Jordan tourism officials bank on the Baptist

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WADI EL-KHARRAR, Jordan -- John the Baptist slept here ... maybe. Dr. Mohammad Waheeb, who heads the Baptism Project for Jordan's Department of Antiquities, fervently hopes he did.

In terms of tourism, a lot is riding on the theory. Waheeb is working on a site here, about 28 miles west of Amman, Jordan's capital, that is said to be the hill from which Elijah the prophet rose to heaven in a chariot of fire. Recent excavations have led Waheeb to believe that it also is the site of "Bethany, beyond the Jordan," mentioned in the Gospel of John.

Waheeb said this Bethany, which is not to be confused with a village of the same name near Jerusalem, is where John lived and baptized.

Map of Jordan Archaeologists have found a first-century A.D. settlement with plastered pools and water systems that Waheeb said were used "almost certainly" for baptism.

The discoveries have created enough excitement that Jordan's Department of Tourism is incorporating the idea into its theme for the welcoming of the millennium: "Jordan: The River and the Land of the Baptism 2000 A.D.; from Bethlehem to Bethany beyond the Jordan, from Birth to Baptism."

For the U.S. and Canadian markets, the theme will be condensed to "Jordan 2000, Let It Be Now," quoting Jesus' directive to John to baptize him. The millennium, of course, is likely to draw a large contingent of religious pilgrims to the Holy Land, and Jordan wants to be sure that its side of the Jordan River, where so many of the events recounted in the Bible took place, is not neglected.

The Vatican has taken an interest in the Bethany project, according to Akel Biltaji, Jordan's minister of tourism and antiquities, and that should give a boost to pilgrimage travel.

The excavation site is a work in progress so it currently is not open to the public, although journalists, visiting archaeologists and other interested parties can arrange a visit.

It is a hot, dry place, with only an occasional breeze from the Jordan River a couple of miles to the west to disturb the silence and tranquility. It is little wonder that the great religions that were born or flourished here incorporated the life-giving properties of water into their rituals. The cisterns and water delivery systems are quite elaborate.

There also are sections of mosaic tile that probably were part of a fifth- or sixth-century Byzantine Christian structure, perhaps a church or monastery. In all, there are about 20 sites in the Bethany area, including structures that may have catered to the earliest Christian pilgrims, that are under excavation.

Sometime next year, when excavations and conservation work is completed at the sites, the tourism department plans to prepare the region for tourist and pilgrimage visits. The tourism department, according to one local tour operator, is keeping its exact plans under wraps for the moment.

A Royal Commission is overseeing the development of the site, which "will be maintained as a unique natural, spiritual and archaeological sanctuary," according to the tourism department.

Several other Jordanian sites will figure in the Year 2000 observances. Among them are the wilderness area just east of the river and north of Bethany where Jesus spent 40 days; Madaba (about 25 miles east of the Dead Sea's northern tip), where the Orthodox Church of St. George has a fabulous mosaic map of the Holy Land, probably the earliest that survives, and Mount Nebo, a 10-minute drive west of Madaba, which is believed to be the burial place of Moses and is the site of a church with beautiful Byzantine mosaics.

Waheeb, meanwhile, can't resist tantalizing his audience with another notion. According to the Gospel of Mark, John met his end in what is now called Mukawir, about 30 miles south of Amman, when Salome, apparently quite the seductive dancer, demanded John's head in exchange for entertaining her stepfather, Herod Antipas.

At Wadi el-Kharrar, Waheeb said, "We've found a skull. I'm not saying it's John's..."

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