Did Our Lady spend her last days in a small mountainside house overlooking Ephesus? Donald Carroll looks at the background to a great archaeological find near Kushadasi on the Aegean coast of Turkey.
On a remote mountainside overlooking both Ephesus and the Aegean, there is a small stone house nestled 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 Turkey to visit the house and drink from the spring that runs under it. So what is it about the place that attracts so many visitors? It is the fact that it is now almost certain that this is where the Virgin Mary spent her last days on earth.
Incredible as it may seem, during the two millennia when Mary was becoming exalted above all women in history, and 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 St 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, Abbe Julien Gouyet, came upon an obscure volume 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 found it or a perfect match – near the summit of Bulbul Dagi, “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 then 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 Vincentian Fathers at the French Sacred Heart College in Smyrna (now Izmir) came upon the same book that Fr Gouyet had. After vigorously debating its merits – mostly in terms of skepticism bordering on scorn – the group decided that since they were so near Ephesus they might as well go and have a look for themselves.
On 27 July 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 of Mary’s house. 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. Slowly, bit by bit, they found more evidence which confirmed the uncanny accuracy of Sister Emmerich’s visions. After spending the night on the mountain, they made one more tour of inspection the next morning and then returned to Smyrna to report their findings to the Director of the college.
The Director, Fr Poulin, was so shaken by Fr Jung’s report that he insisted on being taken to Nightingale Mountain to see for himself. So Fr Jung spent the 13th of August escorting Fr Poulin around the site, all the while being cross examined about every little discrepancy between what Sister Emmerich had said and what they were observing 70 years later. By the end of the day Poulin remained unconvinced that they had definitely found Mary’s house, but he was certain they had found something worth protecting. To settle the issue, Fr Jung organised a third expedition. Unlike the previous ones, this one was to consist entirely of laymen, apart from Jung himself, and they were to spend an entire week encamped on the mountainside, with the goal this time of leaving no stone unturned – nor, for that matter, undocumented, undrawn, unmeasured or unphotographed.
Their week-long endeavors produced, in addition to much precise documentation, several major new discoveries, all tending to corroborate Sister Emmerich’s version of Mary’s final living arrangements. Equally important to their search for a definitive answer was the discovery that a small Greek Orthodox community nearby had always considered this to be Mary’s holy place, and indeed made pilgrimages there every year on the 15th of August.
By now persuaded that it was beyond question that they had discovered the house where the Virgin Mary had lived until her death, Fr Poulin conveyed the news to Archbishop Timoni of Smyrna. The Archbishop’s immediate reaction was to form a commission of enquiry consisting of five laymen and seven Churchmen, including Jung and Poulin, under the leadership of Timoni himself. After visiting the site and examining the evidence, the Archbishop composed a lengthy document, signed by every member of the commission, which concluded that “the ruins are truly the remains of the house inhabited by the Virgin Mary.”
Almost at once excavations began which over the next few years were to produce evidence so stunning and so compelling that in 1896 Pope Leo XIII declared Mary’s house a place of pilgrimage. And his successor, Pius X, granted a plenary indulgence for the remission of the sins of pilgrims to the house.
Given all these momentous and auspicious events, one would have thought that Mary’s house would have entered the 20th century on course for a smooth and swift elevation from neglected ruin to celebrated shrine. But it was not to be. National and international events supervened to condemn the little house to further deterioration and neglect: the First World War, then Ataturk’s revolution against the Ottoman sultanate, followed by the war to drive out the European occupation forces, then the Great Depression, the Second World War, and finally the turmoil surrounding the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine in 1948. It seemed the house was doomed to return to the obscurity in which it had languished for almost 19 centuries.
Then on 1 November 1950 Pope Pius XII issued his encyclical Munificentissimus Deus which proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Suddenly people began to wonder, often for the first time, just where Mary had been assumed from. They didn’t have long to wonder. Within months the Pope had declared Mary’s house an official shrine for pilgrims and had confirmed the plenary indulgence for all pilgrimages there.
Interest in the newly-restored house, and pilgrimages to it, grew throughout the 1950s and were further stimulated when in 1960 Pope John XXIII sent a special candle to the house for Candlemas. Such candles are only sent to the most important Marian shrines in the world. Then in 1967 Pope Paul VI made the first papal visit to the house, bringing with him a bronze lamp which he described as a “present for the Blessed Virgin”.
The next papal visit – by Pope John Paul II – occurred in 1979, and was a much more public occasion, climaxed by an outdoor Mass for the thousands who were there that day. It was this visit that really brought the shrine to the notice of the world at large, and guaranteed Nightingale Mountain’s place on the religious map. Ever since, it has been the destination for pilgrims from every geographical and doctrinal corner of Christendom, Protestant as well as Catholic. It is estimated that over two million people will make the journey to Mary’s house this year.
Many of them – including Muslims, who have a special reverence for Mary – will come for the reputed healing powers of the water from the spring below the house. One cannot comment on the veracity of the reports (and they are legion) of “miracle cures” as a result of contact with the amasya or “holy water”, though one cannot help noticing the impressive accumulation of discarded physical aids at the house, nor the parallel collection of votive offerings in thanksgiving.
In any case, there is something else about the house which undoubtedly is miraculous: its very existence. Despite being repeatedly broken on the rack of time, and eaten away by centuries of neglect, it stands today not only as a shrine to the Lady who probably lived here 2,000 years ago, but as a monument to all those who refused to let it crumble back into the earth.
This article first appeared in The Word (May 2004), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.