Spectacular new archaeological finds, including a cave that was claimed to be the rock-hewn home of John the Baptist, could boost Jordan's drive for a larger stake in one of the region's most competitive industries: religious tourism. It has long been dominated by Israel, which predictably challenged the significance given to the discoveries.
"The competition between the Jordanians and Israelis today is part of a long-standing pattern," says the Rev. Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, a leading New Testament scholar in Jerusalem. "There was a proliferation of holy places in the Byzantine period. If you had a holy place, you made money."
The cave, said to date from the 1st century, was unearthed under a 4th-century Byzantine church just east of the Jordan River at Wadi Kharrar, on the Jordan bank just opposite the Jericho plain. Even more tantalizing, a Jordanian newspaper suggested an ancient skull found directly next to the cave, could be John the Baptist's.
"We discovered a water channel near the cave and pools over it. There is pottery and coins and a lot of things dating back to the Roman period," says Mohammed Waheeb, a leading archaeologist and the project director.
The site has many associations with biblical personalities. But excavation work was only possible after Jordan's peace agreement with Israel in 1994, when troops withdrew from what was a densely militarized front-line zone, sown with minefields.
Since 1997, archaeologists have uncovered the ruins of a dozen ancient churches and monasteries - some with splendid mosaic floors - scattered over small hills and barren terraces in an area of less than two miles. There were also wells and baptism pools built by the first converts to Christianity.
Jordanian experts say the inscriptions and biblical references found at the site prove it to be "Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan," the place where the gospel of St. John says Jesus was baptized.
But the finds challenge far older claims by Israel and the Palestinians to a nearby rival site on the West bank of the Jordan River at Qasr el-Yahud, an area under Israeli military control.
"Israel has nothing to do with Christian religious sites, but Qasr el-Yahud has been the traditional baptism site for hundreds of years," an Israeli tourism ministry official said.
"The Palestinians also support what we say. We don't want to disparage the Jordanians, who are our good friends, but if someone invents a new site and starts to grab tourists, then maybe an element of commercial competition has entered the story," the official added.
Not so, insist the Jordanians, who argue that while they are promoting Wadi Kharrar as a unique attraction, they regard it primarily as a religious site. As for the rival baptism spot on the west bank of the Jordan river, Mr. Waheeb said: "There is no evidence Qasr el-Yahud is an archae-
ological site. Nobody has dug there. It is just a big hill with a modern monastery."
Whether or not Wadi Kharrar was the precise baptism site, there can be no doubt the Jordanians have the sounder claim, according to Fr. Murphy-O'Connor.
"Quite clearly and formally in the New Testament, it says John was baptizing on the Jordanian side of the river," he says. "The safest way for Jews from Galilee to get to Jerusalem was to come down the east bank." Convenience played a role when Qasr el-Yahud was established as an early pilgrimage site, he says.
The jousting over authenticity of the baptism site has been mostly good-natured and most pilgrims seem happy to visit either as long as they can enter the Jordan River, all of which they regard as holy.
Diplomatically, the Roman Catholic Church has steered clear of the controversy. Wadi Kharrar won important recognition when Pope John Paul II visited it on his millennial tour of the Holy Land last year. But to avoid controversy, he also made a private visit to Qasr el-Yahud.
Convenience could once again play a role in where pilgrims go. "I bet there are going to be far more pilgrims on the Jordanian side because it is going to be a lot neater and convenient," Murphy-O'Connor says. "The Israelis haven't lifted any of the mines, so that movement in their area is extremely restricted with one narrow staircase down to the water."
Jordan had hoped many other tourists would follow in the pope's trail. But the fallout from the Palestinian intifada has hit tourism in Jordan, even though it has not been touched by the violence and is one of the safest countries in the region. Thirty percent of tourist bookings have been cancelled since October.
Many tourists who visit Jordan come as part of Holy Land package tours that include the West Bank and Israel, where tourism has been drastically undermined by the recent bloodshed. Critics say the government should no longer promote Jordan as a tourist destination in tandem with Israel, but should go it alone or package it along with Arab neighbors such as Lebanon, Syria, and even Iraq.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society