BAPTISM SITE — At a time when heritage is being destroyed in some countries around the world, local authorities are working to preserve historical sites in several areas of the Kingdom, officials said on Saturday. 

#Unite4Heritage is an ongoing UNESCO initiative supported by Jordanian institutions to protect holy and historical sites around the country. 

“These stones talk about a specific era — they are not silent… they are stones, but they reflect civilisations that we must preserve,” said Dia Madani, the director of the Baptism Site Commission.

He added that the region has been a place of coexistence throughout different historical periods.

“This is a land of tolerance, [years ago] churches were being built with mosques just a few kilometres away,” Madani told The Jordan Times during a tour of the Baptism Site, some 40km west of Amman, organised by UNESCO.

Many Christians, Muslims and Jews visit the site regularly to understand the era when religions originated, he said. 

Madani noted that tourism in Jordan witnessed a decline with the unrest in the region, but the way forward is to promote Jordan as a safe zone that holds religious and historical significance. 

“We are here to deliver the message of love, peace, coexistence and compassion to the whole world.”

Costanza Farina, UNESCO representative to Jordan, emphasised the importance of sending positive messages to counter aggressive attacks against cultural heritage sites that have taken place recently in Iraq and Syria. 

“Cultural heritage is part of the identity of people, and everybody has the duty and responsibility to protect that identity and to transmit it to future generations,” she told The Jordan Times. 

“The campaign will be a tool to promote interfaith dialogue. If we don’t manage to understand each other’s differences, the world will not be as it should be,” Farina added.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova launched the #Unite4Heritage campaign in Iraq on March 28. The campaign has since become global and was launched in Jordan in May.

French Ambassador to Jordan David Bertolotti told The Jordan Times it is very important to preserve common heritage and traditions for the future in the face of those who want to destroy the past.

“Christians and Muslims have lived side-by-side in mutual respect for centuries and those who destroy heritage do not represent this tradition of tolerance,” Bertolotti said.

Rustom Mkhjian, assistant director of the Baptism Site Commission, said people should see what is common between them and connect.

According to Mkhjian, October and April are the months during which tourists visit the site, also known as Bethany beyond the Jordan.

The site is the fifth in Jordan to be inscribed into UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

“After 2011, the number of visitors from Europe dropped… Daesh has a big role in the decline of visitors,” Mkhjian noted. “This is the lowest point on earth, yet, closest to heaven, for that we have to safeguard it.”

The site is where Jesus Christ was baptised by John the Baptist, according to Christian beliefs.

Marah Adass, a volunteer, said those who don’t know their past, cannot celebrate their present.

“Stories from different generations tell events of our history and enable us to celebrate our heritage,” the 22-year-old told The Jordan Times. 

Ahmad Jareer, who has been volunteering with UNESCO for three months, said such initiatives enrich his knowledge of history. 

“This is something we don’t learn in schools. There are some traditions I didn’t know about — customs and sites I didn’t know existed in the country,” Jareer added.