Jordan is a modern country with an ancient culture, a land of which visitors can walk through the valleys, hills and plains whose names have become part of mankind history by the simple deeds and profound messages of prophets who walked the land and crossed it's rivers during their lives. Many of the sites where they said to have performed miracles or reached out to ordinary people have been identified, excavated and protected, and are now more easily accessible to visitors.
The site of John the Baptist's settlement at Bethany beyond the Jordan, where Jesus was baptized, has long been known from the Bible (John 1:28 and 10:40) and from the Byzantine and medieval texts.
The site has now been identified on the east bank of the Jordan River, in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and is being systematically surveyed, excavated, restored, and prepared to receive pilgrims and visitors in early 2000. The site is found half an hour by car from the Jordanian capital Amman. John 1:28 speaks of Bethany beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing, while John 10:40 mentioned an incident when Jesus escaped from hostile crowds in Jerusalem and went away again across the Jordan to the place where John at first baptized. The site of this Bethany beyond (east of) the Jordan River is not to be confused with Bethany near Jerusalem, which was the home town of Lazarus.
The Bethany area sites formed part of the early Christian pilgrimage route between Jerusalem, the Jordan River, and Mount Nebo. The area is also associated with the biblical account of how the Prophet Elijah (Mar Elias in Arabic) ascended to heaven in a whirlwind on a chariot of fire, having parted the waters of the Jordan River and walked across it with his anointed successor, the Prophet Elisha (2, Kings 2:5-14). Joshua is also said to have crossed the Jordan River at this point.
The Jordanian Department of Antiquities has now identified nearly 20 related sites within an area stretching some 3 km. East of the Jordan River. The site of Bethany beyond the Jordan has also been known by other names over the past 2000 years, including Beth-Abara of Bethabara, Beit el-Obour (house of the crossing in Arabic), Beit Anya, Bethania, Bethennabris, Ainon where now Saphsaphas on the sixth century Byzantine Madaba mosaic map of Holy Land), Saphsas or Sapsas, and perhaps also Beth-Barah (Judges 7:24-25). The main settlement of Bethany beyond Jordan, some 1.5 km east of the Jordan River, comprises structures on and around a small nature hill, close to the spring and small oasis at the head of the Wadi Kharrar (a perennial riverbed).
The hill has long been known as Elijah's Hill, or Jebel Mar Elias or Tell Mar Elias in Arabic. The site comprises a settlement that was inhabited from the time of Christ and John the Baptist, throughout most of the Byzantine period, into the early Islamic era, and again in Ottoman centuries. Excavations of the earliest settlement from the days of Christ and John the Baptist have revealed at least three plastered baptism pools, a system of water pipes and channels to carry water to and from the site, and associated domestic and other structures. Ancient writers and pilgrims called the fresh spring at the site of Elijah's Hill both John the Baptist's Spring and Elijah's Spring.
The later fifth to sixth century settlement from the Byzantine era was a substantial walled monastery, comprising plastered pools, water cisterns, and at least three churches and other buildings with plain white and coloured mosaic floors, some with crosses in the mosaics. One church mosaic inscription mentions Rotorius as the 'head of the monastery'. The Byzantine writers Jerome and Eusebius mentioned 'Bethabara beyond the Jordan' in the fourth century as a pilgrimage destination where people went to be baptised. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, is to have crossed the Jordan River and visited Elijah's Hill and the cave where John the Baptist lived, and built a church there to commemorate him. Stone and mud structures on the summit of Elijah's Hill and on the alongside hills to the south and east date from the midto-late Ottoman period (16th-18th centuries), when Greek Orthodox monks established a monastery at the site comprising different structures for worship, their residence and accommodation for visiting pilgrims.