Monday, September 1, 2008

Bethany Beyond the Jordan becoming global pilgrimage destination

Bethany Beyond the Jordan becoming global pilgrimage destination
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By Dalya Dajani

AMMAN - Officials at the Baptism Site said on Tuesday major headway is being made on several projects set to transform the area into a global pilgrimage destination.

“The infrastructure work for the Russian Pilgrimage House, the Roman Catholic Church on the east bank of the Jordan River as well as the Greek Orthodox monastery have been completed and others are on track as planned,” Baptism Site Commission (BSC) Director Dia Madani told The Jordan Times yesterday.

“We are looking forward to seeing these projects completed as the site is already attracting larger numbers of visitors and pilgrims from around the world,” he added.

At least five churches representing various Christian denominations are set to be established on the revered grounds of Bethany Beyond the Jordan this year, including the Coptic, Armenian, Syrian and Ethiopian churches.

Madani said the site is already growing steadily in prominence among tourists and pilgrims, citing the Kingdom’s marketing efforts and the growing acknowledgement amongst the Christian community of the site as the place where Jesus was baptised.

Madani said tourist arrivals to the site increased by 99 per cent during the first seven months of this year, attracting 108,000 visitors compared to some 54,00 during the same period of last year.

European visitors topped the list of arrivals with 65,000 visitors, a 123 per cent increase, followed by 20,713 Jordanians and 15,000 Americans representing increases of 30 per cent and 106 per cent respectively.

The site also attracted 6,365 Arab tourists through July, a 45 per cent increase from 2007.

Most tourists or pilgrims on package tours to the region spend an average of two days in the Kingdom visiting religious sites such as Mount Nebo and the Baptism Site before heading to the holy land, according to travel agents.

The site of Jesus's baptism, which was officially recognised by Pope John Paul II in 2000, has since attracted thousands of archaeologists, pilgrims and visitors each year.

The ancient settlement is also thought to have a significant link to the Old Testament Prophet Elijah, who delivered the message of repentance, taken up by John the Baptist centuries later. The BSC undertook a series of developments to the site's infrastructure in 2002 to handle the rising number of visitors.

Madani said the development of new churches is set to further enhance the site's appeal for pilgrims.

“Once the churches are built and monks and priests settle in, the entire concept of the site will be transformed from a historically important site to a leading destination for Christian pilgrimage,” Madani said, adding that the site will be open 20 hours a day and offer facilities for pilgrims who choose to spend the night.

The Roman Catholic Church, to be erected in a pyramid shape using old stones used in biblical times, will be located in a 5,000-square-metre complex including a monastery and an indoor baptismal pool.

The Russian Pilgrimage House, being built on 30 dunums of land donated by His Majesty King Abdullah, will be managed by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Plans are also set for the establishment of a convention centre, according to Madani, who said the final designs for the BSC-funded centre are ready and a tender for its construction will be issued next month through the Ministry of Public Works and Housing.

According to Madani, a large belvedere with a panoramic view of the Jordan River is also being developed at the site. The structure, which includes wooden shelters and palm trees, will have a capacity for 750 people. He expressed hoped that the belvedere will be ready for next year’s celebrations marking the Epiphany.

With these developments under way, the official said he was confident the site would be able to attract up to half-a-million visitors annually within the next three years.

20 August 2008

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