Christians bathe in a dirty, holy river. Some drink with faith.

QASR AL-YAHUD -- Surrounded by the desert’s vastness, and flanked by the hulks of abandoned Christian monasteries and chapels, the Jordan River flows placidly into what many Christians call the baptismal site of Jesus Christ, where John the Baptist performed the ritual.

On a recent bustling
morning, pilgrims sang hymns from a wooden deck overlooking the river. People
filtered in and out of the water as a woman in pearls bobbed up and down,
gasping for air before immersing again. Naked children screamed and cried as smiling
adults handed them to others in the water.

The spirit
of religiosity was very much alive at Qasr al-Yahud.

Just ask Zelalem Gerbermariem,
29, a self-declared “believer” in the Coptic Christian Church. A Jerusalem
resident of Ethiopian descent, Gerbermariem just completed  his fifth baptism at Qasr al-Yahud, where
other believers come in droves each year to drizzle, wade or plunge themselves
into the holy water, colored a mocha brown.

And
Gerbermariem drinks the water. By the plastic bottle, in fact.

“It’s
holy water,” he said, shaking his head before flashing a grin. “It’s not dirty.
It’s blessed.”

What Gerbermariem doesn’t know — like most other visitors — is the levels of fecal-derived bacteria at Qasr al-Yahud have long surpassed the acceptable quality standards imposed by the Israeli government, which administers this part of the West Bank. The levels have been climbing lately. The devout continue to visit — and some, acting in faith, choose to imbibe.

Data obtained by the
nonprofit EcoPeace from Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority shows that fecal
coliform bacteria has been on an upward trajectory since September 2018, at the
onset of heavier rainfall and colder temperatures in the area. The most recent
levels available, recorded in February 2019, on Valentine’s Day, showed 3,500
counts of fecal coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters, referring to the larger
bacteria group to which E. coli belongs.

But is
it too dirty?

By the Israeli Ministry of Health’s standards, yes. According to a 1999 regulation for Jewish ritual baths, anything higher than 10 general coliform bacteria, which includes fecal coliform, for every 100 milliliters is too polluted to bathe in — the legislation is displayed in Hebrew on the ministry’s website.

The holy water was so
filthy in February, it surpassed health ministry standards by 350 times. And
some believers drank it.

Graphic
by David Mora.

“Everybody here can drink the
water”

Gerbermariem was not
alone in his holy-water-drinking that day. His preacher, Mabta Gabrieal, 41,
was also there. Dressed in khakis and a crinkled, white shirt, a cross draped
around his neck, Gabrieal weaved through the crowds to the leftmost edges of
the rectangular deck. He removed his clothes and stepped down into the water,
holding on to the metal railing.

His eyes and gleaming
head were lost from the surface as he baptized himself, completely immersed in
the Jordan River.

A lively group was
nearby, many of whom wore white robes that one could buy for $8 from the site’s
gift shop. He returned to the metal railing, climbed back onto the wooden deck
and approached them. Facing the faithful, smiling and dunking themselves in the
water, he scooped some into a plastic bottle. Then he drank it, too.

“We drink the water
because it’s holy,” he said in Amharic, translated by Gerbermariem. “After we
drink the water, it gives us healthy [sic], peace, and blessings.”

While fecal coliform
bacteria is not a direct indicator of disease, it is an indicator for
pollution: a red flag suggesting there may be harmful pathogens present,
explained Alexandra Heaney, who recently received her PhD from Columbia
University’s Mailman School of Public Health. As a doctoral student, Heaney
published an academic paper alongside two veteran researchers on the
relationship between climate change and waterborne diseases, with a special
focus on diarrheal disease.

“For
some diseases, it means that if you ingest just one pathogen, you’ll get sick,”
she said.

Gabrieal said that he
has baptized himself at Qasr al-Yahud “several of hundreds of times.” It wasn’t
his first time drinking the water.

“Jesus is God and he’s
our holy savior,” Gabrieal said. “When you baptized here, you called by his
name: Christians.”

His
congregant, Gerbermariem, insisted that he has never gotten sick from drinking
the water.

“Never,”
he said. “Everybody here can drink the water.”

The cleanliness of the
waters at Qasr al-Yahud have long been scrutinized by researchers and activists
as well as some visitors, skeptical of its quality from a glance. The baptismal
site has been closed intermittently to visitors, including a period in 2010,
following public health concerns then attributed by the health ministry to
sewage and agricultural chemicals.

The
data says that 2010 had the highest levels of fecal coliform bacteria in recent
years.

But the site has continued to welcome visitors, in spite of occasional closures in the last decade. Gidon Bromberg, founder of EcoPeace, an organization run by Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmental advocates, said in a 2010 article in The Guardian that they would sue should the site reopen without addressing health concerns. Bromberg did not to respond to emails inquiring request on whether they followed through.

Nadav Tal, a hydrologist
and water officer at EcoPeace, said the Ministry of Health was in the process
of developing new quality standards for the baptismal site, purportedly
following a government investigation into the water’s quality. The standards
have yet to be published, said Tal.

“It’s well known that
there’s pollution in the water,” Tal said. “I don’t understand why it takes so
much time for them to publish.”

The Israel Ministry of
Health, responsible for determining water quality standards, did not respond to
requests for comment for this story. Neither did the Nature and Parks
Authority, responsible for sampling Qasr al-Yahud’s waters.

Tal has filed a Freedom
of Information Act request with the Ministry of Health, hoping to eke out the
new standards faster. He hasn’t gotten what he asked for yet.

Has anyone gotten sick?

Not to
his knowledge, Tal said. These things were difficult to track.

He hasn’t seen data on
the number of visitors reporting signs of illness after coming into contact
with the baptismal waters. Though many of the site’s visitors were tourists who
soon left the country, he noted.

“It’s very complicated.
If anyone got the disease from the water, you have to prove it. And it’s very
hard,” he said. “Unless everybody
gets sick. But if it’s only one or two persons, it’s very hard.”

There are, of course,
additional complications. It’s possible for a person to become infected with a
harmful pathogen without showing symptoms, making them asymptomatic, Heaney
said, even in cases of diarrhea. The disease can still be transmitted to
others.

Then there are those who
do show symptoms, after a lag between their first day of infection. Some of
them, too, might wait to go to the doctor.

“There could also be
cultural things,” she added. “This is a holy kind of thing, this is a special
thing. If they do get sick, they wouldn’t attribute it to drinking that water.”

The Israeli government
has through the years vehemently denied that Qasr al-Yahud’s waters are too
unhealthy for religious visitors, many of whom come by the busload. The site
was visited by 800,000 people in 2018, according to government figures.

The site is free of
charge to visiting tourists. Pretzels, iced coffee and tea can be bought onsite,
next to refrigerators filled with soda, water and milk, facing a small, busy
gift shop.

Heaney acknowledged that
it’s possible for a person to drink the water at Qasr al-Yahud without getting
sick. It’s dependent on several factors, including that person’s immune system
and what pathogens were in the water at the time they drank it.

But she cast doubt over
the government’s defenses, saying the fecal coliform levels were well beyond
its own safety standards.

“Unfortunately, all of
the other things we’ve been talking about are complicated,” she said. “That is
not a complicated question.”

Tal simply isn’t there for the Israeli government.

“They don’t want to
close because it brings a lot of tourists. It’s a business,” he said. “... Most
of the pilgrims don’t know the water is polluted. Nobody tells them. They have
no idea.”

Photos
by Michelle Bocanegra. 2019.

“I would not drink the water
here”

Kevin Young, 58, who
works for the Walt Disney Company, traveled with his fellow church goers from
the First Baptist Church Orlando to Qasr al-Yahud, to see what he considered
“one of the most significant places in Christianity.”

But he had just bathed in Yardenit, another baptismal site for Christians that opens into the Sea of Galilee. The bluish green waters in Yardenit had been clear —crystal, even, he said.

“You can actually see
the fish. You can’t see the fish here,” Young said, laughing. “... I would not
drink the water here.”

But for Young and
several others, Qasr al-Yahud remains sacred. Of 129 reviews on Tripadvisor, a
popular travel website, the baptismal site received 4.5 stars, many saying they
were moved by the spiritual experience.

“It’s
an amazing experience to be here as a Christian,” Young said. “This is THE
place.”

Norma Ellardo, 54, a
non-denominational Christian from San Diego, California, was submerged head-to-toe
in Qasr al Yahud’s waters, though she did not drink it.

“That’s mandatory for
the bible, so we can clean our sins,” she said. “But it’s our decision, not
somebody force you… I feel born again.”

This sentiment of
personal choice was echoed by other Christians at the site, feeling a spiritual
connection to the place.

Yet some of the faithful
who came in contact with the water were still vocal about their concerns. Marta
Steinke, 31, a first-time Catholic visitor from Poland, rolled up her pant legs
before standing in the river, shins down.

“For me, this river is a
holy river, but when you see this water, it’s too dirty,” she said. “... I’m
just thinking of all the bacteria.”

Ellardo’s pastor, Marciela Preston, 54, said their tour guide told them the water was fine — just muddy. Her fellow Californian church goer agreed.

“I feel it’s not dirty. It’s clean,” said Ellardo. She clutched her unstained white robe, drenched from the Jordan River. “See?”

Top photo by Liz Donovan. 2018.


Day #8 : Jerusalem

JERUSALEM -- It was a brisk Sunday morning — our final full day of our Israel/Palestine journey — and the skies were gray and wet.

We walked to the back of a long line that extended down the hill adjacent  to the Western Wall, waiting to enter the Haram al-Sharif, otherwise known as the Temple Mount: a site sacred to several religions, but governed according to Muslim authority.

The rain started to pick up in pace. Our classmates whipped their umbrellas out; the women unleashed headscarves to cover themselves before entering the site. We had been instructed that morning to dress carefully: No tight fitting clothes. No shorts. Dresses preferred. And no non-Muslim religious articles. Ophir Yarden, our guide, would soon explain why.

“When things are sensitive, everything is sensitive,” he said, adding that  political tensions tended to make the Temple Mount’s Islamic authorities,  known as the Waqf, even more vigilant than usual.

We approached the entrance. There were metal detectors and an x-ray machine. Nearby is a leather-clad bible and other religious objects, both Jewish and Christian, sitting on a shelf before the entrance. Visitors, many of them tourists, had presumably tried to bring them in, wittingly or unwittingly in spite of the rules.

While we were waiting to pass through security, Ophir filled us in on some of the context. The Temple Mount, where Jews believe Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac, is holy among Jews who believe this to be the site of the First and Second Jewish Temples. For Christians, Jesus Christ was believed to have been found at the Temple Mount after his parents, Mary and Joseph, went searching for a child they thought they’d lost.

But the site is exceptionally sacred among Muslims. For the initial 16 to 18 months of Muhammad’s ministry, his followers  prayed towards Jerusalem. Muhammad’s “night journey” in Islam is also a large contributor to the Temple Mount’s status, during which, Muslims believe,  he traveled from Arabia to Jerusalem at a transcendent pace.

And there are two crucially important mosques in the compound: a black-domed building that faces Mecca, and the gold-plated Dome of the Rock, on the opposite site. Only Muslims are allowed inside.

We made our way across the wooden bridge  to the Al Aqsa compound, which  encompasses the entire space and not just its famous mosque. Before we enter,  Ophir points to riot gear near the stone entryway.

“Hopefully they stay there for the next hour, and the next year,” he said, before ushering us forward.

Ophir  gave us some insight into the tensions over the Temple Mount.  There are many Jews who believe that not only were the first and second temples build here, but that a  third temple will also arise  here one day.

Because of this, security within the compound is especially tight.  Ophir explained  that a religious Jew was arrested last week for praying on the Temple Mount, and that a young girl was prevented from entering the Old City on Purim, because she was dressed as a high priest with a sacrificial lamb. Security forces in the area feared that her costume would start a riot.

Non-Islamic rituals practiced at the Temple Mount are viewed through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ophir said, and through the perspective of cultural encroachment, making seemingly small things tense.

“If Jews were to pray here, there would be resistance,” he said. “It’s a national tension, but religion adds oil to the fire.”

We strolled through the rain, some of us ill-prepared for the droplets that soaked our socks through our sneakers. This was it. The last remaining hours of our trip. Our professor, Ari Goldman, suggested that we pose for a class picture in front of the Dome of the Rock.

We were wet. We were cold. We were layered. We've looked better in other pictures.

We clustered together on the steps facing the mosque’s bright, reflective dome. The awe many of us shared, standing in one of the world's holiest places at the end of our journey, might have escaped the photograph.