(JTA) — The United Nations’ cultural agency has designated the east bank of the Jordan River as a World Heritage Site, saying Jordan’s side of the river is “believed to be” the place where Jesus was baptized.
Tourists and religious pilgrims also come to Israel to get baptized on the river’s west bank at a site operated by Israel in Palestinian-claimed territory.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared the heritage site earlier this month, The Associated Press reported Monday.
The river, which is featured prominently in the Hebrew Bible and Christianity’s New Testament, runs through Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, serving as a border between Israel and Jordan.
Scholars interviewed by the AP said it is not possible to pinpoint the precise location of the baptism. New Testament accounts of the baptism do not specify on which side of the river it took place, and there is no historical evidence of the incident, which took place more than 2,000 years ago.
Two sites — Qasr al-Yahud, operated by Israel in the West Bank, and the other in Jordan — cater to Christian tourists and pilgrims. Qasr al-Yahud attracted half a million visitors last year, while the Jordanian site, called al-Maghtas, attracted tens of thousands.
UNESCO’s favoring of the Jordan site “has nothing to do with archaeological reality,” Jodi Magness, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told the AP. “We don’t have any sites with evidence or archaeological remains that were continuously venerated from the first century on.”
A Palestinian Tourism Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk with journalists, told the AP that both banks of the river should receive the same treatment, but that “it’s not easy for us to defend a site we have no control over.”