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Pilgrims in the Holy Land
Boosting Christian tourism to the Dead Sea area
Yehonathan Tommer (tommery06)     Print Article 
Published 2008-12-16 12:08 (KST)   
Pilgrims visiting the Holy Land this Christmas can add two new sites to their pilgrimage. Both are located south of Jerusalem on the road to the Dead Sea - the Museum of the Good Samaritan and the redeveloped Qasr el Yahud baptismal site on the Jordan River.

Both venues are to be officially dedicated at ceremonies this week and are designed to encourage pilgrim tourism to Christian sites in the Dead Sea area, says Rafael Ben Hur, a deputy director general in the Israeli Tourism Ministry.

Museum of the Good Samaritan
©2008 Y. Tommer
Museum of the Good Samaritan

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The Museum of the Good Samaritan is about halfway on the main road between Jerusalem and the Jericho. It is housed in a restored Turkish building that was once a wayside inn for overnight travelers to the Dead Sea and north along the Jordan Valley to Tiberias at the Sea of Galilee.

The Museum stands on the original site of an ancient Byzantine church built here to mark the legendary parable told by Jesus and recounted in the Gospel of St Luke (10:25-37). It tells of a compassionate man who found a traveler lying on the road beaten, robbed and abandoned by highway thieves after two other men (a priest and a Levite Jew) ignored him and passed by. The Samaritan bandaged the man's wounds and carried him on his donkey to a nearby inn where he paid and charged the innkeeper to take care of him until he returned two days later and paid him for any extra expenses.

The church includes the semblance of an apse and altar, but no cross or other visible Christian symbols, rows of wooden benches and an open-air roof. It is built on the foundations of the former Byzantine Church and lined with the part of a restored mosaic floor found in the original structure.

"The site serves as a meeting place and house of prayer for Christians, Jews and Samaritans to symbolize the search for common understanding between the three religions," says Yuval Peleg, Chief archaeologist for the Jordan Valley region at the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The Samaritan community broke off from mainstream Judaism at the end of the First Temple period when the province of Samaria lost its independence. Today's 800-member community claims to be descended from the 'true Israelites.' They are Israeli citizens, living a modern lifestyle but practicing their religious observance based on the exclusive scriptural teachings of the first five books of the Bible (Torah). A minority lives in the Israeli town of Holon. The majority however, resides near Nablus in the Palestinian territories at the foot of Mount Grizim. This is a holy Samaritan site where they gather to celebrate Passover with the ritual slaughter of sacrificial lambs.

The walled complex was built at a cost of $1.5 million and includes a courtyard displaying restored mosaics collected from surrounding Byzantine monasteries and churches. The magnificent exhibits variously portray rich geometric designs, birds and flowers dating between the 9th and 10th centuries CE. Another $1.3 million is pledged for further site development.

9th century Byzantine mosaic
©2008 Y. Tommer
Archaeological excavations alongside the museum reveal the foundations of earlier structures and plaster inlaid water storage cisterns, coins, pottery shards and broken glass dating to Second Temple times (4th to the 7th centuries CE).

Reproduction of mosaic in the King David Synagogue, Gaza Strip
©2008 Y. Tommer
The museum's six rooms display exquisite mosaics restored in part from Jewish and Samaritan synagogues and Christian churches in the area, dating to an earlier period between the 4th and 7th centuries C.E. Many include inscriptions in Greek, Hebrew and Samaritan. Exact reproductions of mosaics from the King David Synagogue in Gaza (508 CE)and the Shalom on Israel synagogue in Jericho are also exhibited here.

Qasr el Yahud Baptismal center on the Israeli side of the Jordan River
©2008 Y. Tommer
Qasr el Yahud Baptismal Site

Known by its Arabic name Qasr el Yahud (Fortress of the Jews) on the Jordan River just east of Jericho is the historic site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. It is also the site where Joshuah led the Children of Israel across the River into Canaan the Promised Land and latter day Israel.

Qasr el Yahud is the third most important pilgrim site of in the Holy Land after Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

The Jordan River is a sluggish and frequently polluted water channel today that dwarfs the once mighty waterway. In modern times, its flow has been increasingly siphoned off at the Sea of Galilee for drinking and expanding industry and agriculture in Israel and Jordan.

Yet this has not lessened the River's revered spiritual importance for the 100,000 Christian pilgrims from all over the world who come here annually to be baptized in a renewal of their faith.

The baptismal site is regularly tested for pollution levels and water quality and is safe for ritual immersions, assures Lieutenant Colonel Ofer Meital, Project Manager for the development of the Qasr el Yahud site at the Israeli Civil Administration for the Territories. But pilgrims are still cautioned against drinking from it.

On Dec. 18, hundreds of pilgrims will inaugurate a $5 million reconstructed and expanded baptismal center on the Israeli embankment of the Jordan River. The center will eventually host 600,000 pilgrims each year, says Tourism Ministry's Raphael Ben-Hur. Pilgrims will walk from their coaches along a tree -lined aisle to a spacious, roof-covered assembly/prayer plaza and from here down terraced, wooden platforms to the water's edge.

Abandoned Greek monastery at entrance to baptismal center
©2008 Y. Tommer
Decades ago, individual denominations organized baptismal ceremonies for their faithful. The Greek, Russian, Ethiopian and Coptic churches and the Franciscan order built monasteries or chapels close to the River to host overnight guests. Shortly after 1967 the Israel Defense Forces declared the area a closed military zone, ordered the resident clergy to evacuate the properties and land mined the area against terrorists infiltrating into Israel from across the Jordan River.

"The buildings will remain abandoned and the land mines will not be removed," said Major Peter Lerner, spokesman for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories. "The cordoned off areas with signs warning of the dangers also will remain in place."

Starting January 2009, the military order will be lifted and pilgrims will be allowed free, unrestricted and unescorted army access to the baptismal center throughout the entire week.

Jordanian baptismal center opposite Israeli center on the Jordan River
©2008 Y. Tommer
The Jordan River forms a natural Israeli border with the Hashemite Kingdom. Less than 40 meters across from Israel Jordanian authorities have established a competing baptismal site framed by three neo-classic churches built there in the last six years.

The two countries enjoy a stable peace since 1994. Israeli and Jordanian authorities coordinate the times of their groups to avoid overcrowding and to facilitate smooth and orderly baptismal ceremonies on both sides of the river, says Colonel Meital. "We have a very amicable relationship."

Who will eventually control this lucrative tourism site located in Area C under Israeli security jurisdiction (defined by the 1993 Oslo Accord) is an open question which Israeli and Palestinian leaders must address in future, Lerner said. "For the moment, Israel is redeveloping the site to meet a growing pilgrim demand."

©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Yehonathan Tommer

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