Ain Karim: the Holy Place of Mary’s Visitation to her relative Elizabeth
The liturgical calendar commemorates today the Visitation of Mary, that is, the Virgin’s journey to the home of her relative Elizabeth. The episode, narrated in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, is famous. Mary, then pregnant with Jesus, goes to the home of the elder Elizabeth, also pregnant (John the Baptist would be her son) and now in her sixth month, to help her with the household chores.
Magnificat ánima mea Dóminum
The Gospel paints a very delicate picture of the meeting between the two women: Elizabeth, who in her old age despaired of the possibility of having children, greets Mary, who was carrying Jesus, with emotion and joy. This is the moment when the Virgin intones the song of the Magnificat, which is still prayed today during the vespers hour.
The location where this episode takes place is not given to us in the Gospel narrative. Luke says no more than that it happened near “the highlands, to a town of Judah” (Luke 1:39). The city must not have been very far from Jerusalem, where it was announced the birth of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son John. And it must not have been a very large centre, since Luke tells us that for the first five months Elizabeth “kept herself from men’s eyes for five months” (Lk 1:24). But, for the first centuries of the Christian era, we do not possess any further information about the location.
Only in the 6th century a pilgrim named Theodosius, visiting the Holy Land, claimed to have found the place where Elizabeth lived five miles from Jerusalem. The distance corresponds to the village of Ain Karim (or Ein Karem) which in a 7th-8th century calendar is said to be the village of the ‘just Elizabeth’.
Barluzzi’s work at Ain Karim
Thus was established, very late, the tradition that it was here in Ain Karim that Elizabeth lived with her husband Zechariah and their son John. And here, a few kilometres west of Jerusalem, today, one can see the church that commemorates precisely the episode of the Visitation. The building that can be admired today dates back to 1939 and is the work of the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi.
Today’s complex consists of a church and the cryptwhere, according to tradition, the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth was indeed located. The upper building, the church, rises abruptly upwards: a brilliant idea to emphasise the boost conveyed by the words of the Magnificat. Remarkable is the mosaic on the facade, depicting the Virgin on her way to the “mountainous region” of which Luke speaks, while some angels accompany her.
The crypt, located on the lower floor, immediately projects the pilgrim into a domestic space. A central well recalls us the daily needs, while the intimate space invites to imagine the calm and the peace in which the two relatives used to live in, guarding the gifts that the Lord had brought them.
Three beautiful frescoes, in Italian style, remind the episode connected with the birth of John the Baptist: the apparition of the angel Gabriel to Zechariah near Jerusalem; the Visitation itself; and the massacre of the innocents from which Elizabeth thoughtfully rescued little John. It is said, in fact, that a rock inside the crypt is the place where John was placed by his mother so that he would remain hidden from Herod’s troops, who were roaming between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Stop at “Mary’s Well”
The architectural complex with a church overlapped on the crypt was recovered by Barluzzi probably from the medieval structure. Even then, a church was superimposed on the crypt. During the crusader era, a convent was also built next to this ensemble, which is still visible today through the shady courtyard within the enclosure. At the time, we can be certain that the wing housing the convent also had a defensive function.
With the expulsion of the Crusaders from the Holy Land in 1187, the sanctuary of the Visitation near Ain Karim sank into oblivion and, after a brief Armenian domination, passed into Muslim hands by the 16th century. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that the Franciscans were able to return to celebrate Christian worships at the crypt.
One can also stop, not far from the Church of the Visitation, at the so-called “Mary’s Well”. This is a natural spring, located at the foot of the hill on which the sanctuary stands, from which it is said Mary drew water to bring it to Elizabeth. A little further up, now towards the road that bends on the Christian complex, stands a minaret. Muslims, too, believe that the birth of John the Baptist has something miraculous about it,and they commemorate it on the site where the child was born.
Come and visit the Church of the Visitation in Jerusalem!