From the streets of Jerusalem to the quiet shores of the Sea of Galilee, Israel is saturated with places of soul-stirring spiritual significance. But until recently, one of the most meaningful destinations in Jewish and Christian history has been off-limits—and largely off the radar of many tour groups.
It’s located deep in the Jordan Valley, along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, not far from where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea. Here, the arid desert gives way to a lush, green oasis along the banks of the Jordan. This quiet, beautiful spot in the wilderness—far from any city—resonates with history and has been revered for centuries by the faithful.
According to Jewish tradition, this peaceful place is where Joshua led the Hebrew people, with priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant, in a miraculous crossing of the Jordan River, as detailed in Joshua 3:11-17. They approached from the east and, once across, finally entered the Promised Land after decades of wandering in the desert.
Centuries later, another major event occurred here. Since the 4th century, Christian scholars have considered this the location where Jesus approached John the Baptist to be immersed in the Jordan, as recorded in Matthew 3. This baptism marked the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. As He emerged from the water, the Spirit descended upon Him and a voice from heaven declared, “This is my Son, whom I love.”
Because of these events, for centuries this oasis was revered by Jews and Christians alike, and a number of ancient monasteries and churches were built nearby. In fact, the site is known as Qasr al Yahud, an ancient Arabic name that means “The Castle of the Jews,” in reference to the castle-like appearance of St. John the Baptist, the Greek Orthodox monastery overlooking the river.
Qasr al Yahud is now a regular stop on our Israel tours, but that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, it has only recently begun attracting visitors. With such a profound history, why was this peaceful, sacred site so neglected by tourism?
The reason might surprise you. Starting in the 14th century, the region fell under the control of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, which discouraged Christian pilgrimage for centuries. Then, in the 20th century, Qasr al Yahud’s location between the Israel and Jordan border caused further conflict. The region became caught up in events leading up to the Six-Day War in 1967, between Israel and neighboring Islamic states. The site became an operational base for Islamic forces who were targeting Israeli communities.
As a result, Qasr al Yahud became a no-mans land. Minefields surrounded the churches and monasteries. Barbed wire fences prevented access. Though the area was secured by Israeli forces in 1967, it was effectively closed down until the Peace Agreement in 1994. Even then, the presence of landmines required military escort to enter the territory.
But today, things are changing at Qasr al Yahud. After many years of peace, new regulations in 2011 encouraged Israel to reopen the site to the public. Now managed by the Israel National Parks Authority, the minefields are being deactivated from the seven church compounds in the area. Currently, the Greek Orthodox monastery, the Ethiopian monastery and the Franciscan chapel along the river have been cleared. A few other monasteries, as well as the stunning Russian chapel, are currently in process of being declared free of mines.
Once this occurs, these beautiful churches will fully reopen to visitors, further increasing the draw of this incredible, historic site. Today the Parks Authority has improved access to the waterfront, adding parking and shaded areas for prayer and meditation, and regularly inspects the water quality for visitors hoping to get baptized here.
Once a land of conflict and warfare, this special place is now quiet and safe. It has become one of the most meaningful destinations for our ministry partners and tour groups.
We are so grateful that this holy site is returning to its former glory, and we look forward to bringing even more tours here in 2019 and in years to come.
What about you? What would it mean to your spiritual walk to visit the shoreline where the ancient Hebrew people first entered the Promised Land? How would it impact your faith to be baptized in the same waters where Jesus began His public ministry?