AL-MAGHTAS, Jordan – For years, Christian pilgrims have waded into the Jordan River from both its eastern and western banks to connect with a core event of their faith — the baptism of Jesus. The parallel traditions allowed Jordan and Israel to compete for tourism dollars in marketing one of Christianity's most important sites.
But now UNESCO has weighed in on the rivalry, designating Jordan's baptismal area on the eastern bank a World Heritage site. The U.N. cultural agency declared this month that the site "is believed to be" the location of Jesus' baptism, based on what it said is a view shared by most Christian churches.
The decision drew cheers in Jordan, where the number of tourists has dropped sharply since the 2011 Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State group. Israel has kept silent while a Palestinian official said the western baptismal site, located in an Israeli-occupied area sought for a Palestinian state, should have been included.
The UNESCO decision also raised eyebrows among some scholars.
It "has nothing to do with archaeological reality," said Jodi Magness, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "We don't have any sites with evidence or archaeological remains that were continuously venerated from the first century on."
Experts who reviewed the Jordanian application for UNESCO acknowledged that there is no solid archaeological evidence confirming that "Bethany Beyond the Jordan," also known as al-Maghtas, Arabic for baptism, is the authentic site.
However, the Jordanian site is of "immense religious significance to the majority of denominations of Christian faith, who have accepted this site as the location" of Jesus' baptism, the experts wrote in their recommendation.
Jesus's baptism is recounted in New Testament passages as the beginning of his ministry. Only John 1:28 hints at a possible location, the eastern bank: "These things were done in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing."
The debate over the baptism site comes at a time of regional turmoil, including the rising threat from Islamic militants who have destroyed ancient artefacts.
Jordan's tourism minister, Nayef al-Fayez, told UNESCO that Jordan is sending a message of tolerance. The kingdom's Hashemite rulers "who are the direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad ... are the same ones who are protecting one of the holiest sites of Christianity," he said.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also looms in the background.
The Israeli-run site, known as Qasr al-Yahud, is located in the West Bank, one of three territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and sought by the Palestinians for a state. The baptism site is in a part of the West Bank that remains under full Israeli military occupation.
Extending the World Heritage designation to Qasr al-Yahud would benefit the Palestinians if they ever win statehood, but calling for this now might upset their ally, Jordan.
A Palestinian Tourism Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk with journalists, said both banks of the river should receive the same treatment, but that "it's not easy for us to defend a site we have no control over."
The Israeli-run site has attracted larger crowds than its Jordanian counterpart, in part because it is on the classic Holy Land pilgrimage trail. Israeli officials said half a million visitors came to Qasr al-Yahud last year, compared to several tens of thousands on the Jordanian side.
On a recent morning, the western site was filled with pilgrims while the eastern one, a few meters (yards) away across the muddy waters, stood largely empty.
Ukrainian pilgrims pulled white robes with baptismal motifs — available at a gift shop for $8 — over swimsuits. They walked down steps into the river, some pinching their noses as they submerged themselves.
On a slope above them, South African worshippers sang "Glory, Glory Hallelujah" to the sounds of an acoustic guitar.
"It doesn't matter to me much whether it's on this side of the river or the other side of the river," said pilgrim Johan Cornelius, 47, from Middelburg, South Africa. "The fact that it is the Jordan River and that Jesus has been here, he's been baptized by John in this area, that's of utmost importance to me."
For decades, such scenes were unimaginable. The river once formed a hostile border, and tensions eased only after a 1994 peace treaty.
Over the years, Israel granted access to pilgrims on religious holidays, and opened Qasr al-Yahud for daily visits in 2011 after removing nearby mines, though thousands remain buried in the area.
Jordan opened al-Maghtas in 2002. Archaeological digs there yielded remains of baptismal pools, chapels and monks' caves — finds that the UNESCO experts said are "associated with the commemoration" of the baptism.
An eastern baptism site would make sense, some scholars said.
John the Baptist had antagonized Jewish authorities in Jerusalem and would likely have preferred to stay out of their reach, across the river, said New Testament professor Ben Witherington at the Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.
Yisci Harani, an Israeli expert on pilgrimage, said that "if there is theological dictum to use one side, I would say the eastern side." However, Harani said both banks should have been designated as a single site to reflect the meaning of baptism as a journey from the "spiritual desert" to the Holy Land.
A number of denominations, including Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Lutherans, have written letters of support for the Jordanian side, which three popes have visited since 2000.
But some hedge their bets, as the Greek Orthodox Church considers "both sides as holy sites," said Issa Musleh, a spokesman for the church's Jerusalem-based patriarch. During Epiphany celebrations, he said, worshippers come from the east and the west and "meet in the river."
Laub reported from Qasr al-Yahud, West Bank. Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.