WEST BANK OF THE JORDAN RIVER — Christians believe that Jesus was immersed in the waters of the Jordan River by John the Baptist, who wore a cloak of camel’s hair and lived on locusts and honey in the desert wilderness.
But the Gospels are not precise about which side of the river the baptism took place on — the east bank or the west.
Although it might not matter much to a half-million annual visitors who come to the river for sightseeing or a renewal of faith, it matters very much to tourism officials in Israel and Jordan, who maintain dueling baptism sites, one smack-dab across from the other, with the shallow, narrow, muddy stream serving as international boundary.
On Saturday, on his first trip to the Holy Land as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis will visit the baptism site at Bethany Beyond the Jordan — on the eastern, or Jordanian, side of the river.
Jordanian officials are hoping to capitalize on Francis’s trip and highlight Christian pilgrimage sites across their country to market Jordan as “the other Holy Land.”
Jordan is hungry to take a bite out of the surging Bible tourism industry that it says generates more than $3 billion per year in neighboring Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Francis will be the third pope to visit since 2000, when John Paul II made the first modern papal pilgrimage to the baptism site as part of a jubilee tour, signaling the Vatican’s blessing upon Bethany Beyond the Jordan as the likely site of Jesus’s baptism.
Yet Jordanian officials grumble that despite a body of archaeological evidence, Bethany languishes in the shadow of Qasr al-Yahud, or the Castle of the Jews, a better-known, more popular and Israeli-marketed site across the river, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The Israeli Tourism Ministry describes Qasr al-Yahud as “the traditional spot where the New Testament narrative of the baptism of Jesus took place.”
Saar Kfir, the manager of the site for the Israeli parks agency, believes it more likely that Jesus was baptized on the west bank, as he arrived here from Nazareth. “He would have been on this side of the river,” Kfir said.
On a recent hot afternoon, most of the tourist traffic was on the river’s west bank, a closed military zone until a few years ago. Today it is an Israeli national park by day, but it is controlled by the Israel Defense Forces at night.
Tour buses unloaded pilgrims who walked past abandoned religious sites, barbed wire and signs that read “DANGER MINES!” to a gift shop that sells white robes to wear during baptism as well as T-shirts that read “America Don’t Worry — Israel is Behind You” and show a tank and a fighter jet.
At the river’s edge are steps and a rail. About 30 feet away is Jordan. A swimmer could cross in a few strokes. Whenever that happens, Jordanian and Israeli soldiers stationed on their respective sides send them back.
In the space of an hour, hundreds of pilgrims and schoolchildren appeared on the Israeli-
controlled side. On the Jordanian side, only a couple of tourists gathered at the water’s edge.
Last year, 430,000 tourists visited Qasr al-Yahud, while 90,000 traveled to Bethany, according to figures from the tourism ministries on both sides.
The Israeli site may be more popular because entry is free and it’s an hour’s drive from Jerusalem or Bethlehem. Going to Jordan requires some travelers — including Americans — to obtain a visa, and the nearby Allenby Bridge crossing between Israel and Jordan is often a gauntlet.
Also, unrest in the region, especially in Syria, continues to discourage Western tour operators from venturing to Jordan, which witnessed a 6 percent downturn in visitors last year despite its reputation as an oasis of stability.
In addition to the baptism role of the Jordan River, tradition says this is where the Jews crossed into the Land of Israel and where the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven.
Sleuths searching for the baptism site who favor Jordan point to pilgrim diaries dating to the early church, Roman road markers and a 6th-century mosaic map on the floor of St. George’s Orthodox Church in Madaba, Jordan.
Jordanian archaeologists say the definitive evidence linking Bethany to Jesus’s baptism came in the form of a 4th-century monastery devoted to Elijah, which may have been commissioned by Helena, mother to Roman emperor Constantine, to mark the site of the baptism.
“When presented with the evidence, no one can deny that the baptism site is at Bethany, and that this is Bethany,” said Mohammad Waheeb, a Jordanian archaeologist who spearheaded the rediscovery of the site in the late 1990s.
“Now it is our job to get the truth out,” he said.
According to the Jordanians, 16 major denominations have officially recognized Bethany as the baptism site, from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church patriarch to Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor of a megachurch in California.
“We have over 36 sacred Christian sites and 2,000 years of pilgrimages as our credentials,” says Nidal Qatamin, Jordan’s tourism minister, pointing to Mount Nebo, the summit where Moses is said to have gazed upon the promised land, and Machaerus, the castle where John the Baptist is said to have lost his head to an angry King Herod.
Through the efforts of King Abdullah II, Jordan is awarding free plots of land along the river to Christian denominations to encourage the country’s budding pilgrimage industry.
This year saw the completion of a cavernous Russian Orthodox guesthouse and a Lutheran church and pilgrimage center, adding to the Coptic, Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox churches already there.
A centerpiece will be a Catholic church set to be one of the largest in the region when it opens in 2016. Officials promise that the destination will not be turned into an amusement park but will retain its natural, contemplative setting in a desert oasis.
Luck reported from Bethany Beyond the Jordan. Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.