The Tomb of the Virgin Mary is a Christian tomb in the Kidron Valley – at the foot of Mount of Olives, in Jerusalem. It is believed by Eastern Christians to be the burial place of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Sacred Tradition of Eastern Christianity teaches that the Virgin Mary died a natural death, like any human being. In addition that her soul was received by Christ upon death; and that her body was resurrected on the third day after her repose, at which time she was taken up, soul and body, into heaven in anticipation of the general resurrection. Her tomb, according to this teaching, was found empty on the third day.
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Roman Catholic teaching holds that Mary was “assumed” into heaven in bodily form, the Assumption; the question of whether or not Mary underwent physical death remains open in the Catholic view. On 25 June 1997, Pope John Paul II said that Mary experienced natural death before her assumption into Heaven.
A narrative known as the Euthymiaca Historia (written probably by Cyril of Scythopolis in the 5th century) relates how Emperor Marcian and his wife, Pulcheria, requested the relics of the Virgin Mary from Juvenal, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, while he was attending the Council of Chalcedon (451). According to the account, Juvenal replied that Mary’s tomb was discovered to be empty on the third day after her burial, only her shroud being preserved in the church of Gethsemane. In 452 the shroud was sent to Constantinople, where it was kept in the Church of Our Lady of Blachernae (Panagia Blacherniotissa).
In 1972, Bellarmino Bagatti, a Franciscan friar and archaeologist, excavated the site and found evidence of an ancient cemetery dating to the 1st century; his findings have not yet been subject to peer review by the wider archaeological community, and the validity of his dating has not been fully assessed.
Bagatti interpreted the remains to indicate that the cemetery’s initial structure consisted of three chambers (the actual tomb being the inner chamber of the whole complex), which was adjudged by the customs of that period. Later, the tomb interpreted by the local Christians to be that of Mary’s, was isolated from the rest of the necropolis by cutting the surrounding rock face away from it. An Edicule was built on the tomb.
A small upper church on an octagonal footing was built by Patriarch Juvenal (during Marcian’s rule) over the location in the 5th century; this was destroyed in the Persian invasion of 614. During the following centuries, the church was destroyed and rebuilt many times, but the crypt was left untouched, for Muslims it is the burial place of the mother of Prophet Isa (Jesus).
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It was rebuilt then in 1130 by the Crusaders, who installed a walled Benedictine monastery, the Abbey of St. Mary of the Valley of Jehoshaphat; the church is sometimes mentioned as the Shrine of Our Lady of Josaphat. The monastic complex included early Gothic columns, red-on-green frescoes, and three towers for protection.
The staircase and entrance were also part of the Crusaders’ church. Saladin destroyed this church in 1187. But the crypt was still respected; all left was the south entrance and staircase, the masonry of the upper church being used to build the walls of Jerusalem. In the second half of the 14th century, Franciscan friars rebuilt the church once more.
The Church of the Tomb of the Virgin Mary
Preceded by a walled courtyard to the south, the cruciform church shielding the tomb has been excavated in a rock-cut cave entered by a wide descending stair dating from the 12th century. On the right side of the staircase (towards the east) there is the chapel of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, initially built to hold the tomb of Queen Melisende of Jerusalem, the daughter of Baldwin II, whose sarcophagus has been removed from there by the Greek Orthodox. On the left (towards the west) there is the chapel of Saint Joseph, Mary’s husband initially built as the tomb of two other female relatives of Baldwin II.
On the eastern side of the church, there is the chapel of Mary’s tomb. Altars of the Greeks and Armenians also own the east apse. A niche south of the tomb is a mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca, installed when Muslims had joint rights to the church. Currently, the Muslims have no more ownership rights to this site. On the western side, there is a Syriac altar.
A legend, which was first mentioned by Epiphanius of Salamis in the 4th century CE, purported that Mary may have spent the last years of her life in Ephesus, Turkey. The Ephesians derived it from John’s presence in the city, and Jesus’ instructions to John to take care of Mary after his death. Epiphanius, however, pointed out that although the Bible mentions John leaving for Asia, it makes no mention of Mary going with him. The Eastern Orthodox Church tradition believes that Virgin Mary lived in the vicinity of Ephesus, at Selçuk, where there is a place currently known as the House of the Virgin Mary and venerated by Catholics and Muslims, but argues that she only stayed there for a few years, even though there are accounts of her spending nine years until her death.
Although no information about the end of Mary’s life or her burial is provided in the New Testament accounts, and many Christians believe that none exist in early Apocrypha, some Apocryphon is offered as supporting Mary’s death (or other final fate). The Book of John about the Dormition of Mary, written in either the 1st, 3rd, 4th, or 7th century, places her tomb in Gethsemene, as does the 4th-century Treatise about the passing of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The pilgrim Antoninus of Piacenza, writing of travels in 560-570 CE, mentions in that valley was “the basilica of the Blessed Mary, which they say was her house; in which is shown a sepulcher, from which they say that the Blessed Mary was taken up into heaven.” Later, Saints Epiphanius of Salamis, Gregory of Tours, Isidore of Seville, Modest, Sophronius of Jerusalem, German of Constantinople, Andrew of Crete, and John of Damascus talk about the tomb being in Jerusalem and bear witness that this tradition was accepted by all the Churches of East and West.