Now this lush oasis is to have its own rebirth, as Israel, with the help of international agencies, works to clear the remnants of war from the western flank of this historic river.
For nearly 50 years, this swath of land in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, approximately 250 acres, has been uninhabitable. Declared a closed military zone by the Israeli army, it is scattered with an estimated 5,000 antitank and antipersonnel mines, as well as complicated booby traps once aimed at preventing hostile infiltrations from neighboring Jordan.
Monasteries and lands belonging to eight Christian denominations — including some buildings that are a century old — stand abandoned after their monks and priests fled fierce fighting and insurgencies that followed the 1967 Israeli-Arab war.
The bullet-marked walls of crumbling churches, a few personal and religious artifacts and barren courtyards are the only testaments to what was once a spiritual life.
When Pope John Paul II held a private worship at the site in 2000 — flying in by helicopter — pressure mounted for Israel to reopen the area. Seven years ago, a narrow path was forged through the minefield providing access to Christian pilgrims.
Now, more than 6,000 people a year visit Qasr al-Yahud, which is managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and called Al-Maghtas in Arabic. Many who come undergo their own baptism and spiritual renewal, even as barbed wire and warning signs remind them of the dangers.
“This is a place of historical and religious significance,” Col. Udi Tzur, regional commander for the Israeli military, said this week. “And now we have a chance to reopen it all so that Israelis and tourists from around the world will be able to visit.”
Tzur said operational challenges, security concerns and the high cost of clearing munitions from the area had prevented Israel from undertaking this project until earlier this year. It also required agreement from the churches, as well as notifying the Palestinian Authority and Jordanians, whose own baptism site, Bethany Beyond the Jordan, is visible on the eastern bank of the river.
Mediation among the parties was undertaken by the Halo Trust, an independent, international de-mining nonprofit group that began clearing mines from other sites in the West Bank since 2014.
“We are a neutral organization whose aim is to clear land mines,” said Ronen Shimoni, Halo’s program manager on the West Bank. “We realized if we wanted to clear the baptism site then we needed everyone’s approval no matter the political situation.”
“We went to the churches, the army and the government of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordanians to build trust. It took some time, but eventually everyone came on board,” he said. “They all understood the need to clear this site of mines.”
Father Gabre, a representative of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, stood at the entrance of what was once an impressive two-story monastery with upstairs dormitories, a kitchen and a large, airy chapel. Images of Jesus and a large cross still hang in the sanctuary, but half the outer walls are blown away and bullet holes mar the rest.
“We will try to renew the land and get the place back to what it once was,” he said. “This is a holy place that is important for Christians, so we will ask the people of Ethiopia for help.”
Roughly 1,000 mines or leftover munitions have been removed in and around premises belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches. Work still needs to be carried out on the lands of the Syrian, Coptic, Russian, Romanian and Armenian denominations.
It is painstaking work, said Ze’ev Rozen, one of the project’s field supervisors. Each day he is among those who don heavy protective suits as the soil is carefully swept with metal detectors and sifted in search of discarded ordnance.
“We found a mine at the entrance to the Ethiopian church, and it was booby-trapped with string,” said Rozen, a former colonel in the Israeli army’s combat engineering division. “We had to check every room inside the church to make sure there were no more traps. We found every type of mortar inside here that you could imagine.”
Marcel Aviv, head of the Israel National Mine Action Authority, which is under the authority of the Defense Ministry, manages the project from Israel’s side. He said that although some of the mine placements appear on old military maps, the desert-like terrain, inclement weather and the shifting plates of the Syria-African rift have meant much of the ordnance has moved over the years or sunk deeper into the ground.
“It is very dangerous,” he said. “Something could explode here at any time.”
The area will remain a closed military zone until it has been completely cleared, probably at the end of 2019, Aviv said.
“Once it is, then we will give the land back to the churches and they will decide what to do with it,” he said.
Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to Catholic Church leaders, said the plan is also to eventually restore the Latin Church’s property in Qasr al-Yahud but said there had been talk among all leaders of turning the area into something unique.
“There are all different scenarios, but one of the ideas is for it to become a place of peace, a place where we can unite the religious sites on both sides of the Jordan River regardless of the border in between,” he said.
Down by the river’s edge, where travelers immerse themselves in the water, a group from South Africa listened to their leader talk about the site’s significance as a place of new beginnings.
“This is certainly one of the highlights of our tour,” said Pastor Elaine Beneke, who runs Johannesburg-based Karelaine Tours with her husband, also a pastor.
“Every time we bring a group here,” she said. “We look at the old monasteries and see the progress they have made in clearing it up. It’s such good news that it will now all be revived.”