The charming village of Ein Karem, situated on the western slopes of Jerusalem, is a popular destination for both pilgrims and locals alike, with its churches and monasteries, romantic cafes and restaurants, and green hills perfect for hiking.
The site is known as far back as the time of the prophet Jeremiah, who exhorted the children of the tribe of Benjamin to “set up a signal-fire in Beit ha-Kerem” as foreign invaders were approaching Jerusalem (Jeremiah 6:1). Yet for Christian pilgrims, Ein Karem has special significance as the home town of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, and the place of the Visitation, where Mary the mother of Jesus visited her cousin Elizabeth before John’s birth.
Our first stop is the spring which gave its name to the ancient village (Ein Karem means spring of the vineyard). It is also known as Mary’s Spring, because, according to Christian tradition, the Blessed Virgin stopped here to drink while visiting her cousin.
A short walk from the spring leads to the Franciscan Church of the Visitation, commemorating Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. The lovely two-leveled church was completed in 1955 over Byzantine and Crusader ruins. In the courtyard, pilgrims are greeted by one of the Church’s most beloved hymns, Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), which she prayed when she met Elizabeth, now written in no less than 47 languages on the wall facing the church.
On the church’s facade, a beautiful mosaic depicts Mary on a donkey, escorted by angels, on her way from Nazareth to the hill country of Judea, where Ein Karem is situated (Luke 1:39). Inside the lower chapel, the walls are decorated with paintings of biblical scenes such as John’s father Zechariah serving as priest in the Temple (Luke 1:5) and the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth.
In the chapel on the upper level, paintings depict historic scenes in which the Virgin played a special role, such as the Council of Ephesus when she was declared the Theotokos (Mother of God), or the Battle of Lepanto, won through her intercession.
Walking back down the hill, on the other side of the village you will arrive at the other Franciscan church, St. John ba-Harim (St. John in the Mountains in Hebrew). Inside the church is a cave which is traditionally identified as the birthplace of John. The church’s courtyard wall, almost as a mirror image of the Church of the Visitation, displays the song of thanksgiving that Zechariah said when John was born, the Benedictus (Lk 1:68-79) in 24 languages.
In addition to the two Franciscan churches, Ein Karem is also the home of a beautiful onion-domed Russian church, the Greek Orthodox convent of St. John’s, and the monastery of Notre Dame de Sion, built in 1860, whose name (Our Lady of Zion) recalls Mary’s Jewishness and her close identification with Israel.