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Baptism Site: More needs to be done

In three consecutive visits to the Baptism Site of Jesus Christ on the east bank of River Jordan, I noticed that its visitors are fewer than those who come to a location on the west bank of the river, whose founders claim that it is the place where Jesus Christ was baptised. I asked officials at the site about the reasons behind this huge difference in the number of visitors between the two locations on both sides of the river.

Site keepers, in fact, said that the number of visitors to the Baptism Site east of the river does not exceed an average of 100,000 visitors annually, while visitors to the location on the west of the river hovers around 1 million visitors per year, which is about ten times more! Suleiman Farajat, director of the Baptism Site, and his assistant Abdul Aziz Adwan, explained to me the potentials of the site, which are truly enormous.

It is worth mentioning that the Baptism Site is under the guardianship of a commission headed by Prince Ghazi Bin Mohammed, who enthusiastically works to maintain and develop the birthplace of Christianity — the Baptism Site. The symbolism of the presence of a Hashemite prince as head of a supervising commission to the Baptism Site of Jesus Christ is immense.

My efforts to come up with answers began with a series of meetings with relevant officials and experts. I met with Aqel Beltaji, a former minister of tourism, and I have to confess that I have not seen before such eloquence and sentimentality when speaking about Jordan and its places. He told me how the place was discovered during his tenure as minister of Tourism and Antiquities and how he tried to obtain the recognition of the Baptism Site from world churches. In meetings with Rustam Mukhjian, an expert on the Baptism Site, and with Muhammad Wahib, professor of archeology at the Hashemite University, they both confirmed that basically all of the international churches recognise the Jordanian site as the authentic site and most of the leaders of churches had even made their pilgrimages there.

In an interview with Nayef Al Fayez, minister of environment and a former minister of tourism, he argued that the fact that Jordan is filled with archaeological and religious places, both Christian and Muslim, makes of the country an open museum and allows it to compete for religious and cultural tourism in an insurmountable manner. He acknowledged that the budgets allocated were not sufficient to properly publicise the Baptism Site and the many other religious places in Jordan. Also Nidal Qatameen, a former minister of tourism, argued, during my meeting with him, that the country needs to take advantage of what it possesses and increase the number of faith tourists. By doing so, he said, Christians from all over the world can come and see the coexistence between Christians and Muslims, which can be a convincing proof that Islam is a religion of coexistence and peace, and not a religion of exclusion and conflict as portrayed in international media.

In a meeting with Abdul Razzaq Arabiyat, director of the Jordan Tourism Board, he emphasised that the modest resources available have an impact on the ability to attract Christian tourists to the Baptism Site and to other Christian religious sites in Jordan.

Meeting with Issa Gammoh, secretary general of the Ministry of Tourism, was illuminating and enhanced my understanding of the impact of the tourism sector on the macro-economic circumstances of the country.

Basima Al Samaan, director of Noor Sat Satellite TV, spoke to me on the role that the Christian media outlets can play in transmitting positive messages about the status of Christians in Jordan, and, consequently, the cultural relations between Christianity and Islam.

I documented my interviews in a documentary film. My work on this issue led me to three conclusions: The relatively low numbers that visit the Baptism Site on the eastern bank of the river compared to the alleged location on the west bank is the result of inadequate publicity that results from the meagre allocated resources. More resources must be channeled to well-devised marketing efforts.

Second, the inability to exploit the importance of the site to attract Christian tourists leads the country to miss the benefits of enhancing its socioeconomic circumstances.

Third, the modest numbers that come to Jordan to visit the Baptism Site and other historical and religious places inhibits the ability of the country to portray the coexistence between Islam and Christianity in this land since the arrival of Islam to this land.