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Baptism in the Jordan River: immersing in a contested transboundary watercourse

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As the boundary of the Holy Land and the site of the baptism of Jesus Christ, the Jordan River is the most important river in Christianity. For centuries, pilgrims have traveled long distances to immerse themselves in this holy water and despite its relatively small size, the image of the ‘mighty’ Jordan has come to dominate popular imaginations. Over the past century, however, the Jordan has fallen victim to the ongoing regional conflict and suffered severe environmental degradation. Once a meandering river full of rapids and cascades, the Jordan has been extensively developed, with dams, diversion canals, and large‐scale irrigation projects on the river, its tributaries, and headwaters. As a result, flow has been reduced to about one tenth of the historic value and water quality has sharply deteriorated, with raw sewage, saline flows, and agricultural run‐off polluting the remaining water. Yet despite the river's changed physical state, the Jordan's mythical status and its association with defining moments of Jewish and Christian history continue to dominate collective imaginations in the religious realm, with nearly a million annual visitors at the three baptism sites in Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank. Why is there such a disconnect between the physical river and its spiritual counterpart? How can the sense of indifference and lack of awareness about the degradation of this holy river be explained? And what can be done to restore the Jordan River?

This article is categorized under:

  • Water and Life > Conservation, Management, and Awareness
  • Water and Life > Stresses and Pressures on Ecosystems
  • Human Water > Water as Imagined and Represented
Map of the Jordan River, Ghazal Lababidi, 2013.
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The Lower Jordan River flowing south near the Yardenit Baptismal Site, seen from the Degania Dam, Francesca de Châtel, 2013.
[ Normal View | Magnified View ]
Raw sewage being released into the Lower Jordan River at the Alumot Dam, Francesca de Châtel, 2013.
[ Normal View | Magnified View ]
View of the Lower Jordan River and the baptism site at Qasr al Yehud in the West Bank, seen from the Al Maghtas/Baptism Site in Jordan, Francesca de Châtel, 2013.
[ Normal View | Magnified View ]

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Water and Life > Stresses and Pressures on Ecosystems
Human Water > Water as Imagined and Represented
Water and Life > Conservation, Management, and Awareness

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