Year Designated: 2015
Reason for Designation: The site where Jesus of Nazareth is believed to have been baptized by John the Baptist marks the foundation of one of the world’s largest religions and encompasses several other sites significant to all three Abrahamic religions.
The Bible pinpoints “Bethany Beyond the Jordan” (John 1:28) as the location where Jesus came to John, “to be baptized of him” (Matthew 3:13).
Located on the east bank of the Jordan River, some five miles north of the Dead Sea, the humble site marks a landmark moment in the birth of Christianity. Religious scholars believe this is the spot where Jesus began his ministry and gathered his first disciples: Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael (John 1:35-51).
While tourists and modern-day pilgrims prefer gathering on the present-day banks of the Jordan River, the baptism site is located farther inland, near St. John the Baptist Church, at the bottom of worn marble steps leading down to a natural spring.
The baptism site was only rediscovered after the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, when mine-clearing operations exposed the ancient riverbed. Sandstone walls dating back to the first century A.D. still bear rudimentary crosses etched by early pilgrims who stopped here on their route from Jerusalem to Mount Nebo. Over the centuries, medieval saints, monks, and scribes continued to affirm this as the site of the baptism. In 2015, supported by the extensive work of contemporary archaeologists, scholars, and church leaders, Al Maghtas (“the place of baptism”) was inscribed by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.
The wider collection of old and new churches at Al Maghtas stands as a testament to the global spread of Christianity and the spirit of tolerance under Jordan’s Islamic rule. Some churches still remain open for worship, while several more are mere ruins that date back to the Byzantine period, with brilliant mosaic floors. Hermit monks once inhabited the nearby caves, now open and accessible to visitors.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims find common ground at Tell al Kharrar, or Elijah’s Hill, where the Prophet Elijah is said to have ascended into heaven on a “chariot of fire” (II Kings 2:11). The universal holy site represents the overall mission of this place, namely to promote peace, understanding, and religious tolerance between all peoples. To visit Al Maghtas is to follow in the footsteps of ancient prophets, holy men, and pilgrims, and to witness the earliest beginnings of so much in the modern world.
How to Get There
From Amman, it’s only a 45-minute drive on the Dead Sea Highway. Turn right (north) at Sweimeh and follow the signs. From the Dead Sea resorts, the drive is only 15 to 20 minutes, in the direction of the Allenby Bridge.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
How to Visit
The baptism site is much more than the flowing spring, so don’t expect a quick drive-by tour. One can easily spend a full day visiting all the various sites, shrines, and churches in the area. For greater context, stop by the visitors center and join a tour with a local guide to show you the way around 2,000 years of history. Remember that this is still a somewhat sensitive border area between the east and west banks of the Jordan River. Expect to pass through a few routine checkpoints to access the site.
When to Visit
This site is open year-round (8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in winter), though it’s good to remember that the Jordan River can overflow and flood during winter months (December and January). The last entrance is one hour prior to closing.