A Pilgrimage of sorts

Follow This Mosaic Map to a Long-Lost Biblical Site

One traveler looks for ancient holy places near the River Jordan.

By Bill Wiatrak June 17, 2021

It felt like I was in a scene from the film National Treasure.

I was looking for a map, but not one printed on paper. I walked down the narrow street, past the souvenir shops, and asked a local for directions. He didn’t speak English, so I mimed what I was looking for to the best of my ability until he suddenly grinned and pointed down the road. A century-old Greek Orthodox church held the map I was seeking. 

A section of the Madaba Map in St. George’s Orthodox Church. 

Image: Bill Wiatrak

In 1884, in the Jordanian city of Madaba, a giant sixth-century mosaic was discovered in the ruins of an ancient Byzantine church. Even though the map suffered lots of damage throughout its long history, it turned out to be remarkably accurate when paired with biblical verse. Scholars used the mosaic to help pinpoint actual locations referred to in Christian scriptures. Missing cities were found. But the single most important spot on this map is the place supposedly where Jesus was baptized. 

In the first book of the Christian New Testament, the book of Matthew, we learn that Jesus left Nazareth (in present-day Israel) and journeyed to the place where John the Baptist was performing baptism rituals, a spring on the eastern bank of the River Jordan.

The map mosaic at Madaba, combined with descriptions from the New Testament, helped archaeologists determine the actual location of this spring. Regardless of one’s faith, most historians agree that Jesus was a real person and that he was baptized at this place. However, because of the constant conflict of the region, you can’t just drive to this border and get baptized. It’s a far different political situation than 2,000 years ago when Jesus visited.

The Greek Orthodox church near the baptismal site.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

A couple of miles to the east of the font is the parking area, a ticket office, and shuttle that runs every half hour to the site with a guide. After a security check, you drive past a scrubby desert area towards the new Greek Orthodox church, one of the only buildings in the area. Once you’ve started walking to the baptismal spot, you’ll see ruins of four other churches that once graced this holy site. 

We then walked a few minutes down a path towards the River Jordan. I must admit, I was expecting something a bit more glamorous than a bayou when I reached its banks. Dams along the waterway’s sources have decreased the flow of this once mighty river. It twists and turns, separating Israel and Jordan in the same way the Rio Grande divides Texas and Mexico. 

Despite its small size, there’s still enough water to support some trees and provide a little shade in this desert. Once you’ve reached the river, the path leads you to the site of the former spring where Jesus was baptized. 

The site of Jesus’s baptism. 

Image: Bill Wiatrak

I suppose I half-expected to see some amazing museum or grand entrance on this site. I wouldn’t have been that surprised to hear some epic music or even angel or two singing, but the site was pure and simple. Marble steps added by early Christians led to the font, and there were remains of long-forgotten churches fringing the edges. Other than that, the site is like a small retention pond with less than a foot of water. Although nothing looks like any Bible illustration I’ve ever seen, it was still an awe-inspiring moment visiting this holy place. 

Mount Nebo. 

If you’re looking for other sites important to all three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—there’re some interesting places within an hour or two of the baptism site. Lot’s cave has been located near the Dead Sea and the grave of Aaron (Harun in Arabic), Moses’s brother and spokesperson, is in Petra.

Rising above the Dead Sea is Mount Nebo, the place where Moses looked out over the promised land. On top of this mountain is a memorial to the prophet, an olive tree, planted by Pope John Paul II, and a huge display of ancient floor mosaics. Jordan has a long history of this tiled art form, and these ancient displays give us insight into the life of the people who lived during their construction. Many believe that Moses is buried somewhere on this mountain.

Mosaics are still made by hand in Madaba, Jordan. 

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Mosaics are still created by families throughout the region using many of the same techniques from over 1,000 years ago. Madaba is full of shops with vendors who will be happy to make you a custom mosaic or sell you something out of their inventory. The process of their creations is amazing, even more so when you think of the lack of resources available to the ancient Byzantine artisans 1,400 years ago.

We can thank those early craftsmen for providing us with one of the few surviving maps of the Holy Land.

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