The Dormition Abbey (or Basilica of the Assumption) is one of Jerusalem’s most impressive churches. It stands on Mount Zion, the highest point in ancient Jerusalem. The Dormition Abbey is built on the site where Mary, mother of Jesus, fell into an eternal sleep and was assumed into heaven, body, and soul. Two places claim to be the site where Mary died–Ephesus, in present-day Turkey, and Mount Zion in Jerusalem, where the Dormition Church now stands. The massive Benedictine abbey has a distinct shape and unique architectural elements, unlike any other Jerusalem church.
In the 5th century, the Hagia Sion Cathedral stood on the site where the Dormition Abbey now stands, but it was destroyed in the Persian invasion of 614AD. In the 12th century, a monastic order built the Sant Maria in Monte Sion Church on the remains of the Byzantine church. The Crusader church was destroyed in the 13th century and the land was unused for about 500 years.
In 1898 the German Emperor William II visited the Holy Land and bought the land from the ruling Ottoman sultan for 120,000 German Goldmark. The Emperor gave the land to the German Association for the Holy Land to build an imposing, fortress-like church that would reinforce Germany’s place in the Holy Land. The Dormition Abbey was completed in 1910. The abbey was damaged during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 and again in the 1967 Six-Day War.
The huge Roman Catholic Benedictine abbey measures 34-meters high and has two levels. There is a crypt and Marian shrine on the lower level and a high altar and monastic choir on the upper level. The upper level has large windows and walls covered with mosaics depicting scenes from Christian and Benedictine history.
The most impressive mosaic is above the main altar and shows Mary with baby Jesus. There is also a large circular floor mosaic in the upper church, dating back to 1932. The lower level has a central rotunda where a life-size wood and ivory statue of Mary lies sleeping on a simple bier. Mosaics featuring six Old Testament women adorn the dome above Mary.
The fortress-like church has a round central building with four round towers at each “corner” and a free-standing bell tower. Topping the church is a cone-shaped lead-covered dome, unlike other churches of Jerusalem that have a round dome or spire. The architect blended the neo-Romanesque style of European churches with the white and red stones used in Mameluke architecture. The church has two organs that are used in services and liturgical music concerts. If you get the opportunity, join the Benedictine monks for a prayer service where Gregorian chants accompany the chilling organ music that resonates in this historic stone church.