The Church of John Ba Harim in the heart of Ein Karem, a pastoral village in the outskirts of Jerusalem. By Christian tradition it is built over the place where John the Baptist was born and raised. Together with the Church of the Visitation, this church is at the most significant site in Christianity that relates to the childhood of John the Baptist.
What Does “Ba Harim” Mean?
The church is called at times “The church of Saint John the Baptist” (i.e. Wikipedia), but the sign at its entrance states its official name is “John Ba Harim”. “Baharim” means in Hebrew “in the mountains”. This term alludes to the reference in Luke, the only source relating to John’s nativity, placing his hometown “ in the hill country of Judea” (1:39).
History of John Ba Harim Church
Ein Karem was settled already 6,000 years ago, in the Neolithic period. Archaeological evidence shows that in the first century Ein Karem was inhabited by Jews, although the site’s name is unknown. Only in the 6th century CE Christian pilgrims associated Ein Karem with John the Baptist. The earliest testimony is of Theodosius, who travelled the Holy Land in the 530’s. He wrote: “from Jerusalem to the place where Saint Elizabeth lived, mother of John the Baptist, 5 miles.” In the Crusaders period (1099-1291 CE) two churches were built in Ein-Karem, the Church of John Ba Harim, and the Church of the Visitation. After the Crusaders were expelled the churches became desolate, for 4 centuries. In 1674 the Franciscans attempted to resume Christian presence in the main church but faced repeated harassments by the local Arab Muslims. Only in 1855 they were permitted to place a cross over the roof of the church. The Church was restored in 1857-1900 by the king and Queen of Spain. The Royal family of Spain supports the church to this day.
When the Second World War broke out a British artillery unit camped in front of the church. The weight of one of the cannons caused a hole in the floor. In 1941 the Franciscans excavated the courtyard before repairing it. Among others, they uncovered a Jewish ritual bath (Miqveh). This is proof that the site was settled by Jews in the First Century, the time of John the Baptist. Furthermore, the ritual bath might suggest that Jewish priests resided here, and according to Luke John’s father, Zachariah, was indeed a priest.
A video presentation of Ein-Karem, including rare footage of the ritual bath beneath the Church of John Ba Harim
The Franciscans also found fragments of the Roman period sculptures of Adonis and Aphrodite. This suggest that later a Pagan family dwelt at the site.
Visiting the Church of John Ba Harim
The Church is open every day from 8:00 to 12:00 and again from 14:30 to 16:45. In its courtyard the Zachariah’s thanksgiving song for bearing a son (Luke 1:67-79) is presented in 24 languages. Beneath the main entry remains of a chapel from the Byzantine Period can be seen. The interior of the church is decorated with special light blue decorated ceramic tiles, a common element in Spanish ecclesiastical architecture. By local tradition a crypt beneath the church marks the birthplace of John the Baptist.
For a full appreciation of the site it is recommended to combine it with a guided day tour of Jerusalem.