Tag Archives: Ein Kerem

Ein Kerem’s Holy Hill

St. John of the Mountains Church, Ein Kerem       photo: biblewalks.com
St. John of the Mountains Church, Ein Kerem
photo: biblewalks.com

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.

Mary's Spring, Ein Kerem, Jerusalem
Mary’s Spring, Ein Kerem
photo: Yehudit Reishtein

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.

Muskovia Church, Ein Kerem      photo: Yehudit Reishtein
Muskovia Church, Ein Kerem

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:

Ein Kerem

Stiars to Ein Kerem ceramics studio
The cat watches for visitors to an Ein Kerem ceramics studio

Ein Kerem means Spring of the Vineyard, which reflects its role as a wine producing town in the Second Temple Period. At that time, it was a small town, a long four and a half mile walk from Jerusalem through the mountains of Judea. Today it is a neighborhood within the city known for churches and its artists.

To get to Ein Kerem, you head west on Herzl boulevard, one of Jerusalem’s major thoroughfares, past the military cemetery, and turn onto a small road that winds its way through the Jerusalem forest. At certain points, almost hidden by trees, you can see the golden domes of the Muskovia Church that sits on the southern slope of the neighborhood. The church, built in the 1900s, is visible for great distances, identifiable by the golden light reflecting from its domes.

Tile by Ruth Havilio
Tile by Ruth Havilio

I went to Ein Kerem not to see a church but to visit Ruth Havilio, a ceramicist who specializes in making decorative tiles. Many of her tiles feature the flowers and birds she sees around her. She feels a deep connection to Ein Kerem; she loves the ancient terraces on which the grape vines grew and draws inspiration from the unspoiled Biblical landscape. The bright colors and open feeling of her tiles distinguish them from the more common Armenian tiles one sees on display in tourist shops and as nameplates on doorways all over Jerusalem.

A sabra, she relates how her father, Shlomo, almost missed his own wedding. As a young man, he had been an officer in the Haganah, the precursor to the IDF. In 1948, he was commander of the Jewish forces assigned to the defense of several neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Not blessed with the gift of prophecy, he and his fiancée had decided to get married on the day the War of Independence broke out. He was so busy organizing and checking the city’s defenses, he forgot what else he had been supposed to do. Although later in the day, he did remember the important event he had scheduled, he arrived late. His bride, also a Haganah officer, waited.

His service to Israel did not end with the establishment of the state. For many years, he was Israel’s ambassador to Cameroon. Ruth grew up in Africa, and then studied art and architecture in Paris. Her work shows an African influence, reflecting her childhood.

The major influence on her art, however, is the landscape around her. She and her husband bought the building she lives and works in 27 years ago. Before 1948, Ein Kerem had been an Arab town. Buildings were constructed on top of the ruins of what had been built before. Houses were not planned; as more space was needed, rooms were added. During the renovations to their house, which they bought from a Moroccan family, Ruth and her husband discovered it had been built on top of Byzantine ruins.

David Kroyanker, an architect who has studied and written about the architecture of Jerusalem, has described Arab rustic architecture. Originally one story homes were built, with one large arched room. The residents lived in this room with their animals, which were brought into the house for warmth. As the family grew, and the people could afford it, a second story was added, where the people lived, separated from the animals.

Ruth describes how they removed a hundred truckloads of dirt from under their salon on the entrance level to reveal the original room. For a while their salon had no floor; they walked on a plank from the doorway to the kitchen. Her mother was too afraid to enter her house for months. Gradually they discovered the large room below. She showed photos of the excavation in progress, and what it looks like now. The once filthy walls are painted white, and they curve near the top to form the high arched ceiling. The photos show a lovely room, but visitors are not allowed in because it is her teen-aged daughter’s bedroom.

On the outside of the house, stairs follow the curve of the arched entry and lead to the flat roof, which is vital part of the home. Here food was stored. In hot weather, people slept on their roofs to be cooler. For security reasons, the stairs do not go all the way to the ground. Every family had a ladder to get to the roof, and at night they would bring the ladder in so no stranger or thief could get into the house.

Many houses were built with special niches in the outer walls to attract doves, which were raised for food. The niches are still visible in the walls. Although doves and pigeons occasionally nest in a the niches, Ruth’s family does not dine on their meat.

Often a guest room was built on an additional floor. It would have its own entrance with stairs leading up to it from the inner courtyard. This is the room that Ruth has converted into her ceramics workshop and showroom.

The story of her home is the story of many houses in Ein Kerem. The town has been continuously inhabited for over three thousand years; layers upon layers of buildings and ruins have been excavated and rehabilitated. Just last week, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of a Second Temple Period mikve under the living room of a family that lives nearby.

During World War II it was a very busy town, with a population of over 4000, making it one of the largest Arab towns in British Palestine. A center of Arab nationalism and terrorism, it was approximately two-thirds Christian and one-third Muslim. After the Irgun attack on Deir Yassin, another Arab town just outside Jerusalem, the Arabs panicked and fled. The only residents who remained were the monks and nuns.

After the War of Independence, the state of Israel took possession of all abandoned Arab properties. Houses in many formerly Arab neighborhoods in and around Jerusalem became homes for immigrants. The Jewish Agency brought bus loads of new olim, primarily from Morocco, Yemen, and Romania to Ein Kerem. The new olim, however, took one look at the town as they were driven through it, noticing how rundown and neglected it was. They refused to get off the bus. Then, one day, an elderly Yemenite man stood up and declared, “This is Jerusalem!” He descended from the bus, followed by the rest of his family.

Others followed them, and Ein Kerem became a thriving community. He received a heavenly reward for his pioneering spirit. He fathered a child at age 90, and lived to the age of 102.

For many years Ein Kerem remained a small neglected town outside Jerusalem. Its residents were primarily poor olim who arrived in the country with no resources. The town had poor roads and homes lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. Very gradually it was modernized as the standard of living increased.

Today, although incorporated into modern Jerusalem, Ein Kerem retains some of its rural feel. The hilly streets wind through the town, down to the valley and up its hills. 

Mary's spring in Ein Kerem
The spring in Ein Kerem

On the southern end of town the original spring, now channeled  into a fountain, still flows. The house where the Sheikh used to live is nearby. After being used by the IDF for many years, it has been turned into a music center, which holds concerts on most Friday and Saturday afternoons throughout the year. Hadassah Hospital, one of the largest medical centers in the Middle East, sits on the neighborhood’s southwestern edge.

Many artists and craftspeople work in Ein Kerem, in studios attached to their homes. Periodically, real estate developers put forth proposals to build large apartment complexes in the area, with the backing of the city government. So far, the residents have been able to block these projects, because even one such building would destroy the views and rural feeling that give the area its appeal.

For the artists like Ruth, who take their inspiration from the forest and hills around Ein Kerem, that is just fine.