“Ahlan Wa Sahlan! You’re welcome to the lowest archeological discovery on Earth, 385 meters below sea level, but closest to heaven.” These were the sentiments of Engineer Rustom Mkhjian, director of the Jordanian Commission that oversees the site where Jesus was baptized.
Local workers are frantically working to complete preparations for Pope Francis’ upcoming visit, which begins with a stop at the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Mkhjian, who has been present at every papal visit since St. John Paul II’s visit to the Jordan River in 2000, explained with excitement the importance of preserving the site as a place of pilgrimage for all.
The site holds particular significance for all three monotheistic religions. Not only is it the place where Jesus Christ received baptism from St. John the Baptist, but it is also in close proximity to where Scripture states that the prophet Elijah ascended into heaven.
Surrounding the area are the remains of five different churches, one built upon the other to mark the holy site. Due to earthquakes that struck the area throughout the centuries, all that remains are the frames of the original Basilica and several areas that were excavated, revealing marble and ancient stones from the previous churches built there.
“That’s the big question!,” says Mkhjian. “Why did Christians insist to build their Churches here, challenging the forces of nature? Because, depending on the Bible, the pilgrims that come and the archaeological discoveries, this is the spot where Christianity started to spread all over the world.”
The remains of the site are fragile, but Mkhjian said that once safety concerns are abated and archaeological sites are conclusively protected and preserved, he hopes that Christians will be allowed to be baptized in the very spot where Jesus was.
Regarding the Pope’s visit on Saturday, Mkhjian stresses that while this is significant, visits from all heads of churches is important for all Jordanians. “Here his late Majesty [King Hussein] said something important: “heritage belongs to mankind.” This site belongs to you, everybody on earth. But we Jordan have to protect it well, hoping to build bridges of peace and love to mankind.”
During Benedict XVI’s visit to Jordan in 2008, Mkhjian had the privilege of driving the Pope Emeritus to the holy place. He says he told the Holy Father their commitment to preserving the site “as Jesus and John saw it.”
“We want people to experience this holy event. We’re not talking about tourism!” he says. “A lot of holy sites have lost their significance. We don’t want a touristic site but rather a pilgrimage site. His Holiness Pope Francis is coming now as a pilgrim to visit the site where Jesus was baptized and Christianity started.”
The Holy Father, who is also expected to meet with a group of refugees near the Jordan River, is another aspect that highlights the humanity of the Pope towards those most suffering. Jordan, which is surrounded by areas of conflict such as Syria and Palestine, has received thousands of refugees fleeing the violence in their native lands.
Mkhjian believes that the visit will highlight a crucial message in achieving piece in the Middle East. “We, Christians and Muslims, live here in harmony, together, ever since Islam arrived here,” he notes. Although 95% of the population is Muslim, Jordanians have lived for centuries in peace with Christians, a fact that will bring hope of a peaceful resolution to conflicts around the world.
“This site would have never been opened to mankind, it would’ve stayed as a closed military area had we not signed the peace treaty with Israel,” he says. “Due to that peace treaty, excavations and preservations to the site have lead to major discoveries from underground churches to hermit cells surrounding the area.”
“I consider the area from Elijah’s hill down to the place where Jesus was baptized, the biggest open monastery on earth,” he says with a smile. “So, Ahlan Wa Sahlan, you are welcome [here] once again.”