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The Tomb of the Virgin Mary

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Here the Virgin Mary was Laid to Rest

Location – At the base of the Mount of Olives

Map Coordinates - 31.780344, 35.239488

This is one of the most ancient churches in Jerusalem, and our Octagon Tour travelers must descend far underground to see it.

This room contains the Tomb of Mary, and it’s actually the crypt of a church that no longer exists. The entire room is dimly lit, and the walls are blackened with centuries of smoke, giving the place an air of great antiquity. The room is also decorated with icons and there’s a forest of hanging oil lanterns.

Mary's Tomb

The Death of Mary.

The Orthodox and Catholic churches both teach that Mary died a natural death at her home, at the site of the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. There were no cemeteries at that time on Mount Zion, so she was eventually buried right here. They also teach that her body was assumed into heaven after three days, and that her tomb was found to be mysteriously empty. These churches also teach that she was received into heaven, both spirit and body, to await the final resurrection of all people, where each of us who have a love relationship with the Lord will be resurrected to experience a life in eternity with Jesus.

Mary lived for about eleven years after Jesus walked on the earth, and she was held in very high regard, being the mother of the Son of God, and the matriarch of the Church. It is very understandable that the Church would have always known where she was buried.

The History of the Church.

In the Holy Land, churches are generally built over existing crypts where some important event took place, and that’s the case here. Mary’s tomb was here first. Then in the fifth century a small octagonal church was built above this crypt containing her tomb, but it was destroyed in the Persian invasion of 614 AD. 

A second church, which was very similar, was built in its place, but that church was also destroyed, probably in 1009 AD by the tyrannical calif from Egypt named Al-Hakim. But Al-Hakim did not destroy the crypt containing the tomb of Mary. 


When the crusaders took over Jerusalem in 1099 AD they rebuilt this church again, and installed a monastery, called the Abbey of Saint Mary of the Valley of Jehoshaphat (another name for the Kidron Valley). The Crusaders are the ones who built the staircase that goes down into this crypt.


Once again, in the year 1187 AD this church was destroyed, this time by the man who drove the Crusaders out of the Holy Land, the Muslim general, Saladin. 

But here’s the question. Why did Saladin destroy the church, and not the crypt beneath it? Similarly, why did Al Hakim destroy the church, but not the tomb beneath it? 


There’s a simple answer. Muhammad had a great respect for Mary. He referred to her as his “sister Mary”. In fact, Mary is the only woman who is named in the entire Quran, the book that Muhammad wrote. When it is alleged that Muhammad traveled from Mecca 900 miles to the Temple Mount in on his famous night journey, he said that when he arrived at the Temple Mount he had a vision where a light was shining over the tomb of Mary. 


That’s why no Muslim has ever destroyed the tomb of Mary – it is because Mary is celebrated in the Muslim faith. And that’s why when you walk down these steps, you are descending into the well-preserved crypt of a church that no longer exists. 


The Stairs.


There are 47 stairs that lead down to the crypt. These stairs were built by the Crusaders just before the church upstairs was destroyed. 


In the middle of the staircase, the chapel on the left (west side) is dedicated to Saint Joseph, the husband of Mary. The picture shows Joseph laying on his deathbed, with Mary and Jesus by his side.

This chapel on the right (east side) is dedicated to Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim. We learned about their names from a second-century document called the Protoevangelium of James.


The Chapel of Saint Joseph.

The Chapel of Anne and Joachim (Mary's parents).

The Shape of the Crypt.


This crypt is shaped like a cross. The staircase represents the bottom shaft of the cross, and the horizontal arms that extend to the left and right are called the transepts. 


The Other Altars.

In the western (left) transept there is a Coptic altar. That’s the Orthodox denomination from Egypt, but the Syrian and Ethiopian Orthodox churches also have minor rights to worship here as well.


In the east (right) transept is the tomb of Mary. Behind this tomb are the Greek and Armenian Orthodox altars.

The Armenian and Greek altars.

The Exterior of Mary’s Tomb.

Mary was buried in a bench-type tomb, similar to the one that Jesus laid in. Around 455 AD, the rock surrounding her tomb was carved away, leaving a naturally-chiseled square building, or what we call an edicule, which means little house. This natural stone edicule still surrounds May’s tomb intact today. It’s interesting that this type of construction was almost identical to the way that Jesus’ original tomb was built centuries earlier – a tomb made of the natural stone that originally encased it. 

The Interior of Mary’s Tomb.

As I said, there is a legend that three days after Mary died, and after she was laid here, her body mysteriously disappeared. The church concluded that her body had been raised up into heaven, a belief that was conveyed by John of Damascus in the eighth century.

Mary’s burial bench.

Mary’s tomb. A Muslim mihrab (prayer niche) can be seen on the south wall.

For this reason the church that once existed above this crypt has, from time to time, been called the Church of the Assumption, referring to Mary’s assumption into heaven.

The Mihrab.


After the Muslim conquest of the Crusaders in the twelfth century a Muslim prayer niche, called a mihrab, was put on the south wall of Mary’s edicule. When the Muslims controlled the Holy Land, anyone adhering to the teachings of Islam had joint rights to worship inside this crypt. This mihrab points toward Mecca, the direction that Muslims are told to pray. However, today's Muslims do not have joint rights to worship in this crypt.

The Franciscans.

After the Crusaders were defeated, the church was controlled by the Franciscans, starting in 1363 AD and for about 500 years thereafter. They were eventually expelled from the site by the Turkish occupiers of this land. At that point the crypt was given to the Greek Orthodox. Today the church is primarily controlled by the Greeks and the Armenians.

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