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$100 million development plan for site of Jesus' baptism aims to bring 1 million Christian pilgrims to Jordan

'Biblical village theme' would include tent-style lodging, organic food

Jordan
An artistic rendering of the proposed Pilgrimage Village of the Baptism Development Zone east of the Jordan River in Jordan. |

The site where John the Baptist is believed to have baptized Jesus could be getting a $100 million makeover as part of a plan to draw as many as a million Christian pilgrims annually to the country of Jordan.

King Abdullah and the Jordanian government are listening to proposals for the development of the "Pilgrimage Village of the Baptism Development Zone,” located on the east bank of the river, according to Reuters.

The plan for a tourist city on what is currently designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site could include souvenir shops, boutique hotels and botanical gardens, Reuters reported.

While the baptism site draws around 200,000 visitors every year, the proposed development — which would be located beyond the actual area believed to be where Jesus was baptized — could attract up to five times as many pilgrims ahead of the celebrated 2,000th anniversary of the biblical event.

The initial phase is estimated to cost about $15 million and as much as $100 million when it’s completed by 2029. The final number could even swell as high as $300 million, according to Reuters.

Far from being a shopping mall, the project would incorporate the site’s natural landscape heritage in honor of its historical and biblical significance, according to Kamel Mahadin, the architect behind the development.

"We are talking about rustic stones and pebbles in architectural designs that preserve the place's pristine nature and ensure that the sanctity and spirituality that existed 2,000 years ago are not trampled on by any development," the 67-year-old architect told Reuters. 

"We are not talking about a high-tech landscape," he added.

Located about 30 miles west of Amman, the Jordanian capital, the baptism site is best known as the location where John the Baptist declared Jesus to be the “Lamb of God” as depicted in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. 

Samir Murad, who chairs a nonprofit foundation created by the Jordanian government, told Religion News Service the vision for the site is for a “biblical village theme” rather than luxury hotels and five-star dining.

According to Murad, the development will instead feature lodging in Arab-style tents and other modest accommodations that “provide an authentic feeling” for Christians seeking a more spiritual experience.

“This allows us to be in concert with the theme yet at the same time provide housing at reasonable costs for pilgrims who want to spend spiritual time at this sacred location,” he told RNS.

Organic food and other offerings “centered on the wilderness and plants mentioned in the Bible” will be offered at a number of local eateries as part of the development, Murad added.

The Baptist World Alliance, a global Baptist coalition, has been named as one of nine faith organizations to build a welcome outpost at the future site, RNS reported.

The first phase is expected to be completed in 2023.

Not unlike other religious sites in the Middle East, the eastern bank of the Jordan River isn’t without controversy.

While UNESCO has officially designated it as a World Heritage site, scholars have said it's not clear whether the exact location falls on the Jordanian or Israeli side of the river, which has long been the source of a tourism dispute between the two countries.

The U.N. cultural agency declared that most Christian churches believe the Jordanian side to be the location of Jesus' baptism by John, as found in Matthew 3 and other passages, according to the Associated Press.

The Jordanian side has also received the backing of Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Lutherans, and three popes have visited it since 2000.

Ian M. Giatti is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: ian.giatti@christianpost.com

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