On the banks of the Jordan River where the Bible says Jesus was baptized, 15-foot-high reeds rustle in the wind. The site on the Jordanian side of the river looks much like the New Testament describes it when John the Baptist came to live in the wilderness, surviving on locusts and wild honey.
UNESCO has declared Bethany Beyond the Jordan a World Heritage site, identifying present-day Jordan as the location where Jesus' baptism is believed to have taken place. The Vatican and Orthodox Christian patriarchs have given their blessings to the site as the spot where the defining moment of Christianity began.
But across the river, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, there is a rival — not just laying claim to Jesus' baptism site but also to millions of dollars in annual tourist revenue.
A huge Israeli flag waves above a platform at the West Bank site. Israel's Tourism Ministry and its national parks website have marketed that side of the river as "the site where, according to tradition, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist." Though, in recent months, both the Jordanian and Israeli-run sites have been empty of visitors due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"The dispute isn't essentially about the authenticity of the site," says Jordan's Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, the chief multifaith religious adviser to King Abdullah II. He says that has already been settled — Jordan's side of the river is the baptism site. "This is about where the tourists are going to go."
Prince Ghazi, a first cousin of the king, developed the site of Bethany Beyond the Jordan in the 1990s. As evidence for the location, he cites biblical verses, the UNESCO certification, remains of fourth-century churches, accounts of early religious pilgrims and a sixth-century map. The Madaba mosaic is the oldest known map of the Holy Land, which places Jesus' baptism in present-day Jordan.
"They've cottoned on to us"
After the 1967 war in which Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan, both sides of the river were closed military sites, riddled with thousands of land mines. The West Bank, home to more than 3 million Palestinians and hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers, remains under Israeli occupation.
Jordan's 1994 peace treaty with Israel, which envisioned negotiations with the Palestinians to decide the West Bank's fate, paved the way for Jordanian excavations and reopening the site as a more than 3-square-mile national park in 2002. Almost two decades later, Israel reopened a much smaller area it identified as the baptism site directly across from the Jordanian location. Israel and international agencies removed thousands of land mines from the site and it reopened to visitors.
"Since we built our site, they've cottoned on to us," Prince Ghazi says in a phone interview. "They've started building this other site across the way and ferrying the tourists from Jerusalem down to their site."
While Jordan has the weight of UNESCO, archaeological findings and top church officials behind it for the location of Jesus' baptism, Israel has the tourist numbers. Israel's roughly 750,000 visitors a year to its baptism site and surrounding monasteries dwarf the roughly 250,000 who visit Jordan's baptism site annually.
Bringing tourists to both riversides
Prince Ghazi says before the coronavirus pandemic, after consultations with Palestinian officials, he had discussed with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin launching a joint project in which tourists would come from Israel into Jordan through a new "soft crossing" near the baptism site on the Jordanian side. The negotiations stalled over how much time tourists would spend in Jordan.
"I met the president of Israel ... I said unless the tourists spend three nights in Jordan I'm not opening it just so you can walk over. We want the tourists to spend three nights in Jordan, experience the other holy sites in Jordan, come to Jordan, spend some money."
Jordan, a resource-poor country, depends heavily on tourism, one of its biggest sources of jobs. Before the pandemic brought travel to a halt, tourist numbers had been rising.
Prince Ghazi says future plans could include creating a new religious ritual that would include crossing the River Jordan the way Jesus is believed to have as a key element.
In an initiative Israel calls "Land of Monasteries," Rivlin has said he hopes pilgrims will be able to visit both sides of the Jordan river.
"I see pilgrims from the Israeli side moving to the Jordanian side and vice versa," the president said in a statement.
The president's spokesman told NPR that regional and religious leaders also supported the project.
If Israel follows through with its plan to annex large areas in the occupied West Bank this year, it would make cooperation extremely difficult, Prince Ghazi acknowledges. And he says Palestinian authorities would have to agree to any tourism deal Jordan wants to forge with Israel.
At the Jordanian site, the Baptism Site Commission's ebullient director, Rustom Mkhjian, greets workers pouring bleach into a marble baptismal font on the river bank, sterilizing it for an eventual reopening after the pandemic.
"It's not a competition issue, please don't misunderstand," says Mkhjian. "The River Jordan is the River Jordan. But we are talking about the witness of John. Jesus was right here to be baptized."
"To be honest, over there you don't have what we have here," he says, pointing to the western bank of the river. "You don't have the cave where John lived ... you don't have churches built after the baptism of Jesus that were very accurately described by early pilgrims."
Mkhjian points out an area known as Elijah's Hill, reputed to be where the Bible says Prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in a flaming chariot. Israel also claims a similar spot on the west side of the river.
A worker cleaning debris from the gravel approaches him to matter-of-factly give him a coin he has just found – possibly Byzantine or Roman — to be sent to the site's small museum.
"They come up after the heavy rain," Mkhjian says of ancient coins.
The huge site has been left deliberately largely pristine, dotted with bulrushes and palm trees. But the Jordan River is lower than it was, with water being pulled for agriculture on both sides. And the river has changed course over time, meaning the bend in the river where Jesus is thought to have been baptized is now on dry land.
Mkhjian says they have tried to maintain the wildness of the site in the spirit that John the Baptist knew it.
"We as a royal commission will never turn this site into Disneyland," he says.
NPR International Correspondent Daniel Estrin contributed reporting from Jerusalem.