The area was most visited by ancient pilgrims in Transjordan is that
which extends, opposite Jericho, from the east bank of the river to the
sanctuary of Moses on Mount Nebo. They were attracted to the places
along the Jordan river in the territory of Livias, which were connected
with the memory of the baptism of Jesus and the preaching of John the
Baptist, as well as to the places, further inland, which were related to
the final episodes of the life and mission of Moses in the territory of
Both groups of sanctuaries were located along the Livias-Esbus sector of
the Roman road connecting Jerusalem to the Via Nova Traiana on the
According to Pliny, the Essences were located on the western side of the
Dead-Sea. Recently, some ruins with the famous Dead-Sea scrolls were
found there. It was here, in this wilderness where John made his public
appearance, just a few miles around all north eastern and western shores
of the Dead Sea and along both sides of the southern parts of Jordan
The area of this wilderness is located thirty kilometers from northern
Shuneh south of Ez-Zara near Machaerus.
It was the center of several events that happened there, it includs many
important archaeological sites such as: Wadi Kharrar, Tell er-Rameh,
Tell-Nimrin, Tell-Ilktana, Tell-Kafrei, Tell el-Hammam, Tell e-Tahuneh,
Wadi el-Kafrien sites, Kh-Swimeh and Ez-Zara. Barren terraces of marl,
especially to the east where the steep hills of Balqa and Madaba lay,
surround the area.
The rock consists of lissan marl, with thin alternating layers of chalk,
clay, sand, and pebbles. The soil was formed partly out of lissan marl
and partly from the large amounts of erosive material carried along the
riverbeds from the western and eastern beds, These fertile allurial
soils are utilized for various agricultural crops.
Historical Background: The archaeology of the Baptism site region
(al-Maghtas) was barely known previously; some useful information may be
extracted from travelers who had visited the area from the forth century
AD until this day:
In the itinerary of the Bordeaux pilgrim (333 Ad) "From the Jordan where
the Lord was baptized by John, is five miles. Here there is a place by
the River, a little hill on the far bank, where Elijah was caught up
The Roman five miles equal to four and one-half English miles, and from
the Dead Sea up stream.One could reach the excavated church. Regarding
the little hill on the eastern side, it would be the mount of St. Elijah
or Jeber Mar Elias, which is recently called Tell el-Kharrar lying in
the Wadi el-Kharrar- Ghor el Kafrein. This hill, the Bordeaux pilgrim
has apparently placed on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, and is
associated with the little hill whence Elijah was caught up to heaven.
From the anonymous life of Constantine, St. Helena in the holy places
260-340 AD mentioned "then she reached the River Jordan in which our
Christ and God was baptized for our salvation, and when she had crossed
the Jordan and found the cave in which the fore runner used to live, she
caused a church to be made in the name of John the Baptist". Facing the
cave is a raised place at which St. Elias was caught up to heaven, and
there she decreed that there should be an impressive sanctuary in the
name of prophet Elias ( )".
Jermo around (404AD) clearly refers to the same place, and connects it
with the spot were Elijah went over Jordan on dry gournd.
According to Theodosius (530 AD) "In the place where the Lord was
baptized there is a single marble pillar and on the pillar on the iron
cross has been fastened. There too the church of St. John which the
emperor Anastasius built; this church is very lotty, being built above
layer chambers, on account of Jordan when it overflows. Monks live in
this church who receive six solidi annually from treasury as a means of
Where the Lord was baptized beyond Jordan there is a little mountain
called Hermon. There holy Elijah was caught up. Here also he referred to
the eastern bank of the River where was the little hill.
Antoninus Martyr (560-570 AD) mentioned: "On that side of Jordan is the
fountain where John used to baptize. From it to the Jordan is two miles.
In the valley itself Elias was found where the raven used to bring him
bread and meat. On the side of the valley lives a multitude of hermits".
Piacenza (570 AD) said:"We arrived at place where the Lord was baptized.
This is the place where Elijah was taken up. In that place is the little
hill of Hermon. In that part of the Jordan is the spring where St. John
used to baptize, and which is two miles from the Jordan, and Elijah was
in that valley when the raven brought him bread and meat, the whole
valley is full of hermits".
Arculf (670 AD). Went to the place where the Lord was baptized,
according to his description "The honorable place, in which the Lord was
baptized by John, is always covered by the water of the river Jordan;
and in that place a wooden cross has been fixed. The site of that cross
where the Lord was baptized, is on the other side of the bed of the
river, while at the edge of the river there is a small church, where as
said, the garments of the Lord were taken care of. This basilica stands
above the water, so as to be uninhabitable, since the water flow under
it on both sides and is supported on four stone vaults and arches. On
the higher ground there is another church in honor of St. John the
Willibalad (721-727 AD) said: " They next went to the monastery of St.
John the Baptist. At a distance of a mile from the monastery he went to
the spot in the river Jordan where our Lord was Zenith. Here is now a
church raised upon stone columns and under the church it is now dry land
where our Lord was baptized. A wooden cross stands in the middle of the
river, a rope is extended to it over the Jordan". Here he says that the
place where Christ was baptized was over a mile from the monastery of
Saewulf (1102-1103 AD ) " On the other side Jordan is Arabia, most
hostile to Christians, and hopeful to all who worship God, in which is
the mountain where Elijah was carried into heaven in fiery chariot.
The Russian pilgrim Abbot Danial (1106-1107) said: " On the other side
of Jordan near the bathing place there is sort of forest of little trees
like the willow. And not far from the river a couple of bow-shots to the
east is place where prophet Elias was carried to heaven in a chariot of
fire and (p.29) here too is the cave of St. John the Baptist".
A beautiful stream of water, which flows over pebbles into the Jordan,
was found here, the water is very sweet and very cold. And John the
forerunner of Christ drank it, when he inhabited this sacred cavern.
John Phocas (1135AD) mentioned: " Beyond the Jordan opposite to the
place of our Lord's baptism, is much brushwood, in the midst of which,
at the distance of about one stadium, is the grotto of John the Baptist
which is very small, and not capable of containing a well-built man
standing up right, and opposite this, in the depth of the desert is
another grotto, in which the prophet Elias dwelt when he was carried off
by the fiery chariot.
It is clear that all the texts show that the buildings were on the
eastern side of the River Jordan.
The church of John the Baptist, built by Anastasius, has been washed
away. The builders of this church tried to protect the body of the
church by using arch and vault system to enable the water of the River
Jordan during flood time as well as the water of the spring (John the
Baptist spring) to go underneath without effecting the church. In spite
that, the church was destroyed by the River flood and the earthquakes
and most of its remains had been washed away.
A period of time passed before a small church was built. Until 1900
there were ruins of a church on the eastern bank, those had been washed
away as well. Possibly it is the one, which the Greeks had wished to
dedicate to St. Mary of Egypt. Whether this chapel has been finished or
not is not clear, in fact, it was destroyed and most of its stones were
removed by the local people.
At the beginning of this period many things have changed regarding the
topography of the eastern side of the River Jordan. Without doubt
depending on the description of the pilgrims and the archaeological
excavations the bed of the River changed its bed. The discovered
Archaeological remains of these early monuments are still to be traced a
short distance to the east of the traditional place of baptism on the
River Jordan, which lies approximately less than 300 meters.
It is possible to say that the Persian devastation, the river flood and
the Entrance of Islam put an end to the Byzantine buildings on the
eastern bank of the River Jordan particularly in the Wadi al-Kharrar
Arculf (670) was the first to refer this turning who saw a small church
on the higher ground; whether he means one of the discovered churches on
Tel el-Kharar or another church on the western side of the River Jordan
is still to be investigated. After 670, gradually, baptism was gradually
practiced in the western side. Although the remains of the churches on
the eastern side cannot be seen, still the pilgrims continued their
journeys to the eastern side describing the trees, plants and springs.