut sandstone ashlars.
CHAPELS AND MONKS’ CELLS
The Byzantine faithful built a series of smaller chapels and monks’ cells throughout the two-kilometer-long course of the Wadi el-Kharrar. Other than the larger excavated structures mentioned above, fragmentary remains of numerous small structures with tiles, pottery, and cut stones -possibly chapels or monks’ residences -have also been identified between the river and Bethany beyond the Jordan. The scholar Father R.P. Federlin, who explored this area in 1899 onwards, documented ancient remains throughout the entire Wadi el-Kharrar, including nicely cut building stones on Elijah’s Hill and adjacent hills.
Denis Buzy in 1931 traced the remains of ‘hundreds’ of small.dwellings or buildings along a SOO-metre-long stretch of the south bank of Wadi el-Kharrar, which he identified as the remains of 1st Century AD Bethany beyond the Jordan. He said that the stones mentioned by Federlin were no longer there, because they had been used by Greek Orthodox monks at the site who were building new facilities for themselves and pilgrims. The Greek Orthodox Church has long officially sanctioned the presence of monks in ascetic cells (units smaller than monasteries) east of the river; church documents attest that in 1905 three monks lived between the river and Bethany beyond the Jordan. Several ancient monks’ cells have been found and excavated, along the south bank of Wadi el- Kharrar and near the Jordan River. Among these are two rooms that some scholars earlier this century associated with the story of St Mary of Egypt, a former Egyptian prostitute who abandoned her life of sin during a visit to Jerusalem and went on tobecome a model of repentance. After consulting the VIrgin Mary in Jerusalem, she had heard a voice telling her: “Cross the Jordan and you will find rest”. She crossed to the east bank of the Jordan River, and spent the last 47 years of her life living alone, praying and fasting in the Jordanian desert where she could be close to God.
Before dying she was found by the monk Zosima from a nearby monastery, who prayed with her, listened to her life story, and gave her Holy Communion shortly before she died. Zosima buried her with the assistance of a lion who used his paws to dig a grave. (The presence of lions in the Jordan Valley is attested in biblical passages – Jeremiah 49:19 mentions “…a lion coming up from the jungle of the Jordan” -and the Madaba mosaic map’s depiction of a lion or leopard.) Mary’s life story, which took place in either the 4th or 5th Century AD, was recounted in Greek by Sofronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem.
STONE-BUILT PLASTERED POOL
About halfway between the Jordan River and Bethany beyond the Jordan, the Jordanian archaeologists have excavated a large (some 25 x 20 metres), stone-built plastered pool that was fed and drained by cut water channels connecting it to Wadi el-Kharrar. Pottery collected at the pool included sherds from the Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic periods. The foundation remains of a Byzantine caravanserai have been excavated on a small promontory directly above the pool, with a magnificent panoramic view of the entire valley floor, Jericho, and the Palestinian hills leading to Jerusalem. The pool and chapel are located exactly above the point where the depression of the Jordan River rises suddenly to join the agricultural plain of the Jordan Valley, and thus would have been protected from the river’s seasonal floods. Pilgrims may have stopped here to wash and refresh themselves, drink from the large pool, perhaps bathe or undergo ritual cleansing or baptism, rest, and pray in an adjacent chapel, before continuing their journey to Bethany beyond the Jordan and Mount Nebo. One theory being explored is that this pool and chapel were built after the Church of John the Baptist adjacent to the river went out of use in the 7th Century AD.
PILGRIMS’ REST STATION
Another facility that was excavated about one kilometer east of Bethany beyond the Jordan was indeed a pilgrims’ rest station; located on the route to Livias and Mount Nebo, it comprised a caravanserai and water reservoirs that were served through ceramic pipes
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