The Jordan Valley
In the Jordan valley the landscape is flat and generally it is very hot. Especially in summer it is hot, but most of the time it is even warm here in winter.
The houses here are scattered around. There are date palm trees, banana trees and citrus trees.
We are in the Westbank, the area of Palestine that is on the west bank of the river Jordan. That’s why we call it the Westbank. Even though it is the eastern part of Palestine. That’s sometimes confusing. And even though this area is not part of the State of Israel that was established in 1948 after Zionist militias had killed and displaced about 800.000 Palestinians, the Westbank was military occupied in 1967.
Large parts of the Westbank, about 60% actually, are under full Israeli military control. The rest is divided between areas A and B, as stipulated in the Oslo accords. Area A is under so-called Palestinian Authority control and does not have Israeli military continuously present. Even though it is very common for the Israeli army to raid Palestinian cities and arrest Palestinians, usually in the middle of the night. Area A consists of all the larger cities and built up areas. Area B is under the Palestinian municipal control let’s say, so Palestinians have to take care of their own garbage collection, repair the streets, take care of all the infrastructure, electricity, water etc. but they do not have security control, meaning they can not have Palestinian police operating there. This leads to problematic situations when the police can not arrest criminals or molesters or prevent drugs traffic.
This situation of Israeli control in the Westbank also means that Palestinian land owners are not allowed to work on their land, dig a water well, build a shelter for the sun or improve the road to their fields without a permission from the military commander. These permits are rarely given. Other problems especially here in the Jordan valley are with closed military zones on the agricultural lands of Palestinians, used for military purposes and practices. I once heard from a Bedouin family in the Jordan valley that soldiers took their donkey and sheep because the animals were trespassing into military zone and they had to pay a large sum of money to release the arrested animals.
Qasr il Yehud
We are heading towards the baptismal site on the Jordan river. It is a site that is often visited by religious pilgrims. It is called Qasr Il Yehud and is part of the Israeli National Parks Authority, despite the fact that it is in the Westbank and should therefore be run by the Palestinian Authority. But we are in area C here.
The name Qasr il Yehud came about because of the nearby Greek Orthodox monastery of Saint John the Baptist that has a castle-like appearance. And in Arabic castle is Qasr. And because the tradition tells that in the 14th century BC the Israelites crossed the river at this spot, it is called ‘al Yahud’ meaning “of the Jews”
When you reach the site you see that the Jordan river is now an extremely narrow stream here. The water is muddy and shallow. It is probably not more than 4 meters wide and you can easily walk across it to the other side. And then you will be in Jordan.
And on that side of the Jordan there are also Christian pilgrims visiting, while on holidays or pilgrimage in Jordan. And in Jordan the site is called Al-Maghtas meaning “immersion”
And that’s what baptism was, immersion under water.
In English this site is referred to as Bethany beyond the Jordan. There is another Bethany closer to Jerusalem where the story of Jesus raising up Lazarus from the death is said to have happened. It is now known as the Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem Al Azariya.
John the Baptist
In the Bible we read that a man called John, was living in the desert, eating simple food he found, locusts and honey, wearing camel hair clothes, a hermit kind of life. He was preaching about the coming Messiah and preparing the Jews at that time to be ready.
It was already a Jewish habit to purify with water. In many archaeological sites there are mikves where they would take a ritual bath.
John the Baptist used this purification ritual as well, but he used to do it here in the Jordan River, as a sign for rebirth and renewal. Cleansing of the old life with sins. Ready for a new life, waiting for the savior. Many scholars think that John the Baptist was influenced by the Essenes, a group of Jewish ascetics who lived in the wilderness of Qumran and one of their religious rituals was to daily immerse in water to regain purity. You will hear more about the Essenes from Kamal in a bit.
The baptism of Jesus
And then one day Jesus came to him and he wanted to be baptized by John as well. At first John did not think he was worthy of baptizing Jesus. But Jesus insisted. And then the Bible says that “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Many pilgrims come to this place, not only to see the site but also to get baptized themselves.
The site is not only known as the baptismal site but also as the place where other important bible stories happened, remember we are still in the Holy land! And it is good to realize that the boarders we know today between Jordan and Palestine did not exist before. Jordan became an independent State only in 1946.
Before that the pilgrims who would visit the HOLY LAND would be traveling around the whole area and there were many monasteries built on the eastern bank of the Jordan river. There were so many monasteries dedicated to John the Baptist that the area became known as the Land of the Monasteries.
So the other important bible stories are of Joshua crossing the river Jordan from the eastern side to the western side with the twelve Israelite tribes to what they saw as the Promised Land. It is believed that they crossed somewhere in this area over the Jordan River, that the river opened and they could walk through it, just like they had done when leaving out of Egypt
Another story that pilgrims attribute to this location is that of the prophet Elijah who is said to have given his coat to his student Elisha here and then he was taken up into heaven by a chariot of fire.
Yardenit baptism site
There is actually another site on the Jordan River where the baptismal story is venerated. That site was appointed in 1981 when Qasr al Yahud was closed due to the unstable political situation in the region and they opened a site south of the Sea of Galilee, so that’s the northern part of the Jordan River, it is called Yardenit and it is very well equipped to host several groups at the same time, with baptismal robes and towels for rent and for sale, making baptism into a local business.
The Jordan river is called Nahal Yarden in Hebrew, hence the name Yardenit for this second baptismal site.
The Jordan river
In Arabic the Jordan river is called Naher al Urdunn. The river is 251 km long and it starts from the upper Jordan valley north of the Sea of Galilee and then continues south and ends in the Dead Sea.
The river has four main tributaries, interestingly from different countries, from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine: the Ajoun, Hasbani, Dan and Banias rivers.
And south of the Sea of Galilee there are some more Tributaries, the most important being the Zarqa and Yarmouk rivers from Jordan.
Since 1964 Israel’s national water carrier started to operate pumping stations to divert water from the Lake of Galilee to the coastal areas of Israel. Also Jordan and Syria divert water from the Yarmouk river, one of the main tributaries to the Jordan river. This resulted in severe damage to the ecosystem of the Jordan River but also the shrinking of the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea is 430 meters below sea level and is one of the saltiest water bodies in the world, it’s salinity is about 9.6 times higher than that of the ocean. If you go into the water of the Dead Sea then you don’t swim, you float! You may have tried that yourself or seen pictures of people lying on their backs reading a newspaper. It’s true. And I advice you, don’t shave (neither women nor men) the day before you visit the Dead Sea!
In Arabic the name of the Dead Sea is Bahar al miet. There is literally nothing that lives in this sea. No seaweed, no fish, no creatures. The only thing you will find is mud and lots of minerals. There is a beautiful and famous mosaic floor in the Saint George Church in Madaba in Jordan, it is called the Madaba map and it shows many important sites in Palestine, churches, monasteries and holy sites and also the dead sea ! and a tiny detail are the fish that are coming down from the Jordan river but then quickly swimming back up the stream when they reach the Dead Sea. Imagine HOW these Byzantine mosaic artists thought of this detail to show the saltiness of the Dead Sea in this way!
Jordan Rift valley
Why is it so low here? The whole area is very low, the whole Jordan Rift valley. It is the result of tectonic plate movement of the Arabian and African plate. Millions of years ago this area was actually a lagoon according to scholars and water from the sea used to come in regularly. But when the tectonic plate movements started to push up the land to the west of the Jordan Valley causing the mountain ridge to form, the sea became isolated and only had the water from the Jordan River to feed it.
Salt and minerals
Due to the hot weather and high evaporation and the fact that the influx of fresh water is not very high, the water is very salty.
It also contains a lot of minerals that are considered good for skin care. Most tourists will not only float on the dead sea but also cover themselves with the mud, let it dry up before they wash it off.
Palestinian dead sea products
If you want to get some Palestinian Dead Sea products you can check out www.Vitalite.ps
To swim in the Dead Sea you will have to go through one of the paid resorts. That’s almost the only way really. This is a boarder area and unfortunately there are lots of minefields and military closed zones.
I can give you a tip and that is if you don’t have your own car to book through www.hantour.ps
The good thing is that they provide you, for a fixed price, with transportation, because by public transportation it is very hard to reach. On Hantour.ps you also have great choices for other tours in and around Jericho and in the Westbank. With local Palestinian tour guides.
Qumran and the Dead Sea scrolls
Qumran is the place where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered by Bedouin shepherds in 1947. One of the shepherds threw a rock into one of the caves, maybe to see if there were any wild animals inside and he was surprised to hear the sound of breaking pottery. So he went to look and he found that inside the cave there were jars made of clay. And inside the jars there were scrolls with texts written on them. He took them with him and according to popular stories he had them hanging for a while on the outside of his tent, not knowing their value and what to do with them.
Eventually he took them to Bethlehem to the town where at first nobody seemed interested in them. They were written mainly in Hebrew and Aramaic, languages that people did not speak in Bethlehem. Except for some of the Syriac community. And one of the Syriac antiquities dealer named Khalil Iskander Shahin, better known as Kando, realized that these could be valuable and he sent the shepherds back to go and look for more. Over time they have found many more scrolls and fragments, over 900 manuscripts, in 12 different caves, that are dating back to around 1800 years ago. They are important because they tell us about the life Palestine in that time, about the community of the Essenes and they contain most of the books that later ended up in the Bible that we know today. Most of the scrolls are now in the Israel Museum.
The archaeological site at Qumran is very interesting to visit, and AGAIN, under the Israeli National Park Authority, while situated in the Westbank, in area C under Israeli military control.
The Essenes were one of the Jewish sects that lived in this area around the time of Jesus. Other known Jewish sects were the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Zealots. The Essenes were probably only around 4000 people. They lived in a few different communities around the country one of them is Qumran.
Qumran was already an established place long before the Essenes lived here, it was mentioned in the Bible in the book of Joshua as one of the places that the tribe of Judah was going to get. It most probably was abandoned during the time of the destruction of the first Temple.
The Essenes believed in sharing all their properties. They had a pretty strict style of living. Food should not be brought in from outside the community. They had to work hard for it. They also had to write and re-write the Old Testament as well as other books, their rules and their history.
They lived in caves but they would meet early in the morning for a ritual bath, to purify the body and the soul. This was something very sacred to the Essenes. They used to have several purifying baths every day. And in the evening they would eat together. The ones that were new and still on probation would not join this meal. Only after one year living in the community they would be allowed to joint his important meal but still they would not be allowed to talk. So it was a tough procedure to become one of the Essenes.
The questions of how many Essenes lived in Qumran was answered when they found the refectory, the dining room, and the kitchen, with all the bowls and plates. After counting them they estimated that around 200 people used to live here.
Sons of light
The Essenes looked at the Sadducees in the Temple as the sons of darkness and they saw themselves as the sons of light. The Essenes were Jewish, they believed in the Laws of Moses and the purity rituals and the divine punishment of sin. Unlike the other big sect, the Pharisees, they did not believe in the resurrection of the body.
When visiting Qumran archaeological site you will see the cisterns that were used for the ritual bath. But also the place where they made syrup out of dates. They worked hard, both in agriculture as well as in copying the scrolls in the scriptorium. In the scriptorium they would write and copy manuscripts.
The tables they worked on had three holes. In these holes there was water to cleanse their fingers every time they had to write the word Yahweh, the name of God.
The importance of finding the Dead Sea scrolls
To understand the importance of the finding of the manuscripts is to realize that the oldest Old Testament we have in our hands is written in Aramaic and dates from the 10th Century, the Masoretic text. The other old manuscript we have is from the 14th Century and it is the translation of the Old Testament in Greek, the Septuagint. And between these manuscripts there were some differences.
For example the story of Mary who born a baby. In Aramaic the word for young and for virgin is almost the same word. In the Masoretic text it says that the ‘young’ will born a baby. So the question that rose, was Mary a virgin when she gave birth or was she young? From the scroll of Isaiah found in Qumran it became clear that the text said that the virgin would bare a baby.
Jesus the Messiah
Through the writings we also know that they were not only waiting for the Messiah to have an earthly kingdom, but also they were writing for the Messiah who is heavenly and he is going to suffer. This explains a lot about the Jesus Christ story. When he went to Nazareth and he said that he is the one they have been waiting for, they wanted to kill him. They did not believe him. He went to Kufr Naum (Capernaum), a place where Essenes would live. They believed in him, because they were waiting for someone like him. They might have been the ones who followed Jesus from the beginning.
They always prayed towards the son and they called themselves the sons of light. And Jesus says about himself, I am the light of the world.
The scrolls were written in different languages, mainly in Hebrew, old Hebrew, in Aramaic and some even translated into old Greek.
In cave number 4 they found a lot of coins and it is clear that they did not want to deal with the money of the Romans, so they printed their own coins. And on the coins they printed a palm tree. They saw the palm tree as a sacred tree, representing the life of a human being. The palm tree lives around seventy years. You need a male and female tree to produce fruits and it takes nine months for the fruits to be ready.
Why did the Essenes bury the manuscripts?
By the year 67 AD the Jewish revolt against the Romans started. According to an old tradition they buried their manuscripts, just like people used to do with important contracts and documents, in a jar under ground, to keep it safe forever. In the time they had left they have hidden as many manuscripts as they could. They may have taken others with them when they fled. The ones that they left in the cave that were not sealed, were damaged the most.
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