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Ein Karem – Following John the Baptist

Hundreds of years ago, something outstanding happened. According to Christian belief, a child was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth in a quiet town “in the hill country of Judea”. This child was John the Baptist, who will later become one of the greatest prophets and the forerunner of Jesus. Tradition says that this quiet town was Ein Karem, today a charming neighborhood in Jerusalem. So, if you visit Jerusalem, you can make your way to this beautiful spot, and follow the story of John the Baptist in Ein Karem.

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How to get to Ein Karem?

Ein Karem is located in southwest Jerusalem, about 4 kilometers from Mount Herzl (in Hebrew: הר הרצל). To reach Ein Karem, take the light-rail train to “Mount Herzl” station. Then, cross to the westernmost road and catch Egged bus #28 to the center of Ein Karem. Get off at “Ein Karem/ HaMa’ayan” station (in Hebrew: עין כרם/ המעיין).

Here’s a map that shows where the bus station is (where the green line starts):

How to reach the bus station to Ein Karem

Alternatively, you can walk from Mount Herzl station down to Ein Karem through the restored terraces. Walk a bit on the road that leads to Yad Vashem. You’ll see a staircase on the left side of the road, descending into the wadi. Continue west in the wadi for about 1.3 km and then turn left on a blue-marked trail into the neighborhood. You’ll soon reach a road, that will lead you down to the center of the neighborhood. It’s a pleasant walk, that takes about 20 minutes.

The story of John the Baptist in Ein Karem:

Before his birth:

Let’s talk about John the Baptist. According to the Gospel of Luke, his father, Zechariah, was a Jewish priest who served in the Second Temple. His mother was Elizabeth. They were both elderly and childless. One day, while Zechariah was performing his duties at the temple, angel Gabriel appeared to him. The angel announced that Zechariah and Elizabeth would soon bear a son, whom they were to name John. This son, he said, would be the forerunner of the Lord. Zechariah was skeptical about it, because, well, they were too old to have a child. So he asked Gabriel for a sign to know that the prophecy is really true. Gabriel, in return, sentenced Zechariah to silence. “You will not be able to speak,” he told him, “until the day that these things shall be performed.”

Miraculously, Elizabeth got pregnant. Eight days after the baby was born, they held him a brit milah, as accustomed in Jewish tradition. The people at the circumcision ceremony wanted to name the boy after his father, Zechariah. But Elizabeth told them that they must call him John. Zechariah still could not speak at that moment due to Gabriel’s punishment. But, he asked for a writing pad and approved what his wife had already said: “His name is John.” Then, he was able to speak at last and burst into song, which is known as the Benedictus Prayer.

As a baptizer:

John grew up to become a baptist. At his time, Jews were baptized to cleanse the body from “tumah” (impurity). When they were impure, they couldn’t perform holy activities, such as making a pilgrimage to the Holy Temple. John the Baptist decided to do something innovative. He called people to baptize to cleanse the soul from sins and to seek forgiveness. This is, by the way, what distinguishes between Jewish baptism and Christian baptism to this very day. Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, and that’s how most of us know John.

So what to see in Ein Karem?

There are many sites to see in Ein Karem. You can wander around the beautiful streets or walk into some of the art galleries. There are also some beautiful hikes in the area. But right now, I’m focusing on the sites connected to John the Baptist. So what to see in Ein Karem? Here are three main sites:

St. John Baharim Church:

In the courtyard:

Let’s start with the name. “Baharim” is a Hebrew word meaning “in the mountains.” This is because we are in the mountains, of course. When you’ll look around Ein Karem, you’ll see the Jerusalem Mountains all around you. The visit to this church starts in the courtyard. Look at the walls of the courtyard and you’ll see beautiful porcelain tablets. On each tablet, there’s the Benedictus Prayer written in different languages. This is the song that Zechariah sang when he could speak again after he named his son John.

There are also things hidden from the eye. Believe me or not but underneath the courtyard is an ancient mikveh. A mikveh is a ritual bath, in which Jewish people could purify before performing a religious ritual. As I’ve already mentioned, Zechariah was a Jewish priest and as such, he most likely had a mikveh at home. That’s because he had to purify before entering the Holy Temple, his workplace. This strengthens the hypothesis that this place was Zecharia and Elizabeth’s home, where they also held the brit milah.

To the right of the main staircase leading to the church, there are a couple of barred windows. Peek into the windows and you might be able to figure out some archeological finds in the darkness. At the leftmost side of the dark space, there’s a small, broken statue of the pagan goddess, Venus. This made archeologists think that the church might have been built atop a small pagan place of worship.

In the church:

Go up the stairs and peer down the circular hole just before the entrance to the church. You’ll see there a mosaic, which has a Greek inscription on it, saying: “Hail! Martyrs of God.” It is unknown who are those martyrs, but some believe that the inscription refers to the children killed by Herods in Bethlehem and its surroundings. They aren’t really martyrs by definition, but it’s an option. The mosaic is part of two chapels, built here in the Byzantine era.

When you’ll enter the church, you’ll see its magnificent walls, covered with outstanding blue-white tiles. These tiles were donated to the church by the Nobles of Spain. The crypt is located at the back left end of the church. It is believed that John the Baptist was born in this crypt, which was once his parent’s home. Just before you go down to the crypt, look left and you’ll see a blocked ancient passageway in the wall. This leads to Byzantine tombs. No one knows who exactly is buried there. In the crypt itself, you can see a painting of Zecharia, writing his son’s name on a writing pad.

Practical notes:

Opening hours: April to September from 8 AM to 12 PM and from 2:30 PM to 5:45 PM. October to March from 8 AM to 12 PM and from 2:30 PM to 4:45 PM.

Entrance is free of charge.

How to get there? From the main street of Ein Karem, turn right onto HaSha’ar Alley. This alley leads to the church.

The entrance to St. John Baharim

Mary’s Spring:

After visiting St. John Baharim Church, I often make my way down the road to a peaceful spot in Ein Karem, Mary’s Spring. The village of Ein Karem started around this spring. It started out as a Jewish village during the time of the Second Temple but later turned to an Arab village. That’s why the mosque is here. The residents used the spring for centuries until its water mixed with the sewer system of the houses. Now, if you want to stay healthy, you cannot drink the spring’s water. But, you can still 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. According to the Gospel of Luke, angel Gabriel revealed himself to Mary in Nazareth. There, he told her that she would bear the Son of God. Also, he told her that her relative, Elizabeth, was starting her sixth month of pregnancy. She was probably very surprised by this information because she gathered her belongings and set off on a donkey to Elizabeth’s hometown.

Elizabeth’s home was probably where John Baharim Church stands today. But Elizabeth wasn’t there. She was staying in her summer house, which is traditionally located on the other side of Ein Karem, where the Visitation Church stands today.

Practical notes:

How to get there? From John Baharim Church, exit through the main gate, walk down the alley, cross the road and walk a bit further. You’ll soon see the spring to your left, located under a tower of a mosque.

The Mosque Tower Above Mary’s Spring
Mary’s Spring

Visitation Church:

Next up is the Visitation Church. To reach it, you’ll need to climb up quite a lot of stairs. Virgin Mary must have been in great shape if she climbed this. Just before the church’s gate, there’s a beautiful view of Ein Karem and the ancient terraces below. Look a bit to the right and you’ll see the prominent building of St. John Baharim Church.

When you enter the courtyard, you’ll see a beautiful statue of Elizabeth and Mary, greeting each other. You’ll also notice a lot of porcelain tablets on the walls, bearing a prayer. This time, the prayer is the Magnificat, which was traditionally said 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.

Inside the lower floor of the church:

After reading the prayer, you can enter the lower floor of the church. Antonio Barluzzi, an Italian architect, designed this church so that it will fit the Christian story. He wanted you to feel as if you’re entering the summer house of Zechariah and Elizabeth. The modern floor mosaic resembles a mat and the ceiling mosaic resembles a pergola of vines. Deeper inside, you’ll find a well, that might be from the time of the Second Temple. There was a little water spring here, which might have been used by the dwellers of the summer house.

On the right wall, there’s a sacred rock. According to tradition, Elizabeth and John were fleeing from Herod’s guards during the Massacre of the Innocents. Then, this specific rock miraculously opened. John hid inside and was saved from the guards. Above the rock, there’s a painting of the event.  

Inside the upper floor of the church:

There’s also an upper floor, which is very different from the lower one. This floor is completely dedicated to the Madonna of the Magnificat, that is, Virgin Mary. You can see beautiful paintings on the walls, which show different aspects of Mary. For example, the mosaic floor is covered with objects and figures connected to the sea. That’s because Virgin Mary is also known as “The Star of the Sea.” Also, take a 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.

Practical notes:

Opening hours: April to September from 8 AM to 11:45 AM and from 2:30 PM to 6:00 PM. October to March from 8 AM to 11:45 AM and from 2:30 PM to 4:00 PM.

Entrance is free of charge.

How to get there? From Mary’s Spring, turn to the street that goes to the west, to the left of the lookout porch. After a while, you’ll see wide stairs going up.

The Church of Visitation

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, and exploring Ein Karem.

More things you might need:

Accommodation in Jerusalem: If you’re looking for places to stay in Jerusalem, you can try to compare prices and find the best option for you through Hotels Combined.
Guided tour in Ein Karem: If you want to know more about this amazing neighborhood, contact me for a private guided tour. I’m a licensed tour guide.

More things to read:

Top Free Things to do in Jerusalem Old City

Top Free Things to do in Jerusalem

Sataf: Beautiful Hiking Trails Just Outisde Jerusalem

The History of Jeiwsh and Muslim Jerusalem


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Have a great day!

Yours,

Lior (: