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Inside Jordan's plan to revamp the baptism site of Jesus

The $300 million project accompanying the Bethany beyond Jordan, includes a "tourist village" and two major phases starting in 2023 and ending in 2030.
Christian Orthodox worshippers arrive to take part in a baptism ceremony to celebrate Epiphany on the banks of the Jordan River, in what is believed to be the site of Jesus' baptism, near Jericho in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on January 18, 2022. (Photo by ABBAS MOMANI/AFP via Getty Images)

AMMAN – The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan announced this month a seven-year-project to revamp the baptism site of Jesus christ located on the east bank of the Jordan River and visited annually by thousands of pilgrims. 

The $300 million project aims at creating a touristic village adjacent to “Bethany beyond the Jordan,” the baptism site, set to start in 2023 and go until 2030. It will be a reproduction of how life was almost 2,000 years ago, organizers say.

An area of 1,374 dunams (339.5 acres) has been allocated by the Jordanian government for the Baptism Site Development Zone (BDZ).

A general view of the site.

The site is considered the third holiest in Christianity after the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2015 following the discovery of an ancient monastery at Al-Maghtas in Jordan.

King Abdullah II of Jordan appointed an international advisory board in recent years to oversee the development of these areas while ensuring the protection of the site. He visited the area earlier this month along with Lebanon's Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai ahead of launching the construction work. 

Chairman of the project Samir Murad said the aim is to attract around one million Christian pilgrims to celebrate the second millennium of the baptism of Jesus Christ in 2030.

“We want to provide a pilgrimage-touristic village experience aimed at creating an unforgettable experience for anyone visiting the site,” Murad told Al-Monitor.

The project will include the necessary logistics, services and support structure as well as dedicating between 60-70% of the land as a farm development area, he explained. 

“We will create botanical gardens that will have a bird sanctuary, a museum and biblical plants that will be distributed to restaurants in the area,” Murad, a former minister of labor, said.

The project will also include a small amphitheater and boutique hotels among other services that are relevant to the experience, he added, but while preserving the ancient appeal of the place. 

A rendering of the planned amphitheater.

The idea is to create a technological experience that would take people to the journey of Jesus and Christianity and link it to the holy sites here in Jordan, Murad explained.

“It is a Jordanian historic experience to re-live the past. It is also a project for all humanity and for all of the time,” Murad added.

Advisory board member Bian Tal said the project will allow Jordan to tell its story “with regards to the Christians in this part of the world who are the original Christians.”

“It is our responsibility to preserve their [Christian] heritage and existence since this is a major component of our history and culture,” Tal, who is a communication consultant, told Al-Monitor. 

"We need to share the story with the rest of the world because this is where the story of Christianity began," she added. 

She said that all churches during that period were built on this side of the River Jordan, and that John the Baptist lived here and was beheaded in the village of Mukawir near the area.

The site is also referenced in the Gospel of John as the place where John the Baptist baptized Jesus.

First church of John the Baptist.

Daoud Kuttab, a publisher of a Christian website for Arabs in Jordan and Palestine and an Al-Monitor columnist, praised the idea of the project but said he hoped for more involvement from the local community.

“They need to widen the circle of building up the [Christian] sites and increase awareness about it in Jordan in local schools and communities, especially that over 100 Christian locations in Jordan are mentioned in the bible,” Kuttab told Al-Monitor.

But for now, the kingdom is working to ensure the funding. Murad said the commission is now purely focused on a global initiative to raise the necessary funds to turn this vision into a reality.

“We urge you to think how you can be a part of this growing community by supporting this noble cause of sharing this holy site with the rest of the world,” he said.

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