High on the slope of Mount Bülbül ("Nightingale Mountain") near Ephesus sits a little stone house with a freshwater spring and a pretty garden. Believed by many to have been the house of the Virgin Mary before she passed, the site is visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year.
The Story of the House of the Virgin Mary
Way back in 1824, a German nun who lay on her death bed had visions of a little stone house in a clearing in the woods of a faraway land we now call Turkey. She insisted the house was built by the Apostle John for the Virgin Mary in her retirement years. Although the nun had never travelled beyond her own country's borders, Sister Emmerich described the scene in great detail – including the small house, a fresh water spring, and nearby tombs - to a well-known scribe named Clemens Brentano. In 1852, the story was published, which inspired several members of the Catholic Church to search for the site.
In 1881, a site matching the description in Brentano's book was discovered by a curious French priest. And that kicked off a long and complicated process of acquiring, excavating, studying, and restoring what is believed by many, to be the house of the Virgin Mary.
By 1949, the site was welcoming thousands of visitors a year – a mixture of the devout and the simply curious - from all over the world, and now hosts hundreds of thousands of people a year. There are regular daily and Sunday Masses, and a larger celebration is observed on August 15 each year, the day recognized by the Christian world as the day of Mary's Assumption into Heaven.
Unfortunately, when the Vatican was investigating the story of Sister Emmerich for her beatification, they discovered that Brentano had taken some "creative liberties" when writing her story. Not a word-for-word transcription as many had first believed, Brentano had enhanced the dying nun's description of the site with information he'd gleaned from various maps and travel guides about the area around Ephesus. Unable to determine which parts of the story matched the nun's actual vision, and which parts were poetic licence by Brentano, the church investigators was unable to confirm the validity of Sister Emmerich's visions. (Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich was eventually beatified for her good works and stigmata, rather than her visions of the house where Mary spent her final days.)
The Facts As We Know Them
- Mary is revered by both the Christian and Muslim religious, and is the only woman mentioned in both the Bible and Quran.
- The Bible states that Jesus asked his apostle John to watch over his mother after his (Jesus') crucifixion. And it also mentions that John visited the Ephesus area after Jesus' passing. It does not indicate how long they stayed in the area, or whether Mary travelled with him.
- Ephesus is home to the first church devoted to Mary. Back in those days, that honour was typically reserved for locals, so one must assume that Mary spent at least some time in the area. However, there is no confirmed evidence that she lived her final days at the peaceful site in the mountains.
- The house we see at the site today has been dated to about the 13th century. The remains of an older, smaller structure have been detected beneath the current site, which archaeologists have dated to the approximate time of Mary's life.
- There is a natural spring located just below the stone structure. The devout believe it is a source of Holy water, capable of miraculously restoring health, wealth and fertility.
- A wishing wall has been set-up on the grounds near the water fountains, which is covered in small slips of fabric and paper inscribed with prayers and wishes. The custom has shamanic origins, but now seems to be embraced by all who visit the Virgin Mary's house.
- Byzantine-era graves have been located in the woods surrounding the house, but the remains are confirmed from the 7th and 8th centuries, and therefore, do not belong to Mary. No grave matching the description in Brentano's book has ever been located.
- Although the Catholic Church has never officially confirmed the location as the actual place where the Virgin Mary lived out her final days, several Popes have visited the shrine and given it their endorsement as a Holy site.
The Truth: Did Mary Actually Live and Die Here?
We'll probably never know the truth – and, in its essence, that's what faith is all about. Whether you're a devout believer, a sceptic, or an agnostic, there's no denying the peaceful site we call the House of the Virgin Mary is a lovely place for quiet reflection and contemplation.
Exploring the Holy Site On Your Own
- We visited the site on a Tuesday morning in February, 2018 and were literally the only visitors there. During the height of tourist season, and especially on the Holy Days, the crowds can be overwhelming. We recommend planning your visit accordingly.
- We visited the site a second time on the morning of Christmas Eve, 2021. It was busier than our first trip, but not overrun. I suspect it would be busier in the evening when devout attend Christmas Eve mass. Restrictions are in place to minimize risk of transmitting Covid-19, but they do not detract from the experience of the site.
- The shrine and surrounding gardens are peaceful, with occassional signs reminding visitors to be quiet and respectful. Whether you are a religious believer or not, it is a lovely space to contemplate life and the beauty of nature.
- The site of the House of the Virgin Mary is maintained by the city of Selçuk, who collect entrance and parking fees to pay for its upkeep. Be forewarned that they only accept cash. (When compared to other historic sites in Turkey, a visit to the House of the Virgin Mary is relatively expensive. And, because it is not part of the extensive system of nationally-operated Turkish museums, Muze cards cannot be used to gain access.)
- The entrance to the site is located up a fairly steep, winding road, about 5.5KM from the south gate of Ephesus and 7.5KM from the north gate. The road is well-maintained, but there are no sidewalks. Physically fit visitors can walk to the site if they choose, but there is plenty of convenient parking for private cars, taxis, and tour buses at the entrance for those who prefer to drive.
- Visitors entering the shrine are required to be appropriately dressed (i.e., legs and shoulders covered for both men and women), and photography within the walls of the stone structure is not permitted. Photography is allowed around the rest of the site.
- English language mass is hosted on site everyday, and a special celebration of Mary's Assumption is observed each year on August 15. These services are popular, especially during summer months, so visitors should be prepared for crowds.
- Souvenir, snack, and toilet facilities are available on site.
We enjoyed our visit to the House of the Virgin Mary and will likely return again the next time we're in the area.
The House of the Virgin Mary: Some Photos of Our Visit
Click on any image to expand it.
Sources for this article
- Mary's House by Donald Carroll. Published by Veritas Books, London. Copyright 2000.
- St. Virgin Mary House Association Official Website, accessed on February 22, 2021.
- Turkish Archaeological News. Retrieved February 21, 2021 from House of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus.
- Wikipedia. Retrieved February 21, 2021 from House of the Virgin Mary.