Tourist Tip #310 / The Church of St. Anne

This crusader structure is refreshingly unadorned compared to other medieval churches, but the extraordinary acoustics make it worth waiting for a hymn.

If you’re not planning to explore the great medieval churches of Western Europe any time soon, take time out for their little cousin in Jerusalem’s Old City.

The austere Church of St. Anne, just inside the Lions’ or St. Stephen’s Gate, is one of the most satisfyingly unadorned in the Holy Land. Leave behind the grime and grimaces of the cobble-stone street culture as you enter the pepper-tree-shaded benches and inviting garden of a Catholic monastery.

And sit patiently until some tour group files into the church and tests its extraordinarily reverberant acoustics with some hymn-singing. It could be worth the wait. (A brief prayer that they’ll sing in tune cannot hurt.)

St. Anne’s Church was completed around 1138, at the height of the Crusader period. The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and its principalities at the time included the entire country, all of Lebanon, and great chunks of modern Syria and Jordan. The sanctuary is Romanesque in style, more massive and simple in appearance, and with rounder arches, than the elaborate Gothic architecture that followed it.

In the right aisle, steps descend to a grotto, where chiseled-out bedrock shares the close space with tiny chapels. The decorations and art-work evoke the Virgin Mary, who is believed to have been born here. Her parentage is never mentioned in the New Testament, but 2nd-century traditions identified her parents as Joachim and Anne. They lived in this rock dwelling, the traditions claimed, and a 5th-century Byzantine church gave the spot its enduring sanctity.

Traditions seem to cluster around grottoes, connecting them with venerated personages of the distant past. People were said to have been born in one (the Nativity in Bethlehem, St. Anne’s, St. John’s in Ein Karem), lived in one (the Annunciation in Nazareth), hidden in one (Elijah in Haifa, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Pekiin), taught or wrote in one (Pater Noster on Mt. of Olives, St. Jerome’s in Bethlehem), or been buried in one (Holy Sepulcher, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron, Lazarus in Bethany). The identifications are often spurious; but for the believer, centuries of pilgrims’ tears and prayers have lent the sites an undeniable spiritual aura.

Wander up to the front of the main church. The white stone altar was designed by the French sculptor Philippe Kaeppelin (1918-2011). The reliefs on the face of the altar depict (from left to right) the birth of Jesus, the removal of his body from the cross, and the angel announcing to Mary that she would bear the child.

A Muslim angle

The Crusaders were crushed at the Horns of Hattin by the great Arab leader Saladin in July, 1187; Jerusalem fell to him three months later. Far from destroying St. Anne’s, he converted it into a “madrasa,” a place of Koranic study. It only returned to Christian hands in the mid-19th century as a Turkish acknowledgement of Napoleon III’s assistance against Russia in the Crimean War. The church was a shambles, but the French government restored it to its pristine medieval beauty. Today it is administered by the affable White Fathers (so called because of their white robes), a Catholic monastic order with extensive medical and welfare activities in Africa.

Curiously, the French never removed the Arabic plaque that Saladin placed over the main door of the church: “In the name of God,” it begins, “the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful, and who amongst you are blessed but by God. This Blessed Madrasa was endowed by our master, the ruler, the victorious, the salvation of the world and religion, sultan of Islam and the Muslims…” And so it goes on, heaping blessings and praise on Saladin. The date is 588 on the Muslim calendar – 1192 on our conventional one.

In the same compound, just a few steps away, are the authentic Pools of Bethesda, where Jesus healed the lame man (John 5). But that’s another story.

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