By: Sister Danielle Peters


With the following presentation the attempt has been made to trace all places which according to tradition, legends and popular piety are in some way connected to the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. From the outset it is important to note that the apocryphal texts, as well as the legends, customs, and visions referred to in this presentation are in no way authoritative in terms of the historically verifiable proof that Mary visited or lived there. Rather these are traditions which have been preserved and celebrated by Catholic Churches of the East and West as well as visions revealed to three women: Brigit of Sweden (1303-1373), Maria of Agreda (1602-1665) and Ann Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824).  

There are very few texts about the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the New Testament. We do not even know where she was born. On July 26 the Catholic Church celebrates the parents of Mary and calls them Anne and Joachim in accordance with the Protogospel of St. James (PGJ).  Again there exists no historical evidence, however, of any elements of their lives, including their names. The legend told in PGJ relates that after years of childlessness, an angel appeared to tell Anne and Joachim that they would have a child. Anne promised to dedicate this child to God (much the way that Samuel was dedicated by his mother Hannah -- Anne -- in 1 Kings).

Likewise, the Catholic Church on November 21 commemorates the Presentation of Mary in the Temple. Many of the early church Fathers such as St. Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople and St. John Damascene, his contemporary, preached magnificent homilies on this feast referring to Mary as that special plant or flower which was being nurtured for better things. "She was planted in the House of God, nourished by the Holy Spirit and kept her body and soul spotless to receive God in her bosom. He Who is all-holy rests among the holy." In the Byzantine Church this feast is considered one of the twelve great feasts of the liturgical year, called the Dodecaorton.

Other places of Mary’s life can be verified through the Gospels as, for example, Nazareth or Bethlehem whereby the latter is still disputed among Bible scholars as the birth place of Jesus.

The main source for this presentation is the work of Otto Friedrich August Meinardus. Das Heilige Land: auf den Spuren Marias von Nazaret. Frankfurt am Main, Josef Knecht 1998. The author spent many years in the topographical area of the Holy Land. Besides the Scriptures and PGJ he also refers to other apocrypha such as the gospels of pseudo Matthew and of Thomas as well as the Armenian and Arab Infancy Gospels. Furthermore, Meinardus considers the vision of St. Theophilus from the fourth century who was the twenty-third Patriarch of Alexandria and successor of St. Mark.  Other sources are the Coptic and Ethiopian Synaxaria (calendars of the saints) as well as medieval texts from pilgrims to the Holy land and of church historians.  

A spiritual cyber pilgrimage to the origins of our faith may inspire us to preserve our precious heritage and to pass it on to future generations.

I. Wâdî Qilt
In the Protogospel of James (PGJ) we read that Joachim and Anna, an exceedingly rich couple, were left childless.

And Joachim called to mind the patriarch Abraham that in the last day God gave him a son Isaac. And he was exceedingly grieved, and did not come into the presence of his wife; but he retired to the desert, and there pitched his tent, and fasted forty days and forty nights …(PGJ 1:3f). … And an angel of the Lord went down to him, saying: Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God hath heard thy prayer Go down hence; for, behold, thy wife Anna shall conceive (PGJ 4:2).

Bridge across Wadi Qilt at St George's Monastery

According to medieval Greek-Orthodox tradition Joachim retired to Wâdî Qilt located in the desert between Jerusalem and Jericho.  From the old Roman road connecting Jerusalem with Jericho delineates a steep path to Wâdî Qilt known also as the Valley of Achor (Jos 7:26; "Achor" meaning "trouble") where Joshua had Achan executed (Jos 7:10ff). In accordance with religious tradition Joachim stayed in the same cave where the prophet Elija hid and was nourished by ravens (1 Kings 17:3f.). In Elija’s Cave Church wall paintings of Joachim and Anna can still be seen.

And Joachim’s wife Anna mourned … and lamented … saying: … I shall bewail my childlessness. … And gazing towards the heaven, she saw a sparrow's nest in the laurel, … And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by, saying: Anna, Anna, the Lord hath heard thy prayer, and thou shalt conceive, and shall bring forth, and thy seed shall be spoken of in all the world. And Anna said, As the Lord my God liveth, if I beget either male or female, I will bring it as a gift to the Lord my God, and it shall minister to Him in holy things all the days of its life PGJ 2ff).

At the entrance of Wâdî Qilt a two-room cave is located. Beduins and shepherds of this area named it “Dair al-Banat” which is rendered Cloister of Virgins. They maintain that it was here – that the virgin Anna and wife of Joachim thanked God that she had conceived a child.

II. Pool of Bethesda

Excavations of the Pool of Bethesda.

And Anna’s months were fulfilled, and in the ninth month Anna brought forth. And she said to the midwife: What have I brought forth? and she said: A girl. And said Anna: My soul has been magnified this day. And she laid her down. And the days having been fulfilled, Anna was purified, and gave the breast to the child, and called her name Mary (PGJ 5:3).

 Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades (Jn 5:2).

The shepherd Joachim (PGJ 4:3f) was familiar with this sight. Near the Sheep Gate was also a grotto which was used as a maternity grotto and which later became the crypt of St. Anna Church.

Pool of Bethesda

According to Christian tradition, the Virgin Mary was born in a cave near the Bethesda Pool where her Son Jesus would one day perform miracles. In accordance with an old tradition which coincides with the customs of that time Mary was about fifteen years old when she gave birth to Jesus Christ in 7 BC. Hence Mary was born around 22 BC. Coptic tradition holds that Mary was born on a Sunday, the 1 Baschons (May 9), and that she stayed with her parents for the following two years, seven months and seven days.

Already in the third century a small Marian chapel was built at the Pool of Bethesda. During the fifth century Empress Eudokia (348-460) ordered the erection of a Marian Basilica enshrining the chapel. In the sixth century Theodosius (ca 530) mentioned a Church honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary near the miraculous and healing waters of the Sheep Gate. This fact was confirmed by an anonymous pilgrim from Piacenza (570). At the beginning of the seventh century the Patriarch of Jerusalem Sophronius (634-638) refers in a song to Prohatike (Sheep Gate) “where St. Ann gave birth.” This reference was taken up by the crusaders who sponsored by Queen Alda, wife of King Baldiun I, erected a church honoring St. Ann in the year 1150.



Church of St. Anne

When in 1187 Jerusalem was ransacked by Salah ad-Din the church was converted into a Qu’ran School and named Salahiyeh. During the Moslem occupation of Israel, Christian pilgrims had to pay a fee in order to be permitted inside the grotto. Probably the finest example of Crusader architecture in the Land of Israel, St. Ann's Church possesses amazing acoustics which make even a solitary melodic prayer pervade one’s being.

Around 1550 the Franciscans were permitted to celebrate holy mass in the crypt on the feast of Mary’s nativity. Already at the end of the sixth century the feast of Mary’s nativity was commemorated on September 8 which determined December 8 for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

After the Krim war Napoleon III asked for the Church of St. Ann in exchange for the French assistance during the war. Thereupon the French government had the church restored (1877-1878) and the White Fathers were entrusted with its custody.

What first strikes the visitor to St Ann's Church is its simplicity, both within the unadorned interior and on the clear clean lines of its facade. Yet there is also a sense of majesty, perhaps lent by the church's stark cross-vaulted ceilings and giant pillars. Stone steps descend to the crypt below the church, where an altar is dedicated to Mary and the ancient rock has been beautifully incorporated into the shrine.

III. The Temple of Jerusalem

And the child was three years old, and Joachim said: Invite the daughters of the Hebrews that are undefiled, and let them take each a lamp, and let them stand with the lamps burning, that the child may not turn back, and her heart be captivated from the temple of the Lord. And they did so until they went up into the temple of the Lord. And the priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying: The Lord has magnified thy name in all generations. In thee, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel. And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her.
And her parents went down marveling, and praising the Lord God, because the child had not turned back. And Ma
ry was in the temple of the Lord as if she were a dove that dwelt there, and she received food from the hand of an angel. (PGJ 7:2ff – 8:1)

The Protogospel of James situates Mary’s birth in Jerusalem so that her presentation in the temple at age three could occur in the same vicinity. Mary’s presentation in the temple can be paralleled to that of the prophet Samuel. His mother Hannah, who like Anna was also thought to be barren, offered him as a gift to God at Silo (1 Sam 24). The text of the Protogospel of James relates the event when Mary was brought to the temple as a hitherto unheard of gesture since there were no temple virgins in Jerusalem at that time. Mary stayed in the temple until her twelfth year, the beginning of her puberty and her Bath-Mizva. According to Coptic tradition, her father Joachim died when Mary was six years old and her mother when Mary was eight.

Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple.
Heiko Schlieper  - 1999



The Coptic Synaxar (Liturgical Calendar) celebrates the feast of Mary’s Presentation in the Temple on December 12. Already in the eighth century the Byzantine orthodox rite commemorated the event of Mary’s Presentation in the Temple called Eisodos on November 21. The French diplomat, Philipp de Maizičres (1327-1405), was acquainted with the feast while in Cypress and introduced it to Pope Gregor XI who at that time resided in Avignon (1370-78). In 1585 Pope Sixtus V introduced the feast in the Liturgical calendar.

Among the Greek Orthodox Church in the Near East the feast of Mary’s Presentation in the Temple is called Panagia Mesoporitissa (mésos = half; spóros = seed) since on that day a variety of seeds are cooked and served. Those seeds which are sewn before November 21 sprout after a few days; those sewn after November 21 germinate only after forty days. It is assumed that this custom dates back to one of the oldest pre-Christian traditions.

IV. Mary’s Engagement in Jerusalem

While Mary was in the temple of the Lord, she was fed like a dove and received food from the hand of an angel. When she turned twelve, a group of priests took counsel together, saying, "Look, Mary has been in the temple of the Lord twelve years.  What should we do about her now, so that she does not defile the sanctuary of the Lord our God?" And they said to the high priest, "You have stood at the altar of the Lord. Go in and pray about her. And if the Lord God reveals anything to you, we will do it."

And the priest went in taking the vestment with twelve bells into the holy of holies and prayed about her. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord stood before him, saying, "Zachariah, Zachariah, depart from here and gather the widowers of the people and let each one carry a staff.  And the one whom the Lord God points out with a sign, she will be his wife."  So the heralds went out to the whole surrounding area of Judea and the trumpet of the Lord rang out and all the men rushed in.

Throwing down his ax, Joseph went out to meet them.  And after they had gathered together with their rods, they went to the high priest.  After receiving everyone's rod, the high priest went into the temple and prayed.  When he was finished with the prayer, he took the rods and went out and gave them to each man, but there was no sign among them. Finally, Joseph took his rod. Suddenly, a dove came out of the rod and stood on Joseph's head. And the high priest said, "Joseph! Joseph! You have been chosen by lot to take the virgin into your own keeping."

And Joseph replied, saying, "I have sons and am old, while she is young. I will not be ridiculed among the children of Israel."

And the high priest said, "Joseph, fear the Lord your God and remember what God did to Dathan and Abiron and Kore, how the earth split open and swallowed them because of their rebellion. Now fear God, Joseph, so that these things do not happen in your house."

Fearing God, Joseph took her into his own possession. And he said to her, "Mary, I took you from the temple of the Lord and now I bring you into my house. I am going out to build houses, but I will come back to you. The Lord will protect you."          (PGJ 8:2 - 9:11)

The story of the choice of Joseph as Mary’s spouse is reminiscent of the Old Testament Book of Numbers. There we read that among the twelve staffs the staff of Aaron from the House of Levi began to blossom (Num 17:20). The staff was an indication of the dignity of a family and was usually carried by the leader of the clan.

Raphael. Marriage of the Virgin. 1504.
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy

In accord with Jewish law Mary was juridically married to Joseph; it is assumed however that she remained in her parental home until she was about twelve and a half years old. A clear distinction was made between the engagement and the married state. The latter began when the bridegroom has taken his bride into his home (see: Dt 20:7). Although the states of being engaged and of being married were distinguished by law, they often were considered identical since the engaged couple had rights and duties which were equal to those of a married couple.

The Protogospel of James as well as the Gospel according to Matthew (1:20) mention that Joseph took Mary into his house. From the context of both texts it is evident that Joseph’s house was in Nazareth and not in Jerusalem. Joseph’s house is not the house in which the Annunciation took place (cf. Mt 1:18) and where she returned after having served her cousin Elizabeth (Lk 1:56). It is not clear where the Holy Family lived after their return from Egypt. Theoretically it could have been either one of the two houses or a third one. There is no indication in the Bible.

From the sixth century on, the Annunciation was believed to have taken place in Nazareth. According to medieval rendering Joseph and Mary lived in this house which became St. Gabriel Church. It was there that Mary was greeted by the angel when she fetched water from the well. The official Greek orthodox name of the Church of the Annunciation is kenîset al-bishâra though the inhabitants of Nazareth like to call it bęt Marjam (House of Mary).

In 1914 Franciscans built a church honoring St. Joseph on the north side of the basilica of the Annunciation and of the Terra Santa College which they consider the site of the workshop of St. Joseph.

V. Nazareth

"And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary.... And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And behold, thou shall conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shall call his name Jesus". (Lk 1:26-30)

The gospel stories about Nazareth clearly distinguish Mary’s house from that of Joseph. According to Matthew 1:18 Mary lived in her home when she conceived from the Holy Spirit. Only after their engagement did Joseph take Mary home as his wife (1:24). Matthew does not mention the name of the city where the Annunciation occurred. Only after the return of the Holy Family from Egypt does he mention Nazareth as the town where they lived (Mt 2:23). Luke, on the other hand, writes that the angel appeared to Mary in Nazareth (1:26).

Area View of Nazareth

A town in southern Galilee about fifteen miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee (kineret) and twenty miles from the Mediterranean westward in the basin of the hills of the lower Galilee. In Biblical time Nazareth was a small agricultural town settled by a few dozen families. A prophet, king or priest were not expected to ever come out of Nazareth. This prompted the response of Nathaniel in John 1:46 "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Nazareth was isolated in ancient times because no trade routes ran through the city and therefore had no economical value.

The origin of the name Nazareth is still not clear. In Hebrew the word "Nazir" - Nazarite - means monk, a person who was dedicated to special sacred service through a vow made by the person himself or by his parents, which could last a lifetime or for a limited period. The early name "Nazarenes" given to early Christians, might have been a derogatory name that the people of Judea gave to the followers of Jesus (Matthew 26:71, Acts 6:38). Many scholars today think that the name Nazareth comes from the Hebrew word "Netzer" (Branch) as prophesied by Isaiah that Savior will come from the branches (roots) of King David.

Two churches in Nazareth claim to be built on the site of Mary’s home The Greek-Orthodox church of St. Gabriel with Mary’s well, Ain Sittna Mariam; and the Latin rite Basilica of the Annunciation.

The Greek-Oorthodox base their tradition on the statement of Protogospel of James “And she took the cup and went out to fill it with water. Suddenly, a voice said to her,

And she took the cup and went out to fill it with water. Suddenly, a voice said to her, "Rejoice, blessed one. The Lord is with you. You are blessed among women." And Mary looked around to the right and the left to see where this voice came from. And trembling she went into her house. Setting down the cup, she took the purple thread and sat down on the chair and spun it. Suddenly, an angel stood before her saying, "Do not be afraid Mary. You have found grace before the Lord of all. You will conceive from his word." Upon hearing this, however, Mary was distraught, saying to herself, "If I conceive from the Lord God who lives, will I also conceive as all women conceive?" And the Angel of the Lord said, "Not like that, Mary. For the power of God will come over you. Thus, the holy one who is born will be called son of the most high. And you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." And Mary said, "See, I am the servant of the Lord before him. Let it happen to me according to what you say."     PGJ 11 passim

The belief that Mary’s first encounter with the angel took place at a well has its Old Testament counterparts: the encounter of the chief servant of Abraham’s household with Rebecca (Gen 24:13ff); Jacob’s meeting with Rachel (Gen 29:2ff) and Moses’ with Zipporah (Ex 2:16ff).

V. 1. Nazareth –
Mary's Well and the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Gabriel

And she took the cup and went out to fill it with water. Suddenly, a voice said to her, "Rejoice, blessed one. The Lord is with you. You are blessed among women." (3) And Mary looked around to the right and the left to see where this voice came from. (4) And trembling she went into her house. Setting down the cup, she took the purple thread and sat down on the chair and spun it. Suddenly, an angel stood before her saying, "Do not be afraid Mary. You have found grace before the Lord of all. You will conceive from his word." Upon hearing this, however, Mary was distraught, saying to herself, "If I conceive from the Lord God who lives, will I also conceive as all women conceive?" And the Angel of the Lord said, "Not like that, Mary. For the power of God will come over you. Thus, the holy one who is born will be called son of the most high. And you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." And Mary said, "See, I am the servant of the Lord before him. Let it happen to me according to what you say." PGJ 11


At the base of the northern slope of St. Gabriel Church are three springs, whose water flows fifty-four feet through a rock-cut channel into the







Mary's Well

Greek Orthodox Church (built in 1750, although containing Crusader remains). It then continues underground for five hundred feet to a structure called Mary's Well (first built in 1862 and now restored). This gushing water is significant for two reasons.

First, it is Nazareth's biggest source, flowing at the rate of one thousand gallons per hour in the winter's end (250 in summer). Although there were several smaller springs around the village, and people had cisterns in their homes as well, it is assumed that Mary came to this spring with other women of the village to do the washing. In the West Bank today, many villages still lack piped water and one sees the women at the major spring on laundry day just as two thousand years ago.

Secondly, there is an ancient tradition about this spring. In the Protoevangelium of James we read that Mary was one of seven unblemished virgins from the line of David who were supposed to weave a new curtain for the Holy of Holies in the Temple. It was her task to spin purple and scarlet threads. That is why, in the iconography, she is sometimes depicted spinning.

V. 2. Nazareth –
The Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation

The large church we see today was built from 1954 - 1970, but it incorporates the ruins of its forebears. In commissioning the work, the Franciscans specified three M's: it should be modern (in the spirit of Vatican II), multinational and, above all, it should bring to expression the mystery of the Annunciation: that is, of the meeting between the divine and the human. The church is clearly modern in style. Its multi-nationality is manifest in its art works, showing how the peoples of the world envision Mary and child. Most interesting, however, is the way in which the architect, Giovanni Muzio, brought out the mystery. To see this, we need to study the structure:

The building contains two churches. The lower one, simple in form, is for the use of pilgrim groups, whereas the upper, elaborate church is for the local congregation. Between the two is a large octagonal opening called the "oculus," literally "eye."

The Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth

The modest lower church may be said to represent the human dimension. It includes the ruins of a Byzantine church, and on its north side is a cave. Here tradition places the Annunciation. There are even two ancient pillars marking the places where Mary and the angel stood. More likely, though, the house was above, and only this cave-basement has remained.

The upper church expresses the divine dimension. First, there is the light source: the dome itself, which blossoms over the oculus like a lily. Behind the altar a huge mosaic shows Christ in glory, with Peter and Mary beside him, while below the popes and pilgrims are shown in a procession. On the walls are the multinational representations of Mary and child. Over and over in the design one sees the letter M -- or AVM, for Ave Maria. The impression is one of articulate grandeur.

In between the divine (Upper Church) and the human (Crypt below) is the oculus, the opening. If one stands in the upper church when a pilgrim group sings Mass in the lower, the song rises up, and in the air of the oculus one can sense the encounter.







The Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth Outside View


          Sections I - V
          Sections VI - XI
          Sections XII - XVI
          Sections XVII - XXIII


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