Tomb of the Virgin Mary

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Twelfth-century façade of Mary's Tomb

Church of the Sepulchre of Saint Mary, also Tomb of the Virgin Mary, is a Christian tomb in the Kidron Valley – at the foot of Mount of Olives, in Jerusalem – believed by Eastern Christians to be the burial place of Mary, the mother of Jesus .[1]


The Sacred Tradition of Eastern Christianity teaches that the Virgin Mary died a natural death (the Dormition of the Theotokos, the falling asleep), like any human being; that her soul was received by Christ upon death; and that her body was resurrected on the third day after her repose, at which time she was taken up, soul and body, into heaven in anticipation of the general resurrection. Her tomb, according to this teaching, was found empty on the third day.

Roman Catholic teaching holds that Mary was "assumed" into heaven in bodily form, the Assumption; the question of whether or not Mary actually underwent physical death remains open in the Catholic view; however, most theologians believe that she did undergo death before her Assumption.[citation needed]

A narrative known as the Euthymiaca Historia (written probably by Cyril of Scythopolis in the 5th century) relates how the Emperor Marcian and his wife, Pulcheria, requested the relics of the Virgin Mary from Juvenal, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, while he was attending the Council of Chalcedon (451). According to the account, Juvenal replied that, on the third day after her burial, Mary's tomb was discovered to be empty, only her shroud being preserved in the church of Gethsemane.

According to another tradition it was the Cincture of the Virgin Mary which was left behind in the tomb.[2]


Outside view of the Tomb of Mary (right margin) and the tomb of Mujir ad-Din (center)

In 1972, Bellarmino Bagatti, a Franciscan friar and archaeologist, excavated the site and found evidence of an ancient cemetery dating to the 1st century; his findings have not yet been subject to peer review by the wider archaeological community, and the validity of his dating has not been fully assessed.

Bagatti interpreted the remains to indicate that the cemetery's initial structure consisted of three chambers (the actual tomb being the inner chamber of the whole complex), was adjudged in accordance with the customs of that period. Later, the tomb interpreted by the local Christians to be that of Mary's was isolated from the rest of the necropolis, by cutting the surrounding rock face away from it. An edicule was built on the tomb.[3]

The tomb of Mary on the east side of the church

A small upper church on an octagonal footing was built by Patriarch Juvenal (during Marcian's rule) over the location in the 5th century, and was destroyed in the Persian invasion of 614. During the following centuries the church was destroyed and rebuilt many times, but the crypt was left untouched. As for the Muslims, it is the burial place of the mother of prophet Isa (Jesus). It was rebuilt then in 1130 by the Crusaders, who installed a walled Benedictine monastery, the Abbey of St. Mary of the Valley of Jehoshaphat. The monastic complex included early Gothic columns, red-on-green frescoes, and three towers for protection. The staircase and entrance were also part of the Crusaders' church. This church was destroyed by Saladin in 1187, but the crypt was still respected; all that was left was the south entrance and staircase, the masonry of the upper church being used to build the walls of Jerusalem. In the second half of the 14th century Franciscan friars rebuilt the church once more. The Greek Orthodox clergy launched a Palm Sunday takeover of various Holy Land sites, including this one, in 1757 and expelled the Franciscans.[4] The Ottomans supported this "status quo" in the courts.[5] Since then, the tomb has been owned by the Greek Orthodox Church and Armenian Apostolical Church of Jerusalem, while the grotto of Gethsemane remained in the possession of the Franciscans.

Plan and vertical cross-section of the site
The interior of the sarcophagus. Now encased with glass.

The church[edit]

Preceded by a walled courtyard to the south, the cruciform church shielding the tomb has been excavated in an underground rock-cut cave[6] entered by a wide descending stair dating from the 12th century. On the left side of the staircase (towards the west) there is the chapel of Saint Joseph, Mary's husband, while on the right (towards the east) there is the chapel of Mary's parents, Joachim and Anne, holding also the tomb of Queen Melisende of Jerusalem.

On the eastern side of the church there is the chapel of Mary's tomb. Altars of the Greeks and Armenians also own the east apse. A niche south of the tomb is a mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca, installed when Muslims had joint rights to the church. Currently the Muslims have no more ownership rights to this site. On the western side there is a Coptic altar.

The Armenian Patriarchate Armenian Apostolic Church of Jerusalem and Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem are in possession of the shrine. The Syriacs, the Copts, and the Abyssinians have minor rights.


A legend, which was first mentioned by Epiphanius of Salamis in the 4th century AD, purported that Mary may have spent the last years of her life in Ephesus. The Ephesians derived it from John's presence in the city, and Jesus’ instructions to John to take care of Mary after his death. Epiphanius, however, pointed out that although the Bible mentions John leaving for Asia, it makes no mention of Mary going with him.[7] The Eastern Orthodox Church tradition believes that Virgin Mary lived in the vicinity of Ephesus, where there is a place currently known as the House of the Virgin Mary and venerated by Catholics and Muslims, but argues that she only stayed there for a few years; this teaching is based on the writings of the Holy Fathers.

Although many Christians believe that no information about the end of Mary's life or her burial are provided in the New Testament accounts or early apocrypha, there are actually over 50 apocryphon about Mary's death (or other final fate). The 3rd century Book of John about the Dormition of Mary places her tomb in Gethsemene, as does the 4th century Treatise about the passing of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Breviarius of Jerusalem, a short text written in about AD 395,[8] mentions in that valley the basilica of Holy Mary, which contains her sepulchre. Later, Saints Epiphanius of Salamis, Gregory of Tours, Isidore of Seville, Modest, Sophronius of Jerusalem, German of Constantinople, Andrew of Crete, and John of Damascus talk about the tomb being in Jerusalem, and bear witness that this tradition was accepted by all the Churches of East and West.

Other claims[edit]

People believe that another tomb of the Virgin Mary is located in Mary, Turkmenistan a town originally named Mari. Proponents claim that Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary travelled to India after surviving the crucifixion, where they remained until the end of their lives. The authenticity of these claims is not academically established and has never merited any scholastic or academic research, nor canonical endorsement from the Holy See, nor anyone else.[9]

Image gallery[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ What's A Mother To Do? at
  2. ^ Serfes, Father Demetrios (1 March 1999), Belt of the Holy Theotokos, retrieved 16 January 2010 
  3. ^ Alviero Niccacci, "Archaeology, New Testament, and Early Christianity", Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, Faculty of Biblical Sciences and Archaeology of the Pontifical University Antonianum in Rome
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ [2]
  6. ^ See Rock cut architecture.
  7. ^ Vasiliki Limberis, 'The Council of Ephesos: The Demise of the See of Ephesos and the Rise of the Cult of the Theotokos' in Helmut Koester, Ephesos: Metropolis of Asia (2004), 327.
  8. ^ The year as mentioned by Anthony Hilhorst (University of Groningen), in Ager Damascenus: Views on the place of Adam’s creation (Warszawskie Studia Teologiczne, XX/2/2007, 131-144)
  9. ^ [3]

External links[edit]

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton. 

Coordinates: 31°46′48″N 35°14′23″E / 31.78000°N 35.23972°E / 31.78000; 35.23972