When the second Temple stood in Jerusalem, Ein Kerem was part of the belt of towns around Jerusalem that supplied the city. Each small town had its specialty: wood, oil, animals, grain. As its name—the Spring of the Vineyard–suggests, Ein Kerem’s specialty was grapes for wine.
When the Muslims conquered the land from the Persians in 614 CE, wine production ceased. Alcoholic beverages of any kind are forbidden to them, and growing wine grapes was forbidden. Vineyards throughout the country were uprooted and wine production ceased. But even though there were no more grapes, the name of the town persisted.
Ein Kerem is no longer an isolated town, a long four and half mile hike through the mountains away from the city. It has become another neighborhood within today’s Jerusalem. Like many other neighborhoods, however, it has retained its unique character.
The spring from which the town took its water as well as its name is a holy site for Christians. The story is told in the book of Luke how Mary, pregnant at the time, came to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was also pregnant. When they met near the spring, Elizabeth’s baby moved in response to Mary’s presence. Elizabeth then blessed Mary and her child. Elizabeth’s baby was John the Baptist; Mary’s baby was Jesus. Because the women met here, and John the Baptist grew up here, many Christian groups have built churches and monasteries in the area. The golden domes of the Muskovia, a large Russian Orthodox church on the hill just beyond the spring, can be seen for miles. When we went to Castel, more than four miles away (by car, 5.3 miles), it was easy to see the sunlight reflecting off the Muskovia’s domes. Just below the Muskovia stands the Roman Catholic Church of the Visitation.
Holy sites retain their holiness even when the dominant religion changes. Just uphill from the spring in the other direction stands the Franciscan church St. John of the Mountains. Ein Kerem’s history goes back to Canaanite times; this church stands on the hill where Ba’al was once worshiped. After Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, his mother Queen Helene, visited the holy land to identify the sites holy to Christianity. She identified this hill as the place where Elizabeth and her husband Zachariah had lived, over three hundred years after their deaths. The hill was therefore holy; she built a church here and named it for Elizabeth.
The church stood for less than two hundred years, before being destroyed in the Samaritan revolt against the Byzantines. Another six centuries passed. When the Crusaders came to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims, the Hospitallers built a new church on the ruins of the Byzantine one and named it for St. John. When the Muslims reconquered the area, they once again destroyed the church.
The sultan gave permission to Franciscan monks to buy land and settle in the area in the late 17th century. They completed the monastery about 120 years later, but the modern church was not completed until 1920.
The church has a large courtyard, which the British took advantage of during World War II to station tanks. The treads of the heavy tanks made a mess of the courtyard paving. What was left of it needed to be dug up and replaced after the war. The Franciscans decided to use the opportunity to excavate the courtyard and under the nearby portion of the church. As frequently happens with archaeological excavations in the Middle East, they found much more than they expected.
They had expected to find the remains of the Byzantine church. But in addition to that, they found several Roman statues, including several of Aphrodite. And they found a second Temple period wine press. Like any good scientist, the priest in charge of the excavations, Father Saler, wrote up what he found. His report languished in the Franciscan library for about half a century until a Jewish woman, interested in the history of the Ein Kerem, pulled it out.
Father Saler had been able to identify everything he found under the church and its courtyard, but one structure puzzled him. He found a square hole, whose walls were plastered, which made them watertight. He did not think it had been used to store water, because stairs led down into its pool. As Shulie, the tour guide, read the priest’s description, I thought it sounded like a mikve.
Shulie continued the story. The woman went to the abbot of the monastery, and asked if it was possible to see this structure. At first he said no, it was inaccessible under the church. However, when questioned further he said that although it had been built over, it was possible to get to it through a small passageway under the church. She was persistent, and eventually he gave her permission. She crawled through a tight dusty passage under the church to the chamber. She examined the square plastered hole, the stairs into it, and found the small hole in its wall that would have connected it to the larger pool of fresh water necessary for a kosher mikve. She took several photos of the mikve and left.
Shulie passed copies of the photos around. What had puzzled Father Saler was obvious to the observant Jews and the archeology buffs in our group; he had found an ancient mikve, proof of Jewish presence in Ein Kerem in Second Temple times.
Perhaps some trace of the holiness of the ritual bath still radiating through the ground had attracted Queen Helene to this site. As a Cohen serving in the Temple, Zachariah would have been very concerned with ritual purity. Even if he and Elizabeth had not lived in this exact spot, he may have used the mikve.
No matter where you go in Israel, there are almost always Biblical connections.
Ein Kerem in relation to the rest of Jerusalem: