In the footsteps of John the Baptist

Christian tradition about the man and his legacy create the basis of an unusual pilgrimage.

The Gospels tell us that after King Herod Antipas married his brother's wife, Herodias, he was soundly rebuked by John the Baptist for this unlawful act and other evil deeds. Not surprisingly, for he feared John's growing influence, Herod had him arrested, bound and thrown into prison east of the Dead Sea in the Machaerus Fortress. At a birthday party for Herod some time later, Herodias's daughter Salome danced charmingly for her stepfather and Herod, pleased, swore to give Salome anything she wanted. Egged on by her mother, she asked for John's head on a platter. And that's exactly what she got: John was beheaded in prison, his head was presented to Salome on a platter and she handed it over to the queen. John's bereaved disciples are said to have buried his body, but the New Testament does not tell us where. Nuns at the Russian Ascension Monastery on the Mount of Olives believe they might have the answer. According to their tradition, Queen Herodias was highly superstitious and believed that John had magical powers. Worried that if his head and body were buried together he would come back to haunt her, she threw the head onto a rubbish heap. A believer named Joanna, who was watching from afar, carefully removed the head, placed it in a clay pot and buried it on the Mount of Olives where the exact location was soon lost to memory. About 300 years later, two Syrian monks visiting Jerusalem woke up on their first morning in the Holy City and found they had dreamed the same dream: John the Baptist had appeared and told them where to look for his head. At first the monks didn't take their dreams seriously. But when the same thing happened two more nights in a row, they took a pair of spades and dug in the hole where they had been told the head could be found. And there, to the monks' amazement, it lay! If we were to follow in the footsteps of John the Baptist, who lived a colorful life in the Land of Israel and died a terrible death in Jordan, we would find that the Gospels weren't very specific about venue. Yet there are many traditional sites in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Hills and at the Jordan River identified with John the Baptist. All of them are dotted with or covered by chapels or monasteries - except one: an amazing, recently discovered cave. John the Baptist was born during the reign of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas's father, about six months before the birth of Jesus. John's father Zechariah served as a priest in the Jerusalem Temple. He and his wife Elizabeth lived in a "town in the hill country of Judea," which Byzantine tradition places in the Jerusalem suburb of Ein Kerem. Three sites in Ein Kerem are identified with John the Baptist's very earliest days - starting when he was still in the womb! The first is an ancient village spring, located in the center of Ein Kerem. Today enclosed in stone and topped by a Muslim minaret, it has long been known as the Virgin's Fountain or Mary's Spring. When Mary traveled from Nazareth to Ein Kerem to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, pregnant with St. John, this is the traditional site at which they met. The most revered portion of the second, Ein Kerem's Church of John the Baptist, is a natural grotto. Believed to be part of the home in which John the Baptist was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, and perhaps even the location of his birth, it was incorporated into the church's left apse. The crypt is closed by an elaborately adorned green and golden gate, while marble steps lead to an ornamental alter. In or around the year 4 BCE, shortly before he died, Herod the Great was informed that a new king of the Jews had been born in Bethlehem - or so we learn from the Gospels. Fully aware that the populace hated him with a passion, Herod decided to take quick steps to prevent a rival from ascending his throne. Like the biblical Pharaoh, and in what is commonly known as the "massacre of the innocents," Herod is said to have ordered the immediate death of all boys under the age of two who were living in the Bethlehem area. Ein Kerem is only a few kilometers from Bethlehem, and John the Baptist was just a toddler when Herod's soldiers came looking for infant boys. Tradition holds that when his mother heard the Roman troops approach she grabbed him by the hand and ran with him to the woods. Suddenly, an angel appeared, opened a rock and helped John's mother slip him quickly inside. And there he stayed until all of the soldiers had gone. Early Christians erected a shrine on the spot to commemorate the event in which baby John had been safely hidden from Roman soldiers. Crusaders built a much fancier two-story church on top, and instead dedicated it to the visit between Mary and Elizabeth at the nearby Virgin's Fountain. It is called the Church of the Visitation and, long ago, a large piece of the rock that saved young John was brought inside from the neighboring woods. (That's because pilgrims kept hacking off little pieces to keep as sacred mementos.) The contemporary Church of the Visitation completed in the middle of the 20th century consists of both a lower and an upper sanctuary. Remnants of the Crusader church can be seen on the outer wall of the upper church, whose interior walls are covered with fabulous paintings. The famous rock is found in the lower chapel, which also boasts a gorgeous fresco depicting the massacre of the innocents. John's parents were apparently quite elderly when he was born and probably died when he was young. In his book, The Cave of John the Baptist (Doubleday Publishers), archeologist Dr. Shimon Gibson surmises that someone in his extended family would probably have raised the orphaned boy - for this was the common practice at the time. We know from the Gospels that young John wore camel-hair coats with leather belts and roved through forests and overgrown hills and vales with only animals for company. He subsisted on wild honey, locusts and flowing spring water. "Now the child continued to grow and to become strong in spirit. He lived in the wilderness [sometimes translated as 'desert'] until the day he appeared in Israel." The mystery is - where was the "wilderness" where he grew up? Gibson believes that he might have found the solution near Kibbutz Tzova and west of Ein Kerem where, in 1999, he was researching agricultural terraces and settlement remains. Exploring the densely covered slopes in the Judean Hills, his attention was suddenly caught by a tiny opening just barely peeping through the thick foliage. He thrust his way through the thorn bushes blocking the entrance and then, covered with scratches, he propelled himself inside by lying on his back and pushing with his hands. Curious about the depth of the cave and various archeological details, Gibson began examining boulders that were piled up nearly to the ceiling. It was then that he noticed the drawing of a figure - John the Baptist - carved into the plaster surface of one of the walls. After further investigation of this picture, an upraised arm, three crosses, several other drawings and other parts of the cave, Gibson became convinced that this might very well be the place where John the Baptist spent at least some of his wilderness years. Excavations continued through 2003. Much of the foliage covering the slope was cleared away, revealing large basins for filtering water right outside the cave. Gibson believes that the cave, the basins and the steps leading inside go back about 2,900 years and were active in storing water during the period of Israelite settlement. Last summer the cave was opened for visitors, but I only made it to Tzova a few weeks ago. At first, I stood skeptically outside the cave with Gibson while he showed me a cross carved deeply into the wall. Then I walked down the ancient steps into the dark recesses of the grotto. With excitement, Gibson pointed out the figure that had first piqued his interest: it was now completely exposed, and it was easy to make out a man holding a staff and wearing a hairy coat (represented by 32 holes laboriously forced into the wall). Nearby, I could see an engraving of a raised arm with a detailed hand - according to Gibson, a typical icon used in connection with John the Baptist. Three crosses, commonly symbolizing the crucifixion, were carved on the opposite wall. Right next to them was the most astonishing picture: it depicted a severed head! By now I was drawn in by Gibson's explanations, and his elation as to what he considered the only tangible evidence in existence of John's wilderness years. But there was more. John was intensely interested in baptism as purification and the beginning of a new life. What if, asked Gibson, before moving on to the Jordan River, John brought people here to perform his first baptisms? There was water in the cave, there was a convenient shelf for robes, and archeologists discovered 2,000-year-old ritual circles filled with the remains from thousands of small jugs. According to Gibson, the jugs were smashed on purpose, probably after reborn followers of John the Baptist anointed their feet with oil. He even showed me a stone with a sunken footprint that, he said, exactly fit a size 42 right foot. Next to it, there was a small depression that could have held a jug. The cave was active for another thousand years during which time, thinks Gibson, monks from the nearby monasteries who probably came here for a bit of solitude and to learn about John the Baptist may have produced the incised drawings on the wall. But when the bloodthirsty Crusaders invaded, and Jews and Muslims fled for their lives, so did local Christians. The traditions became blurred, and Crusaders identified an alternative grotto as the place where John the Baptist spent his younger years. It is located just below today's settlement of Even Sapir, next to a flowing spring. That cave is now a modest chapel in a Franciscan monastic compound. The air is sweet and, although the compound is surrounded by lush gardens, the surrounding area is still wild and untamed. But, as Gibson points out, there is really nothing at the monastery or cave to connect it with John the Baptist - and certainly nothing at all like the concrete indications at Tzova. John the Baptist grew into a young man, and attracted a circle of followers. People who were drawn to John and to his ideas would often accompany him to the Jordan River, where they confessed their sins and immersed themselves in the waters to experience a physical and spiritual cleansing. John's most famous baptism was, of course, the immersion of his cousin Jesus of Nazareth at a site southeast of Jericho called Kasr el Yehud - Fortress of the Jews - on the west bank of the river. Pilgrims, particularly the Greek Orthodox, have frequented this holy site for centuries to celebrate the Epiphany Festival. Russians, especially, are attracted to Kasr El Yehud. Until religion was banned after the Communist Revolution of 1917 and the pilgrimages ceased, they would wrap themselves in shrouds, immerse themselves in the holy water and hope that they had assured their future resurrection. Today two colorful and spiritual parallel ceremonies take place during the Epiphany Festival: one on the Israeli side of the river and another on the Jordanian side. Several chapels and monasteries stand on the banks, and recent archeological excavations on the Jordanian side have brought to light numerous chapels associated with the memory of John the Baptist. John's ministry came to an end when his head was severed from his body by order of Herod Antipas. While doing research for his book, Gibson counted some 19 relic heads for John and 15 relic hands or arms in churches around the Mediterranean and across Europe. One of the historic sites is the 12th-century Church of John the Baptist, deep in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem and built over Jerusalem's oldest standing chapel. In fact the original fourth-century church, restored over the last couple of hundred years, is located more than 7 m. below street level. Themes and icons featuring John the Baptist are found everywhere in the cross-shaped church. One of the sanctuary's most prized possessions is an icon of his head, conjoined with a gold-and-jewel rimmed relic believed to be a piece of his skull. Worshipers often kiss the icon on their entrance to the church. Nuns at the Russian Monastery of the Ascension told me that John's head, interred on the Mount of Olives and rediscovered by the Syrian monks, was spirited away many years ago. What remains is the famous hollow in which his head was buried, an integral part of a lovely chapel dedicated to John the Baptist and a reminder of his gruesome and untimely demise.