The Jordan River must be one of the most famous rivers in the world. This is the river that the Israelites crossed over to reach the Promised Land. The New Testament tells of John the Baptist baptising Jesus in its waters, and according to Islam, the Four Companions of the Muslim Prophet, Mohamed are believed to be buried on its shore.
The Jordan River - or the River Jordan, as the Brits call it - is much less impressive today than it must have been in biblical times - or even 50 years ago - and it's estimated that there's only 2% of the water flow that there was in the 1800s. This is only partly due to the water shortage in recent years, but mainly because Israel, Jordan and Syria all divert the water for their domestic and agricultural needs.
The river is 251 metres (156 miles) long and runs from north to south, dividing Israel from Syria in the north and from Jordan further south. It is fed by three main tributaries - the Dan, the Hatsbani (Snir) and the Banias (Hermon Stream) - which merge in the north of the Hula Valley. It then flows into the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret) and from there to the Dead Sea, where it ends.
Rafting and kayaking is a great way to enjoy the river and the surrounding countryside. There are two great places where you can do this. One is Jordan River Rafting near Gadot, just north of the Sea of Galilee, and the other is further north at Kfar Blum Kayaking. Both places offer other attractions, including zip lines into the river and cycling trips. At Kfar Blum there's also a nice pathway along the river which will take you about half an hour each way at a nice, easy stroll.
There is plenty of open countryside along the length of the river, and there are hiking trails you can follow, places to pitch a tent, or just have a picnic or barbecue on its banks.
Not far from where the Jordan River flows out of the Sea of Galilee is the baptismal site of Yardenit. Here, pilgrims come to bathe in its sacred waters and take part in baptismal ceremonies. It is believed that the spot where John the Baptist baptised Jesus is a little further downstream but the water there is too badly polluted to go in it.
The river south of the Sea of Galilee is known as the lower Jordan River. Only a couple of kilometres downstream from Yardenit, is the Alumot Dam, where water is syphoned off to be used mainly for irrigating crops. On the other side of the dam, the little water that's left is so badly polluted that it is dangerous to enter the water. Israel recycles 70% of its sewage, but untreated sewage from Jordan and the West Bank seeps into the groundwater and finds its way into the river.
The Jordan River is the main source of water for the Dead Sea, and the reduction in water flow has meant that it's losing around a metre a year. This amazing natural wonder is in danger of eventually drying up if something isn't done about it! When I first came to Israel 35 years ago, I remember it being very much bigger than it is today. Both Jordan and Israel have been aware of the problem for many years but so far there hasn't been agreement on how to deal with the problem.
But, there is some hope on the horizon. Eco Peace/Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) started a project in 2001 called "Good Water Neighbours" (GWN) which encourages cooperation between Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmentalists to try to deal with the water problem. The FoEME have plans to clean up and return the lower Jordan River to a healthy eco-system and replenish it with fresh water. They have also taken on the Dead Sea as one of their projects. Click here for more information about the FoEME projects.