These ancient cults of female deities were later echoed in the worship of St. Mary, mother of Jesus, that supposedly spent the last years of her life in Ephesus. According to this tradition, Mary arrived at Ephesus together with St. John and lived there until her Assumption (according to the Catholic doctrine) or Dormition (according to the Orthodox beliefs). The House of the Virgin Mary (Meryem Ana Evi in Turkish) which can be still visited today, is a place where, according to the beliefs of many people, Mary, the mother of Jesus, spent the last years of her life. However, similarly to the history of St. John, there are many questions and uncertainties regarding this location.
St. Mary in Ephesus - myth or fact?
Why would St. Mary live in Ephesus? The first hint comes from the Bible, where John the Evangelist explained that Jesus, during the crucifixion, declared his adoption as the son of Mary: "Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, "Woman, here is your son," and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home." According to a tradition recorded by Irenaeus and Eusebius of Caesarea, John later came to Ephesus where he worked and finally died; it is assumed that he brought with him his adopted mother. These faint hints provided the basis for the early belief that Mary also lived in Ephesus with John. However, the evidence that St. Mary actually stayed there is not very strong, and there are much better indications that her permanent house was in Jerusalem.
Let us investigate the faint hints suggesting that St. Mary lived in Ephesus. First of all, there is no mention of this fact in the Bible. There are only much later pieces of written evidence, and there are no archaeological finds to confirm this claim. The earliest mention of the possibility that St. Mary resided in Ephesus can be traced to the synodal letter of the Council of Ephesus that took place in 431. This letter mentions "the city of the Ephesians, where John the Theologian and the Virgin Mother of God St. Mary [lived and are buried]". Secondly, Bar-Hebraeus, a Jacobite bishop writing in the 13th century, related that St. John took Mary with him to Patmos, and then founded the Church of Ephesus. This could mean that Mary lived her final days on Patmos or in Ephesus, but the place of her death is not mentioned. In the 18th century, Pope Benedict XIV claimed that Mary followed St. John to Ephesus. He even intended also to remove from the Breviary the lessons which mention Mary's death in Jerusalem but died before carrying out this intention.
Another line of argument in favour of Ephesus as the place where St. Mary lived is the existence of the Church of St. Mary in Ephesus. It was the first Christian temple devoted to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Additional arguments brought during the debate over the authenticity of the House of the Virgin Mary are the choice of Ephesus as the venue of the Council of Ephesus. It was convened in 431 to resolve the dispute concerning the determination of the unification of human and divine nature in Jesus Christ and the title of Mary as the Mother of God. Additionally, the Greek inhabitants of the nearby village of Şirince had the custom of pilgrimages to a place called Panaya Kapulu to celebrate the day of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. On the other hand, there is an exciting continuity in the religious cult of female figures in Ephesus, first — of Kybele, then — of Artemis, and finally — of St. Mary.
As everyone can see, all these documents are from much later times than the 1st century when St. John and St. Mary lived. These written pieces of evidence are also very few, and none of them provides direct evidence of St. Mary's life in Ephesus. There is much stronger evidence that St. Mary lived and died in Jerusalem where the existence of her tomb was testified by Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, in 451. The material evidence for the existence of a tradition placing the tomb of Mary in Jerusalem is the basilica erected above the sacred spot in Gethsemane, about the turn of the 4th and 5th centuries. It is now known as the Church of the Dormition.
Therefore, while there is no certainty where St. Mary lived after the death of her son on the cross, it is much more probable that her house was in Jerusalem where her tomb can still be visited. The tradition placing her in Ephesus could result from the fact that she had accompanied St. John in his travels and temporarily resided in this city. Still, there is no material evidence of this possibility.
The strange case of Catherine Emmerich and Clemens Brentano
If the facts behind the tale of St. Mary in Ephesus remain uncertain, what is the source of importance of the place called Meryemana? A German nun, Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, who lived from 1774–1824, had visions of Mary in Ephesus, although she had never been in this area. Deeply religious, but born into a family of poor farmers, Emmerich, applied for admission to various convents. She was rejected multiple times because she could not afford a dowry. Finally, she was accepted by the Poor Clares in Münster, provided she would learn to play the organ. She took her religious vows in 1803, at the age of 29. Despite her weak health, she became known for the strict observance of the order's rule. Emmerich was also a stigmatic as the wounds corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ started to appear on her body from 1813.
Later in her life, Emmerich became bedridden, but her fame as a stigmatic and a visionary attracted many well-known visitors. One of them was a poet called Clemens Brentano, who interviewed her at length. He became one of Emmerich's supporters at the time and wrote down the revelations she experienced. From 1819 until Emmerich's death in 1824, Brentano filled many notebooks with accounts of her visions, including the scenes from the New Testament and the life of the Virgin Mary. Only nine years after Emmerich's death, Brentano completed editing his records for publication. The first volume "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to the Meditations of Anne Catherine Emmerich" appeared in the press in 1833 and the second volume "The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary" was published much later, in 1852, long after his death.
The Brentano compilation also offers a very prosaic explanation of Emmerich's visions. He recorded a story that when she had been ill as a child, she had a visit of baby Jesus who suggested she should eat some plants to get better. One of these plants was Morning-Glory, and its flower's juice contains ergine, an alkaloid responsible for the psychedelic activity.
However, the authenticity of Brentano's records has been questioned many times, and his books were even called a "well-intentioned fraud". This fraud was revealed when the case for Anne Catherine Emmerich's beatification was submitted to the Vatican in 1892. The experts compared his original motes with the edited versions in the published books. These analyses revealed that Brentano used many different sources, including maps, guidebooks, and apocryphal biblical sources, to enhance the narration of Catherine Emmerich. By 1928, the experts were sure that not much of Brentano's books could be attributed to Emmerich and the Vatican suspended her beatification process. She was only beatified in 2004 by Pope John Paul II, but not on the basis of Brentano's books but because of her sanctity and virtue.
Rediscovery of the House of St. Mary
Neither Brentano nor Emmerich had ever been to Ephesus, and the city had not yet been excavated at that time. Moreover, taking into account the manipulations made by Brentano before Emmerich's visions were made public, it is quite possible that the whole vision of Ephesus and the house of St. Mary that Emmerich had supposedly had, may have been the result of Brentano's clever interference. On the one hand, he might have told Emmerich about the Nightingale's Hill that had been considered a sacred location since the times unknown. The local Greek population made pilgrimages to this hill annually, and its holiness was widely accepted. On the other hand, Brentano may have simply added the necessary details to her visions later, when he prepared the notes for publication.
These suspicious circumstances and Brantano's manipulations had not been known to the earliest readers of Emmerich's visions as the fraud was only revealed in 1928. The possibility of locating the House of St. Mary in Ephesus was very tempting and several attempts were made in the 19th century as "The Life of The Blessed Virgin Mary" provided convenient details about the location of the house, and the topography of the surrounding area: "Mary did not live in Ephesus itself, but in the country near it. [...] Mary's dwelling was on a hill to the left of the road from Jerusalem, some three and a half hours from Ephesus. This hill slopes steeply towards Ephesus; the city, as one approaches it from the south-east seems to lie on rising ground. [...] Narrow paths lead southwards to a hill near the top of which is an uneven plateau, some half hour's journey." Further details concerned the house itself: built with rectangular stones, with the windows placed high, near the flat roof. The dwelling supposedly consisted of two parts, and there was a hearth at its centre.
The first explorer tempted to test this description against the reality was a French priest, the Abbé Julien Gouyet. In October of 1881, he found a small stone building located on the slope of Coresus Hill, then known as Bülbül Dağ, meaning the Hill of the Nightingales. This hill overlooked the Aegean Sea to the west and the ruins of ancient Ephesus to the north. Gouyet believed that the ruined building was the one described by Emmerich and that it really was the House of St. Mary, where she had spent the final years of her life.
At first, Gouyet's revelations were not treated seriously, but his discovery encouraged sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey to confirm his findings. She was a Roman Catholic religious sister, born of a distinguished French family. After spending 28 years at the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul in the parish of St. Sulpice in Paris, she was assigned to the Mission to Turkey in 1886 where she served in the French Naval Hospital at Smyrna, now known as Izmir. There, she learnt about the so-called House of St. Mary, located in the nearby town of Ayasuluk, from the Lazarist missionary Eugène Poulin. These remarkable people became responsible for the rediscovery of the so-called House of Mary: with Marie de Mandat-Grancey as the primary sponsor and Eugène Poulin as the highly-motivated discoverer.
Eugène Poulin told his exciting life story in a book "The Holy Virgin's House, The True Story of its Discovery". There, he related that as a young priest in France he used to mock the "women visionaries". His perspective changed dramatically when he moved to Smyrna, where he found the book by Catherine Emmerich. He found it very engaging but failed to secure the support of other priests who laughed at these writings as nonsense and "girlish dreams". Poulin was not to be disheartened, especially after reading about St. Mary's life in Ephesus, so close to Smyrna.
Urged by Marie de Mandat-Grancey, Eugène Poulin decided to organise an expedition to Ephesus. Its main aim was to find the House of St. Mary and confirm Emmerich's visions. If the expedition failed, the priests agreed that "nobody will speak about her anymore." A five-member commission was sent to the mountain near Ephesus, accompanied by two missionaries, Henri Jung and Benjamin Vervault, both former soldiers. Father Jung, who was the most fervent opponent of the idea, was appointed to be the leader of the team. The expedition, using the written sources and with the help of local leaders who may have already accompanied Gouyet, found a ruined house. Its location fitted perfectly with Emmerich's descriptions, and there was a spring with fresh water nearby.
Interestingly, when they reached the roofless ruined building on the slopes of the Hill of the Nightingales, they learnt that it had been revered for a long time by Greek inhabitants of the mountain village of Şirince. They even called the house Panaya Kapulu, i.e. the Doorway to the Virgin. Their pilgrimage to this site was made every year on the 15th of August, the day when the Christians around the world commemorated the Dormition/Assumption of St. Mary. These findings seem to confirm that when Brentano prepared the books for the publication, he inserted the information widely known around Ayasuluk and Şirince.
Sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey had a profound practical sensibility, and she secured for herself the position of the Foundress of Mary's House by the Catholic Church. Thus, she became responsible for acquiring, restoring, and preserving St. Mary's House and the surrounding areas. The acquisition of the house was made in November of 1892, not without some difficulties and much negotiation with the Ottoman government. Marie de Mandat-Grancey paid for the property with the inherited wealth of her family and took care of the house until her death in 1915. Father Henri Jung, one of the discoverers of the site, became the first director of the renovation works. The discovery revived and strengthened 'the tradition of Ephesus', which has competed with the older 'Jerusalem tradition' about the place of the St. Mary's dormition.
Development of the pilgrimage center
Annual pilgrimages to the House of St. Mary started to be organised since 1896. This development motivated the restoration and reorganisation of the location into a well-maintained pilgrimage centre, with the priests of the Lazarist order responsible for the operation. Extensive clean-up and restoration works were carried out soon after the acquisition of the land. Moreover, the excavations were conducted around the house, with a clear goal of locating the grave of the Virgin Mary. The search in the forest above the house, initiated on the basis of Emmerich's visions, did not yield any results. However, in the rectangular forecourt to the west of the building, several graves from the Byzantine period were discovered.
As early as the August of 1897, more than 200 local Orthodox Christians from the Şirince area made the pilgrimage to the newly rediscovered holy site. The ruined house was reconstructed between 1898 and 1902 as a chapel, while a residential building for guests and some sisters was built on the forecourt in 1903. Marie de Mandat-Grancey, the benefactress of the centre, often stayed in the grounds, taking care of the design and management as well as welcoming visitors and pilgrims. However, five years before her death, she transferred the property to the Lazarist Father Poulin.
The problems with the property rights over the area of St. Mary's House started during the First World War. In 1917, the location was declared a restricted military area and confiscated by the Turkish authorities. Thus, when the Lazarists returned to Ephesus in 1920 during the Greek-Turkish War, they found the area in a run-down and demolished state.
The operations of the house as the religious centre were resumed in 1926 but only to a limited extent. Moreover, after 1936, they were abandoned again. Only after the Second World War, in 1947, the Turkish authorities finally recognised the private ownership of the site and the pilgrimages were resumed from 1949. The religious tourism gained an additional boost in the 50s of the 20th century when the Turkish authorities built a paved access road to the sanctuary. This smart move of the Turkish authorities resulted from the proclamation made in 1950 by Pope Pius XII concerning the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. The Turkish government understood the tourist potential of this place. Thus, it opened a road so that the site could benefit from the renowned archaeological heritage of the region and welcome international tourists. The restoration of the House of St. Mary was carried out in the same period, by Joseph Emmanuel Descuffi, the Bishop of Izmir. This last structural intervention took place in 1951 when the entire complex was reconstructed, and the sanctuary received its present form.
In 1952, Louis Massignon, a Catholic scholar of Islam and a pioneer of Catholic-Muslim mutual understanding, created the Association of the Friends of Ephesus and Anne Catherine Emmerich whose aim was to develop pilgrimages to the Holy Places of Ephesus. For a short time, the property was owned by a group of individuals under the leadership of the local Catholic bishop. The final transfer of the ownership was made in 1955 when it was purchased by the American telecommunications entrepreneur George B. Quatman. The American Society of Ephesus that he had founded also sponsored the construction of the priests' home and the home for nuns, adjacent to the House of Mary.
Significance of the House for Chrisitans and Muslims
The Roman Catholic Church has never pronounced on the authenticity of the house, for the lack of scientifically acceptable evidence. Although the place has never been officially recognized by the Catholic Church as the home of Mary, a lot of gestures made by the popes authenticated its history in the eyes of the faithful. An investigation commissioned by the Archdiocese of Smyrna concluded in December 1892 that the assumption that the Blessed Virgin Mary might have died in the house was scientifically and theologically justifiable.
Then, several popes visited the site. First, Pope Leo XIII blessed the House of the Virgin Mary during his pilgrimage in 1896. This blessing gave an early boost to the site as a pilgrimage centre and signalled a positive attitude of the Catholic Church towards it. In 1903, Leo XIII planned to send a papal commission to Turkey to investigate the site, but his death put an end to this initiative.
His successor, Pius X, received in 1912 the founder of the sanctuary during an audience. He inquired whether the tomb of Mary had been found in the meantime. Although this was not the case, he granted a group of visitors to the pilgrimage site in 1914 a complete indulgence of sins. In February 1921, a conference of the Pontifical Roman Seminary on the question of the admissibility of pilgrimages to the "House of Mary" took place in the Lateran with the participation of numerous representatives of the Curia. As a result of the expert discussions, the Austrian capuchin and biblical scholar Michael Hetzenauer coined the officially preferred language rule, according to which the assumption of a temporary residence of Mary in Ephesus was also possibly independent from the answer to the question where she had died.
Pope Pius XII gave the House of the Virgin Mary the status of a Holy Place and the Catholic place of pilgrimage in 1951, following the definition of the dogma of the Assumption. In this dogma, the Pope had decided not to specify the location of death and the ascension of the Blessed Mother. This privilege was subsequently confirmed and made permanent by Pope John XXIII. He had close ties to Turkey where he had been active as an apostolic delegate in the 1930s. He was also said to have visited the House of St. Mary on the occasion of the 1500th anniversary of the Council of Ephesus, celebrated in 1931. In 1960, he sent a special candle to the House of St. Mary for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord and such candles are donated only to important Marian shrines. One year later, he granted a plenary absolution to Catholic pilgrims who visited the House with faithful intentions.
Pope Paul VI paid a visit in July of 1967. The main aim of his trip to Turkey was to better explain his thinking about the relations between the two primatial seats from Rome and Constantinople. Using the opportunity, he also went to the House of St. Mary and granted a plenary absolution to all the faithful who visited it. In more recent history, the House of the Virgin Mary was also visited in 1979 by Pope John Paul II, and in 2006 — by Pope Benedict XVI, during his four-day pastoral trip to Turkey. All three of these popes celebrated a holy mass at the place of pilgrimage.
Although all these papal visits have no dogmatic value, they show the religious importance of this site. Its international character has been continually increasing, and its the affluence sometimes takes a mass approach as, in some years, around 300 000 people visit the sanctuary. Pilgrims drink from a spring under the house, believed to have healing properties. A holy mass is held there every year for the Christian visitors on the 15th of August to commemorate the Assumption of Mary. Outside the temple, there is a kind of wish wall where the visitors make their petitions by tying a ribbon. This was originally a Turkish custom, but it is now imitated by tourists of all the faiths who attach pieces of cloth, paper, or plastic.
The site is visited and revered by Muslims as well as Christians. The House of the Virgin Mary has an enormous significance for Muslims, for whom Mary was the mother of one of the great prophets of Islam, called İsa Peygamber, i.e. Jesus. The main focus of Muslim visitors arriving from all parts of Turkey today, besides the sacred spring, is the so-called Quran Room, supposedly the bedroom of Mary. Its interior walls have been adorned with Quranic verses and Islamic symbols since the 1980s, while the rest of the building is dominated by Christian symbolism. In the understanding of many, even Turkish Muslims, the Qur'anic figure of the Maryam is a sublime and sincere woman who can intercede with God. Moreover, traditionally, in some areas of Turkey, it is common practice, especially among the destitute and the women who can not make their pilgrimage to Mecca to visit the House of Mary instead. However, this practice is not a part of the mainstream Sunni doctrine, and certain Islamic radical condemn the visit to the sanctuary. For this reason, the place has been guarded around the clock by the Turkish military for fear of incidents.
Archaeological excavations started on the site in 1898, when an architect M. Carré, put in charge by the French government came from Constantinople. In his report, he recorded that the house dated back to "the first centuries", without more precise indication of its age. In 1905, Abbé Wogh, an archaeologist and Bizantine Art Professor at Fribourg University, conducted a more detailed investigation. According to him, the historical components of the building date back to the period from the 5th to the 7th century CE. He did not find any indication of an earlier structure, from before the Byzantine era. The suggestions were also made that there are older foundations below the building, possibly from the first century CE, but at that time no material evidence to support this theory was available. Moreover, the bodies in the clay pits discovered to the west of the church were buried with their heads towards the building and held Byzantine coins from the 7th and the 8th centuries CE in their hands.
Systematic archaeological investigations of the site took place between 1965 and 1967 under the direction of the Italian archaeologist Adriano Prandi. According to Prandi, the remains of the sacred building are those of a late Byzantine chapel from the 13th century, originally covered with a dome. Structural asymmetries suggest the existence of an older building, particularly evident in the southern side chapel (called "a sleeping cell" or "a Quran room"), where Prandis' excavations were concentrated. Although no clear dating hints could be found there either, Prandi considered the dating of the predecessor structure from the 2nd or 3rd century to be probable. Taking into account the excavation findings from the area documented by the lay excavators of the discovery period, the entire complex was interpreted as a late Byzantine monastery, which was built on the remains of a Roman villa built on terraces from the 2nd to the 3rd century CE. However, this claim was contradicted in 2002 by Egidio Picucci, who assumed the 4th century as the period of the original development.
The most recent archaeological investigations were not made at the chapel itself, but in the garden about 80 meters to the west of the house. There, the Austrian excavation team of Ephesus conducted in 2003 two exploratory excavations on behalf of the Turkish Heritage Authority, after rumours had spread over a buried coffin with the body of the Blessed Mother, that had been visible for a short time during a wall repair in the 1950s. While these rumours have not been confirmed, the analysis of the ceramic finds from the undisturbed layers of the excavation concluded that the ancient villa was not built as previously thought in the 2nd to 3rd century CE. Surprisingly, the archaeologists discovered that the original structure was the atrium of the residential house that already existed in the 1st century BCE. Because of this revolutionary dating, these latest findings have reopened the vast area of speculations about the authenticity of the House of St. Mary.
A huge golden statue of the Virgin Mary greets the visitors back down the mountain where the road to Meryemana/House of the Virgin Mary begins, very close to the Upper Gate to Ephesus. This is a very recent addition to the local landscape, put there by the Mayor of Selçuk, Zeynel Bakıcı, whose intention was to draw even more attention of the religious tourists to the existence of the House of St. Mary. He even compared this statue to the Statue of Liberty in New York and the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Aesthetic considerations aside, the statue immediately draws the attention with its shiny exterior, it is also an excellent viewing point towards Ephesus and Selçuk.
From this point, a winding road leads uphill, reaching the sanctuary after 4.5 kilometres. Along the road, there are boards in many languages, providing information about the site. The olive trees on both sides of the way leading to Mary’s House were planted by Lazarist Fathers in 1898.
Pilgrims and tourists arriving at the House of St. Mary are greeted by a small statuette of Anne Catherine Emmerich and another statue of St. Mary. The statue of Mary at the end of the way of olive trees is a gift of a religious community in Izmir and dates back to 1867. It was placed in its current location in 1960 by Father François Saulais who was a member of Charles de Foucauld Order. He and Father Bouis were in charge at the House of Mary during this period. With high probability, the statue was inside the House of Mary between 1892 and 1914 before it was moved to its present location.
In the grove to the south-east of the house, there is a rectangular atrium with a medieval water reservoir, discovered in 1964. Its shape resembles an oversized full-body font, and sometimes it interpreted as an indication of an early Christian use of the location as a baptismal place.
The House of St. Mary is now a small chapel, with the statue of St. Mary where the faithful light the candles. This statue, placed on the marble altar, is a bronze cast iron statue of the Virgin of Lourdes. To the left of this oratory there is a storeroom, and on the right, a room supposed to be the bedroom of the Blessed Virgin with a bunk that was fixed to the wall, now called the Quran Room.