House of the Virgin Mary: The Discovery at Ephesus

By Heather Abraham

Atop a distant mountain in southwest Turkey, overlooking the ancient city of Ephesus, lies a shrine shrouded in mystery.  Called Meryem Ana Evi (House of Mother Mary) by the native Turks, it is believed to be the last earthly home of the Virgin Mary.  Unlike the Marian shrines of Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe and Knock, which are held to be the locations of apparitions of Mary, Our Lady of Ephesus is a shrine connected to Mary’s physical historical presence.  Pilgrims who journey to Nightingale Mountain to visit the shrine believe it to be the site of her last earthly residence, the place of her death, and, for some, the location from which she was bodily assumed into heaven.  Although sought out by more than a million Christian and Muslim pilgrims annually, Our Lady of Ephesus has received little attention from the academic world.

House of Mary (Our Lady of Ephesus)

“Discovered” in 1891, Our Lady of Ephesus is a comparatively recent Marian phenomenon and was little known outside of the Izmir region of Turkey until 1906 when it received the first pilgrims from abroad.  The Ephesus tradition of Mary’s last years is supported in the traditional belief that Mary, after Jesus’ crucifixion, came to live with and be cared for by the Apostle John who Jesus commanded from the cross to care for his mother.  John 19:26-27 is witness to the event.

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.”  Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.”  And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

To the Christian faithful, it is reasonable to assume that John would have honored Jesus’ request to care for his mother and as Church tradition holds that John’s ministry was based in and around Ephesus, some have concluded that Mary, at the very least, spent time in Ephesus.

Although Mary is mentioned by several early church fathers as having lived in Ephesus in the years following the death of Jesus, the Jerusalem tradition, as the place of her death and Assumption, overshadowed and eventually replaced the Ephesus tradition and through the centuries, Mary’s connection to Ephesus was forgotten to all but the local Greek Christian population. With the silting up of its harbor, Ephesus, an important Christian center, port city, and banking center for centuries, became a shadow of its former self.  After facing economic hardship, earthquakes, and catastrophic soil erosion that forced a significant portion of its population to flee, the city fell in to a state of decline from which it never recovered. The conquest of the Ephesus and Izmir region by Seljuk Turks, in the eleventh century CE, saw the remaining Christian population’s flight to the isolated mountains surrounding the Ephesus valley.  These Christians, known at the Kirkindje, would keep the Marian Ephesus tradition alive whereas outside of the Ephesus valley, sources containing information about the Ephesus tradition were lost in the silt of the centuries until revived in the visions of an eighteen-century stigmatic Augustinian nun.

Anne Catherine Emmerich’s visions of Mary’s life in Ephesus add yet another layer of mystery to the elusive ruins atop Nightingale Mountain.  Emmerich’s visions, as recorded by the German Poet Clemens Brentano, were instrumental to the shrine’s ultimate discovery in 1891.  In Our Lady of Ephesus, Father Bernard Deutsch stresses the importance of Emmerich’s visions as a catalyst for the discovery of the shrine.  He writes,

It is altogether proper to say that without Catherine Emmerich, Mary’s home would in all probability not be known to the world today.  Without her, then, this house of the Holy Virgin, where already hundreds of thousands have venerated Mary, would still be nothing but a relatively deserted ruin, known only to a few.

Anne Catherine Emmerich

Born in 1774 in a small town in western Germany, Emmerich lived a pious but difficult life filled with poverty and illness.  At the age of twenty-eight, Emmerich entered a small Augustinian convent at Dulmen as a novitiate, and one year later she took her solemn vow becoming an Augustinian nun. With the rise of Napoleon and France’s domination over Europe, the convent at Dulmen was closed by the state, leaving the destitute Emmerich alone and homeless.  With nowhere to go, Emmerich remained at the abandoned convent, until her health deteriorated and she could no longer care for herself.  Hearing of her plight, a compassionate woman from a nearby village took her into her home and cared for Emmerich until her death in 1824.

In 1812 Emmerich allegedly began to bear the stigmata, including a cross over her heart, and wounds from the crown of thorns.  Witnesses to the event reported, “that as she prayed her face became flushed and she was seized by high fever.  Then all of a sudden she was infused by a brightness that specifically illuminated her hands and feet, which were seen to be covered with blood, as if they were punctured.”(Carroll)  After reports of the appearance of the stigmata, Emmerich began to attract visitors including the German Poet Clemens Brentano who spent the next six years recording the visions that ensued shortly after the onset of the stigmata.

Emmerich’s visions consisted of detailed accounts of the Passion of Christ and the life of the Virgin Mary after of the Crucifixion, including the location of her home on Nightingale Mountain overlooking the city of Ephesus.   Brentano spent six years at the bedside of Emmerich, recording and documenting her visions. His manuscripts entitled The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary and The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ (inspiration for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ) were published in 1842.  Both books would become and remain classic Catholic literature, but it was Brentano’s The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary that some believe ultimately led to the discovery of Our Lady of Ephesus.

While perhaps filled with lore, the circulated story of the modern “discovery” of the shrine is a fascinating one.  In 1891, Sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey presented visiting priests to her convent in Smyrna (Izmir) with a copy of Clemens Brentano’s The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  After reading and discussing Emmerich’s visions, Sister Mandat-Grancey challenged the priests to go to nearby Ephesus and investigate the validity of Emmerich’s visions, which included detailed descriptions of Mary’s House and its location on a mountain overlooking the ancient city.  Taking up the challenge, Father Jung and his fellow adventurers embarked on an expedition they believed would prove Emmerich’s visions false.  Armed with only the book to guide them, the skeptical Catholic Priests set off for the ruins of Ephesus.

The expedition left Smyrna and traveled to the seaside town of Kusadasi where they hired a local guide, Mustapha, to take them to Ephesus. After touring the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus and some of the area surrounding the city, Jung and his expedition spent the night in nearby Seljuk.  The next morning, armed only with the accounts of Emmerich’s visions, Jung chose Nightingale Mountain as a target for exploration. At Jung’s instruction, Mustapha led the expedition on an arduous climb up the side of Nightingale Mountain.  Upon reaching the crest, the exhausted and overheated party went in search for water and a place to rest.

Finding a group of Turkish women harvesting tobacco on the side of a hill, the party inquired as to where they could find water and shade in which to rest.  The locals directed them farther up the mountain to the “monastery where there is a fountain.”(Poulin)   Curious, as they were not aware of any monastery in the area, the expedition continued up the mountain until they came upon a well.  After quenching their thirst and resting, they set about exploring their surroundings.  A short distance from the well, they discovered the ruins of a small stone house.

Remembering Emmerich’s description of the house and geographic location, Jung asked Mustapha if one could see both the Aegean Sea and the city of Ephesus from this place on the mountain. Mustapha went off to investigate and retuned with an affirmative answer; both could be seen only from this place on the mountain. Emmerich had described the location, the house, and the surrounding grounds in great detail.

A little way behind the summit of the rocky hill from which one could see over the trees and hills to Ephesus and the sea with its many islands.  The place is nearer the sea than Ephesus, which must be several hours’ journey distant from the coast. (Palairet)

Regarding the house itself, Emmerich described St. John as building a house of stone on the mountainside where several Christian families where living in nearby caves.  After several days in the area, the priests stumbled upon caves and other geological features included in Brentano’s book.  In The Holy Virgins House, Father P. Eugene Poulin, a member of the expedition, writes, “I confess I was quite astonished when, at first sight, details one after another, details of great value appeared all of a sudden, just as C. Emmerich had indicated.  Truth surpassed conviction. There was nothing to say.” (Poulin)  Convinced they had uncovered the impossible, the expedition returned to the Convent in Smyrna (Izmir) and announced that they had found Mary’s House.   Father Vervault, another member of the expedition, recorded in his journal these words: “We looked, and we have found it.”(Caroll)  Reporting their “discovery,” the priests awaited further instruction from the Vatican.  Reacting immediately to the report, Vatican officials authorized a secession of expeditions and ordered a thorough investigation of the ruins and the surrounding area.  The priests would soon encounter, in a nearby mountain village, the Kirkindje Greeks, descendents of the Ephesian Christians who were not only aware of the sacred ruins atop Nightingale Mountain, but had kept the tradition of Mary’s home alive through the centuries with an annual communal pilgrimage to Our Lady of Ephesus.

Today, Our Lady of Ephesus receives more than a million pilgrims a year and it boasts a century of interfaith pilgrimage.  This unique Marian shrine not only attracts Christian pilgrims from a multitude of traditions but also Muslims who journey to Our Lady of Ephesus to connect with and pay respect to one of the Four Perfect Woman in Islam.

For more information on Mary in Islam, see Religion Nerd article entitled “Mary, A Bridge Between Christianity and Islam

Sources:

  • Father Bernard F. Deutsch, Our Lady of Ephesus (Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1965)
  • Carroll, Donald,  Mary’s House ( London: UK: Veritas Books, 2000)
  • Eugene Poulin, The Holy Virgin’s House: True Story of its Discovery (Istanbul, Turkey: Arikan Yayinlari, 1999)
  • Sir Michael Palairet, The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1970)

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