The lilting voices of two dozen Muscovite pilgrims rise up from the muddy waters of the River Jordan. Clad in oversized white T-shirts and smocks, they might be mistaken for hospital patients were it not for the vibrant paintings of the Baptism of Christ emblazoned on their fronts.
Singing prayers from the Russian Orthodox service, they stand amidst the reeds and wet their heads – a symbolic act at the spot where John the Baptist is believed to have performed the ritual on his cousin Jesus in around 25AD. As they do so, a piteousness of doves takes to the desert sky; time seems to bend and, for a fleeting moment, ancient and modern fuse into one.
“We have been following the route of Christ in Jerusalem,” Maria Yuryeva tells me, as she steps back, dripping, on to the wooden decking. “It is very special here. It makes you feel – not stronger in your beliefs, maybe, but more spiritually connected.”
I am standing at Qasr al-Yahud, 10 kilometres southeast of Jericho, in area C of the West Bank, which is controlled by the Israeli authorities. A few metres away, on the opposite bank, lies its Jordanian twin, Al-Maghtas.
Together they form the third holiest site in the Christian world after the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the site of the crucifixion) in Jerusalem. It is also significant to Judaism: Qasr al-Yahud translates as “The Castle of the Jews”. Some believe it is the spot where the Jewish people crossed into Israel for the first time after leaving Egypt and where Elijah ascended into heaven in a “chariot of fire”.
You could easily swim from one bank to the other. But there is netting strung along both sides to prevent this. A big yellow sign announces: BORDER AHEAD and soldiers with machine-guns are ready to intervene should anyone experience a rush of blood to the head.
During the Six-Day War in June 1967, both sides of the river were mined and the sites were rendered inaccessible to pilgrims and tourists. The Jordanians carried out a clearance operation shortly after Israel and Jordan signed the Peace Treaty in 1994; since then, the Jordanian site has seen several archaeological digs, four Papal visits; it has attracted millions of visitors and been designated a world heritage site by Unesco.
The more febrile political situation on the occupied West Bank meant Qasr al-Yahud was not demined until 2000 (for Pope John Paul II’s visit) and not open to the public until 2011. Even then, the operation was limited to a narrow strip of land leading to the river. Qasr al-Yahud is still a controlled military zone and probably the only tourist attraction in the world you have to drive through a minefield to reach.
Indeed, you can see the munitions on either side of the road through barbed wire fences; small pockmarks on the arid land materialise into anti-tank mines when viewed up-close. As I draw nearer, there is also a scattering of empty churches, seven in all – Roman Catholic, Armenian and the six Orthodox churches: Coptic, Ethiopian, Greek, Romanian, Syrian and Russian.
There are records of monasteries on the site from 400AD, but these particular churches were built in the 1930s when Palestine was under the British mandate. They were abandoned during the Six-Day War; but in the months that followed, some of them were used as hide-outs for Arab insurgents crossing over from Jordan, and so the Israelis planted IEDs and other booby traps.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit Qasr al-Yahud, with several thousand arriving on the Epiphany, which is 18 January in eastern Christian denominations and the day the orthodox churches mark the Baptism of Christ. Those pilgrims pray together in an open air shelter at the river because their own churches are out of bounds.
For the last year, however, the Scottish-based landmine charity, the HALO Trust, has been working to change all that, clearing the churches and their yards of ordnance. So far, it has completed work at the Franciscan (RC) Church – a Norman window-shaped structure with a small dome crowning a circle of columns – and the Ethiopian church, which resembles a military barracks.
When the deminers first entered, they found artefacts belonging to the priests and monks just as they had been 50 years ago. Like the Marie Celeste or Herculaneum, the buildings preserved a precise moment of abandonment. There were cupboards with crockery and cobwebbed bottles of beer inside along with half-emptied chests of drawers. “It was like opening a time-capsule,” says Louise Vaughan, media relations manager for HALO, which has its HQ in Dumfriesshire. “It was like stepping back into the 1960s.”
Israel/Palestine can be a complex, baffling place for newcomers to adjust to. It is a country of such dramatic contrasts. Flying into Tel Aviv at night, the secular city below moves with all the flashing energy of a science lab. The headlights of speeding cars turn its major arteries into fibre optic cables; there are tower blocks, factories and offices. But an hour’s drive away, along the 443, a road Palestinians are not allowed to use, however, Jerusalem’s Old City, with its limestone buildings, 16th century gates and souks, seems to have its head firmly fixed in the past.
The journey to the Baptismal site brings yet more contrasts as the road heads ever downwards and the landscape changes from vegetation to rock; from green to tan. After a while, the City of Jericho appears like a mirage in the Wadi Qelt valley, while on the right is the Dead Sea. It is 1,400ft below sea level; the lowest point on earth.
Given the tensions in the Occupied Territory, securing permission to work at the Baptismal site was never going to be easy. Politically neutral, the HALO Trust would have to gain the approval of both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities and all the churches.
But Israel is aware of the economic benefits of religious tourism – more than 1.5 million Christians visited the country in 2016 – and HALO had already built up trust by clearing two minefields: one at Nabi Elyasa and the other south of Bethlehem, close to village of Hussan.
Having raised the initial funding, the organisation was allowed to move into Qasr al-Yahud, working under the auspices of the Israeli National Mine Authority (INMAA) and with the approval of the Palestinian Mine Action Centre (PMAC).
Still, the situation is never anything other than volatile. The morning after I arrive, Israel launches an operation to “expose and thwart” Hezbollah tunnels into the country from Lebanon and there is talk of a fresh war.
The area HALO is clearing at the baptismal site covers 247 acres. Up until now, it has been focusing on the churchyards themselves, but eventually it hopes to move into the surrounding land. The churchyard operation involves mechanical and manual work. The mechanical clearance is necessary because there may be unexploded mortars and grenades lodged in the ground. Front-end loaders and excavators with armoured cabs dig out the soil to 35cm.
Then the soil is laid out and the 16 Georgian deminers based at the site check it manually for devices. So far they have not uncovered any IEDs, but they have found empty illumination round cases, the residue of rocket-propelled grenade launchers and small arms cases dating to the late 1960s.
The HALO Trust also aims to clear up to 2,600 anti-tank mines from land one either side of the churches. The charity already has a clearance plan, and the blessing of INMAA, but is waiting on final permission from the Israeli military. When it is granted, the mines, laid two metres apart, will be identified using metal detectors and marked with a flag. Then, they will be detonated in clusters using small explosive charges or thermite flares.
It is thought the go-ahead for the first part of this work could be given later this week; if so, it could begin before Christmas, but everything depends on the flow of money. So far, the HALO Trust has raised more than half a million dollars from the public, with the Israeli government contributing an additional $535,000, but funds will run out early in the New Year.
“The mission to liberate these churches from the debris of war and restore them to their rightful purpose has been endorsed by people of all faiths and none,” says Vaughan. “HALO has raised over $500,000 from well-wishers worldwide. The clearing of the Franciscan and Ethiopian churches bodes well for the completion of the entire site. This Christmas HALO is asking our supporters to donate whatever they can to ensure this holiest of sites is mine-free by the end of next year.”
Tracking down Archbishop Aba Enbakom, head of the Ethiopian Church in Israel, to his residence in Old Jerusalem proves harder than expected. After many wrong turns down the twisting alleyways of the souk, we find the building and are ushered into a room with a red throne-like chair and walls lined with photographs of former religious and state leaders.
The archbishop is dressed in full regalia: black vestments with a red lining, a round hat that looks like the head of a mushroom and a large silver medallion with a painting of the Madonna and child.
He has a long grey beard and a kindly smile. It broadens as he tells me, with the aid of an interpreter, how the feast of the Epiphany – or Timkat – is celebrated in his home country. “The Epiphany in Ethiopia is a special occasion – with greater celebrations than in any other Christian country,” he says. “It lasts two days and it is so colourful, almost like a caravan.”
The festivities are spread over two days. On the eve of Timkat, sacred replicas of the Ark of the Covenant (which contained the Ten Commandments) are wrapped in cloth and placed on a priest’s head to be carried in procession to a nearby river. The Ark is immersed in the water by one priest while another chants some prayers. Once the Ark is baptised, the priest then blesses the water and sprinkles some on the worshippers. Then, the Ark is carried back to its church amidst lots of chanting and dancing.
“We try to celebrate the Epiphany as it is celebrated in Ethiopia, but it is not possible to do exactly the same,” says Archbishop Enbakom. “There are many complicated problems: our church has been out of use for 50 years, and the site is at a border, so there are things we cannot do.”
The cleric explains that Ethiopian monks first came to the Holy Land many years ago by foot through the Sinai desert and settled near the Baptismal site. “They were hungry, there was much suffering and many floods,” he says.
Later, troubled by their plight, Menen Asfaw, the wife of famous Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, decided to build them a monastery: the one that still stands there today.
“We are so happy that the church has been given back to us,” says Archbishop Enbakom. “I cannot explain how it felt to stand in it for the first time. [Before that] nobody had allowed us to get inside the compound, never mind inside the church, so to see it was amazing. Of course, on the other side we are sad because this monastery was so big and colourful and there was a big community there, and now everything is in a bad condition.
Though Enbakom has prayed there, the church is not yet safe for large numbers; even so, this Epiphany, if the weather is good, he hopes pilgrims will at least be able to gather inside the compound.
In the future, he dreams of restoring the churchyard to its former glory, complete with the farmland where the monks used to grow grapes, wheat and vegetables.
The HALO Trust hopes the valley floor will be cleared by the end of 2019 and that the Israeli state will give the churches the opportunity to start their renovations the following year. The question is: how much access is likely to be granted? All going well, the priests will have unfettered access to their buildings, and the Israelis will move their fences east, a little closer to the River Jordan.
The former moderator of the Church of Scotland, Derek Browning, visited both the Israeli and the Jordanian sites earlier this year. “[On the Israeli side on the approach road] it was deadly quiet. I remember that haunting look across what effectively was no-man’s land. You could see the landmines and live tripwires. But you could also look inside the churches and see Bibles, their pages blowing in the wind.”
Browning points out that at Al-Maghtas, the Jordanian royal family has allowed a number of Christian churches to be built and that a lot of interesting educational work has been undertaken.
“For people of faith it’s a very richly textured place where people can have very profound moments thinking about what their own Baptism means to them,” he says.
“George MacLeod [the founder of the Iona community] used to refer to it as being a very thin place – what he meant was one of those places on earth where heaven didn’t seem very far away. For me going down to [Al-Maghtas] was close to that.”
At present, the barbed wire and detritus of war at Qasr al-Yahud are at odds with the peace at the riverside. But if the work of the Halo Trust is allowed to continue, then maybe it too will become a “thin place”: a sacred spot, where the veil separating heaven and earth is diaphanous.