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Holy Water

The Dead Sea has powers that verge on the miraculous - appropriately enough for the holy land. And for anyone who suffers from skin or joint conditions, bathing in the water or slapping on its mud can bring about an almost instant cure. Even if you don't get into the sea itself, breathing its mineral-infused air has visible effects and maybe it's the breathing that's the clue. Down more than 400m below sea level, the air feels enriched and the body works less hard to take in oxygen (the ideal asthmatic's vacation). Your ears pop as the road descends and your body rebalances to a totally new environment.

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The Dead Sea, though, is disappearing, its surface water level dropping by around 1m a year. This is mostly down to the dam the Israelis built across the Sea of Galilee (which feeds the River Jordan that flows into the north of the Dead Sea). That Israeli dam has been joined by numerous Syrian ones that take water from the River Yarmouk - that used to feed the Jordan.

Inevitably, the River Jordan itself is considerably diminished. It has also, as rivers will, re-routed over the centuries and now the official site of Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist is a short walk from the river. I was here some years ago when it was being excavated and was lucky enough to explore the site with the archaeologists. To say they were excited is putting it mildly - almost every day there was a new discovery. As one of them told me at the time, "You put a fork in the ground around here and you'll find something." 

They found the steps going down to the site of the baptism itself marked with a slab of stone. The steps would have been covered by a roof - you approached the site itself with a sense of awe and in an atmosphere both dark and mysterious. The walls on either side were marked with thousands of crosses carved into the rock by early pilgrims. This was a major place of pilgrimage till the 14th century and some of the earliest Christian churches and baptism sites were built here. Hermits lived in caves around the site - so many it brings to mind a certain Monty Python sketch. The Dead Sea scrolls were found nearby.

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After the end of the crusades it wasn't a safe place to go any more, the pilgrimages stopped and the site was forgotten. It appeared, though, on the world's oldest map, dating back to the 6th century and found on the floor of a church in the nearby town of Madaba. It showed Jerusalem as the centre of the world - and the exact location of the baptism site.

On my present visit, the archaeologists seem to be making some changes. They are diverting a small channel from the River Jordan so that the baptism site will have water once again. I'm not sure of this wisdom of this. I think we can all accept a river can change its path. And have big enough imaginations to manage without the water - which will in any case cover the slab and therefore the "real" site. Falsification of evidence maybe?

Within the baptism site you can walk to the banks of the Jordan itself. The river lies low, its banks a couple of ditches wide. On the other side, the Israeli side, Christian pilgrims bless themselves in the Jordan's holy water - though they can't get to the baptism site itself.

The Israelis have a baptism site of their own - though they acknowledge the Jordanian one to be the real one now. Yardenit is in the north of the country, near Galilee, and has some 400,000 visitors a year. I was the only visitor to the real one in Jordan.