Touring Ein Kerem

January 21, 2009 at 9:48 pm

Our week in Jerusalem was mostly work-focused. I met a ton of fantastic, interesting, brilliant people, and learned sooo much! On Wednesday afternoon, we got out of the classroom for a few hours and went, as a group, to tour the small town of Ein Kerem. This lovely little village sits on top of a hill just east of Jerusalem, and hosts a long and interesting history.

People still live on the ancient desert steps

If you hadn’t caught on from my previous posts, Jerusalem sits on, effectively, several mountains of limestone. The whole city is built from “Jerusalem stone,” which is a beautiful pinky-white limestone. With the hills, juniper trees, and limestone scattered all over, the whole region distinctly reminded me of Shelf Road.

Limestone is a beautiful, and interesting rock. Anybody who lives around limestone beds knows that the rock can dissolve easily in running water, and that limestone beds are usually riddled with caves and springs. So it is in Jerusalem, and much of early Christian history and lore revolves around these ancient caves and springs. On Wednesday, we got a chance to see this first hand.

Mary's Spring - the spot where the virgin mother stopped to drink

We started out the tour with a visit to “Mary’s Spring,” which is supposedly the site of where Mary (mother of Jesus) and Elizabeth (mother of John the baptist) first met. I love seeing very old springs, and imagining how these waters have erupted from the ground, in the middle of the desert, for thousands and thousands of years.

The Church of the Visitation

We went further up the hill to the Church of the Visitation. This was a beautiful church, with a real Franciscan monastery on the grounds. This church is very old, dating back to the Byzantine age, and sits on the spot of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home. The church has beautiful arches, gardens, and frescoes, all maintained by the Franciscan monks. On the day we were there, a few of the monks were walking around in the chilly afternoon. They had their hair cut in the traditional manner, they were wearing traditional brown robes and rope belts. They looked for all the world like Friar Tuck. Except, most were wearing 1980’s-era nylon windbreakers over their robes. It’s one of those non-sequiturs that makes you stop, and realize you’re not in Disneyworld any more.

The birthplace of John the Baptist - in an ancient limestone cave

We walked across the valley and visited the Church of John the Baptist, which is built on another cave system where, according to tradition, John the Baptist was born. The church itself is obviously new, but it sits on the remains of crusades-era and Byzantine-era churches, which were built on top of an ancient Greek temple. Surely, this is a special place.

In the evening, we watched the sun set from the monastery of Les Soeurs de Notre-Dame de Sion (Sisters of Our Lady of Zion), and then hopped on the bus to an overlook for the city of Jerusalem. The Old City was all lit up, and the gold dome on the Temple Mount filled the dark desert sky with light.

Looking out over the Old City of Jerusalem