Highlights of Ein Kerem in the Holy Land
Tucked into the hills of southwest Jerusalem, still within city limits, is the picturesque village of Ein Karem, the childhood home of John the Baptist. Two churches and three monasteries are located around the village: Church of Saint John the Baptist, Church of the Visitation, a Russian monastery, the Greek Orthodox convent of Saint John, and the monastery of Notre Dame De Sion, plus Mary’s Spring where, according to Christian tradition, Mary met Elizabeth after she journeyed from Nazareth to see her cousin. In addition to religious sites, Ein Karem is known for its restaurants, many of which are open on the Sabbath. From a taste of hummus to modern fare, the restaurants in the small town tend to be busy with diners on Friday and Saturday. The neighborhood has also attracted artisans and craftsmen over the years and is home to several galleries.
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.
An Art gallery in Ein Karem; photo courtesy Travelujah
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 6000 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.
Church of St. John the Baptist; photo courtesy Hanan Ishachar
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.
The village was once a Canaanite site that evolved around a spring, thus the name Ein Kerem, “the spring of the vineyard.” The site is identified as Beit Hakkerem from the Israelite period where it says in Jeremiah 6:1: “Raise the signal over Beth Hakkerem!” Since Biblical times, the neighborhood changed hands from Romans to Byzantines to Islamic forces.
Sisters of Sion Guesthouse
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.
Entrance to the Sisters of Sion Guesthouse, photo courtesy Travelujah
Ein Karem in Scripture
“At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!’” Luke 1:39-45
Access to the churches is free. Church of Saint John the Baptist: Monday-Friday 8:00-12:00; 14:30-17:00; Sunday 9:00-12:00; 14:30-17:00 (Saturday closed). Church of the Visitation: Apr.-Sept., daily 8-noon and 2:30-6; Oct.-Mar., daily 8-noon and 2:30-5. Gates closed Sat., ring bell to be let in.
Nearby Places of Interest
Sataf, an Israel national park with ancient aqueducts and caves, springs and remains of a 4,000 BC Chalcolithic village.
If You Go:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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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.