Our lady of the Ark of the Covenant church is perched on a hilltop about 12 km west of Jerusalem. Its name is preserving the memory of Kiryat Ya’arim, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept for 20 years (1 Sam. 7:1-2). The site also provides breathtaking views of the Jerusalem Mountains and the western uburbs of Jerusalem. It is a refreshing stop on they to or out of Jerusalem.
History of Kiryat Ya’arim
Kiryat Ya’arim is first mentioned in the Bible in Joshua 18:14 – “Kiriath Baal (that is, Kiriath Jearim), a town of the people of Judah” (cf. Jos. 15:9). These quotes imply that the site was formerly a cultic center for the worship of Ba’al. In contrast to its Canaanite past, the Book of Samuel records Kiryat Ya’arim sheltering the Ark of the Covenant, after it inflicted a plague in Beth Shemesh. It was guarded for 20 years by Avinadav and Elazar, until David took it to Jerusalem.
In the 10th century BCE the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishaq boasted on conquering Kiryat Yaarim. Perhaps here he was also offered the treasures of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 14:15-16), to discourage him from attacking Jerusalem.
In Roman times a Roman military detachment (vexillatio) was stationed near a spring, east of the hilltop. Later the Crusaders built a large church over the spring. In the subsequent periods, the Muslim village of Abu-Ghosh developed around it.
The Muslim preserved the memory of Kiryat Ya’arim by naming the hilltop “Jabel Muqades” – “the Holy mountain”. Furthermore, the remains on the mountain top were called “Deir el-Azar” alluding to Elazer, the guardian of the Ark.
In 1903 France purchased the hilltop, and by 1924 a monastery and a church were built over it. The church was called – “Notre Dame De L’arche D’alliance” – “Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant”.
On top of the church a big sculpture depicts Mary standing on top of the Ark, holding Jesus as a baby in her hands.
The sculpture equates Mary with the Ark, expressing the Christian belief that both carried the divine message.
In 2017 Tel-Aviv University launched an archaeological expedition to excavate around the monastery, in hope of finding evidence from Biblical periods.
Visiting Our Lady of the Ark Church
The monastery is maintained by the nuns of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition. The Church is open Mondays through Saturdays in the morning and again in the afternoon. The panoramic views from the garden around the church are some of the best vistas of Jerusalem mountains. The church itself is humble, but its floor combines a mosaic floor, possibly of a church from the 5th century.
The Romans and Kiryat Yaarim
Two Latin inscribed stones are presented inside the Church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant. One refers to a Roman detachment (vexillatio) of the Tenth legion. The other refers to Sextius Lucilius Bassus, the commander of the Tenth legion who led the assault on Herodium and Machaerus. These inscriptions seem to indicate the presence of a Roman force in the area between the 1st and the 3rd centuries.
For a full appreciation of the site it is recommended to combine it with a guided day tour of Jerusalem.
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Kiryat Ye’arim is mentioned in the Bible as a Judahite town situated near Jerusalem during the period of the judges and King David (11th and 10th centuries BCE) According to the first Book of Samuel (ch. 7), the Ark of the Covenant was stored at Kiryat Ye’arim for 20 years after it was returned from the Philistines, who had captured it in a battle at Eben-haezer, yet later were smitten with disease. The text says the ark was stored “in the house of Avinadab in the hill” before King David conveyed it to his new capital of Jerusalem after uniting