Ein Kerem is the traditional birthplace of John the Baptist. From Luke 1:39, we know that his parents, Elizabeth and Zacharias, were living in the hill country, in a city of Judah, but the town is not named. The Byzantines, it would seem, recognized this village as the place: a pilgrim named Theodosius (530 AD) gives the distance between Jerusalem and Elizabeth’s house as five miles, which fits. The village lies west of the line joining Jerusalem’s Old City and Bethlehem, roughly midway between them, where the Sorek Valley begins its course toward the Mediterranean.
When the pilgrim Theodosius visited in 530, there was a fairly new church here. Beneath the western porch of the present Church of St. John the Baptist (left, center), one can make out the apse of a chapel, two rock-cut tombs and part of a mosaic. This contains the inscription (in Greek): “Hail, martyrs of God!” We do not know who the martyrs were. The chapel, as well as another one adjoining it on its south side, ended eight meters west of the present porch.
Such is the evidence for a Byzantine tradition. Josephus writes in some detail about John. (That is why Christians preserved Josephus’ works, which we probably would not have otherwise). Yet he does not name his birthplace.
While John was in Elizabeth’s womb, the pregnant Mary visited her. We also find, therefore (to the southwest, on a hill) a Church of the Visitation. Both churches were already functioning in Ein Kerem before the Crusaders arrived. This is attested by a Russian Abbot named Daniel in 1106.
The Church of John the Baptist
The present building, located in the midst of the village, dates from 1674, when the Franciscans, aided by the Spanish monarchy, built it on the ruins of its predecessors. Crossing the threshold, we seem to step into Spain. The paintings are by Spanish artists. The blue and white tiles almost sing of Spain. The royal family’s coat of arms is behind us, above the entrance.
The church commemorates the events recounted in Luke 1: 5-25, 57-79.
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years. Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering. More…
Above the altar, which is dedicated to John, is a representation of Mary, flanked by statues of Zacharias in his priestly garments just to her left, and Elizabeth to her right. Left of Zacharias is Francis of Assisi in stone, and to the right of Elizabeth, Francis’ colleague, Clare.
The altar may bring to mind the incense altar in the Temple, where the old priest Zacharias was officiating. An angel announced to him that he and his long barren wife were to have a son, “and you will give him the name John.” Zacharias doubted what he had heard, and so the angel struck him dumb until the thing should come to pass. The sequel appears in Luke 1: 57-68:
Now the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had displayed His great mercy toward her; and they were rejoicing with her. And it happened that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to call him Zacharias, after his father.
But his mother answered and said, “No indeed; but he shall be called John.”
And they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by that name.” And they made signs to his father, as to what he wanted him called. And he asked for a tablet and wrote as follows, “His name is John.” And they were all astonished. And at once his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak in praise of God.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people.” More…
We find the beginning of this blessing in Latin, written over an arch on the left side of the church. It forms the entrance to the grotto of the birth. (The tradition for this spot goes back at least to Crusader times). Beneath the altar (given by Queen Isabella II of Spain), within a dark circle, is a smaller circle of white marble. It signifies the place where the Baptist entered the world.
Church of the Visitation
Taking Ma’ayan (Spring) Street southwest from the Church of St. John, we walk to a small structure that was once a mosque. It houses the spring that gives Ein Kerem its name: the spring (ein) of the vineyard or olive grove (kerem can mean either in Biblical Hebrew). The place is not mentioned by this name in the Bible, although it may be the “Beth ha-Kerem” of Jeremiah 6:1.
Tradition has it that Mary drank from this spring before ascending the hill to visit Elizabeth. Since the 14th century it has been known as the Fountain of the Virgin.
We climb steps westward, ascending a hill.
Digression on terraces.
Ahead on our right we can see the remains of terraces that probably go back to Bible times. The valleys are so narrow between the hills of this central mountain range (in contrast with Galilee, for instance) that people planted orchards on the slopes in order to get enough food. These slopes, however, required terracing. In the long dry summer, the sun kills the organic matter that holds the soil in place, and when the slope is steeper than 30 degrees, the heavy autumn rains will carry the soil down into the valleys unless preventive measures are taken. Differential erosion in the hard and soft limestone of the hills created natural steps, but it was necessary to build walls on their edges. Judging from the mix of different soils found in certain terraces, some researchers think that people brought part of the soil up from the valleys and down from the hilltops (as Samsonian a task as that may seem!). No wonder, then, that people here developed an attachment to their ancestral land.
We arrive at the Church of the Visitation, whose facade presents a mosaic (made in 1955) depicting Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (Luke 1: 39-45:)
Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”
Mary responds (Luke 1: 46-56):
“My soul exalts the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has had regard for the humble state
of His bondslave;
For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
And holy is His name.
And his mercy is upon generation after generation
toward those who fear him.
He has done mighty deeds with His arm;
He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
And has exalted those who were humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
And sent away the rich empty-handed.
He has given help to Israel His servant,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and his descendants forever.”
Mary’s prayer is called the “Magnificat.” It appears in 41 different languages on as many plaques in the courtyard.
The pre-Crusader church, like the present one (built in 1946), had an upper and a lower tier. So attests Abbot Daniel, mentioned above. Daniel locates here an event recounted in the non-canonical Gospel of James. During Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children in Bethlehem and its vicinity, we are told, Elizabeth sought to save her baby:
But Elizabeth, when she heard that they sought for John, took him and went up into the hill-country and looked about her where she should hide him: and there was no hiding-place. And Elizabeth groaned and said with a loud voice: 0 mountain of God, receive thou a mother with a child. For Elizabeth was not able to go up. And immediately the mountain clave asunder and took her in. (Protoevangelium of James XXII 3)
In the lower church is a medieval crypt with a barrel-shaped vault. On the right after entering is a rock with a cleft. Tradition names this mark as the place where the mountain opened for mother and child.
The apse encloses the top of a well. Beneath the floor is a Roman or Byzantine overflow pipe that led to it.
The western part of the upper church is directly over this crypt. A staircase in the south wall leads to it, but the more usual access is from the courtyard, to which we return for our ascent.
After the somber darkness of the lower church, the upper is all glory and light. On the arch above Mary appear words from the Magnificat:
For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
And holy is His name.
Just below top of the apse, that is, below the radiance of the Holy Spirit, the angels serenade Mary and prepare to crown her with wreaths. She herself stands in a desert setting, flanked by her reverers. To the left come people bearing models of the most renowned Marian churches. Below them is Elizabeth, greeting her with the words:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
(Luke 1: 42)
On the south wall of the church (not visible in the photo) appear five frescoes, celebrating Mary as the Mother of God (the Council of Ephesus), the Refuge of Sinners, the Dispenser of all Grace (the marriage at Cana), and the Help of Christians (the Battle of Lepanto). The fifth fresco recalls the Immaculate Conception. The pilasters contain the verses of the Magnificat, above which we see famous women from the First Testament.
About a mile and a half to the west of Ein Kerem is a Franciscan monastery, St. John in the Wilderness, built in 1922 on the site of a 12th-century monastery, which commemorated John’s sojourn in the desert: “And the child continued to grow and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” ( Luke 1:80)
Note: Ein Kerem is also home to the Biblical Resources Pilgrim Center, which has contributed the topographical basis for the maps on this website.
The Church of John the Baptist is open on Sunday from 09:00 – 12:00 and again from 14:30 – 17:00; Monday – Friday it is open from 08:00 – 12:00 and from 14:30 – 17:00 (18:00 in summer). Telephone: 02-6413639
The Church of the Visitation is open from Sunday – Friday, 08:00 – 11:45 and 14:30 – 17:00 (18:00 in summer). Telephone: 02-6417291