Traveling to the place of baptism on the Jordan River and the ancient monastery of Deir Hijleh takes only an hour and a half. This one and a half hours bring us to a fantastic story. The Jordan River is associated primarily with the baptism of Jesus Christ from John the Baptist. The place where these events took place is called in Arabic Qasr El Yahud - the court of the Jew. The centuries-old tradition of baptism was renewed after the signing of a peace treaty between Jordan and Israel. The border between the countries runs along the river, and only a few meters are divided between them. Not far from the place of baptism is one of the oldest monasteries on the Dead Sea - the monastery of St. Gerasimus. It was one of the first monasteries of Koinonia. The walls of the monastery remember the battles of Muslims and crusaders. The skulls of monks pretend to be the bones of the martyrs of the Persian conquest. A journey of ten kilometers takes us on a tour of twenty centuries. Do not miss this adventure on the Dead Sea.
The name Qasr El Yehud is the Arabic name for the church of John the Baptist. The Christian rite of baptism is rooted in the Jewish tradition of ritual ablutions in a unique bath called a mikvah. Water must enter and leave the mikvah on its own. For this reason, the best mikvah is the river. John the Baptist baptized Jesus in these places. Monasteries and shelters for Christian pilgrims seeking to baptism in the Jordan River have been built along the banks of the stream for centuries.
In the 90s of the 20th century, the tradition of baptism in Qasr el Yehud came to a new life. On January 19, the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany, and baptisms are held in Qasr el Ehud. Another important date for prayers and baptisms is on Easter Eve. Pope John Paul II visited the place in 2000. In 2003, the Ministry of National Parks of Israel built a convenient approach to the water and landscaped the area.
On the opposite bank of the Jordan River, an approach to water was also built. The border between Israel and Jordan runs in this place in the middle of the river. The peace treaty concluded between Israel and Jordan in 1996 made it possible to clear the land around Qasr El Yahud from mines and restore the ancient tradition of baptism in this place.
In winter, the level in the Jordan River rises significantly. During a flood, the water level can rise at five meters. In the summer months, the water level drops so much that the width of the river at this place is ten meters. The Old Testament tradition says that in this place, the sons of Israel crossed the waters of the Jordan River on their way from Egypt to the promised land.
Not far from this place, the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot. The Old Testament story of the people of Israel, crossing the Jordan River on their way to the country flowing with milk and honey and the tradition associated with Elijah, the prophet, determined the place of the baptism of Jesus from John the Baptist. Here the union with God begins and strengthens, and from here, the most critical and first sacrament of every Christian takes its origin. The sacrament of baptism.
Arabs call this place, "Dir Hijleh." Hadjla means partridge, mentioning the birds that met the sons of Israel when they were crossing the waters of the Jordan River. According to Christian legend, a ferocious lion lived in these places. He was tearing asunder anyone who was appearing on his way. Only Gerasimus was able to approach the lion and extract a splinter from his paws. The lion became calm and peaceful and served Gerasimus faithfully. After the death of Gerasim, the lion did not leave Gerasimus's grave until he passed the next world.
This good fairy tale says that the strength of faith and spirit of Gerasimus allowed him not to be afraid of the lion, and the lion was evil only because there was a thorn in his paw. It says that a monk should have a strong spirit to remove thorns from his soul and the souls of his parish. There are many more stories and legends regarding Gerasimus, his lion, and the donkey who came to live with them, which in figurative form preach the basic principles of faith, such as humility, repentance, purification through the deprivation.
Also, the story of Mary from Egypt is connected with the monastery of Gerasimus. The story of Mary from Egypt strengthens the principles of faith. Historically, the image of Gerasim of Jordan is of great importance as a person who managed to create a new model of monastic life and transform the reclusiveness into the form of a religious organization. The first hermit monks appeared in the Judean desert during the time of the Second Jerusalem Temple. But such a statement can cause heated debate because at this time such a thing as monasticism and reclusiveness did not exist. People left away worldly life and retired to the desert to put themselves to the temptation and through hardships to strengthen the spirit, find humility of the soul, and, most importantly, prepare for the coming of the Messiah.
The temptation of Jesus in the desert on Mount Doc served as a great background to this movement in the era of early Christianity. The first monks went into caves (Laura) in the desert and later began to unite in Koinonia. Gerasimus, having created a monastery in the 5th century A.D., establishes a new way of joint monastic life, basing the fundamental principles of the institution of monasticism.
The original monastery was not preserved. Persians destroyed the monastery during their invasion in 614 A.D. as almost all Christian institutions in the Holy Land. Only at the time of the Crusaders, next to the historical monastery called "Kalamon" (Good Shelter), the Christian presence was restored. The buttresses in the northern outer wall of the modern monastery are the evidence for this. The monastery located near the vital road along the Jordan River played a defensive role during the time of the Crusaders and controlled the entire region. Most likely that the activities of Raynald of Châtillon, Lord of Transioradan, during the reign of Guy de Lusignan, led to a particularly fierce confrontation with Muslims caused the monastery to fall, as did the crusader fortress Vadum Jacob. In wars with Muslims and futile attempts to threaten Mecca, Raynald of Châtillon even ferried ships across the Dead Sea to the Arava Valley and dragged them further to the Red Sea. Raynald's vigorous and aggressive activity strengthed the position of Salah ad-Din, which put an end to the first kingdom of the Crusaders in the Holy Land and destroyed the fortress on the site of the modern monastery of Gerasimus of Jordan.
The revival took place only in the second half of the 19th century. When the Greek Orthodox Church began the revival of the monastery of St. Gerasimus at the site of the structures of Crusaders. During this process, a desert fortified monastery was erected around the central courtyard with a well. The murals in the church tell the story of Gerasimus and the lion. There is a fresco that depicts the prophet Elijah who ascends to heaven in a chariot of fire. The bones and skulls of the monks rest in the church. According to local tradition, the bones belong to the monks who died during the time of the Persian invasion. The element of martyrdom is a central element in this tradition, although historically and archaeologically, it is difficult to assert the authenticity of such a legend.
The small chapel next to the entrance is dedicated to the Holy Family (Joseph, Mary, and the boy Jesus). According to the New Testament, they left for Egypt escaping from the wrath of Herod, who ordered the killing of infants in Bethlehem, after receiving the news of the birth of the king of Judea (Jesus). This place is not a part of the way from Bethlehem to Egypt. But the identification of this place as a shelter of the Holy Family strengthens the gospel. The main route from Galilee to Jerusalem passed along the Jordan Valley. It is quite possible that the holy family left Jerusalem, stopped in this cave on their way to Nazareth - the home city of Josef. At this place the archangel Gabriel told Joseph that they should go to the land of Egypt instead of Nazareth.
After 1967, the monk Chrysostomos gradually revived the monastery. They turned it into an oasis in the desert, which is very popular not only among pilgrims and Christians but also among Israelis and residents of neighboring Jericho.