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Elijah's Hill

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Was This the Desert Home of John the Baptist?

Location – Baptism road, Jordan

Map Coordinates - 31.839401, 35.569438

Elijah being taken up in a chariot of fire (1 Kings 2:11).

One of the most important sites in Jordan related to the Gospels is Elijah's Hill (known as Jabel Mar Elias in Arabic). This is the place where it is believed that Elijah ascended to heaven in the ninth century BC. The book of Malachi (4:5, 6) states that Elijah would return before the coming of the Messiah, so when John began baptizing in the Jordan River it caused a huge stir in the surrounding villages. The people came to inquire whether or not John was their Messiah, or at least the second coming of Elijah (see John 1:20, 21).

Before John was born, his father, Zechariah, was told that John would come preaching in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17). I suspect that this news was conveyed to John sometime during his childhood. Hence, every time we have a sighting of John the Baptist in the Bible it is in a place that was significant to the ministry of Elijah – as if John was deliberately retracing Elijah’s steps. Nowhere is this more obvious than John’s residence at the hill of Elijah’s ascent into heaven, triggering rumors that he might be the reincarnation of Elijah.

John the Baptist preaching beside his cave.

The site is about a mile east of the place where Jesus was baptized. On the western side of Elijah's Hill there is a cave where John lived. This was considered a very holy site in the fifth century, and monks seeking to live in the same austere environment as John built a monastery here, the first ever to exist east of the Jordan River. John’s cave was also converted into a chapel where only the apse remains today.

A section of the Madaba map.

On the Madaba map at the Church of Saint George in Madaba, Jordan, which was created in the sixth century, there is a small round icon east of the Jordan river – a mound with a door. This icon represents Elijah’s Hill, and the door represents the cave of John.

Elijah’s Hill is mentioned by at least four ancient authors. First, there was a writer named Theodosius sometime just before 530 AD. Similarly, the Pilgrim Antoninus Martyr from Piacenza, Italy, wrote about the hill in 570 AD. He says, "This is the place where Elijah was taken up.”

The Russian pilgrim Abbot Daniel (1106-1107 AD) said:

"On the other side of Jordan near the bathing place there is sort of forest of little trees like the willow. And not far from the river a couple of bow-shots to the east is a place where the prophet Elijah was carried to heaven in a chariot of fire, and here too is the cave of Saint John the Baptist.”

John Phocas (1135 AD) mentioned:

"Beyond the Jordan opposite to the place of our Lord's baptism, is much brushwood, in the midst of which, at the distance of about one stadium, is the grotto of John the Baptist which is very small.”

A baptism pool on top of the hill.

I’ve visited this desert site several times, and I was amazed to find that the timbers and straw with which the monks built the chapel are still there, after 1500 years.

The straw was used as ancient rebar to strengthen bricks. To me it felt as if it was only a year old.

The main chapel with mosaics on the floor.

The main altar and inscription.

There was a skull discovered under the altar in the covered chapel. It could have been the remains of the founding monk. A greek inscription found in the apse of the covered chapel says,

“Through the grace and glory of Christ our Lord, this monastery was constructed by the God-loving monk Rhotories. May God preserve him and bestow His grace upon him.”

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