‘On a remore mountainside overlooking Ephesus and the Aegean, a small stone house nestles among the pines and plane trees. It is as unpreposessing as it is inconspicuous, yet every year more than a million people from all over the world come to visit it and drink from the spring that runs underneath it.’ So Donald Carroll, author of Mary’s House, begins his feature in Cornucopia 29, describing the story of the place where the Virgin Mary is thought to have spent her last days.
The building is a typical 4th-century Roman construction, now converted into a shrine. Muslims come here, too, as Mary was the mother of Jesus, whom they recognise as a prophet. The feast of her assumption, celebrated on August 15, is popular time to visit.
The house, now restored, where Mary lived was declared a place of pilgrimage for Catholics in 1896, but it had long been a place of pilgrimage for local Greek Orthodox villagers. Pope Paul VI made the first papal visit in 1967. John Paul II went in 1979. A hauntingly peaceful place (at least out of season) in woods high above the scorching coastline.
On a remote mountainside overlooking Ephesus and the Aegean, a small stone house nestles among the pines and plane trees. It is as unprepossessing as it is inconspicuous, yet every year over a million people from all over the world come to visit and drink from the spring that runs underneath it.
But what is it about the place that attracts so amny visitors? The fact is that this is almost certainly where the Virgin Mary spent her last days.
Incredible as it may seem, during the two millennia in which Mary was becoming exalted above all women in history, proclaimed by the Church to be the Mother of God, there was little or no curiosity about her life after the Crucifixion. Nevertheless, from the earliest times there was strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that she went to live in Ephesus.
For example, the very last mention of Mary in the Bible states that the Apostle John ‘took her unto his home’ – and it is known that St John himself went to Ephesus. And in the fourth century, at a time when a church could only be dedicated to a saint if the holy person had actually lived there, the first church to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary was in Ephesus.
Still, no one followed up these clues until 1881, when a Parisian priest, Abbé Julien Gouyet, came upon an obscure volume, The Life of the Holy Virgin, which recorded verbatim the visions of a bedridden German nun and stigmatic, Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, who had died in 1824. In these visions, Sister Emmerich described in considerable detail the house where Mary died, as well as its location near Ephesus.
Enthralled by the book, Fr Gouyet took it upon himself to go to Ephesus to see if he could find the house simply by following the nun’s directions. He discovered it – or a perfect match – near the summit of Bülbül Dağı (Nightingale Mountain) just south of Ephesus. With great excitement, Fr Gouyet reported his discovery to his superiors in Paris and in Rome, but nobody took his claims seriously. The Vatican drew a veil of silence over the matter, lest it prove embarrassing.
The silence was not broken until ten years later, when a group of Lazarist Fathers at the French Sacred Heart College in Smyrna (now Izmir) came upon the same book that Fr Gouyet had read. After vigorously debating its merits – mostly in terms of scepticism bordering on scorn – the group decided that being so near Ephesus they might as well have a look for themselves.
On July 27 1891, the group set out from Smyrna under the leadership of Fr Henri Jung, Professor of Science at the college and a distinguished Hebrew scholar. That first day they drew a complete blank. But on the second day, while looking for water to quench their thirst, they stumbled upon a small ruin. The basic configuration of the ruin conformed almost exactly to Sister Emmerich’s description. One member of the group was immediately convinced that they had found it. Fr Jung was not so sure.
The next day, Jung and his colleagues spent hours studying the ruin and the surrounding area. Bit by bit, they found more evidence to confirm the uncanny accuracy of Sister Emmerich’s vision. After spending the night on the mountain, they made one more tour of inspection and returned to Smyrna to report their findings to the director of the college…