The Mystery of Mary in Ephesus

What Is the Real Truth about Her Last Years on Earth?

I almost skipped it, as indeed I had on previous trips to the Ephesus-Selçuk region of Turkey. Could Mary, the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, have really lived here? I was vaguely aware of various traditions, going back to the Renaissance and earlier, that she had come to this area with the disciple St. John, but I put about as much stock in the veracity of such accounts as the supposed staff of Moses and sword of David that I had seen a few days earlier in the Topaki Palace Museum in Istanbul. After all, many a venerated holy relic, whether a fragment of the true cross or an entire building has proven upon analysis to be nothing more than a pious fraud. My initial instinct was that Mary’s House was no different and, moreover, primarily a late nineteenth and early twentieth century invention—so it did not even have the patina of partial antiquity or a medieval heritage. Any desire I might have to visit Mary’s House (or should I say, waste time and money traveling out of my way to see it) was further dampened by the comment in the Turkey guidebook I carried in my knapsack stating that the site is highly commercialized; and unless one has a special reason to visit there—that is, it has religious or other significance to one personally, such as a site of pilgrimage—it might be better to save the time and money for something else. Still, I was persuaded by various friends and colleagues to make the trek. As soon as I arrived, I was glad I had.

The House of the Virgin Mary is located on Mount Koressos (Bülbül Daği in Turkish, which means Mount Nightingale) in the Solmissos Mountains about seven kilometers (about four-and-a-half miles) from the center of ancient Ephesus. This sacred place is variously referred to as Meryem Ana Evi (House of the Virgin Mary, sometimes written or referred to as simply Meryemana, or Mary) or Panaya Kapulu (or Panaya Kapula; Doorway to, or Gate of, the Virgin). According to the legends surrounding the house, St. John brought Mary to Ephesus around 37 CE, a few years after the passion and death of Jesus. It is recorded in the Gospel of St. John that while on the cross, Jesus “Seeing his mother and the disciple he loved [that is, St. John] standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, ‘Woman, this is your son.’ Then to the disciple he said, ‘This is your mother. And from that moment the disciple made a place for her in his home.” (John 19: 26-27; The Jerusalem Bible). St. John was initially located in Jerusalem with Mary, but left several years after the crucifixion of Jesus as the persecution of Christians began (St. Stephen, a deacon in the church at Jerusalem, became the first Christian martyr when he was stoned to death for blasphemy).

John moved Mary and himself to Ephesus in Asia Minor, where a thriving early Christian community developed. The Book of Revelation (also known as The Apocalypse), which may or may not have been written by the same John who wrote the gospel and the letters of St. John, lists Ephesus as one of the seven churches of Asia (the others are Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea). Initially upon arriving at Ephesus, John put Mary up in a house close to the city center located on or near the current site of the current Church of Mary. Only later did he move Mary to the house on Mount Koressos, and here she ostensibly departed this Earth around 45 CE. As a matter of dogma, many of the devout believe in the Assumption of the Virgin Mary—the taking of her body and soul to heaven—rather than a standard physical death. In some versions, known as The Dormition of the Mother of God, Mary died and was then resurrected and taken to heaven. Either way, the faithful believe this happened at Meryem Ana Evi. St. John, who was a generation younger than Mary, outlived her by many decades, dying near the end of the first century CE. Whether St. John ever actually shared the house on Mount Koressos with Mary, or perhaps lived there after she was gone, is uncertain. Possibly, some suggest, he may have written his gospel there.

There is a long tradition among early Christian fathers of the first through third centuries CE that St. John went to Ephesus, but whether or not he took Mary with him was not explicitly stated until the time of St. Epiphanius of Salamis (circa 310/320–403 CE) who wrote that Mary and St. John moved to Ephesus. The countering tradition was that Mary had remained in Jerusalem, where she died and/or her Assumption took place. To this day there exists in Jerusalem The Church of the Sepulchre of Saint Mary at the base of the Mount of Olives. However, supporters of the Ephesus residence of Mary point out that St. Jerome (circa 347–420 CE) never mentioned a grave for, or monument to, the Virgin Mary in his exhaustive and detailed description of fourth century Jerusalem, thus indicating that the tradition of Mary living her last years in Jerusalem is more recent.

Indeed, a dozen years after St. Jerome’s death, there was a strong belief that Mary had grown old in Ephesus. In the early centuries of Christianity, it was a rule that churches would only be dedicated to saints at locations where they had lived or died; and in the early fifth century, the only church dedicated to Mary was the one at Ephesus. The physical remains of this church can still be seen. It consists of a second century Roman building that originally served as a “museum” where medicine and other sciences were taught; the structure was later modified and enlarged to form a Christian church. Here the Third Ecumenical Council met in 431 CE to sort out matters of dogma related to Mary in particular. After months of discussions, the council declared that Mary rightfully deserved the title of Theotokos (Mother of God, or God-bearer). It was also acknowledged that the site of the church in Ephesus was the place where St. John and the Virgin Mary had arrived.

While the tradition of Mary in Ephesus seems to have weakened, or even been lost, in many circles—until revived in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as discussed below—one group apparently never forgot. Prior to their expulsion from Turkey in 1923, a group of Greek Orthodox villagers living in Kirkindje (Kirkinca, now Sirince), about 17 or 18 kilometers (about 11 miles) away, made an annual pilgrimage to the ruinous remains of Meryem Ana Evi, which they referred to by the name Panaya Kapulu, on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption. Despite the official doctrine of the Orthodox Church that Mary’s Dormition had taken place in Jerusalem, these descendants of the early Christians in Ephesus walked five hours through the mountains to celebrate the traditions of their forebears, holding that it was here that the Virgin Mary had departed this earthly life. But it was not just local villagers in the mountains surrounding Ephesus who remembered the story. For instance, in Italy the Orientalist and writer Franciscus Quaresmius (Francesco Quaresmio; 1583–1650 or 1656) wrote, “The Blessed Virgin Mary, as long as she lived, was never abandoned by the beloved disciple. That is why when he left to preach the Gospel in Asia Minor he took the Holy Mother of God with him to live in Ephesus… I prefer this opinion to the other [that Mary lived and departed Earth in Jerusalem] because of the authority of so many of the Fathers (of the Council)… and because even to this day the house where the Virgin Mary lived with St. John can be seen at Ephesus.” (quoted in Egidio Picucci, The House of the Virgin Mary in Selçuk, Ephesus, 1997, p. 32).

Still, by the nineteenth century the House of Mary near Ephesus seems to have been forgotten by virtually all except those Greek Orthodox villagers. The modern rediscovery of Meryem Ana Evi begins with the visions of a German mystic and nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich (Anna Katharina Emmerick, 1774–1824). From about 1811 until the end of her life, Emmerich was often quite ill and bedridden. Since childhood she had experienced visions, during which she had spoken with Jesus, seen people in Purgatory, and caught glimpses of Heaven. She also suffered from stigmata at various times. During the last five years of her life the German poet and novelist Clemens (Klemens) Brentano (1778–1842) visited with Emmerich extensively, taking notes on their conversations about her visions. The result was two books, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to the Meditations of Anne Catherine Emmerich (1833) and The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary from the Visions of Anna Catherine Emmerich (published posthumously in 1852). Decades after his death, allegations were made that Brentano may have fabricated portions of the conversations and visions he attributed to Emmerich. Was this an example of well-meaning pious fraud? Emmerich was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004, but the books written by Brentano, and her alleged visions recorded in them, were not included as part of the justification for beatification as their authenticity could not be corroborated.

In The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary from the Visions of Anna Catherine Emmerich included the details of the location of Mary’s final home in Ephesus despite the fact that neither Emmerich nor Brentano had ever visited Ephesus, and the city had not yet been excavated in modern times. Using the descriptions in the book, in October 1881, the French priest Abbé Julien Gouyet found the ruined structure of Panaya Kapulu and asserted it was indeed Mary’s house. The archbishop of Zmir (Smyrna), Monsignor Timoni, supported Gouyet’s discovery; however, church seniors in Paris and Rome did not generally take it seriously. But this is not the end of the story.

In the early 1880s Sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey (1837–1915), a Daughter of Charity who at the time was the Superior of an orphanage in Pecq, France, read and became fascinated by Emmerich’s account of the life of Mary. In 1886, Sister Marie found herself stationed at the French Navel Hospital in Zmir, only about 75 kilometers (about 47 miles) from Ephesus. She discussed Emmerich’s visions with two priests of the Order of Lazarists who were also in Zmir, Father H. Jung and Father Eugène Poulin. Although there was skepticism on their part, Sister Marie convinced them to mount an expedition in search of Mary’s House, which took place in late July 1891. Father Jung led the team. On July 29, they found themselves scouring the mountainous region around Ephesus, following the directions and clues provided by Emmerich. Late that morning they were exhausted, hot, and thirsty when they happened upon some local women working in a tobacco field. They asked the women where water could be found, and they were directed toward a clump of trees, referred to as a “Monastiri,” where they were told there was a spring. At the spring they found not only water but also the ruins of a house or chapel. Suddenly, in a flash of insight, they realized the scene fit Emmerich’s description. This was the site known to the locals as Panaya Kapulu, Gate of the Virgin, the House of Mary! Subsequent expeditions, one attended by Father Poulin (who had not been part of the original expedition), later that year “confirmed” the findings.

Sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey is in many ways responsible for the preservation and current status of the Virgin Mary’s House. Her pragmatic vision combined with Emmerich’s mystical visions gave rise to the site of today. Sister Marie came from a wealthy family and was able to use her personal funds (which she had retained when she took her vows) to purchase, in November 1892, the House of Mary and the surrounding mountainside where it stands. Until her death in 1915, it was primarily Sister Marie who funded the preservation, restoration, and maintenance of Meryem Ana Evi.

From an academic archaeological perspective, is there any evidence that this could really be the House of Mary? The answer depends on how you interpret the evidence. No ancient inscriptions have been found stating, “The Virgin Mary slept here.” Rather, the primary ruins (before the restorations of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries) have been interpreted as those of a chapel dating to around the thirteenth century. This is over a millennium after Mary supposedly lived here, but further work revealed that the medieval chapel appears to have been purposefully built upon an older structure, or structures, including a building that originally dated to the first century—that is, Mary’s time. Ultimately, however, a deep faith on the part of believers is all that confirms this is Mary’s House. But the faithful come, including three popes who have visited the site: Pope Paul VI in 1967, Pope John Paul II in 1979, and Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, although the Roman Catholic Church has yet to officially make a statement regarding the authenticity of the site as the place where the Virgin Mary lived. Nevertheless, Meryem Ana Evi is a major pilgrimage site where believers come to pray, meditate, heal, rejuvenate, and give thanks to Mother Mary. The sacred waters flow, miracles have been claimed (witness, for instance, the crutches that have been abandoned at the site as no longer needed), and on a “wishing wall” notes and prayers are attached.

I left the House of the Virgin Mary with a sense of calm exhilaration. For me the site has all of the attributes of a sacred spot, but is this just a function of the picturesque setting and the accumulated “power” of the faithful modern adherents who have been visiting the site for over a century? Or does it date back to the pilgrimages of earlier times? Or is this really a place where Mary and St. John walked and breathed? And what do we make of Emmerich’s visions and the subsequent discovery of the house? Was it all chance, or the fitting of vague descriptions to a convenient ruin, as the ultra-skeptics might argue? Such persons would say that the house is more a testament to Emmerich, Sister Marie, and the gullibility of human nature than a true artifact associated with Mary. For that matter, did Emmerich actually peer nearly 1800 years into the past, as her supporters contend? Or, just perhaps, did she see the future? Did she view the House of Mary as it would appear about a century after her death? Based on modern parapsychological research, this latter possibility cannot be excluded. Either way, was Anne Catherine Emmerich a genuine seer?

Ultimately, Meryem Ana Evi is similar to many a genuine sacred site—the mystery endures, and this is what fascinates us.

Robert M. Schoch, a full-time faculty member at Boston University, earned his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale University. His most recent book is Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future (Inner Traditions, 2012). Website: RobertSchoch.com

By Robert M. Schoch, Ph.D.