The House of the Virgin Mary?
For most of my life, I never gave much thought to what happened to Mary, the mother of Jesus, after his death. I figured that she went to Jerusalem, where James, one of her other sons (or stepsons, if you prefer), was a prominent early Christian leader. A good bit of ancient tradition supports this hunch, as it turns out. (See, for example, the online Catholic Encyclopedia article on “The Blessed Virgin Mary.”)
It’s curious that Mary received little special attention among the early Christians. In fact, her life after Jesus’ death remains largely a mystery. But, when I took my first trip to Ephesus in 2007, I learned that many people believe that Mary spent her last days near this city, and that’s where she died (or was taken up to heaven).
Many tours of ancient Ephesus include a side trip to the so-called House of the Virgin Mary. This sacred site lies several miles south of Ephesus, up on the top of a mountain. Unlike barren Ephesus, Mary’s house is hidden in a forest, where the temperatures are several degrees cooler and shade is ample. If you’re visiting Ephesus in the summer, you’ll appreciate the literal atmosphere at Mary’s house.
The evidence for Mary having spent her last days here is circumstantial and supernatural. The circumstantial evidence is this:
• Shortly before his death, Jesus entrusted his mother to the care of the Beloved Disciple (John 19:26-27).
• Christian tradition holds that the Beloved Disciple was John.
• Christian tradition also associates John with Ephesus, where he supposedly spent the latter part of his life. It is believed that he was buried there, and that his body used to lie under the Basilica of St. John (now in ruins, as you can see in the photo to the right).
• It is possible that John took Mary with him to Ephesus, perhaps because Jerusalem in the late first century A.D. was not hospitable for the mother of the controversial Messiah. Or perhaps she moved to Ephesus after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70.
The supernatural evidence is this:
• Early in the 19th century, a German nun named Anne Catherine Emmerich claimed to have visions. Among these, she “saw” the house of the Virgin Mary, and described it in great detail. Her visions were ultimately published, and near the end of the 19th century a Catholic research team found the site described by Emmerich, though she had never seen it in person. (Emmerich’s writings on the death of Jesus had a profound influence on Mel Gibson and his The Passion of the Christ.)
Catholic tradition is divided on the final residence of Mary, though several popes have endorsed Mary’s House as a religious shrine. A few years ago, Pope Benedict XVI visited the site, honoring it with his presence and words, though not definitively declaring it to be Mary’s house.
The buildings on the site are not old enough to have been the actual dwellings of Mary. But it’s certainly possible that they were built in the place and design of the original buildings. A Turkish website has several Quicktime videos that allow you to take a virtual tour of the site and its buildings.
One of the more interesting features of Mary’s House is a prayer wall near the dwelling. Pilgrims come from all over the world to this place, and many offer special prayers. These prayers are written on small pieces of paper that are attached to the wall.
As it turns out, Christians are not the only ones who make pilgrimages to Mary’s House. Many Muslims come as well, since they honor Mary as the mother of the prophet Jesus. For this reason, when Pope Benedict XVI visited Mary’s House, he said, “From here in Ephesus, a city blessed by the presence of Mary Most Holy — who we know is loved and venerated also by Muslims – let us lift up to the Lord a special prayer for peace between peoples.”
Did Mary actually live near Ephesus? Was this her final dwelling? I don’t believe we have adequate historical grounds for deciding the question either way. But if you’re ever in Ephesus, it’s worth a trip up to Mary’s House, especially if it’s a hot day and you’d like some moments of relief.