The third most holy site for Christians in the world, after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity, is the site of the baptism of Jesus Christ, known in Arabic as al-Maghtas. Excavations at Wadi Kharrar carried out after the 1994 peace treaty found evidence of a complex of churches, hermit cells and other buildings described in the writings of many pilgrims who have visited the site since the 2nd century AD. Now preserved as a tourist destination, al-Maghtas attracts tourists year-round.
The holiness of this site for Christians inspired the Byzantines to build a monastery in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. This complex contained several churches, barracks for the monks, a caravenserai for pilgrims and an impressive water system. AI-Maghtas was part of the pilgrim trail that included Mt. Nebo and Jerusalem. The Roman Emperor Hadrian may have traveled here on his way from Petra in 129 AD. The geometric shapes and crosses decorating the mosaic illustrate the iconoclasm of the early Christian church, which believed that figures should not be portrayed in art. The Western Church contained a rock-cut apse that extended under one of the pools. The oldest building, believed to be the Prayer Hall, may date from the beginning of the Byzantine era.
Tudius, a pilgrim to al-Maghtus in 530 AD, described the baptism site as five miles from the Dead Sea, and talked about the unique Church of Bethany, which was built on platforms in the early 6th century to prevent flood damage. He also mentioned a small hill on the site, identifying it as the place where Prophet lIyas was lifted bodily to heaven in a whirlwind. The most famous pilgrim in recent times, Pope John Paul II, called for blessings upon the Kingdom of Jordan, His Majesty the King, and all the people of Jordan, Christians and Muslims together, during his visit.
Today al-Maghtus is a beautiful site, full of peace. Along with other religious sites, such as Mukawir, Lot's Cave and Mount Nebo, al-Maghtus attracts pilgrims from all over the world, just as it has for centuries.