Many pilgrims believe that a tour in Ein Kerem is a tour of the Switzerland of the Mideast – Imagine a village surrounded by green mountains, church towers all around, a spring, amazing scenery at every point, and European-style restaurants.
Think about lost treasures of gold waiting to be discovered by some lucky person. Tell yourself that generals, noblemen, and even the Pope have visited here. Now stop imagining, because this place is nearby, in Jerusalem.
Ein Kerem – the best of abroad in Jerusalem
We will begin the tour of this western Jerusalem neighborhood at the main road that crosses it. You can park (for free) in the parking lot at the top of the road to the northwest or near the spring in the heart of the village.
From the junction go north on the narrow road to the Church of St. John the Baptist. Pay attention to the “hands” that are carved into the wall of the entrance gate to the churchyard. Both hands have a hole in their palms, one symbolizing the crucified Jesus and the other the hand of St Francis, who established the Franciscan order that protects the holy sites for the Vatican.
Honor to John the Baptist
Enter the yard and notice a well in front of you. Although this Church was built in the 19th century, underneath it you can see the remains of a temple dedicated to Aphrodite (Venus) – a Byzantine and Crusader Church. In 1939 when a troop of British gunners arrived here, one of the cannons collapsed onto the ground, and remnants of mosaics and inscriptions were found as well as a statue of Aphrodite (Venus) from an earlier temple that stood here.
More than a billion Christians consider Ein Kerem to be the birthplace of John. This is the place to note that John, like Jesus, was a Jew. His father, Zacharia, served as a priest in the Second Temple, and his mother Elisheva (Elizabeth – she was the granddaughter of Matan the priest from the house of Aaron) lived here, according to Christian tradition.
Inside the church there is an impressive apse (a niche on which the main altar is placed) facing east, in which stand the two statues of Zacharia and Elisheva. To the left of the apse, there is a small cavern or crypt, where according to tradition, John was born.
Pay attention to the drawings on the wall of the cave, where you can identify John by his beard, clothing (goat’s hair), and his staff that has a snake on it. Keep in mind that for hundreds of years the simple people could not read or write, so the solution throughout the Christian world lay in drawing figures, called icons.
As in every Catholic church, you can see the confession booth, baptism font, and the 14 Stations of the Cross, the Via Dolorosa, which are painted onto the walls of the church. This and more was donated to St John’s Church throughout the years by pilgrims, European royalty and other interested parties.
Paradise in the heart of Ein Kerem
Leave the church area toward the Monastery of the Sisters of Our Lady of Zion, a five-minute walk. After you ring the bell on the gate and enter, turn right into the pretty yard. In the middle of the nineteenth- century a Jewish convert to Christianity named Alfonse Ratisbonne arrived in Jerusalem – the Ratisbonne Monastery next to the old Bezalel building and the Sisters of Zion Church in the Old City are also named after him.
Ratisbonne, who founded the Order of the Sisters of Zion, managed to slyly acquire the land for the monastery, despite the Ottoman rule forbidding the sale of land to non-Muslims. To the left of the path, you can see his modest house, and next to it three 130-year-old cedar trees.
Continue to the guest house (highly recommended, from personal experience), which has an impressive panoramic view of the Judean Hills behind it. Grab a chair or bench and all that remains is to gaze into the view and rest. In the winter you can see the water that outlines the famous Ein Kerem dam, and in very rainy seasons you can even see the water gliding from the dam until almost becoming waterfall.
A few meters south of the lookout you will reach the modest cemetery of the monastery, where Retisbon is buried. Above the grave stands a statue of St Mary with the engraved passage “Oh Mary, remember your child who was captivated by your love”.
In addition to Ratisbonne, nuns who have lived in the monastery since its establishment are also buried here, and there is even a sarcophagus from the Second Temple-era at the site. Pay attention to the amazing view south of the cemetery: The turret of the Church of the Visitation (which we will soon reach) and the Russian Church built in 1905 and just completed, after work had been frozen for 100 years.
Mary’s Spring and a family visit
Make a right out of the monastery towards the road, and turn towards the Ein Kerem spring. According to tradition, this is where Mary, mother of Jesus, met her cousin Elisheva, while the two were pregnant. From here, we learn that Jesus and John the Baptist were of the same age.
Go south and climb toward the impressive Church of the Visitation. From atop you can see a breathtaking view, which includes the beginning of Nachal Sorek and ends at Palmahim Beach. There is a mosaic on the wall of the church with a prayer from the New Testament, which appears in more than forty languages. If you ask permission and are lucky, go up to the upper church on the second floor, and look at the many, spectacular paintings on the wall.
Go down from here and return to the center of the village from where we started.
Gold Fever – After the Gold Rush…
Ein Kerem was an Arab village until 1948. During the War of Independence, the Arab residents of the neighborhood abandoned their homes; some went to Jordan and some to Bethlehem. A common legend among the new residents of the village maintains that some of the previous residents hid gold in the walls of their houses, and were not able to take it with them because of the haste in which they fled.
Legend or not, in 1950 Mr Marciano opened a grocery store on Ma’ayan Street. Marciano laughed at the tales of the old people (or old women to be exact) who remained there after the war and claimed that the gold treasures of Dr Yoachim (who lived there until 1948) were hidden in the store.
When the Public Works Authority began to widen the road, after a year, they found two sacks of gold hidden in the destroyed wall. It is superfluous to say that the previous owner who fled to Jordan was outraged when he heard about the discovery of the precious treasure; rumor has it that he lost his mind. A year later, Arabs who had previously lived in the village, broke into the house, destroyed a wall and took the treasure that the family had hidden three years earlier. Only in Jerusalem!
As in a Turkish movie, Allegra’s father sat shiva (mourning period) for her, and Jabra was not allowed to return to Ein Kerem. Afterwards, Allegra converted and concentrated on education and charity. Jabra succeeded in business and became the chief meat supplier to the British army. Subsequently, the two returned to Ein Kerem, and lived in the house that was called “The Jewess’ House”