The Dormition Church roof stands out on the skyline of Jerusalem with its distinct blue dome and the Abbey’s tall bell tower. The Abbey and church are located on the highest point in the ancient city of Jerusalem on Mount Zion, just outside the Old City walls near the Zion Gate. The present Abbey complex was constructed on the site of earlier churches commemorating the place where the Virgin Mary lived after Jesus’ resurrection and where she died; “dormition” refers to Mary’s eternal sleep. The church was restored in 2006 based on a 1910 structure which stood here. The Abbey and its church are run by the German Benedictine Order and the Abbot who oversees the entire Benedictine monk community in Jerusalem, Tabgha and Hildesheim. Monks come to the Abby for their initial monastic training.
History of the Dormition Abbey
The authenticity of the site as the place of Mary’s death has been verified by apocryphal texts from the 2nd century. Among the most significant of these texts is the Acts of St. John by Prochurus written in 70-160AD by Lencius the Evangelist. Since then this has been a pilgrimage site for Christians paying their respects to the Virgin Mary.
In 70AD the Romans destroyed much of Jerusalem together with the Room of the Last Supper on Mt. Zion. A Jewish-Christian place of worship was built on the mount and was soon renamed the Church of the Apostles.
The church was enlarged in the 4th century and during the Byzantine era at the beginning of the 5th century the Hagia Sion Basilica was built by Emperor Constantine replacing the old church. Hagia Sion Church was one of the first churches built in Jerusalem and is referred to as the Mother of all Churches.
In 614AD the church was destroyed by invading Persians and from the 7th to the 12th century the area was left in ruins.
When the Crusaders reached Jerusalem in the 12th century they rebuilt some of the religious structures on Mt. Zion including a new church larger than the previous Byzantine church and renamed Santa Maria in Monte Sion. However when the Crusader Kingdom fell in 1187 the church on Mt. Zion was once again destroyed.
In the 16th the Ottomans did not include Mt. Zion within the new city walls (the present Old City walls). Towards the end of the Ottoman era Sultan Abdul Hamid II allowed the Germans to build a new church over the traditional site of Mary’s death and so the Dormition Abbey was established in 1898 while the German Kaiser Wilhelm II was in Jerusalem on an official visit.
In 1906 the cornerstone was laid on the site of the new Abbey. The Abbey complex was designed by Heinrich Renard and completed in 1910. At the site there was a large church, a bell tower and a number of other buildings. The 1910 Abbey complex was called Dormitio Beate Mariae Virginis or Holy Sleep of Virgin Mary.
The church was damaged during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence and following that it was used by the Israeli army as a lookout post on the Jordan/Israeli border for the next 20 years.
Following the Six Day War in 1967 the Abbey was reunited with East Jerusalem and restored.
The most recent reconstruction of the 1910 church was in 2006.
The church has a fortress-like appearance and is topped with a blue conical lead-covered roof flanked by four towers. Adjacent to the church is the Hagia Maria Sion Abbey bell tower. A weathervane with a rooster tops the tall bell tower similar to the cock crowing on the roof of the Gallicantu Church. The bell tower culminates in a dome and there is a clock on the tower. This refers to the Biblical story of Peter denying Christ three times before the crock crows twice (Mark 14:26-72). In the church courtyard there are the remains of a floor mosaic from the Byzantine church.
On the interior floor is a circular mosaic depicting the signs of the Zodiac, names of prophets and a verse from Proverbs along the circumference of the mosaic. Most of the church interior is exposed plain brick but the apse and a number of niches are adorned with brilliant predominantly gold mosaics. Above the main altar on the semi-circular apse ceiling is a bright mosaic depicting Mary and Jesus as a child (1939). Six side chapels each have mosaics on their semi-circular ceilings. There is the Chapel dedicate to St. Benedict who founded the German Benedictines; a chapel with a mosaic depicting Mary and baby Jesus greeting pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem; a chapel with a mosaic featuring Jesus’ family tree; a chapel with a mosaic of Mary with Bavarian Bishops; a chapel with a mosaic of John the Baptist and a chapel with a mosaic of St. Boniface, St Lioba and St. Mauritius.
Two spiral staircases lead down to the church’s circular crypt. At the center of the crypt under a rotunda is a life-size ivory and cherrywood sculpture of Mary on her deathbed. The crypt’s domed ceiling is covered with a brilliant mosaic featuring Jesus and Biblical female characters. The mosaic covered dome above the sculpture of Mary is supported by thick pillars. Branching off from the center of the circular crypt are a number of altars donated by various nations and decorated in diverse styles. Chapels have been donated by the Ivory Coast, Hungary and other nations; all are brightly decorated with mosaics and murals.
The church is open to the public and pilgrims Monday to Friday 8:30am-11:45am and 12:40pm-5:30pm; Saturday 8:30am-11:45am, 12:40pm-2:45pm and 3:30pm-5:30pm; Sundays 10:30am-11:45am and 12:30pm-5:30pm. For more information call 072 2 5655330