The history of the Carmelite Order can be traced back to the 12th century when religious hermits started to live in caves in the mountains which surround the present day city of Haifa. The Crusader-period hermits were emulating the Prophet Elijah who had also inhabited a cave in the area. In the 13th century a group of the hermits came together under the leadership of Saint Berthold and petitioned the Patriarch of Jerusalem for a charter to form the Carmelite Order.
The Order of monks settled on Mount Carmel above the city that would grow to be modern day Haifa. The site was chosen for its connection with the Prophet Elijah who is the patron of the Carmelite Order. Towards the end of the 13th century the Order was forced to leave Mt. Carmel during the Mamluk conquest and they only returned four centuries later. On their return they discovered Muslims had taken occupation of Elijah’s cave and so they established their monastery nearby. Together with the monastery is the Carmelite Church which dates back to 1836.
Napoleon is also associated with this site as in 1799 he left his wounded troops in the monastery, which functioned as a hospital, to be slaughtered by the Turks as he retreated. Outside the church entrance is a memorial to the butchered French soldiers in the form of a pyramid topped with an iron cross. An inscription quotes King David’s lamentation for Saul and Jonathan: ” How are the mighty fallen in battle.” The French also helped to finance the construction of the church hence the name of the area: French Carmel.
The name “Stella Maris” (Star of the Sea) refers to the monastery and surrounding buildings including the Old Lighthouse situated across the road. The beautiful church shines with Italian marble which has been used to design patterns on the inner walls. A high central dome was painted by the Brother Luigi Poggi in the 1920s. The inner dome murals are brightly colored and depict scenes from the Bible including the story of Elijah and the chariot of fire. Below the church altar is “Elijah’s Cave” thought to be where the prophet and his pupil, Elisha, took refuge.
Each of the candles burning on the altar represent a Carmelite community somewhere in the world. In other rooms of the church you can see a nativity scene, a small museum and a souvenir store. The Carmelite monks are on hand to welcome visitors and tell them a little about the church.
The Stella Maris Monastery is the spiritual center for Carmelite Orders around the world. Although today the modern center is based in Rome. Visitors to the monastery can reach the site on foot or by cable car. The upper station of Haifa’s cable car arrives at the monastery adjacent to an observation point where you can get sweeping views across the city and port.