Ein Kerem (or Ein Karem, i.e. spring of the vineyard in Hebrew) is nestled at the foot of mount Orah of the Judea Mountains. wherever the eyes go, they rest on the beautiful views of the village that, thanks to a persistent and willful struggle of its inhabitants, preserves the magic of its unique characteristic, no matter what are the hardships of time and modernization.
You can take the route to the village that offers plenty of thrilling experiences, as for example walking in narrow alleys, seeing the landscapes of times immemorial, enjoying the beauty of the Arab stone houses, or visiting the myriad of churches, coffeehouses, and restaurants.
This route is the written work of Sarit Peri, a tourist guide and an expert for tours in Jerusalem, Tel. 0523-943-966
For people coming by car from Tel Aviv, turn right at the Harel interchange and take route 3965 for a few kilometers until you reach a square where you turn left to route 395. The road winds and descends to a T intersection where you turn left to route 386, or Ein Kerem street, the main street of the neighborhood. You can leave your car either here or near the fountain: across from Anashim restaurant take the right turn (south) to Ma'ayan st. and continue till the end of the road until you reach Maria's Spring (Miriam's spring in Hebrew), and there we shall start our track.
We shall start our tour in Maria's Spring, which is called after Virgin Mary who during her visit to here, frequented the spring and drank from its water. This story underlies the Christian tradition that sanctified the spring, and during the ages, Christian pilgrims who visited the site were used to fill bottles with its water and to take them back to Europe. Although being reputed as one of the most affluent springs in Judea Mountains and known for the quality of its water, the spring is now contaminated by run off sewage water and drinking it is not recommended.
Not far from here, in proximity to this spring, is the location of the early Canaanite settlement of Ein Kerem, which started more than 3,000 years ago. A carved stone tunnel leads to this spring, which was dug in the early days of the Second Temple, an epoch that saw the thriving and growth of this village.
Above this spring, a Maqam, a sanctified place of worship and a mosque for the Muslims, was built here one hundred years ago and was also used as the local school. Today it symbolizes the Muslim village of Ein Kerem, which originated in the 16th century and until this day the minaret, the towering cylindrical structure above us, is what remained from this Maqam.
This place was also visited by Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, the wife of the second president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and in 1949, in the deserted village of Ein Kerem, is where she decided to establish a children's village and an institution for agricultural education for orphans.
Forty years before that, Rachel made her first visit to Ein Kerem and she wrote about it in her memories:
I remember visiting Ein Kerem together with Ben Zvi and Y.H. Brenner [an author and a publicist,1881 - 1921]. It was winter 1909. One Saturday Brenner arrived to our house from Jaffa, and we went down with him to see Ein Kerem. The day was bright and radiant as a spring day. Our spirits were high when we reached Ein Kerem and stood at the top of the valley, enchanted by the beautiful scenery that was revealed to our eyes. Mountains in either side of the valley. In our spirit's eyes, we envisioned an ancient Hebrew village… Fellah [farmer in Arabic] houses, monasteries, and glorious churches, and in front of our eyes - the much-praised spring whose water were flowingly running off to form a muddy puddles and a play ground for the Arab children that were indulged in water games.
Today also, it is recommended to reach Ein Kerem during winter, and especially during January-February, in the time of the almond trees' blossom, that covers Ein Kerem with the heart-warming white of a bride in her bridal veil.
The Village-Head House
Taking the route from the spring, we will ascend toward the church. Our way will pass near the Ein Kerem Music Center, the private adobe of the pair pianists Bracha Eden and Alexander Tamir. In the past, this was the dwelling place of the local sheik, the village-head.
In this house lived hajj Isma'il in 1883. When General Charles Gordon had visited Ein Kerem, he chose this house as his domicile. The visit was prolonged for a whole year, with intent to research the New Testament's stories. Moved by the General decision to dwell in his house rather than in the Franciscan Monastery's guest rooms, hajj Isma'il gave the general a present – a white donkey and a servant named Ali. In one occasion, Ali bestowed his master with a mulberry tree plant and the General planted it in the sheik's yard, and an evident of it grows here until this very day.
The General Charles Gordon was enchanted by the figure of John the Baptist and was speaking about him frequently. After one year, he was commissioned to serve in Sudan, from which he never returned. Surprisingly, his destiny was similar to that of st. John's: he was beheaded in January 1 1885 in Khartoum, Sudan's capital.
Our ascending up to the church will lead us also to pass next to the Rosary Monastery' gate, the sisterhood of the rosary bead which was built in 1909 and today serves as an orphanage.
Church of the Visitation
From the church square there is a beautiful scenery – the landscape of Sorek river with the Beit Zayit levee and lake in its midst. The levee was erected during the 1950' before it was discovered that the water lake is permeating through the soil and emanating as a spring in Ein Fuwar (Ein Maboa in Hebrew) in wadi Kelt [approximately 15 kilometers to the east, in a Judea Desert canyon].
To the right of the levee we can see Moshav Beit Zayit, and to its left – the agricultural school of Beit Zayit, which originally was the Children's Village of Rachel Yanait Ben Zvi that was relocated to here.
On top of the mountain we can identify the houses of Motza Ilit (Upper Motza), Mevaseret-Zion and Ha-castel (Maoz Zion). Looking down to the valley below us, we can identify wadi Ha-ma'ayan with its evidences of an ancient agriculture – the terraces and stonewalls – a cultivation method that prevents soil erosion.
The bronze statues of Elizabeth and Zechariah will welcome us from the entrance gate. Their story is told in the New Testament's Gospel of Luke, chapter 1. The tale about the elderly couple is quite succinct. Elizabeth spent many years of her life in the village Beit Ha-kerem and she never imagined that her fate would be similar to that of Sara, one of the four matriarchs, Hannah, the mother of Samuel, and the Wife of Manoah (Samson's father) that were all regarded by God and by the gift of a son during old age.
Her husband, Zehariah, worked as a priest in the Temple, and during his sacrificial work an angel was revealed to him and told him that his wife was going to have a baby boy. In finding this news as hard-to-believe, he was struck voiceless by the angel and became mute. Indeed, Elizabet conceived and simultaneously, her relative, Maria of Nazareth, was also pregnant with a child. Maria who carried Jesus in her womb went as quickly as she could to a town in the hill country of Judah and to visit Elizabeth in Ein Kerem.
During the visit, the child leapt with joy in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. After blessing her, Maria answered Elizabeth with a canticle: My Soul Glorifies the Lord (Luke 1:46). The hymn that Maria sang is called Magnificat, and it is here, in the interior of the churchyard, where more than 50 ceramic tiles with its words in various languages are hanged on the wall. The language of this canticle resembles very much that of The Song of Hannah (Samuel 2:1-10).
After Elizabeth had gave birth, she asked to name her child John, a deviant from the custom of calling the son after his father's name. Zecharia, when being asked which name to give the boy, wrote on a writing table John. The curse was relieved, his mouth was opened immediately, and he spoke.
During St. John's childhood, King Herod had sent his soldiers to slaughter all the sons of the Tribe of Judea, since it had been told to him that the Messiah was born in Judea. Elizabeth run away with the child and hided with him in an enclave in a rock, that miraculously opened in front of her to the words of her supplication. As an adult, St. John went to the desert where he preached near River Jordan and baptized there his followers, and among them, his cousin Jesus of Nazareth. According to tradition, the church was built by Hellena, the mother of the emperor Constantin in 324 AD.
In the aftermath of Great Revolt, the Jewish settlement in Ein Kerem was deserted and the place was l left in its desolation until the first century AD when it was inhabited by Samaritans who called the place Arene (The Mountainous in Greek) and then it recovered its importance and centrality during the second century AD.
The Roman emperor Hadrianus had demolished any tokens of a Jewish culture from Ein Kerem and replaced it with the worshiping of statues. Arene was deserted until Hellena visited it and upon her arrival to the abandoned village, and to the sight of all of the Roman temple remains, she decided that the birthplace of St. John is at the center of the village, and that Elizabeth' adobe is on the mountainside. In these two locations She built two huge and impressive churches. The Byzantine churches of Hellena were erased during the Persian conquest in 614.
In 1099, the Crusaders reached the Land of Israel, found the ruined churches and restored them. They dedicated the church that we see in front of us to the visit that Maria paid to Elizabeth, and it is called to this day The Church of the Visitation. When looking at its outstanding façade we will notice the mosaic work that was done by the artist Bigoti in 1943 and transferred as it was from the Vatican to Palestine. The mosaic depicts the arrival of Maria, riding on a donkey, in her way from Nazareth to Ein Kerem. Below there is a script, and Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Judea.
The Lower Church:
In the lower church we will find some impressive frescoes that tell the stories of Zechariah's worship in the Temple, Maria's meeting with Elizabeth, and the fleeing Elizabeth that hides her son John. Behind a grill, there is the rock declivity that hid John and an Italian inscription pietra del nascondiment, the stone in which John was concealed.
The Upper Church
The frescoes here are the artwork of Cesare Vagarini that arrived here in 1941, but soon was ousted by the British as for being a citizen of a hostile country. He retuned back in 1949, and then was helped by the well-known artist Mordechai Ardon, the winner of Israel Prize, until a notice was sent by the Vatican, demanding to put an end to the Jewish artist's work.
The mosaic in the central part depicts Francis who dedicates the Church of the Visitation to Maria, a mosaic, which is based on what remains from the Crusader one. Additional frescoes are located in the southern wall of the church and portray the dispense of all grace (the marriage at Cana), celebrating Maria as the Mother of God, and paintings of other feminine figures from the Bible and New Testament. The church was entirely completed in 1954 by the famous architect Antonio Barluzzi.
At the end of our visit in the church, we will descend back to the spring, and ascend in the Ma'ayan Street back to the main Ein Kerem road. In crossing this street we will lead our steps to where most of Ein Kerem restaurants are located. To our right we will notice a small coffee house named Sweet'n Karem which is a paradise for chocolate lovers… we will continue straight until arriving upon the St John Church's gate.
The Monastery and Church of John the Baptist
In this place, Hellena built the Byzantine church, and after a couple of hundreds years, the Crusaders built here a church for St. John. The song pf Zechariah, Benedictus, for the birth of his son John, is written on the walls that surround the open yard. We will cross the beautiful atrium and enter the church.
The orthogonal building of the church is called Basilica and it was adapted from Roman architecture by the Christian world. The basilica is consisted of a nave, a middle court, two lateral aisles that are separated from each other by two lines of columns. Three apses are located in the anterior front of the church. In the central apse, we will identify paintings of Maria, Elizabeth and St. John, and also a picture of John the Baptist.
The left apse is eventually the holiest place in this church, the cave in which Elizabeth had gave birth to St. John. In the descending down to the apse, there is a picture of the benediction of Jesus by St. John in the Jordan River. In the central apse, there are two marble statues: the one to your right is St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order that this church, like The Church of the Visitation, belongs to. The Franciscan order was established in the 13 century by the disciples and followers of St. Francis. The one to your left is St. Clair who was a disciple of St. Francis and earned from him the title the bride of the Messiah. St Clair was the founder of the Order of Poor Ladies, or the Poor Clares.
In 29 AD St. John was arrested by Herod Antipas and met with a horrible end: his head was cut off, and the head was given on a tray to Salome, the daughter of the second wife of Herod. On the Southern wall of the church, there is a painting of the beheading of St. John by Herod, an artwork of the Spanish painter Ribalta from the 16th century. On the church's walls, there are pictures that depict the fourteen stations of the cross, the Via Dolorosa, that are a characteristic theme in all Catholic churches. This church, unlike The Church of the Visitation, is much more active, because of its energetic community of monks that meticulously keep the rituals and prayers around the year.
Upon our exiting the church, we will immediately take the right turn. Ein Kerem is the dwelling place of many artists who chose to leave behind them the hustle of the big city and to build here their home. If you'll go right, you could visit a studio for ceramics tile paintings of the artist Ruth Havilio, whose work is greatly inspired by the spirit of Ein Kerem. We will walk down the alley, cross the street, and continue our way straight. We'll take the right turn in front of the Bible Times Learning Center, heading our way to the Sisters of Our Lady of Zion monastery.
The Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Zion
We shall ring the entrance bell and enter the convent, into the beautiful and impressive compound that keeps behind its stone walls the peacefulness and quiet of the Sisters of Our Lady of Zion's garden. We will walk through its paths and enjoy its beauty. In 1860 a converted Jew, Alphonse Ratisbonne, reached Ein Kerem, and like many others before him, fell in love with the place, and decided to establish on this lofty hill a home for God and for orphaned girls.
He exerted an interesting trick to purchase the land: the landowner demanded for this piece of land a huge amount of money – 200,000 francs, which was considered too high. However, what this landowner was missing, is that he was bargaining with the grandchild of the French financial minister. Ratisbonne didn't lost his wits and together with an Ein Kerem acquaintance, Yosef Tanus, concocted a secret expedient, and started to operate a liaison in Beirut who supposedly asked also to purchase this land, and succeeded, with a recommendation letter from the pasha in Jerusalem, to purchase this land for 70,000 francs. The greedy landowner joyfully announced Ratisbonne that he had lost the deal because it was already sold to a prosperous man from Beirut, but how deep was his astonishment when he sadly discovered that in the same week the estate was sold by the mysterious Lebanese to Ratisbonne himself…
Ratisbonne built here an orphanage for girls, and many orphans from the neighboring countries found haven in this place and later his private home was built here too. This place serves as the adobe of nuns from the Sisters of Our Lady of Zion order that was founded by Ratisbonne. In Jerusalem, there are two additional convents of the order, one in Rehavia, and the other in the Old City's Muslim Quarter.
You will notice the silence of this place, and the comeliness of the well-attended garden inside the convent. The compound is not used as an orphanage anymore, but as a modest and pleasant guesthouse. The central building that used to accommodate the girls serve now as the guestrooms, and the building that juxtaposed to the church hosts the dining-room and kitchen and the church's nunnery.
As in other convents and monasteries, this is a place of austerity and simpleness with the only function to serve as a home for its nuns. In the apse's vitrages, we will identify the images of Moses and Elijah. It is important to pause and note that this order places a special emphasis on the study of Judaism, the link between Judaism and Christianity, and the nuns even speak Hebrew.
Among the paintings on the walls, we will meet again with the theme of the fourteen Stations of the Cross in the via dolorosa of Jesus. Occasionally the church is used, thanks to its extraordinary acoustics, for organized concerts and liturgical music.
We will continue with a stroll down the garden, enjoying the pristine air and atmosphere until we'll find our way to a beautiful belvedere, in the carob garden. The views that are seen from here are of Sorek river below, Mt. Heret and Mt. Eitan in front, and the buildings of Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital on the near hill. Further away from here, if you would find it interesting, visit the small graveyard and Alphonse Ratisbonne's grave from 1884. A Maria statue with an epitaph of his last wards Oh Maria, remember thy son who was conquered by your love designates his burial place. It's also the burial place of girls and nuns that shared their lives in this place, and from the names which are etched on the gravestones we can learn that some of them were Jews.
We will exit the graveyard and go back to the entrance gate. In our way out, we will notice some rain drainage reservoirs from the 19th century that used to supply Ein Kerem with water. We will exit from the convent and go to our right, descending down in Oren st. that will take us back to Ha-ma'ayan st. where we started our tour. In our way, we will notice the impressive Russian Church on the mountainside of Mt. Orah – a building with five onions of the tented roof, which is typical to other Russian churches.
The Yelizavetta Fyodorovna Church
This is the church of Yelizavetta Fyodorovna, the princess who became a nun. The church is located in the middle of the Russian village of Ein Kerem, which is also known as Moscovia. The building was started by Yelizavetta on 1905 after her husband, Duke Sergey, was assassinated, but with the outset of First World War, the works were interrupted, and due to Yelizavetta's and the rest of the Russian royal family's assassination in 1917 it was standing still, only to be completed one hundred years later in 2005.
We will see further away from there another church that looks quite deserted. This Greek Church of Ein Kerem was built at the end of the 19th century. This place has been kept and maintained by a nun that also painted most of its impressive frescos, but with her death it was closed to visitors and only rarely it is opened.
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