In the small pastoral village of Ein Kerem on the western slopes of Jerusalem stands the Church of St John the Baptist or St John Ba Harim (St John in the Mountains). This Catholic Church was built on the remains of Byzantine and Crusader chapels. The church’s claim to fame is that it encompasses a cave believed to be where John the Baptist was born in the home of his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth.
History of the Church of St John the Baptist, Ein Kerem
During the Byzantine era a church and monastery were built on the site believed to have been the home of Temple priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, cousin of the Virgin Mary. Their son John the Baptist was believed to have been born at this holy site. The first mention of the site in ancient texts was in a pilgrim’s writings in 530AD. The Israelite Samaritans were persecuted by the Byzantine rulers and they rebelled on several occasions taking revenge on Christians and the churches of the Christian-Byzantine Empire (529-556AD). During a Samaritan uprising the Byzantine chapel was destroyed.
The church was rebuilt on the original site once the Crusaders regained Jerusalem in 1104. The Knights of the Hospital of Saint John or the Hospitallers supported the reconstruction of the chapel but the chapel was destroyed after the Crusaders left the Holy Land in the 12th century and remained abandoned and in ruins until the end of the Ottoman era.
Towards the end of the Ottoman era Franciscan monks began settling in Ein Kerem purchasing land, houses and the site of the former chapel. The church was restored in 1674 and the monastery was finally completed in 1895. The present day modern church was completed in 1920.
The Church Structure
The Franciscan restoration of the church and monastery was funded by the Spanish royal family. Today you can see the Spanish coat-of-arms above the entrance to the sanctuary. The Spanish royals donated several original paintings by Spanish artists which still adorn the church. Above the right apse (the semi-circular dome at the end of the aisle) is a painting by famous Spanish painter Ell-Greco depicting Mary meeting Elizabeth and Zacharias. The Spanish influence can also be seen in the blue and white tiles which line the square pillars and cover parts of the walls.
Further renovations were undertaken in the 20th century again with the assistance of the Spanish royals. During the renovations a new marble altar was donated by Queen Isabella II of Spain.
Visitors enter the church through a decorative arched gateway where there is the symbol of the Jerusalem Cross and the symbol of the Franciscan Order. The Franciscan symbol of two crossed arms – the bare arm of Christ and the clothed arm of St Francis of Assisi can also be seen on the church’s four altars.
In the monastery courtyard is an Evangelic text in 24 languages from Luke 1:68-79. The text is the Benedictus, a song of thanksgiving which Zechariah said when John was born. This prayer is recited during morning prayers. During excavations in the courtyard remains were found from Roman, Byzantine and Crusader periods including cisterns, tombs, mosaic floors and pits. On the south side of the courtyard is the monastery where the monks reside and maintain the church.
If you look through the iron bars covering the basement windows of the church you can see what remains of the Byzantine chapel and a collection of artifacts uncovered during the 19th century restoration. Among the items found on the site there is a Roman statue of the goddess Aphrodite and the remains of the Byzantine chapel’s mosaic floor. The church has a tall bell tower which dominated the Ein Kerem skyline.
Inside the church there are three aisles separated by six large square columns. At the base of the church dome are bright stained glass windows. The church walls hold magnificent works of art and the columns are covered by blue and white tiles. In the central apse are five statues including a sculpture of Zechariah in his priestly garments and a statue of Elizabeth with a statue of Mary looking down on them. Other statues in the church include those of St Francis and St Clare.
The focus of the church is the grotto which is located in the left apse. You reach the grotto through an ornate green and gold gate and descend several marble steps into the cave. Above the arched entrance to the grotto is a Latin inscription from Zacharias’ blessing in Luke 1.
A small church museum displays embroidered vestments, gold and silver religious objects, candlesticks, ancient icons and comunichino tongs which were used to give Holy Communion to people with the plague.
On the north side of the church is an entrance to Byzantine tombs and cisterns.
The Place where St John was Born
The New Testament tells of a Jewish priest, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth who lived in a suburb of Ein Kerem, a town called Judea. The couple had not been able to have children and were now passed child bearing age. One day an angel appeared to Zechariah and told him that his wife would bare him a son named John. The miracle came to pass and Elizabeth gave birth to a son. Inside the church beneath an altar is a small cave or crypt which is believed to have once been part of St John’s family home belonging to his parents Elizabeth and Zechariah. This part of their home is thought to be where John the Baptist was born. Within the cave is a marble star engraved with the words “ Here was born the Precursor Lord.” St John is considered the precursor or forerunner to Jesus as he baptized Jesus and called him Messiah.
The church is open to visitors Monday to Friday 8am-noon and 2:30pm-5pm as well as Sunday 9am-noon and 2:30pm-5pm. The church is closed on Saturdays.