So UNESCO's move last week to confer World Heritage status upon a site on the Jordanian side of the river -- and not its rival across the river's muddy waters -- is a significant one.
According to the Associated Press, the U.N.'s cultural agency decided that the site of Bethany beyond the Jordan, also known as al-Maghtas in Arabic, "is believed to be" where Jesus was baptized. It did not nod in the direction of the opposite bank where Israeli authorities encourage tourists to visit the parallel site of Qasr al-Yahud near the city of Jericho.
Last year, Pope Francis seemed to also side with Jordanian claims when he paid a visit to al-Maghtas. He was the third pontiff to do so since 2000.
There is no archaeological evidence of Jesus ever having been baptized in these waters, but there's a long tradition -- dating back at least to Byzantine times -- of mass baptisms taking place near the site.
As my colleague William Booth detailed last year, the decision may win Jordan some of the lucrative windfall that "Bible tourism" gives Israel every year--around $3 billion. UNESCO observes that the site in Jordan has "immense religious significance to the majority of denominations of Christian faith, who have accepted this site as the location."
Jordan is certainly highlighting the UNESCO decision. From the AP:
Jordan’s tourism minister, Nayef al-Fayez, told UNESCO that Jordan is sending a message of tolerance. The kingdom’s Hashemite rulers “who are the direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad ... are the same ones who are protecting one of the holiest sites of Christianity,” he said.
One curious wrinkle is the political situation in the West Bank. Palestine was controversially awarded admission into UNESCO as a member state in 2011 as part of the Palestinian leadership's goal to internationalize their struggle for a separate and viable Palestinian state.
The current Israeli-administered baptismal site on the Jordan -- which sees exponentially more tourists each year than its equivalent on the Jordanian side -- would in theory fall under direct Palestinian jurisdiction. There's also the likelihood that UNESCO would extend the World Heritage status to both banks of the river.
For the time being, no one's making much of a fuss. "It’s not easy for us to defend a site we have no control over," an anonymous Palestinian tourism ministry official told the AP.