Israel travels

Ein Kerem, a paradise on the slopes

Identified by many scholars as the biblical village of Beit Hakerem, these lush, staggered hills boast splendid churches, a stone-encased spring, quaint little alleys filled with art studios and cafés — and a plethora of Old World charm

Church of St. John the Baptist (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)
Church of St. John the Baptist (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)

As soon as the State of Israel was declared in May of 1948, a harried government began seeking housing for the multitude of immigrants pouring into the country. One December day at the end of that year, two trucks pulled into the deserted village of Ein Kerem on Jerusalem’s southwestern border.  Many of the passengers were men, women and children who had only recently moved to the brand-new State of Israel from Morocco and Iraq. The government had decided to settle these new arrivals in Ein Kerem.

But when they saw the sewage in the streets, realized that there was no water or electricity in the village, and got a look at the state of Ein Kerem’s rundown houses, the immigrants balked — and with vigor. Loudly protesting the situation, they refused to descend from their vehicles.

A front yard in Ein Kerem (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)
A front yard in Ein Kerem (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)

Veteran settlers relate that the ensuing ruckus reached the ears of Elizabeth, a senior nun at the Russian convent located on a nearby slope. Dashing down to the corner, she is said to have shouted at the newcomers in Russian: “This is paradise, you ungrateful fools, you don’t deserve this wonderful place. Get down! Get down! “ Someone must have understood, because at least one of the trucks emptied its riders into the streets and families began moving into the unoccupied dwellings.

The other truck moved on, taking its passengers with it. And it’s a safe bet that those who passed up the opportunity to live in Ein Kerem wish, today, that they hadn’t! Eventually incorporated into Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, Ein Kerem is a mystical anachronism within a noisy, modern metropolis. Blessed with captivating old-fashioned homes, wildflower-covered slopes, open spaces and a luscious green valley, it is a throwback to quieter times.

Aside from its location only a few kilometers from Bethlehem, Ein Kerem’s pastoral aura may be the reason why many scholars identify it as the biblical village of Beit Hakerem: “Flee for safety, people of Benjamin! Flee from Jerusalem! Sound the trumpet in Tekoa! Raise the signal over Beth Hakerem!” [2 Jeremiah 6:1]. Although that identification is sometimes disputed, Jews certainly lived in this ancient village during the Second Temple period. In fact, Christian tradition names Ein Kerem as the birthplace of John the Baptist.

The New Testament relates that a priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth lived in the hill town of Judea. Well advanced in years, they were good and righteous people who had not been blessed with children.

Mary stayed in Ein Kerem for several months, and she and Elizabeth would undoubtedly have come here often to draw water.  Imagine the scene — two women of the Second Temple period, chatting as they fill their jugs and carry them away on their heads.

One day, while Zechariah was burning incense in the inner sanctums of the HolyTemple, the angel Gabriel appeared. He told an astonished Zechariah that his wife would bear him a son whose name would be John. When Zechariah expressed doubts at this prophecy, he was struck dumb by the angel.

A son was, indeed, born to Zechariah and Elizabeth. Relatives and neighbors joined the happy parents at the infant’s circumcision, and asked what the child’s name would be. Zechariah’s speech returned immediately after he wrote on a slate that the child would be called John.

Little remains of the first sanctuary erected over the traditional site of John’s birth in the heart of the Jewish village. Although Crusaders built the Church of St. John the Baptist over its ruins, it later fell into despair. Fortunately, in the 16th century Franciscan monks restored part of the dilapidated Crusader structure, whose proud spire can be seen from all over Ein Kerem. Work was continued in 1674 with the aid of the Spanish royal family, and their influence is clear in the church’s original Spanish paintings and diverse blue and white tiles covering enormous square pillars and parts of the walls.

Ein Kerem spring (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)
Ein Kerem spring (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)

Many Christians revere the nearby spring as the site of a meeting between Elizabeth and her cousin Mary, mother of Jesus. When they met  “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit…she  exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!'” (Luke 1:39-42).

Mary stayed in Ein Kerem for several months, and she and Elizabeth would undoubtedly have come here often to draw water.  Imagine the scene — two women of the Second Temple period, chatting as they fill their jugs and carry them away on their heads.

A second church, situated high on a slope above the spring, commemorates Mary’s visit. Although early Christians built a shrine on the spot and the Crusaders turned it into a two-story house of worship, the sanctuary found there today was constructed in the middle of the 20th century and designed by famous Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi. Like Barluzzi’s other works of art, the Church of the Visitation is a masterpiece of design that incorporates some of its early Byzantine and Crusader features.

Council at Ephesus, by Vagharini, Visitation Church, Ein Kerem (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)
Council at Ephesus, by Vagharini, Visitation Church, Ein Kerem (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)

Talented Italian artist Vagharini painted most of the frescos in the second-floor sanctuary. One large picture is a depiction of the Council at Ephesus in 431, at which it was decreed that Mary was the mother of God. In the painting everyone is bowing or kneeling in Mary’s direction except for one man. Tour guides call this “Vagharini’s joke,” for the man is meant to be Barluzzi, complete with suit and bow tie and looking straight at anyone viewing the pictures.

Besides splendid churches, the stone-encased spring, quaint little alleys and a plethora of old-world charm, Ein Kerem today also boasts art studios and cafes that both local and foreign tourists love to visit. They also come for its abundance of spectacular panoramas, ranging from a great view of Ein Kerem’s charmingly restored (and very expensive!) houses, to the valley whose stone-terraced agricultural plots probably date back to the Israelites. Above the valley a wide slope holds churches, convents and the newly-expanded Hadassah Hospital.

Hadassah Ein Kerem was built in the 1950’s to replace a medical facility erected on Mount Scopus in 1939. During the War of Independence the original hospital was choked off by an Arab blockade; it became unreachable when Jerusalem was divided in two after the War. Today reunited Jerusalem is the site of two Hadassah Hospitals: the one in Ein Kerem, and the original hospital on Mount Scopus.

Sisters of Zion (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)
Sisters of Zion (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)

Visitors are warmly welcomed at another Ein Kerem landmark. This is Notre Dame de Sion — the convent of the Sisters of Zion, which boasts magnificent views of the Jerusalem Hills and the Ein Kerem Valley. Run by an international community of Catholic nuns, the convent gardens are a great place for meditation. Father Marie Alphonse Ratisbonne, its founder, is buried in the cemetery below the gardens.

Fondly called Father Mary by the nuns, Ratisbonne traveled to Jerusalem from France in the 1850’s, and after establishing a convent for the Sisters of Zion in the Old City, he founded a second in Ein Kerem. Nuns here took in orphaned girls whose parents had been massacred during inter-communal wars that raged in the Lebanese mountains. Then they built a school for young Arab women and taught them basic homemaking skills. The orphanage and school operated until the onset of Israel’s War of Independence.

After the war and the flight of the village’s Arab population, the dormitories stood empty and the nuns began taking in lodgers of all religions. Today the convent guesthouse is in great demand by tourists and Israelis alike for its serenity, peace and beauty.

Anyone who has walked the picturesque lanes of Ein Kerem understands why this enchanting little community is the stuff of which legends are made. Indeed, it seems that before departing Ein Kerem, one of the Arabs buried gold inside a house on the main drag. When the road was widened in 1949, bulldozers knocked down the house and two containers filled with gold were discovered in the ruins. And, goes the story, the phantom gold quickly disappeared — never to be seen again!


Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed, tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

Pictures copyright Shmuel Bar-Am.

All rights reserved.

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