Holy Christian Pilgrimage Site Could Become a Shopping Mall

Some believe that during her pregnancy Mary drank from the Ein Karem spring, the holy water of which is currently polluted.

The Ein Karem spring on the outskirts of Jerusalem is considered one of the four most important Christian pilgrimage sites in Israel. It is believed that Mary, mother of Jesus, drank from this spring during her pregnancy, on her way to Bethlehem. About a million Christian pilgrims visit the site every year, making it one of the holiest and most frequented sites in Israel.

The new and unplanned concrete structure that has been built in Ein Karem
The new and unplanned concrete structure that has been built in Ein Karem.Daniel Bar-On

For nearly two decades, the Jerusalem municipality and the Tourism Ministry have been planning to renovate the open space in front of the spring, transforming it into a square for the pilgrims. Work at the site finally began two years ago. According to the plans - along with the sign posted at the site - a large square is set to be paved there, along with a small building for public restrooms.

During archeological excavations as the work began, two water systems were discovered - from the Mameluke period and the Byzantine period. Residents, as well as top people at the Jerusalem Municipality, were enthusiastic. It was suggested that the systems be renovated to allow spring water to flow through them again.

As some of the buildings in the neighborhood use cesspits for waste, the holy water in the spring is currently polluted and therefore sent to the sewers. The idea was approved by the Jerusalem Planning and Building Committee and promoted by Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur.

However, Ein Karem inhabitants who managed to peep into the construction site discovered that not only have the archeological finds been buried, but an especially large building that wasn't in the planning stages has arisen.

In an official response, the city claims the structure is a municipal storage facility. Residents wonder about the decision to place a storage facility at such an important tourism site, and at the end of one of the city's most trafficked streets.

"My fear is that this ugly structure - which starkly contrasts Ein Karem's unique character and its magnetism for pilgrims - will be turned into a restaurant or shopping mall or worse, an event hall," says Ben Ofarim, a member of the neighborhood committee.

'Hard to turn back the wheel'

If that weren't enough, the municipality plans to pave the street leading to the spring with Ackerstein factory-made paving blocks. As the street's original Jerusalem stone paving stones still lie under the asphalt, all that is needed to restore the street to its splendid past is to remove the asphalt. The municipality explained to the inhabitants that it tried to change the Ackerstein edict, but it turned out the original stones would not be safe.

Tsur has difficulty hiding her frustration with the situation. "There are things that drive me crazy and it seems to me the case of Ein Karem is going to be one of those things," she says. "I'm finding it hard to turn back the wheel. I wanted to correct the historical injustice and send the water under the road to the wadi. I will soon convene a comprehensive think tank for Ein Karem, and in the future we will try to remedy things that have been done."

The Ministry of Tourism responded: "In the context of the construction of a new observation point in the area of the Ein Karem spring, the building of public restrooms was also planned for the site. During the course of the work, an ancient water system was found and the fact of its discovery made handicapped access to the toilets impossible - in accordance with what is required by law. Because of that, and in accordance with the Antiquities Authority's opinion that no uniqueness or tourism potential was found in this archeological discovery, as happens in many cases, it was decided by all concerned to cover up the finds. In the near future, various alternatives for using the structure will be examined."

From the Jerusalem municipality: "This is a project for the development of the Ein Karem spring area as a tourist site. The development is being carried out in strict accordance with the preservation plan. Adjacent to the square a single-story building is being erected in accordance with an approved plan, which includes public toilets as well as a storage facility for maintenance for the square and its surroundings. The roof of the building will be designated as an open public space and paved for the benefit of visitors."