Three years ago, Mohammad Waheeb gazed out at the chalky desert by the Jordan River here and spotted the footsteps of Jesus where others saw only the old front line in the conflict between Arabs and Jews.
Using the gospels as his guidebook, Waheeb, a top Jordanian archaeologist, began digging in what until 1994 had been a no man's land laced with land mines, patrolled by soldiers, swarming with flies and broiling in 115-degree summer heat. What he has found in this desert moonscape, he claims, is the likely site of Jesus's baptism.
This area's ruins of early Christian monasteries, churches, prayer halls, pools that may have been used for baptism and--most improbable--a network of still active springs flowing into the Jordan River are, Waheeb says, "Bethany beyond the Jordan"--the spot pinpointed by the Gospel According to John for Jesus's baptism.
"This is a holy place," said Waheeb, 37, whose warm, crinkly-eyed smile conceals a low-key scholarly intensity.
But as he oversees an excavation team of 20 archaeologists and 100 workers here, Waheeb is stirring up a new, albeit non-lethal, conflict between Arabs and Jews. For Jordan's next-door neighbor, Israel, has a competing claim as to where the baptism took place--on its side of the Jordan River.
As historical battles go, this one is classic Holy Land stuff: Jews and Muslims spatting over the location of a sacred Christian site. And with a mass of Christian tourists expected here for the millennium, this is not some musty academic debate. Serious cash is on the line.
More than 3 million visitors, including Pope John Paul II, are expected in the Holy Land next year. At least a third of them are likely to be on the pilgrimage trail, retracing Jesus's path from his birthplace in Bethlehem to his haunts in Nazareth, Jerusalem and Galilee.
All those sites are in Israel or on the West Bank of the Jordan, and they will translate into millions of dollars in tourism revenues for the Jewish state. Yet if Waheeb can make a convincing case that Jesus was baptized just over the border on the east bank of the river, Jordan may be able to attract at least some of the tourists.
"When we say we're opening the site, we mean we're giving the world a chance to look at the birthplace of Christianity, to complement the birthplace of Christ himself," said Aqel Biltaji, Jordan's minister for tourism and antiquities.
Biltaji's department, which has already invested $1 million in the site, is funneling another $6 million--much of it in U.S. assistance--to develop it in the coming year.
Although the land mines have been removed, Wadi Kharrar is an unlikely place for a tourist mecca. In addition to the heat and flies, fine sand billows in the air, and only the most pathetic of roads serve the area. This is one of the lowest points on Earth; the shimmering flatness of the Dead Sea is just to the south.
Still, the Jordanian attitude is: If we excavate it, they will come--if not for the millennium, then soon thereafter. Jordan is building a visitors center and conference hall, a John the Baptist Research Center, a library, an archaeology lab and, of course, baptismal pools for pilgrims. As might be expected, the merchandising has already started in earnest, with hats and T-shirts proclaiming, "JORDAN: The River and the Land of the Baptism--2000 A.D."
"That area has a God-given--well, some sort of power," said Biltaji. "Those who don't accept it have to propose an alternative."
Enter the Israelis. Although they are not willing to dispute Waheeb's excavations and their potential historical significance, they regard Jordan as a Johnny-come-lately to the baptism game. When Israeli tourism officials talk about the Jordanian site, they seem barely able to suppress a smirk.
"There's nothing developed there, but they're trying to promote something," said Orly Doron, spokeswoman for Israel's Tourism Ministry. "We were a little bit worried before we visited it last month, but after we saw it we decided there's no problem."
As the millennium approaches, disputes are swirling around a host of biblical sites.
In Nazareth, the city of Jesus's boyhood, Christian and Muslim Palestinians are engaged in a heated argument over the Muslims' insistence that a towering mosque be erected beside the city's Church of the Annunciation.
In Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditional site of Jesus's tomb and a place revered by some as the holiest in Christendom, Israel's proposal that an additional entrance be opened for safety purposes has set off a firestorm of controversy.
Elsewhere, there are arguments about where precisely Jesus turned water into wine, the exact location of Mount Sinai and one businessman's proposal to build a submerged platform in the Sea of Galilee so that tourists can walk on water like Jesus.
Scholars say the answers to many questions, including where Jesus was baptized, are impossible to know for sure. Archaeology in the Holy Land is obscured by centuries of earthquakes, conquests and competing myths and traditions. Yet no recent site or controversy has excited more attention--and attracted more investment--than that of Jesus's baptism.
One reason is that Waheeb may make a persuasive case for his site in Jordan.
Waheeb, a devout Muslim, has been reading the Bible for two or three hours daily since he began excavating the site at Wadi Kharrar in late 1996. At the dig site, he carries around a well-thumbed and yellowing English language copy; at home he keeps one in Arabic. So conversant has he become with Scripture that his assistants have taken to calling him "Father Muhammad."
He is convinced that Jesus was far more likely to have been baptized in fresh spring water than in the Jordan, which these days is a murky, pea-green stream. Some biblical historians agree that the river may not have been considered sufficiently pure at that time.
Biblical scholars, including some in Israel, are not dismissing Waheeb's arguments out of hand.
"Unfortunately for Israeli tourism, the Book of John specifically says that Jesus was baptized east of the Jordan," said Yadin Roman, editor in chief of Eretz magazine, Israel's answer to National Geographic. "They have a very plausible claim that during the Byzantine era that site was accepted as the site where Jesus was baptized."
That's not the universal view in Israel, and no wonder. The Israelis control their own sites associated with Jesus's baptism, and they are not about to declare them defunct.
One site is Kasar el Yehud, located on the western shore of the Jordan near Jericho, just across from Waheeb's excavations. Before the late 1960s, tens of thousands of Orthodox Christians flocked to Kasar el Yehud every year--believing it to be the location of Jesus's baptism--in a tradition dating back well over 1,000 years. The riverbank near there is dotted with the remains of more than a dozen churches and monasteries, some of them from the Byzantine era--the 4th to the 15th centuries.
Soon after Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967, however, Kasar el Yehud became the scene of cross-border clashes and terrorist attacks, and the Israelis declared it a closed military area. Since then it has been open to pilgrims just twice a year. But the lack of access to the Jordan River could not dissuade Christian tourists in buses from trying to get close to the river, so in 1980 Israeli authorities devised a novel solution: Open the Jordan to pilgrims and tourists at Kibbutz Kinneret, where the river meets the Sea of Galilee.
So what if the kibbutz is 70 miles north of Kasar el Yehud? To many Christians, the Jordan is the Jordan, they say.
"Since I was a little girl, 6 or 7 years old, I've wanted to do this," said Willie May Gillmore-Vaultz, 77, a Baptist from Long Island. Her jeans rolled up and her sneakers left behind on dry land, she waded out of the water at the kibbutz the other day after filling an empty soft drink bottle with the Jordan's holy water.
These days some 500,000 tourists such as Gillmore-Vaultz descend on the kibbutz annually, and the kibbutz is gearing up to receive a million visitors next year. A new restaurant and gift shop have been opened for the pilgrims. For the kibbutz, the Jordanian excavations are a direct economic challenge.
"I know they are doing it to make money off the millennium," said Yonathan Bobrov, tourism manager for the kibbutz. "I know it will hurt us to a degree."
CAPTION: Jordanian workers place posts in the ground in area being promoted for the coming millennium as true site of Jesus's baptism.