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Women who built Jerusalem: Mary, mother of Jesus

Updated: Jun 12, 2023


The first among our women who founded Jerusalem: Mary, the mother of Jesus. She was actually Jewish, a fact that is easily forgotten. She was born exactly in the year 16 BC. It not so hard to calculate, as tradition has it, that Mary had given birth to Jesus at age sixteen. The Christian and general calendars date to the moment Jesus was born... Her assumed death, according to Christian traditions, was probably around 40 AD.

Judaism relates to her in denial, embarrassment and sometimes hostility. Orthodox Christian denominations, including the Greeks, Russians, Armenians, Copts and Syrians, as well as Roman Catholic Christianity, regard her as the Mother of God. In the Catholic and the Orthodox faiths, she is at the center of a deep emotional devotion, as an approachable, loving, comforting figure, a mediatrix between man and the Godhead, pleading for humanity.

Within Christianity, both mystery and controversy exist around her figure, because although her actions in the New Testament are of high importance, they are quite few and far between. She remains an enigmatic figure. Mary receives the annunciation in Nazareth and miraculously conceives, giving birth to the Son of God, according to the Bible, in Bethlehem. She is mentioned in the Wedding at Cana, and not very much else. The Virgin Mary is mentioned again in the New Testament as being present in Jerusalem after the Crucifixion. The Protestants honor her for having given birth to the Son of God, yet relying only on the New Testament scriptures, they despise her cult and regard it as almost idolatrous, as kind of a late and alien supplement to Christianity.

The Annunciation, by Leonardo da Vinci, Archangel Gabriel holding the white lily.

Mary's relationship with Jerusalem is based on the Gospel of James, an apocryphal (external) book of the New Testament, a prequel to the story of Jesus. This gospel is acceptable to the Orthodox and Catholics, but of little religious value to Protestants, who regard it as legend, lacking of religious revelation.

The gospel of James recounts that Mary was born near the Temple in Jerusalem, to Anna and Joachim, who was a priest in the Temple of God .Anna herself was a descendant of the House of David. Her mother, Anna was an old lady and childless. Like Hannah, mother of Samuel the Prophet in the old testament, Anna promises in her prayers to God that her newborn child will be dedicated to service in the Temple. When when her daughter was born, she was consigned to Temple service as a child. Jews regard this detail as erroneous and proof of the writer's ignorance of Jewish law, as there is no evidence in Jewish sources of girls ever serving in the Temple. Some Christians are aware of this detail, therefore the status of the Gospel of James is controversial also in Christianity.

Whereas the Jews reject Mary, the Muslims revere her as a saintly woman :"Our Lady Mary" Sittna Mariam daughter of Imran, mother of Prophet Issa as Jesus is called in Arabic. She is renown as the purest of women of all worlds. In Islam too, Jesus was born in a virgin birth, and started to preach in his cradle, yet not the son of God, but a prophet.

Representations of Mary in Art: (left to right) a Russian Orthodox modern icon. A Catholic idealization, and earthly, suffering madonna of Russian realist painter Iliya Repin, 1896.

Although Mary is not an historically proven figure and her actions are few in the New Testament, all skepticism around her personage did not impress the builders of Jerusalem from celebrating the humble girl supposedly born there, according these traditions. Could it be that precisely the paucity of her actions and the mysteries concerning that have sparked the imagination of the believers?

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico ca. 1435

Her impact on Jerusalem is crucial, with many shrines and churches dedicated to her in the city by almost all Christian and Muslim denominations. Some of the impressive sites in the city were inspired and built in her honor, so she could be regarded as one of the founding female figures of modern-day Jerusalem. Without the traditions concerning Mary, the city would have looked very different.

A solemn Manger scene. Icon in the Tomb of the Virgin, Jerusalem

The story of her death is also a matter of traditions and legend. Most Christian denominations agree that she died or had fallen asleep in Jerusalem, where the Church of the Dormitio is currently located, on Mount Zion. Most Christian and Muslim denominations agree that she was buried the Valley of Josaphat (Kidron, Cedron) east of the city, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, after a long funeral procession from Mount Zion. From there, according to tradition, she was assumed into heaven. (Assumption of the Virgin)

Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows: Jesus's circumcision, the Flight to Egypt, Jesus lost in the Temple, Jesus encounters his mother with Cross, the crucifixion, the descent from the cross, the burial.

In the first chapter of "The Women Who Build Jerusalem," we will look at the wonderful sites related to the birth, life, death, and burial of Mary, the Mother

of Jesus. We will not deal with three other important places in Mary's life in this chapter: Nazareth (the Annunciation) Ein Kerem (The Visitation) and Bethlehem (the Nativity of Jesus). We will address them in other chapters. So let us start our tour in the East of the city, at Lion's Gate, in Jerusalem, in the eastern wall of the Old City. It is known in Arabic as Bab alAsbat, but also as Bab Sitna Mariam - Gate of Our Lady Mary, because of the tradition she was born just within it.

Birth of the Virgin

A few steps forwards into Lion's gate we open a door into one of the old city's amazing places: Bethesda. In a magnificent Garden, which was donned by the Ottomans to the French State to who it belongs today. One can find the Church of Saint Anne, birthplace of the Virgin and the stunning archaeological excavations of the pools of Bethesda. these were healing pools, where Jesus preformed a miracle, curing the paralytic. (John 5). Here are the ruins of the Roman pools, a Byzantine Church and a Crusader church above it.

The Abbey of Saint Anne was built by Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem at about 1138, over the cave which was, according to tradition, the house of Saints Joachim and Anna. Temple Mount is five minutes walk from here so it would be plausible that it might have been Joachim’s house, as he was a priest at the Temple. When Saladin took Jerusalem from the crusaders, he built here a madrasa in 1187 and called it after himself, date and dedication over the entrance. In 1856 the Ottomans endowed the derelict madrasa to the French state, in gratitude for their support during the Crimean war. The French restored the Abbey and it is run by the Missionaries of Africa, the White Fathers. At the entrance to the Church, the statue of St Anne and the Virgin Mary. Like Hanna in the Old Testament, who promised the young Samuel to Eli the Priest for worship at the sanctuary of God, so Anna promises her child for worship at the Temple.

Pilgrims from all over the world, like this African group, to come here sing in the amazing acoustics of Saint Anne’s Abbey in Jerusalem, birthplace of the Virgin Mary.

The next place in Jerusalem we meet the Virgin Mary is in the fourth station of the cross along the 'Via Dolorosa' as Our Lady of Sorrows, or Our Lady of the Spasm, seeing her innocent son on his way to an ignominious death.

At the fourth station we find this ceramic representation of María Santísima de la Esperanza (Most holy Mary of Hope) is an iconic statue of Malaga, Spain. Tears flow from the eyes of the lady of sorrows. It was donated by Spain to this Armenian Catholic church of Our Lady of Sorrows, which houses the fourth Station of the cross.

Representation of Mary and Jesus in a nine hundred year old illuminated Ethiopian book, kept in the church of the Ethiopian Patriarchy, near the 8th station of the cross. To the left - Saint George, the Dragon Slayer, Ethiopia's national emblem.

Calvary, Golgotha, inside the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Millions of pilgrims come here to insert their hand into a hole underneath the altar to feel the cavity of the cross in the stone of the skull. Mary, the Mother of Jesus is one of two personages who are normally portrayed in visual representations of the Crucifixion. Opposite her is the "Beloved disciple". His identity is not certain. This presentation is known as Stabat Mater (Thus stood the mother) who has beholding her son's suffering and death. the expression is familiar to us from a variety of musical creations inspired by this moment. One of the most renown is Pergolesi's Stabat Mater 1736

Calvary, Golgotha, inside the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Mary, the Mother of Jesus This presentation of Stabat Mater (Thus stood the mother) who has beholding her son's suffering and death. Here she is represented as our lady of Sorrows, with her heart pierced. and another creation on that theme by Vivaldi interpreted buy Polish counter-tenor Jakub Józef Orliński

Pentecost and the death of the Virgin

The Dormition Abbey is another important site where two important events happen: First the descent of the Holy Ghost, upon her and the disciples, after Jesus's Ascension and the eventual Dormition and death of the Virgin Mary a few years later. The Abbey was built by Kaiser Wilhelm II for his Catholic subjects in 1906, on the ruins of two preceding churches - one Byzantine and the other Medieval. It was build in neo-Romanesque style of the German medieval churches. With it's conical dome it has become a dominant feature on the Jerusalem skyline.

Interior of the Basilica: the crypt of the Dormition Abbey. Pentecost and the the descent of the Holy Ghost, upon Mary mother of Jesus and the disciples, after Jesus's Ascension. They have flames of fire descending upon their heads and they start speaking in tongues, symbolizing the spread of the faith to the nations. The dove symbolizes the Holy Ghost. Titian - The Descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost upon Mary mother of Jesus and the disciples, after Jesus's Ascension. The painting is in the church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice.

The second event which gave its name to the entire Dormition Abbey is the death of the Virgin Mary a few years after Pentecost. There are diverging traditions of this event, some claiming it took place in Ephesus, Asia Minor. The magnificent crypt of the Dormition Abbey, and the place of Mary's falling asleep. This is not her grave. Here also a Caravaggio painting of the Death of the Virgin,1606.

The funeral of the Theotókos (the God-bearer) which is Mary's title in the Greek Orthodox faith. This fresco describes the procession from mount Zion to her Tomb near Gethsemane. This fresco is from the Monastery of Deir Hajla near the Dead Sea, although there are more frescoes like this in Jerusalem churches. The man who had just lost his hands is Athonius (a Jew, what else?...) who tried to disrupt the cortège and had his hands cut off by the Archangel Michael; however, he repented, was healed,and became a Christian, of course... P;lease take note the in the background, Jesus in Heaven is embracing his mother's soul, as a baby-girl! this is the usual Greek orthodox representation of the Assumption.

Tomb of the Virgin

Tomb of the Virgin Mary. This unassuming church is one of the most impressive and intense churches of Jerusalem. It id a cross-shaped grotto, and is mostly underground. It is found at the bottom of of the Josafat or Cedron Valley at the foot of the Mount of Olives. It was built in 450 AD by Pulcheria, a Byzantine Empress, destroyed and then rebuilt by Melisende, queen of Jerusalem in 1131. In the Christian faith the great event happening here is the Assumption of the virgin. After her Falling asleep , the virgin dies and is then taken up to heaven to become Regina Coeli - Queen of the Sky. This is the descent into the transept, the tomb shrine is at the end of the stairs to the right.

The little shrine of the Virgin's tomb. the visitors enter it to see the empty sarcophagus. A pilgrims praying inside the shrine.

Representations of the Assumption, which according to tradition happened here, and the coronation of the virgin. Top, L to R: Velázquez 1644. Titian 1518, Botticelli 1490. Bottom: Palma il Vecchio 1514, Rubens 1625, Eugenio Caxés, 1603.

Panagia Ierosolymitissa The All-Holy Lady of Jerusalem, a holy relic in the church, created according to the believers, not by human hands.

I hope you enjoyed this tour. when times get better, Hopefully soon we will be able to conduct actual tours to these places.

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