The Tomb of the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ is marked by the Church of the Assumption at the foot of the Mount of Olives, in Jerusalem. The site has an upper 14th-century church and a lower 1st century, underground crypt that holds Mary's Tomb. The church also has elements of a Crusader church that once marked the site.
The Biblical Burial Site of Mary
The Bible does not tell us of Mary's death or burial but Catholic teachings hold that she fell into an eternal sleep and was assumed to heaven. The Catholic site where Mary fell asleep is commemorated at the Dormition Abbey ("dormio" is Latin for sleep) on Mount Zion. Eastern Christians believe Mary died, was buried, and was resurrected, after three days. The Eastern Orthodox tradition holds that Mary was buried in a cave at the foot of the Mount of Olives, now known as the Tomb of Mary.
The Site of Mary's Tomb
In the 1st century AD, burial caves were cut into the rock at the foot of the Mount of Olives in the Kidron Valley. One of these caves was believed to be Mary's tomb and so in the 4th century, Emperor Constantine had rock-cut away around her tomb to create a sanctuary. A Byzantine-era octagonal-shaped church was built above the rock tomb and later destroyed by Persians in 614.
The 12th century Crusader Queen Melisende of Jerusalem had the church above the tomb rebuilt and expanded to include the Abbey of St. Mary of the Valley of Jehoshaphat. In 1187 the Crusader church was destroyed by Saladin. Miraculously through each era, the underground tomb was respected and left untouched. The present church was built by Franciscan friars in the late 14th century and taken over by the Greek Orthodox Church in 1757.
The Church of the Assumption
Visitors enter the cross-shaped upper church through the original Crusader entrance. A wide flight of 47 steps dating back to the Crusader-era, leads deep into the lower church. Flanking the stairs are two small chapels, one dedicated to Joseph, Mary's husband, and the other to Mary's parents Anna and Joachim. Also buried here is the Crusader Queen Melisande who ruled Jerusalem with her husband from 1131 to 1153.
There are ornate Armenian and Greek-Orthodox altars; a Syriac altar and a modest Catholic altar. The Ethiopian Orthodox, Copts, and Syrian Orthodox have some rights at the site. The dimly lit church, with its dark stone walls blackened by candle smoke, is adorned with Medieval paintings, religious icons, and many brass, silver, and copper oil lanterns hanging on chains. The ceramic balls halfway down the lantern chains prevent mice from running down into the lantern oil.
At the end of the central hall is a round apse with a Greek-Orthodox altar marking Mary's Tomb. Like the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre, visitors must bend to enter through the crypt's low doorway. As they duck down they inevitably bow, showing their respect. The tomb itself is a stone bench where Mary may have been placed after her death. Narrow openings allow pilgrims to touch the stone.
The Tomb of Mary in Islamic Tradition
The Tomb of Mary also holds a place in Islamic tradition and a section of the crypt is reserved for Muslim prayer. You can see a mihrab (niche showing the direction of Mecca) in the wall that was installed during Saladin's rule. Mary is mentioned in the Koran more than any other woman and revered by Muslims as the mother of the prophet Jesus. One of the best-known stories from the Koran is the Night Journey when Muhammad has whisked away to the "farthest mosque" in Jerusalem. On the Night Journey Muhammad saw a light shining over the tomb of his "sister Mary."