Hundreds of years ago something outstanding happened in one of the towns “in the hill country of Judea”. According to Christian belief, a child was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, and not just a child. This child was no less than John the Baptist, one of the greatest prophets, who will be known later on as the forerunner of Jesus. On the eighth day after his birth, John was circumcised. The people wanted to call him after his father, Zechariah, but Elizabeth said he should be called John, as Gabriel, the angel, told them. Zechariah, who could not speak at that moment due to Gabriel’s punishment, asked for a writing pad and approved what his wife had already said: “His name is John”. Then, he could speak at last and burst into song, which is now known as the Benedictus Prayer.
According to Christian tradition, all of this happened in Ein Karem (עין כרם), a quiet and picturesque neighborhood of Jeruslaem, which was once a town of its own.
On the 23rd of June I was invited to a very interesting lecture, that was held in the Franciscan monastery next to St. John Baharim Church (Church of Saint John) in Ein Karem. It was held a day before the feast day of John the Baptist, which is the 24th of June. A feast day is a day dedicated completely to a specific saint, a day that is referred to as the saint’s “birthday into heaven”, which is actually the saint’s death day. A big poster greeted me in the entrance: “Birthday Party for John the Baptist”. And there was another poster saying: “800 Years of Franciscan Presence in the Holy Land”.
Franciscans are a major order in Israel, the Holy Land. Here in Israel they call themselves “The Custody of the Holy Land”. The Catholic Church gave the Franciscan monks the mission to preserve the holy places in the Holy Land, and so you will find that most of the holy places for Christians in Israel are under Franciscan supervision.
But today I don’t want to talk about Franciscans in the Holy Land, but about John the Baptist and Ein Karem.
Ein Karem is located in southwest Jerusalem, about 4 kilometers from Har Herzel. How can you get to Ein Karem? You can get to the Har Herzel light-rail station and continue to Ein Karem by riding Egged bus number 28. The bus station is located on the road that’s situated west of the light-rail station, going down to Ein Karem. Alternatively, you can walk down to Ein Karem, along the road going down. The walk takes about 30 minutes and is full of beautiful and peaceful views.
When in Ein Karem, I recommend you visit three sites related to John the Baptist. There are more sites in Ein Karem, but the three I’m going to tell you about are my favourite. All of them are free of charge.
The first site I highly recommend in Ein Karem is St. John Baharim Church, of course. “Baharim” is a Hebrew word meaning “In the mountains”. The visit to this church starts in the courtyard. Along the walls of the courtyard is a line of beautiful porcelain tablets, and on each tablet you can see the Benedictus Prayer in a different language. This is the song that Zechariah sung when he could speak again, after he named his son John.
Under a specific area in the southern part of the courtyard is a very interesting archeological finding, hidden from the eye – a Mikveh. According to the Bible, Zechariah was a Jewish priest and as such, he most likely had a mikveh at home, because of the strict laws of purity. The church sits on what is believed to be as Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home, the place where John was born.
If you look at the wall that’s located between the two stairways leading up to the church, you’ll see there are a couple of barred windows. If you get a bit closer to the windows and peer into the darkness, you can see some archeological findings inside. Look to the most-left side of the dark room and you might be able to recognize a small, broken statue of the pagan goddess, Venus. The church might have been built atop a small pagan place of worship.
Up the stairs, just before the entrance to the church, you’ll find a circular opening in the floor, enclosed by a fence. If you look down through this circle, you’ll be able to see a mosaic, which has a Greek inscription on it, saying: “”Hail! Martyrs of God.” No one knows to which martyrs is the inscription referring to, but some believe that it refers to the children killed by Herods in the area of Bethlehem, although they aren’t really martyrs by definition. The mosaic is part of two chapels, built here in the Byzantine era.
Inside the church are magnificent walls, covered outstanding blue-white tiles, which were donated to the church by the Nobles of Spain. The crypt, where it is believed that John the Baptist was specifically born, is located on the left side of the church. Just before you go down to the crypt, look left and see a blocked ancient passageway in the wall, leading to Byzantine tombs. No one knows who exactly is buried here.
After I visit St. John Baharim Church, I often make my way down the road to a peaceful spot in Ein Karem, Mary’s Spring. To get there, all you need to do is exit the church from the main gate and walk down the alley, cross the road and walk a bit further down until you see the spring to your left, located under a tower of a mosque. The village of Ein Karem started around this spring, which was in use for centuries, until the spring’s water mixed with the sewer system of some of the houses. Now you cannot drink the spring’s water (if you want to stay healthy). You can sit next to the spring and enjoy it for afar. It’s called “Mary’s Spring”, because according to tradition, Virgin Mary stopped at this spring on her way to visit Elizabeth, who wasn’t home (where St. John Baharim Church is), but up in her summer home, which traditionally was located on the other side of Ein Karem, where today stands the Church of the Visitation.
You can get to the Church of the Visitation by continuing up the mountain from Mary’s Spring. Continue straight and then turn right and keep on going until you see wide stairs going up. There are quite a lot of stairs, so take a deep breath before you start the climb. Virgin Mary must have been in a great shape, if she climbed this. When you’ll get up to the church’s entrance gate, I recommend you take a look backwards and see the beautiful view from high on the mountain. The most prominent building in the landscape is of St. John Baharim Church.
Now, you can enter the courtyard. You’ll find that on this courtyard’s walls are also porcelein tablets bearing a prayer. This time, the prayer is the Magnificat Prayer, which was traditionally was said in this area by Virgin Mary when she found out that she was bearing the redeemer. Another prayer that was said here for the first time is Ave Maria. Elizabeth sung it.
After reading the prayer, you can go inside the lower floor of the church. Antonio Barluzzi, an Italian architect, designed this church so that it will fit with the Christian story. When you enter the lower floor, Barluzzi wanted you to feel like you’re entering the summer home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. The floor has a modern mosaic resembling a mat and the ceiling has a modern mosaic resembling a pergola of vines. In the deeper part of the room is a well, that might be from the time of the Second Temple. A little spring of water comes from below and might have been the water supply of the dwellers of the summer home. In one of the walls you’ll see a rock that is sacred, because there is a belief that Elizabeth hid John in this specific rock while they both fled from Herod’s guards during the Massacre of the Innocents. Above the rock there’s a painting of the event.
If you’ll choose to proceed to the upper floor of the church (from the stairway that’s located at the left side of the church), you’ll see that the second floor is very different from the first. This floor is completely dedicated to the Madonna of the Magnificat, that is, Virgin Mary. Beautiful paintings on the walls show different aspects of Mary. The mosaic floor is covered objects and figures connected to the sea. Virgin Mary is also known as The Star of the Sea. If you look at the windows of the upper floor from the outside, you’ll see that they are designed as palm trees. Another name for Virgin Mary is Palma Mystica. So you can see, everything is connected to Mary.
As I said, there is a lot more to see in Ein Karem, but I have to stop here. Feel free to keep on wandering around, exploring Ein Karem.
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