Centuries-old Ein Karem has changed greatly since it was a small outlying village, home to farming folk who tended the surrounding grape arbors, olive groves and fig trees. Visiting the village now, for most Israelis, means comprises atmosphere, good food and galleries on Hama’ayan (Spring) Street.
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Then again, some things never change – at least in the sacred landscape of the Holy Land – like the stream of Christian pilgrims from around the world who come here, all but engulfing other visitors, on some days. That’s because Ein Karem is the “village of Judah” where Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visited her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist, and uttered the praise poem known as the Magnificat (Luke 1: 36-56). That event, and the birth of John, marked at another church in Ein Karem, makes this village one of the most sacred to Christians in the country.
The Church of the Visitation, the traditional scene of the touching encounter between the two famous mothers-to-be, is located up the hill from Mary’s Spring, another interesting stop for both locals and pilgrims. The site has been the subject of some controversy, as Ein Karemites are up in arms over a huge public lavatory going up across from the ancient spring, which they say will affect its sacredness, not to mention the view. There has even been speculation that Second Temple treasures may have lain for centuries under that spot, having been buried "accidentally on purpose" by the construction.
Still, the Church of the Visitation up the hill is a welcome island of peace and tranquility. For at least 1,000 years a church has stood here, the latest completed in 1955, designed by the prolific architect Antonio Barluzzi, whose many other works include the Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, the Church of All Nations in Jerusalem and Shepherds’ Fields near Bethlehem.
Excavations by the Franciscans in the 1930s revealed a small spring and a grotto where worship went back at least to Byzantine times (4th–7th centuries C.E.). That grotto, or the surrounding courtyard where the text of the Magnificat appears in dozens of languages on ceramic tiles on the wall, is the place where people like to read the Magnificat. Scholars compare it with Hannah’s song of thanksgiving after the birth of Samuel (1 Sam. 2:1–10); the theme of Old and New Testament women is powerfully taken up in the decoration of the main church, at the top of the old staircase in the compound.
The church is adorned from floor to ceiling with colorful frescoes celebrating Mary according to Catholic tradition, while painted images of Old Testament heroines like Yael, Deborah, Rachel and Miriam take it all in atop pilasters along the walls. The architect, Barluzzi, even painted himself into one of the scenes – opposite the doorway on the right-hand wall as you face the altar. He’s the one with the bowtie among images of women from all over the world facing Mary on a pedestal.
Open Monday–Fridays, and Sunday 8 A.M.–11:45 and 2:30–6 P.M.; closes one hour earlier from October to March.