Holy Land Pilgrimage with Gila




Holy Sites -- Gila's HighlightsLet's celebrate the Epiphany by the River Jordan

Once a year on January 18th, the Israeli army opens the border gate for the Greek Orthodox led ceremony marking the day before Epiphany, when the Holy Spirit descended like a dove, during Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.  Since 1967, when Israel conquered the west bank of the Jordan River, the area where Jesus was actually baptized has been off-limits to civilians, as it is smack on the border between the State of Israel and the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan.

Map of the Baptismal Sites in Judea and the Galilee

If you have been baptized by immersion,
or renewed your baptism vows in the Jordan, in all probability it has been just south of where the River Jordan emerges from the Sea of Galilee and begins its 100-mile meander down to the Dead Sea.  But according to Matthew 3, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, whose northern border was Jericho.  John was then baptizing in the River Jordan opposite Jericho.  And tradition has it that this is also the place where the Children of Israel crossed into the Promised Land and where Elijah the Prophet ascended to heaven in a whirlwind, driven by a chariot of fire.

During the January 18th procession, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch leaves his residence in Jerusalem’s Old City and drives in a festive motorcade down the steepest descent on earth, to the ruins of a 5th century convent dedicated to John the Baptist, about a mile from the river. 

Outside the church, Greek Orthodox clergy wait to present the Patriarch with an intricately embroidered gold-threaded mantle.  This represents the mantle dropped by Elijah before he ascended to heaven.  In II Kings 2, we have a description of his disciple, Elisha, on the east bank of the Jordan, picking up Elijah’s mantle and swatting at the waters, crying “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?”  When they see the waters part, the brotherhood of the prophets residing in Jericho declare, “The spirit of Elijah has come to rest upon Elisha.”

Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus at the Epiphany ceremony

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Greek Orthodox Patriarch wearing the gold-embroidered mantle of authority

Imagine the scene – as one faces eastwards, standing on the flat clay marl mud with one’s back to the oasis of Jericho, the view of the wilderness extends for miles and miles, with the mountains of Moab and Mount Nebo framed as a hazy backdrop.  In the midst of all this parched earth, the moment the Patriarch dons the mantle of authority, a pure white dove is released and flies to the heights of heaven.  It was simple and spectacular.

5th Century Convent of John the Baptist

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Facing west, the 5th century convent dedicated to John the Baptist


View from the Convent of John the Baptist facing east

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Facing east with the mountains of Moab in the distance

From the ruins of the fifth century convent, it was a mile’s hike down to the river where a few thousand pilgrims were waiting to witness the throwing of the Patriarch’s gold cross into the waters of the Jordan which would sanctify and purify them, just as baptism represents a purification of one’s sins and a rebirth of one’s spirit.

By the banks of the River Jordan in Judea

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

By the banks of the River Jordan in Judea, opposite Jericho


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"Holy Sites: Gila's Highlights"

It was thrilling to be by the Jordan, in the traditional and perhaps even the authentic spot.  Although the swirling water was very muddy, the banks of the Jordan were shaded by tall reeds, flowering bamboo, willow and tamarisk trees, similar to Jeremiah’s description of the “thickets” of the Jordan two and a half millennia ago, when lions still roamed the land. (Jeremiah 49:19)  I missed the lions, but at one point I walked alongside a herd of seventeen grazing camels.

Wild camels by the River Jordan

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Lions no longer roam the thickets of the Jordan, but camels do

A footstep away from the water (there were no fences which was surprising), with hundreds of pilgrims on either side of me, it was so easy to envision scenes of John’s ministry and Jesus’ baptism.  I even had an apocalyptic vision of the erasure of the border between Israel and Jordan, with multitudes of ecstatic white-robed pilgrims all being immersed in the muddy waters.

If you happen to lead a pilgrimage which dovetails with January 18th, I highly recommend taking advantage of this once-a-year opportunity to visit the River Jordan opposite Jericho in the wilderness of Judea.  It fully engages one’s senses, imagination and spirit.

Copyright 2006 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.


Thousands of pilgrims celebrating the Epiphany

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Thousands of pilgrims celebrating the Epiphany by the River Jordan

Gila Yudkin, who calls herself a Connecticut Yankee living now in King David’s court, thrives on rediscovering old forgotten or neglected sites and introducing them to her favorite tour hosts. 
"Let's celebrate the Epiphany by the River Jordan" (as text without the photos) is one in the series of free bimonthly e-letters sent on request to tour leaders, pastors, clergy, teachers, Bible students, colleagues and friends.  If you'd like to receive "Holy Sites: Gila's Highlights" every other month, contact Gila.  The last highlight was "Let's claim our heritage at the Temple Mount."  This month's highlight is "Let's overlook the site of Jacob's wrestling match."  The next highlight will be "Let's find the temple tax in St Peter's Fish."

More on the Life of Jesus:


Let's meet where Mary met Elizabeth

Let's renew wedding vows in Cana of Galilee

Let's gather by Bethsaida's city gate

Mary meets Elizabeth   

Wedding in Cana

1st century AD Bethsaida


Let's focus on Jesus' Ministry from Mount Arbel

Let's go wash in the Pool of Siloam

Let's orient ourselves to Jesus' Jerusalem

Arbel / Jesus' ministry   

Pool of Siloam

1st century AD Jerusalem


More Biblical Archeology:




Copyright © 2005-2017 Gila Yudkin. All rights reserved.
Holy Land Photography by Gila Yudkin