At the base of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem is a Crusader church said to mark the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. Centered around a quarried-out tomb that may well date from the first century, the cave church is festooned with hanging lamps and highly atmospheric.
History of Tomb of the Virgin Mary
The biblical accounts provide no information about the end of Mary's life or the place of her burial. A number of places have claimed the honor, including Ephesus in Turkey.
Traditions about Mary's burial in this area of Jerusalem may be as old as the 2nd or 3rd century. Such traditions became stronger in the 5th century, when the claims of Ephesus were strongly disputed.
Around 455, an ancient tomb here was isolated by quarrying out the surrounding rock. The process was similar to that carried out around the tomb of Christ under Emperor Constantine (see Church of the Holy Sepulchre). The first written mention of a church on this site dates from the 6th century. A round church was built above the tomb by Mauritius Tiberius (582-602) but destroyed by the Persians in 614.
The church was rebuilt, and the pilgrim Arculf visited it in 680. He recorded that the church had two levels, both of which were round. The upper level had four altars; the lower level had an altar at the east end and the tomb of Mary on the right. A 9th-century church record says that the site was served by 13 presbyters and clergy, 6 monks, and 15 nuns.
When the Crusaders arrived, all they found were ruins. They rebuilt the church in 1130 and included a Benedictine monastery to make it the "Abbey Church of St. Mary of Jehosaphat." The monastic complex included early Gothic columns, red-on-green frescoes, and three towers for protection. Queen Melisande was buried in the lower church in 1161.
When the Crusader kingdom fell in 1187, Salah al-Din destroyed most of the upper church and used the stone to repair the city walls, but the lower church remained virtually intact. The site was taken over by Franciscans after the Crusaders left, and has since been shared by Greeks, Armenians, Syrians, Copts, Abyssinians and Muslims.
The Tomb of the Virgin is venerated by Muslims because, during his Night Journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, the Prophet Muhammad saw a light over Mary's tomb. In addition, Caliph Umar prayed at Gethsemane in 638.
What to See at Tomb of the Virgin Mary
Steps from the road descend into a square courtyard containing the upper church, which is little more than a c.1130 portal and pointed arch supported on eight marble columns.
Inside, seven steps down a wide 12th-century staircase of 47 steps is the tomb of Queen Melisande, who died in 1161. The tomb was once protected by iron bars; an arch with a lily-bud motif remains. Opposite her tomb is the vault for the family of her son, King Baldwin II. The walls of the stairs are 12th century, and include 12th-century windows blocked up to keep out the Kidron floods.
Melisande's body was moved in the 14th century to a place at the foot of the stairs, and her tomb was subsequently identified with Mary's parents Joachim and Anne. The tombs of King Baldwin's family were later identified as the tomb of Joseph.
The lower church at the bottom of the stairs is a Byzantine (5th-century) crypt, partly hewn out of rock and featuring original Byzantine masonry. The area is dimly lit and the walls are blackened with centuries of smoke, giving the place an air of great antiquity. The room is opulantly decorated with icons and a forest of hanging lanterns.
There is a built apse to the west and a longer rock-cut apse to the east, in which Mary's tomb is marked by a small square chapel. It is quite similar to her son's tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The altar inside the tomb conceals the remains of a bench tomb that may date from the 1st century.
A niche south of the tomb is a mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca, installed when Muslims had joint rights to the church. Altars of the Greeks and Armenians also share the east apse; an Ethiopian altar and cistern occupies the west apse.
Quick Facts on Tomb of the Virgin Mary
|Names:||Church of St. Mary of Jehosaphat · Mary's Tomb · Tomb of the Virgin Mary|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||31.780131° N, 35.239785° E|
|Hours:||Mon-Sat 6-12, 2:30-5|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Tomb of the Virgin Mary|
- Kay Prag, Blue Guide to Israel and the Palestinian Territories (Black and Norton, 2002), 234-35.
- Daniel Jacobs, Mini Rough Guide to Jerusalem (Rough Guides, 1999), 110-11.
Map of Tomb of the Virgin Mary, Jerusalem
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