Photo: An art gallery in Ein Karem (courtesy Travelujah)
As we reach deep into spring in the Holy Land, the blossoming of the almond trees in Ein Kerem is now at its glorious pink and white peak.
The charming village, with its narrow streets and alleyways nestled in the ancient terraced slopes west of Jerusalem between the Hadassah Hospital and the suburban sprawl of Har Nof, is a lush bustan (orchard) studded with historic churches, picturesque stone-domed houses and quaint restaurants. A sunny warm early spring weekend is the ideal time to follow in pilgrims' footsteps, marvel at the town's beauty, and enjoy a rural repast.
Though today part of municipal Jerusalem, until 1948 Ein Kerem was a mixed Christian-Muslim Palestinian village known in Arabic as 'Ain Karim (the Noble Spring ) far from the city. Traces of settlement have been found here dating back to 6,000 BCE. Following the April 1948 massacre at nearby Deir Yassin, some 3,000 panicked women and children fled. The remaining villagers and Syrian, Iraqi and Egyptian fighters fighters were attacked by IDF forces in July of that year and also abandoned the town. In their place came Jewish refugees from Romania and Morocco, followed by artists and urban homesteaders, making Ein Kerem today one of the most coveted locations in Jerusalem.
According to tradition, John the Baptist was born and lived here with his parents Zacharias -- a priest at Herod the Great's newly-rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, and Elizabeth -- a cousin of Jesus' mother Mary. The Gospel records that Elizabeth -- whose Hebrew name Elisheva means "My God is my oath" -- hosted her virgin yet pregnant cousin here for three months until Elizabeth gave birth to John the Baptist. Mary then returned to Nazareth before finally making her way to Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus (Luke 1:5-25, 39-66.) The village contains a number of churches commemorating these sacred events that lie at the heart of Christianity.
While the Byzantine and Crusader shrines have long since been destroyed by Muslim mujahadeen, the Faranj (Europeans) never abandoned their claim. The Franciscans established themselves here in 1674, and in 1681 persuaded four Christian families from Bethlehem to resettle the abandoned medieval village.
In the 19th century as the various European powers competed for prestige in the Holy Land, a number of impressive monuments and shrines were built here creating a pilgrimage industry along a well-trod route from Jaffa through Jerusalem to the Jordan River and Jericho.
Most pilgrims started the local leg of their procession here at 'Ain Sitti Maryam (Mary's Fountain, also called the Fountain of the Virgin) which bubbles to the surface in a cave on ha-Ma'ayan Street. Here mujiks bottled holy spring water to take back to Mother Russia from the site where according to a 14th-century tradition Mary drank while on her way to visit Elizabeth. An inscription here bears the words of the Prophet Isaiah: "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters" (Isaiah 55:1).
Atop the spring sits a vaulted, timeless maqam, a modest Muslim house of prayer akin to a shtiebl. Abandoned in 1948, the ruined mosque and minaret stand in mute testimony to the Nakba, the catastrophe by which the Palestinians became dispossessed of their land even as Israel experienced its near-miraculous birth.
Ein Kerem has two Churches of St. John the Baptist -- one Roman Catholic and the other Greek-Orthodox. The first, owned by the Franciscans, contains a grotto where tradition holds Jesus' baptizer was born. Steps down to the cave reveal a Byzantine mosaic. The other John the Baptist Church, built in 1894, is mostly deserted.
Another impressive Franciscan site is the Sanctuary of the Visitation recognized by the bronze statues of Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, depicted as pregnant with John the Baptist. After a three-month stay, Mary returned to Nazareth, only to return to Bethlehem later to give birth to Jesus. Note the alcove which contains a boulder behind which Elizabeth hid John from Herod's legionnaires in an infanticide echoing Pharaoh's edict and Moses. (Jesus and Mary escaped Herod's murderous wrath by fleeing to Egypt.)
The modern church was built in 1955 on top of Crusader remnants. It was designed by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi, who designed many other churches in the Holy Land during the 20th century including the Basilica of All Nations in Gethsemane.
In 1860 the Soeurs de Notre-Dame de Sion arrived, and built their convent between 1862-1890. This monastery was founded by the French-Jewish convert brothers Theodore and Alfonse Ratisbonne as an orphanage. Alfonse himself lived in the monastery and is buried in its garden. Thirteen nuns from the order of Sisters of Our Lady of Sion now occupy the site, which contains a silent and magical garden, and a guesthouse run by the nuns.
The convent on Rehov ha-Oren is hosting a series classical music concerts every Saturday during February. For ticket info call 02 643 52 99.
The French nuns were followed by the Russian Orthodox who arrived in 1871 and developed a huge compound, originally called "Gorny Monastery") along the south ridge of Ein Kerem complete with two churches and cottages for nuns. Villagers nicknamed the place "Moskobiyya" (Arabic for Moscow). After more than a century of seclusion and isolation behind a high wall, the Russian village recently opened its gates to visitors. The compound today is home to some 100 women, most of whom are nuns, and one monk, Brother Serafin.
In 1884 a German princess bearing the regal moniker "Her Grand Ducal Highness Princess Elisabeth Alexandra Luise Alice of Hesse and by Rhine" married Grand Duke Sergei, the younger brother of Czar Alexander III of Russia. Assuming the title Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna, she and Prince Sergei Alexandrovich arrived in Jerusalem to build the Russian Compound just west of the Old City. The Sergei Building, erected in 1890 as a luxurious abode for visiting princes of Moscovy, stands as a monument to his piety -- and love of comfort. As reported in In Jerusalem, Oct. 27, 2006, Russia -- as a symbol of its pre-Communist prestige -- wants to regain the landmark on which the State of Israel holds a long-term lease.
The royal couple also began construction of the main Moscobiyya church in Ein Kerem. But they never completed the edifice. Anarchists assassinated Prince Sergei in 1905; his widow became a nun and gave away all her royal possessions. Construction continued fitfully but the church was left roofless by the outbreak of World War I and the1917 Russian Revolution -- in which the princess was murdered along with other Romanov blue-bloods.
While touring the site three years ago, a senior Foreign Ministry official recognized the unfinished church as a valuable asset in cementing Israeli-Russian ties. Meetings with the Patriarch of Moscow led to the construction of the roof's gilded onion domes in exact accordance with the original blueprint, with then Prime Minister Ari'el Sharon expediting construction -- as was his wont.
The festive inauguration ceremony was to have been held on April 7, 2006. Russian President Vladimir Putin delayed the ceremony in the hope that Prime Minister Sharon -- who was then in the intensive care unit at Hadassah Hospital a mere kilometer away -- would recover from his massive stroke and be able to attend. No new date has been set at the time of this writing.
Ein Kerem can be reached by the no. 17 bus from Jerusalem's Central Bus Station. Admittance to the churches is free. Most sites close at noon and re-open at 2 p.m. For organized visits focusing on Ein Karem call Pnina Ein Mor of The Ein Kerem Legend, tel: 02-641.8682 or visit www.einkerem-legend.co.il.
If you go:
A treat to restore body and soul
Adina Solomonovich: A ceramics studio in a historic home with hamsas and kiddush cups. 02.643.7484.
Esti Deri's: A traditional Moroccan feast, open for reserved groups of 20 only; kosher; closed on Sabbath. 02.643.7326.
Fundak Ein Kerem: A romantic café beside Mary's well. Not kosher. 02.643.1840.
Inbal: A cozy café serving locally-baked pastry, sandwiches and salads. Kosher. Closed on Sabbath. 02.644.6533.
Ruti Havilio: An artist who paints vignettes of Ein Kerem on ceramic tiles, her gallery is her historic home. 02.641.7912.
Sweet Ein Kerem: A chocolaterie serving gourmet chocolate and ice cream. 02.200.6660.
The Daphne Magic: A zimmer (B&B) with three new guest units for couples and families. 054.427.4416.
The Ein Kerem Bistro: Works by local artists on the walls, serving pastry, salads and light meals. Not kosher. Open Saturday. 02.643.0865.
The Targ Kerem Music Center: founded by the duo-pianists Bracha Eden and Alexander Tamir in 1968, the center offers modestly priced recitals and chamber-music concerts on Friday and Saturday morning. The surrounding garden is worth a visit. 02.641.4250.
The Rosary Sisters Monastery Guesthouse: A charming pilgrims hospice across from Mary's Fountain. 02.641.3755.
For further information on Holy Land tours and Christian tourism or group reservations at one of many Christian guesthouses in the Holy Land please contact Travelujah at [email protected]
Gil Zohar is a licensed tour guide and writes regularly for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours, the leading Christian social network focused on connecting Christians to Israel. People can learn plan and share their Holy Land tour and travel experiences on Travelujah.
Publication date: March 14, 2012