YARDENIT, ISRAEL, September 9, 2017 — Visitors to the Holy Land travel there to see sights and shrines that have been a part of their spiritual lives since the day they were born. Christians, Jews and Muslims share many of the same stories and locations regardless of their beliefs.
For Christians, the two most popular destinations are Bethlehem, the town where Christ was born, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where he is believed to have been buried prior to his Resurrection.
But there is a third locale that brings in more than half a million travelers and pilgrims each year. They arrive to celebrate a ritual that is truly meaningful for everyone who participates. The site is Yardenit, situated at the entrance to Kibbutz Kinneret, where the Southern tip of the Sea of Galilee flows into the River Jordan.
The attraction? The opportunity to be baptized in the waters where Jesus was baptized by his cousin, John the Baptist.
Built in 1981 with the help of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, Yardenit offers a haven and sanctuary for visitors wishing to be baptized in the River Jordan. Founded in 1913 by immigrants from Eastern Europe, Kinneret is the second oldest kibbutz in Israel.
Upon their arrival, one of the first things visitors experience at Yardenit is their encounter with a verse from the Gospel of Mark describing the baptism of Christ. It is displayed in hand-painted tiles created by Armenian artist Hagop Antreasssian. The “Wall of New Life,” written in over 80 languages and dialects, reads:
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove, and a voice came from heaven; ‘Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased.’ – Mark 1:9-11″
Like the Ganges in India, the River Jordan is considered one of the world’s most sacred rivers, for different reasons, of course. It is mentioned approximately 175 times in the Old Testament and about 15 times in the New Testament.
“Jordan” is derived from the Hebrew word “Yarden” which means “descender.” “Yardenit” translates to mean “Little Jordan River.”
Named after the Sea of Galilee, nearby Kibbutz Kinneret operates the baptismal site where entry is free for all who wish to watch and/or participate. There are also several quiet areas for meditations, prayers and contemplation.
Other than the infrastructure for viewing and crowd maintenance, the banks of the river are as pastoral and serene as they would have been 2000 years ago where tranquil greenery and wildlife abound. Playful otters are frequent visitors to the river without intruding upon the rituals at hand.
In addition, there are handrails and wheelchair-accessible ramps leading into the river, and the waters there are constantly monitored for quality and safety.
Of course, there are gift shops and places for food and, though the baptisms are free, there are small charges for some facilities and services. For example, participants are required to wear special white robes, which can be rented or purchased at the site.
Dressing rooms are available, and swim suits or other clothing can be worn under the robe, but participants must don the robe in order to take part in the rite.
Groups and group tours are commonplace at Yardenit, and many guests wish to have a priest perform the baptismal ceremony. The kibbutz has no resident clergy on site. However, there are local priests available who can perform the service upon request.
The Jordan was a relatively desolate area for centuries, which makes adventurous travelers today even more appreciative of the opportunity to share in one of the great moments in religious history.
In 1932, with the construction of the Naharayim hydraulic plant, built to harness the Yarnukh and Jordan Rivers for electricity, the area visitors see underwent a dramatic change that allowed the Yardenit site to be constructed.
Despite this, as with so many things in the Middle East, the Yardenit baptismal site is not without controversy.
For obvious reasons, Israel has long maintained that Jesus was baptized on the Israeli side of the river rather than the opposite shore, which is part of the country of Jordan. But thanks to painstaking archaeological research, scholars are increasingly leaning toward viewing the Jordanian site as the authentic location rather than the Israeli side of the river.
In fact, when Pope Francis visited the Holy Land last year, he purposely held a Mass at the Jordanian location, which added credibility to the Jordanian claim.
Though a predominantly Muslim country, Jordan relies heavily on tourism revenue for its economy. Because the baptism of Jesus is generally considered the beginning of Christ’s ministry, Jordan has even gone so far as to use the slogan “Jordan, the birthplace of Christianity.”
The primary baptism site claimed by Jordan is just downriver from Yardenit where the river widens. There is also slightly better access to the waters for those who wish to be baptized at that location.
One other important difference between the two sites is the baptismal font that has been restored in Jordan for those who prefer to be sprinkled during baptism rather than totally immersed in the river.
Whether you choose Israel or Jordan, a baptism in the River Jordan is a truly unique experience, provided, that is, that you are able to look beyond the presence of soldiers from each country involved standing guard as pilgrims sing hymns, pray and get baptized in the holy waters that flow into the Dead Sea.
About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com). His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime. Read more of Travels with Peabod and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News.