Epiphany in the Jordan River
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Reporter's notebookAt site where Christian tradition places baptism of Jesus

Epiphany in the Jordan River

Thousands flock to the Judean Desert to commemorate the Eastern Orthodox feast day with a sunny, temperate winter baptism

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • A pilgrim and her son are baptised at the Qaser al-Yahud Baptism Site in the Judean Desert on the border with the Jordan River on the Eastern Orthodox holiday of Epiphany on January 18, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    A pilgrim and her son are baptised at the Qaser al-Yahud Baptism Site in the Judean Desert on the border with the Jordan River on the Eastern Orthodox holiday of Epiphany on January 18, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
  • Ethiopian Coptic Christians at Qaser al-Yahud Baptism Site in the Judean Desert on the border with the Jordan River on the Eastern Orthodox holiday of Epiphany on January 18, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    Ethiopian Coptic Christians at Qaser al-Yahud Baptism Site in the Judean Desert on the border with the Jordan River on the Eastern Orthodox holiday of Epiphany on January 18, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
  • A shrine inside St. Gerasimos Monastery in the Judean Desert on the border with the Jordan River on the Eastern Orthodox holiday of Epiphany on January 18, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    A shrine inside St. Gerasimos Monastery in the Judean Desert on the border with the Jordan River on the Eastern Orthodox holiday of Epiphany on January 18, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
  • Greek Orthodox Church Scouts' drum corps performs for the Eastern Orthodox holiday of Epiphany on January 18, 2019, at St. Gerasimos Monastery in the Judean Desert on the border with the Jordan River. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    Greek Orthodox Church Scouts' drum corps performs for the Eastern Orthodox holiday of Epiphany on January 18, 2019, at St. Gerasimos Monastery in the Judean Desert on the border with the Jordan River. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
  • Pilgrims post-baptism at the Qaser al-Yahud Baptism Site in the Judean Desert on the border with the Jordan River on the Eastern Orthodox holiday of Epiphany on January 18, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    Pilgrims post-baptism at the Qaser al-Yahud Baptism Site in the Judean Desert on the border with the Jordan River on the Eastern Orthodox holiday of Epiphany on January 18, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

In celebration of Eastern Orthodox Epiphany on January 18, 2019, thousands of Orthodox Christians from dozens of countries and traditions attended a mass baptism at the Judean Desert’s Qaser al-Yahud baptismal site.

Christian tradition believes that this is the site at which Jesus was baptized by his cousin John, as depicted in Matthew 3:13-17.

Dozens of buses and flocks of international tourist groups poured into the National Park on Friday. Keeping the peace on the Jordanian border in the West Bank were a strong showing of Israel Defense Forces and military vehicles, parked side by side with Palestinian yellow taxis and private cars with a mix of Israeli and Palestinian plates. A spokesperson for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) said 10,000 people attended the celebration.

On the water’s edge, worshipers were attended by Israeli security staff, and for good measure, an inflatable large rubber raft crewed by a wet-suited staff of three.

The penitents were largely garbed in white light-weight robes — sold for NIS 30 (approximately $5) at the park’s refreshment stand — with bathing suits underneath. They held on to the provided hand rail as they lowered themselves into mud-clouded waters.

IDF troops at Qaser al-Yahud Baptism Site in the Judean Desert on the border with the Jordan River on the Eastern Orthodox holiday of Epiphany on January 18, 2019. The Jordanian site is seen in the background. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Most pilgrims chose to reaffirm their faith solo or with one or two close friends or relatives. A mother and child entered the river water, which was noticeably high after the previous week’s rains, as the father photographed the rite of passage on his Smartphone before taking his own turn. Dripping, the trio left the river bank, genuflecting and smiling as others took their turn.

On the dry land above, groups of Ethiopian Christians, wrapped in colorful clothing and playing large drums, sang and danced. Cheerfully exuberant, they were encircled by Greek Orthodox priests, filming for their parishes back home. An Israeli security guard, swept up in the hora-like circle dance, joined in, clapping and singing “Hallelujah” with the dozens of worshipers.

These celebrations are a relatively new phenomenon at the holy site. The compound was closed due to the thousands of landmines planted there in the 1967 Six Day War. After it was reopened for a small worship ceremony during Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Holy Land in 2000, an international effort began to raise awareness of the site and its historic importance. As of December 2018, over 1,500 landmines have been cleared from the site.

Prior to the opening of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority site in 2011, the Jordan side of the river, called Al-Maghtas, was long a pilgrimage site for Christians visiting the country. Now the Jordan River is straddled by two national parks, separated by a colorful floating-rope in the river’s center. In Israel, the park is located in the West Bank and administered by the Israeli Civil Administration as well as the Israeli Tourism Ministry.

A pilgrim and her son are baptized at the Qaser al-Yahud Baptism Site in the Judean Desert on the border with the Jordan River on the Eastern Orthodox holiday of Epiphany on January 18, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Just down the road from the baptismal site are a series of monasteries, some of which were founded as early as the 4th-5th century. Opening its gates wide for the Epiphany celebrations, the Monastery of St Gerasimus also played host to thousands on Friday.

As written on a Christian tourism website, “According to an old tradition, the monastery was built where Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus took shelter in a cave while fleeing from Herod the Great.”

St. Gerasimos Monastery in the Judean Desert on the border with the Jordan River on the Eastern Orthodox holiday of Epiphany on January 18, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Today, the monastery compound is home to a thriving desert community of monks, and is known as a hospitable site for pilgrims to seek refuge from the summer’s blazing heat. That hospitality was in full view on Friday as hundreds took part of the freely offered meal of rice and lentils, humus, bread rolls, and stuffed cabbage leaves. Seconds were encouraged and children unabashedly asked for more of their favorites.

Worshipers bent over and kissed cases filled with skulls and other human bones, in veneration for their holy lives. Others lit candles and said prayers. In a rare oasis of coexistence in the Holy Land, visitors of all faiths and nationalities were encouraged to eat their fill, enter the holy site and view the chapels’ colorful mosaics and wall paintings.

Immersing oneself in water as a reaffirmation of faith — a second baptism — is encouraged on the winter holiday. One can only think that the hundreds of Russian Orthodox pilgrims were quite satisfied with their own personal epiphanies to celebrate the feast day in Israel rather than their own icy water holes back home.

Pilgrims post-baptism at the Qaser al-Yahud Baptism Site in the Judean Desert on the border with the Jordan River on the Eastern Orthodox holiday of Epiphany on January 18, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
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