Qasr al Yahud – Holy to Christianity, Important to Judaism and Islam
Qasr al Yahud means the “Castle of the Jews” in Arabic and this is the name used by both Jews and Christians today. Interestingly, Arabs refer to the site as “al Maghtas” which means immersion. The site is located in the Jordan River Valley just north of the Dead Sea. When next traveling to the Dead Sea beaches, Qumran or Masada from Jerusalem it is well worth the short detour to visit the site.
Regardless of your faith or lack thereof, Qasr al Yahud on the banks of the River Jordan, is both a beautiful and fascinating place to visit. For Christians of all denominations the site is both spiritual and holy since it was here, according to tradition, where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
The story of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus is related in Matthew, 3: 13-17
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. 16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
According to Jewish tradition this is where Joshua and the tribes of Israel crossed the River Jordan and entered the Promised Land. It could be that the reason that the Israelites crossed in or near this area on their way to conquer Jericho is because the river is relatively narrow here (though it was much wider at the time) and the land on both sides is flat making it an easy place to cross. The crossing through water in order to enter the Promised Land also has a spiritual aspect to it – as they passed through the water the people were purified.
Beginning in 3:1 of the Book of Joshua we are told that Joshua and the people set out from Shittim (Acacia Grove) until they arrive at the edge of the Jordan River:
1 Early the next morning Joshua and all the Israelites left Acacia Grove and arrived at the banks of the Jordan River, where they camped before crossing. 2 Three days later the Israelite officers went through the camp, 3 giving these instructions to the people: “When you see the Levitical priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your God, move out from your positions and follow them. 4 Since you have never traveled this way before, they will guide you. Stay about 2,000 cubits behind them, keeping a clear distance between you and the Ark. Make sure you don’t come any closer.” 5 Then Joshua told the people, “Purify yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do great wonders among you.” 6 In the morning Joshua said to the priests, “Lift up the Ark of the Covenant and lead the people across the river.” And so they started out and went ahead of the people…..
17 Meanwhile, the priests who were carrying the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant stood on dry ground in the middle of the riverbed as the people passed by. They waited there until the whole nation of Israel had crossed the Jordan on dry ground.
This is also the site where the prophet Elijah handed over his prophesy to Elishsa just before being taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire.
In Judaism Elijah's name is invoked at the weekly Havdalah ritual that marks the end of Shabbat, and Elijah is invoked in other Jewish customs, among them the Passover seder and the Brit Milah (ritual circumcision). He appears in numerous stories and references in the Hagadah and rabbinic literature, including the Babylonian Talmud.
In Christianity the New Testament describes how both Jesus and John the Baptist are compared with Elijah and on some occasions thought by some to be manifestations of Elijah, and Elijah appears with Moses during the Transfiguration of Jesus.
In Islam the Qur'an describes Elijah as a great and righteous prophet of God and one who powerfully preached against the worship of Ba'al.
The biblical book of Kings II describes the handing over of prophesy to Elisha and Elijah’s ascension to heaven:
2 And it came to pass, when the Lord was about to take up Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind, that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal….
9 And so it was, when they had crossed over, that Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?” Elisha said, “Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.” 10 So he said, “You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.” 11 Then it happened, as they continued and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
Today the area is used by pilgrims wishing to be baptized in the Jordan but this was not always the case. The area was conquered by Transjordan in 1948 and by Israel in 1967. Until the Israeli government reopened Qasr al Yahud in 2010 the site was a closed military zone. Pilgrims visiting Israel until then who wished to be baptized used the Yardenit site near the Kinneret. Many still prefer Yardenit today.
What is striking when approaching Qasr al Yahud are the Byzantine style churches one sees. As you get closer to the site you realize that the churches are actually on the other side of the river inside the Kingdom of Jordan. They seem so close that you can almost touch them. At the site itself, the river is very narrow and you can easily see the people and the baptismal site on the Jordanian side. In the picture, I’m standing on the Israeli side but you can see how close to Jordan I am. Truly an amazing place.