As Rami Khouri explains in the accompanying article, the location of “Bethany beyond the Jordan” has perplexed writers and pilgrims since almost the dawn of Christianity. Arguments were advanced for locating the place of Jesus’ baptism on the eastern shore of the Jordan, and just as many claims were made for locating it on the western shore.

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, author of the highly regarded guidebook The Holy Land, notes that the question may well be moot: In the past 2,000 years the Jordan has changed course repeatedly. People kept building monuments relative to the river, meaning that, as the river shifted back and forth, the location of monuments multiplied, creating, over time, a plethora of sites clustered in the same general vicinity but straddling the Jordan. Pilgrims who went to the site at any given moment could consequently find buildings on either side of the river, adding confusion to uncertainty.

Today the question of which side of the river Biblical Bethany was on has political implications; the eastern shore belongs to Jordan while the western shore belongs to Israel—two countries that until relatively recently were enemies and, at least officially, in a state of war.

Happily, that state of war no longer exists. Pilgrims and tourists have easy access to either bank of the Jordan River. Khouri’s article describes the facilities now accessible to visitors on the Jordanian side, but the Israeli side has long drawn a large share of pilgrims. Available to them are a number of chapels built by the larger Christian denominations present in Israel: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Armenian and Abyssinian, to name just the most prominent. The photo above shows a group of nuns gathering for prayer at the Catholic chapel; below, a group of Abyssinian pilgrims gather at the bank of the river.

Murphy-O’Connor points out that pilgrims coming from Jerusalem’s holy sites went to the west side of the Jordan because that was the side closest to them; pilgrims from Jordan or Syria had easier access to the eastern shore. But what has really mattered most to pilgrims, Murphy-O’Connor argues, is the water of the Jordan River.

Ultimately, what has been true for millennia is true today: The true holy site is the river itself.