Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant Church in Kiryat Yaarim
Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant and church complex is perched on a hilltop above the Arab village of Abu-Ghosh, 8 miles west of Jerusalem. Its name combines the memory of where the Ark of the Covenant was kept for 20 years (1 Sam. 7:1-2). The site also provides breathtaking vistas of the Jerusalem mountains.
History of the Site
The monastery is believed to be built over the biblical site of Kiryat Ya’arim. Kiryat Ya’arim is first mentioned in Joshua 18:14 and 15:9, suggesting it was once a Canaanite cultic center. The Book of Samuel records Kiryat Ya’arim sheltering the Ark of the Covenant after it inflicted a plague in Beth Shemesh (1 Samuel 7). Priests guarded it for 20 years, and then David took it to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6). Later, in 925 BC, the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishaq boasted of conquering Kiryat Yaarim. Perhaps Solomon offered him Jerusalem’s temple treasures (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 Muslims preserved the memory of Kiryat Ya’arim by naming the hilltop “Jabel Muqades” – “the Holy mountain.” Furthermore, the Arabs call the mountaintop “Deir el-Azar,” alluding to Elazer, the biblical guardian of the Ark.
In 1903, France purchased the hilltop, and by 1924, a monastery and a church were built over it. The church’s name – “Notre Dame De L’arche D’alliance” – “Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant”, also relates to the Ark. Moreover, a large-scale sculpture toppling the church depicts Mary standing on the Ark and 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 2017-2019, an archaeological expedition excavated the perimeter of the compound in search of evidence from biblical periods. They uncovered large retaining walls that suggest Kiryat Yaarim was a cultic center around the 8th Century BCE.
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 in 72 AD..
These inscriptions seem to indicate the presence of a Roman force in the area between the 1st and the 3rd centuries AD.
Touring Our Lady of the Ark Church
Nuns of the sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition maintain the monastery. The Church is open Mondays through Saturdays in the morning and again in the afternoon. The church is humble, but its floor combines a mosaic floor, possibly of a church from the 5th century. The site also provides some of the best panoramas of Jerusalem’s mountains.
A visit to the church can be combined with a guided day tour of Jerusalem