MARY'S LAST EARTHLY HOME?
Kim A. Lawton
Many believe the Blessed Virgin Mary died in this small stone house in Western Turkey
It is a hot and dusty autumn day in Western Turkey, the biblical land of Asia Minor. But on top of a small mountain just outside the ancient city of Ephesus, a small park offers a shady oasis for pilgrims.
They come to see Meryemana Kultur Parki, or "Mary's House," the spot where many Christians believe the Blessed Virgin Mary spent her last days on earth.
Just a few miles down the mountain, hundreds of tourists push and shove their way every day among the magnificent white-columned ruins of Ephesus, some of the largest and best preserved remnants of the once-thriving Roman empire.
Yet here on Bulbul ("Nightingale") Mountain, the atmosphere is peaceful, reverent.
A narrow path leads to a small stone house shrouded by trees and flowers. Three nuns sit on benches near the house, praying, while several European families make their way through the low doorway leading into the house.
A Turkish Muslim woman stands in front of the house. She beckons to her companions to come along. "Hurry. I want to do the pilgrimage, too," she says.
Every year, thousands of pilgrims journey across Turkey to visit sites that are significant to Christians, Jews and Muslims. Christianity, in particular, has deep roots in what is now the nation of Turkey, the crossroads between Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
In St. John's care
The New Testament books of Galatians, Ephesians and Colossians were all written to congregations located in Turkey, and the seven cities of Asia Minor addressed in the Book of Revelation were all here as well.
St. Paul, who was born in the southeastern Turkish village of Tarsus, lived and worked for nearly three years in Ephesus and was a frequent visitor to several cities in Turkey during his missionary journeys. The New Testament also records that many early Church leaders, including Timothy, Epaphras, Priscilla and Aquila, lived and worked in Turkey.
St. John the Evangelist wrote the Book of Revelation during his exile on the Aegean island of Patmos, just off the coast of Turkey.
Tradition holds that St. John presided over the churches of Asia Minor from the Ephesus area, and that he died there of old age in approximately A.D. 100. Some scholars, however, claim that he died as a martyr much earlier.
Local Christians say it is because of St. John that the Virgin Mary has a placein Turkey as well. According to John's Gospel, as Christ was on the cross, He looked down and saw His mother and John, known as "the disciple whom Jesus loved." Christ told John, "Here is your mother," and the Gospel says from then on, the disciple took Mary into his home (see Jn 19:25-27).
Beyond this, no direct biblical evidence about what happened to Mary after the death of Christ exists.
Many scholars believe that she died in Jerusalem. But another tradition asserts that Mary accompanied St. John to Asia Minor and settled in a small house outside of Ephesus, which was the most important and prosperous city of the region during that time.
For many Catholics, local tradition was bolstered by the mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich, an Augustinian nun who lived in Germany from 1774 until 1824. Throughout her life, Emmerich had many visions about the life of Christ and Mary.
The German Romantic poet Clemens von Brentano spent five years working closely with Emmerich, recording the details of her visions. Emmerich, who never left Germany, described the location and appearance of a small isolated house near Ephesus, where she said Mary lived and died.
In 1891, a research team followed the path described in Emmerich's visions and discovered this housewhich matched her descriptionsbuilt on a site that was already revered by local residents, especially on the feast of the Assumption on Aug. 15.
Emmerich also said that Mary was buried near the house, although to date no grave has been found.
In 1967, Pope Paul VI celebrated Mass at Meryemana. Pope John Paul II also visited the site in 1979 and proclaimed it a place of worship. Today, the house is visited by thousands of pilgrims from around the world.
The house itself dates back to the sixth century, although the foundations are older and could indeed be from the first century. The small domed structure, with a cross-shaped plan, was renovated in 1950.
Inside is a tiny dark chapel with lit candles lining the sides of the main room. In front is an altar with a small statue of the Virgin Mary placed in a circular alcove built into the wall. Pilgrims leave flowers and candles on the altar table and on the colorful Turkish carpet in front of the altar.
In a small brick alcove on the left side of the altar, a Bible in the modern Turkish language is opened to the John 19 passage. An icon of Mary is displayed in the brick alcove on the right side.
Outside, down a small set a stairs behind the house, European tourists and Turkish Muslim women wait in line to draw holy water from faucets. The water, from a spring nearby, is said to have healing properties.
Christians may find it incongruous to see Muslims at this site, but many Muslims also consider Mary to be an important religious figure. In Turkish Muslim custom, small pieces of white rags are tied to trees along the paths leading to and from the house, representing prayers to be answered.
Meryemana is playing a central part in the Turkish Ministry of Tourism's ambitious plans to make Turkey the "second Holy Land."
In anticipation of the year 2000, the ministry has launched a new "faith tourism" project emphasizing Turkey's many sites of interest to Christians, Muslims and Jews.
Visitors to Meryemana pay a modest entrance fee of about $3, which goes toward upkeep on the park. On the front of each ticket are the words: "Invitation . . . Jesus is 2,000 years old," and on the back, visitors are invited to come to a special Mass at the house in the year 2000.
Inevitably, small signs of commercialism have crept into the area. At the entrance of the park is a restaurant and a postcard stand. Near the spring, visitors can purchase small plastic bottles for their holy water.
Still, despite souvenirs and tourism gimmicks, Meryemana remains a place of worship. Mass is celebrated here at 10:30 a.m. every Sunday and on other special occasions.
For Christian pilgrims, Meryemana remains a place of faith as well. Down the mountain at Ephesus, it is possible to see the very amphitheater described in the Acts of the Apostles where Ephesian silversmiths rioted against St. Paul for teaching the Christian message. It is possible to walk on the actual streets trod upon by St. Paul and Timothy.
But here on Nightingale Mountain, the aura of wonder and mystery persist. Could this indeed be the home where the mother of God lived her final years? Perhaps it is a question best answered in the hearts of those who come to visit.
Lawton, who writes from Arlington, Va., recently visited Turkey
This article was taken from the December 8, 1996 issue of Our Sunday Visitor. To subscribe write Our Sunday Visitor, Inc, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, In 46750.
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