Bethesda and St. Anne's PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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Bethesda and St. Anne's
Church of St. Anne

The Church of St. Anne

St. Anne's, by common agreement, is the most beautiful church in Jerusalem, both visually and acoustically. It has purity, simplicity and grandeur. It transforms many a group of middling singers into a choir of angels.

It was built by the Crusaders in the 12th century to honor the birth of the Virgin Mary, which they believed took place in a cave that today is the crypt. They soon had to enlarge it for a bigger congregation, moving the facade seven meters to the west (as a change in the masonry testifies). The style is called Romanesque.

The Crusaders also built a small chapel on the dam that had separated the pools of Bethesda. As the picture shows, the latter is in somewhat worse condition than its contemporary, St. Anne's.


bethesda-saladin.jpgOne reason for this difference is that the ruined chapel was built over a cistern, whereas the Church of St. Anne is on bedrock. Another reason goes back to Saladin. After conquering Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, he transformed the (relatively new) Church of St. Anne into a seminary for the study of Islamic law. An Arabic inscription over the entrance records the date as the equivalent of 1192.

Until the beginning of the 18th century, Christians were still permitted to hold Mass in the church on the Feasts of the Annunciation and Mary's birth (Nativity). Afterwards, however, the Muslim seminary ceased to function. Rumor spread that the place was haunted. In 1854, the Ottoman army was using it as a stable.

Two years after that came a change of fortunes. The Ottomans had received help from France during the Crimean War against Russia. In gratitude (and to avoid conceding rights elsewhere), the Sultan bestowed the church on Napoleon III, who turned it over to a French missionary group called the White Fathers. They found the interior in a terrible state. Rubbish rose to the roof. With an architect named M. Mauss, the Fathers undertook an extensive restoration in the 1860's, giving us the church we see - and hear - today.


But why did tradition locate Mary's birthplace here? If there had been a real memory of this event, we'd expect Origen (3d century) to mention it, or Eusebius (4th century). They don't. Sometime before 427, however, the Christians erected a basilica, which was partly suspended on arches over the southern pool. (One arch remains.)

Pilgrims called the basilica the Church of St. Mary. It underwent damage or destruction by the Persians in 614, but it must have been restored. Just before the Muslim conquest in 638, Sophronius, the patriarch of Jerusalem, linked it to two events: the healing at the pool in John 5 and the birth of Mary.

Why this connection to Mary? The answer may lie in the immense popularity, during the Byzantine period, of a gospel from the 2nd century that never made it into the canon: the Protevangelium of James. This recounts the Biblical story in glowing detail, telling us many things that we wouldn't know otherwise, including the names of Mary's parents. At its beginning, we hear that Anna and Joachim were long unable to have a child. Thinking he wasn't pure enough, Joachim retired to the desert, where he fasted forty days and nights. Anna, feeling widowed as well as childless, prayed for offspring. When an angel announced that her prayer had been answered, she promised that the child would minister to the Lord "in holy things all the days of its life." Joachim returned, having heard a similar proclamation. In due time, Anna bore Mary. She created a sanctum of purity in her house, allowing nothing to enter that might defile the babe. After three years the parents fulfilled her vow, delivering the child to the priests at the Temple. When she reached the age of twelve, however, the girl could no longer legally stay in the Temple for fear that she might contaminate it. (The monthly period was and is regarded as a source of ritual impurity in orthodox Judaism, so contact with a menstruating woman is avoided.) The High Priest Zacharias (whom we know from Luke 1) conducted a test to find a guardian for her. The lot fell on an old widower named Joseph. The account then moves to the annunciation by Gabriel. The events occur near the Temple in Jerusalem - Nazareth receives no mention in the Protevangelium of James (despite the Church of St. Gabriel in that town).

Basically, the account of Anna copies the story of Hannah that opens 1 Samuel. ("Anna" is the Latin version of the Hebrew "Hannah.") Despised because of her barrenness, Hannah prays for offspring, vowing that the child will serve the Lord "all the days of its life." After Samuel is weaned, she gives him to the High Priest Eli, and the boy grows up in what was then the equivalent of the Temple: the sanctuary of the Lord at Shiloh.

Enchanted by the Protevangelium, the Byzantines would have sought the house of Anna. They would have looked for it near the Temple, and perhaps, since Joachim was a wealthy shepherd, near the sheep market on the northeast side. Above all, they had the name Bethesda. It may have been derived from the Aramaic beth hisda, meaning the House of (beth) Mercy (or Grace). The Hebrew equivalent of hisda is hesed. But the Hebrew name Hannah (from hen) also means grace! A Byzantine scholar in search of Anna's house, could have believed that behind the name Bethesda, beth hisda, lies beth hannah: the House of Anna. In this way, the association of the place with Mary - and specifically with her birth, as told in the Protevangelium - could have occurred.   

Logistics: Open 8.00 am - 12.00 noon, 2.00 pm - 5.00 pm.  Modest dress required. There is a museum, normally closed, to which one may gain entry on request. Telephone: (02) 6283285

Hint: You do well to sit in the back of the church and sing a song with long pauses, so that the choir of angels can sing back to you. Echo: up to 9 seconds, depending on how full the church is.