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A Christian Shrine in a Muslim Land


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Posted 12 April 2007 - 19:20

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Staton R. Winter for The New York TimesA Turkish woman passes pilgrims leaving offerings at 12 grates on a wall outside the house near Ephesus where some believe the Virgin Mary spent her final years.

CASUAL readers of Greek mythology are often surprised to learn that if you want to visit what is left of Troy, you have to travel to Turkey. And those familiar with Christianity might also be surprised to learn that millions of people believe that in her final years the Virgin Mary also found her home in Turkey, a couple of hundred miles south of Troy, near the ancient city of Ephesus.



Today, the House of the Virgin Mary is looked after by a small contingent of monks and nuns, and is visited each day by people from the all over the world. Many visitors are Christians who revere the humble stone house on Nightingale Hill, while others are tourists and ordinary curiosity seekers.

The languages on the signs that direct visitors to the tranquil little house and its verdant surroundings include English, Russian, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic.

A startlingly large number of those who visit are Muslims who believe that Mary — or Meryem, as she is known in the Koran — was a holy figure, not the mother of God, but a woman of remarkable virtue. Brother Tarcy Mathias, the Capuchin monk who is the Roman Catholic Church’s overseer of the site, says that the Koran mentions Mary more than 30 times. Brother Mathias is a soft-spoken Indian Catholic, with deep-set eyes and a somewhat melancholy manner. He looks watchful, measured, reminiscent of someone whose words have been used against him.

“In Chapter 3, verse 37,” he tells me, “the Koran says, ‘Mary, God has chosen thee, and purified thee. He has chosen thee above all women.’ ”

I speak to one of the afternoon’s many visitors, a woman in her early 30’s wearing blue jeans and a chic olive sweater, with three piercings in each ear. She is enjoying a cigarette with friends, standing between a kiosk that sells religious articles and the Café Turbo, which dispenses omelets and kebabs.

The woman is a Parisian, though born in Algiers. “Ever since I was a little girl I have always believed in miracles,” she says. “I come here often. I come here because I love Mary, I believe in Mary, and ...” She pauses, pats down a strand of her henna-colored hair. “I am a Muslim.”

Farther along the stone walkway that leads visitors through the site, I speak to a stocky, sunburned couple from North Wales, he in a sleeveless T-shirt and sneakers, she in a white sundress and pink flip-flops. “We’re not Catholic,” the husband says. “But we believe in Jesus and God.” His wife, gesturing to the olive trees and the weathered stone walls, adds, “We like to go to Christian places all over the world.”

Talking of Nightingale Hill’s lure, Brother Mathias says: “When people come here they feel a special grace. They may pray for their needs. Sick people, infertile couples. And then they come back and thank God, and they also thank Mary. Whether or not they become Christian is not the main thing.”

Then conversion isn’t important, I ask? “That’s not the position of the Church,” he says, with a slight sharpness of tone. He takes a deep breath, folds his graceful hands. “To me, conversion of the heart is more important than conversion of religion.”

He adds: “The miracle of this place is that people come here and are changed. That is Mary. That is why all the talk about whether or not this was once really her house — it means nothing. She is here right now.”

Whether this spot in Turkey was ever Mary’s house is indeed a matter of some controversy. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that anyone in the Church had any notion that Mary had once lived near Ephesus, and even then the first reports of the house came from a dubious source: the feverish visions of a bedridden German nun named Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich.

During her illness, Clemens von Brentano, a Romantic poet, began a vigil at her bedside and transcribed her visions and sayings, including a vision of Mary’s house near Ephesus. His notebooks remained unpublished for more than half a century. When they were finally made public in the 1880’s, a French abbot, Father Julien Gouyet, read them and found Sister Emmerich’s vision so compelling that he traveled to Turkey soon after to see if he could find it. With the help of local villagers, he found a small stone house that fit the poet’s description, geographically and architecturally.

It wasn’t until 1950, however, that the Church proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption of Mary into heaven and that the house on Nightingale Hill became an official shrine for pilgrims, although there are still scholars who doubt that Mary ever lived there. Over the years, stories have circulated that water from the well on the site has healing powers. At the entrance to the house there is a place for pilgrims to leave their crutches behind.

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From the outside, the house looks like any one of the ancient stone huts that still dot the landscape throughout the Mediterranean world. Inside, it looks like a large beehive oven. As you walk in, you enter the room where Mass is celebrated. There are four rows of pews, a marble floor covered in Kurdish-style rose and cream kilims, or woven rugs, such as you would find in a simple little mosque. In one corner votive candles flicker; high above is a window, through which I can see three sleeping black cats, curled beneath an eave to stay out of the rain.

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Through a stone archway, you enter the house’s second, smaller room. Another beautiful old rug covers the floor. Three white slatted benches are here for visitors who wish to sit in silence. I sip the water that is freely dispensed, splash a bit on my fingertips and dab it onto the small of my back, which has been acting up a bit lately. (There is no noticeable improvement, but I’m really not the sort for miracles.)

Across from me, a Turkish woman in a smart-looking business suit sits, her eyes closed, clasping a formidable black leather purse. Her lips move faintly; it seems she is praying. Suddenly, as if some more worldly part of herself has just reasserted itself, her eyes dart open, and she fishes her cellphone from her purse. She turns it on to check the time, squints at it in the dim light of this ancient space, then turns it right off, drops it back into her purse and hurries out.

Soon after, I make my way out as well. The sweet smell of the olive trees is in the air, and the shimmering blur of the Aegean is off in the distance. It’s time for me to get back to nearby Selcuk, the town closest to Ephesus and this house, but the grounds around Mary’s house are so beautifully cultivated, so peaceful, that I am reluctant to leave.

As I walk, I come across a wall where 12 metal grates hang, each the size of a large window. The grills are a kind of spiritual message board, upon which visitors leave evidence of their transformations. Hundreds and hundreds of handkerchiefs, doctor’s bills and prescription forms have been left behind, all fluttering in the soft, perfumed breeze. One visitor, lacking anything more tangible to offer up, has left behind one of his socks.



By SCOTT SPENCER
Published: September 3, 2006