An Empty Tomb and a Site Full of Faith: Where Was the Virgin Mary Buried?
The Virgin Mary is one of the world most famous women from the ancient world. The teachings of her son surpassed her life story, but her tale provides one of the greatest legends about a mother's love. Nowadays, it's hard to find real artifacts that are said to be left by the Virgin Mother, but there is one place which is still traditionally associated with her.
There is a tomb at the foot of the Mount of Olives in the Kidron Valley in Jerusalem which is traditionally said to be Mary’s burial location. There are at least two versions of her story associated with this– one from the Bible and second from the Jewish ancient book Toledot Yeshu . Although the texts have some differences, they claim that Mary (or Miriam) was the mother of Joshua – also known as Jesus Christ.
Fact or Fiction?
Legends say that Mary died of natural causes. As the Dormition of Theotokos wrote, she passed away like she was falling asleep. It is unknown how old she was when she died. However, according to some writings, her body was resurrected and, like her son, on the third day her soul and body went to heaven. Her tomb was said to be discovered empty three days after her funeral.
Icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary), Dormition Church (Mary's Tomb), Jerusalem. ( Public Domain)
The Catholic Encyclopedia asserts that the earliest resources talking about Mary suggest that her life ended in Jersusalem:
“The apocryphal works of the second to the fourth century are all favourable to the Jerusalem tradition. According to the Acts of St John by Prochurus, written (160-70) by Lencius, the Evangelist went to Ephesus accompanied by Prochurus alone and at a very advanced age, i.e. after Mary’s death. (...) The two letters B. Inatii missa S. Joanni, written about 370, show that the Blessed Virgin passed the remainder of her days at Jerusalem. That of Dionysius the Areopagite to the Bishop Titus (363), the Joannis liber de Dormitione Mariae (third to fourth century), and the treatise De transitu B.M. Virginis (fourth century) place her tomb at Gethsemane (..). There was never any tradition connecting Mary’s death and burial with the city of Ephesus.”
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Many still doubt that the tomb really belonged to the Virgin Mary. In the 5th century AD, Cyril of Scythopolis wrote in Euthymiaca Historia that the Emperor Marcian and his wife Pulcheria asked for the relics of the the famous Mary. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, Juvenal, answered that there were no relics because Mary left her tomb three days after her funeral.
Altar in the Tomb of Mary, Jerusalem. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )
Since the early beginnings of Christianity, Mary’s supposed tomb has been considered a sacred site. The tomb was excavated in 1972 by Bellarmino Bagatti, an archaeologist and Franciscan friar. He believed that the site is an ancient cemetery dating back to the 1st century AD, and that it could contain burials of biblical heroes.
The team of researchers explored the three burial chambers and Bagatti decided that the tomb must be the one described by Christian sources as Mary’s famous tomb. In the 5th century, a small church was located near the tomb, but it was destroyed in 614 by the Persians.
Nonetheless, continued to be considered a sacred place during the Muslim domination. They believed that it was the burial place of the prophet Isa’s (Jesus’) mother. In 1130 AD, when the Crusaders arrived in Jerusalem, they rebuilt the church and installed Benedictines there.
Mary's Tomb. ( CC BY 2.0 )
The church was built in an early Gothic style, and could have been one of the most beautiful monasteries of Jerusalem, if it hadn't been destroyed by Saladin in 1187. However, the crypt remained untouched. It was rebuilt once more in the second half of the 14th century when it became a monastery for Franciscan friars, but it was officially expelled by the Franciscans in the 1757. The church was also intact during the Ottoman battles in Jerusalem.
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Nowadays it contains the chapels of St Joseph, Joachim, and Anne (Mary's parents) and the tomb of Queen Melisende of Jerusalem. The crypt is still very mysterious because there is no physical evidence to verify the story which has been alive since ancient times. However, it is still possible that the chamber contained the Virgin Mary’s body for three days.