Legend has it that after the crucifixion, Mary went to live in Turkey. We explore the site

Our guide Cengiz is telling a fascinating story as the vehicle climbs the steep inclines of Mt. Koressos, the Bulbul Mountain, on the outskirts of the famed historical site of Ephesus. The story has to do with Mary, mother of Jesus, and St John the Baptist, and how Jesus on the cross consigned his mother to John’s care. Christ told John, “Here is your mother” and, according to the Gospel, the disciple indeed took care of Mary.

Actually, there is no direct Biblical evidence of what happened to Mary after the death of Christ but we are in the realm of legend. And legend says both of them travelled to Turkey where they lived in a house on top of this very mountain. John went on to preach Christianity, oversaw the churches of Asia Minor from the Ephesus area, and eventually died of old age. One school of thought holds that Mary moved on and returned to Jerusalem, another tradition believes firmly that Mary lived and died in this very house.

Even as I open my mouth to ask Cengiz a barrage of questions, my eye falls on a huge and beautiful bronze-coloured statue on the side of the mountain. It is Mary, of course; she stands there, arms open; the expression on her face serene and beautiful. My questions dry up.

Mary’s house is a most modest little stone shack enclosed in a leafy glade. The atmosphere around is electric; there are nuns holding rosaries and murmuring prayers, some of the devout climb the steps leading to the small plateau where the house is, singing softly, melodiously. As I climb, I am told another story, of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich’s vision. This Roman Catholic nun, who lived and died in Germany and had never left her hometown, had visions of Mary and described a small isolated house near Ephesus where she said Mary lived and died. The house, said Sister Emmerich, was built with rectangular stones, had windows high up near the flat roof and consisted of two rooms with a hearth at the centre.

Seen in a vision

German poet and scholar Clemens von Brentano spent five years working with Sister Emmerich, recording the details of her visions. In 1891, a research team followed the path described in her visions and discovered this house, which matched her description and was built on a site already revered by local residents. The Roman Catholic Church has never pronounced on the authenticity of the house, for lack of acceptable evidence, but in 1967, Pope Paul VI celebrated Mass at Meryemana and Sister Emmerich was beatified in 2004.

The house, said to date back to the 6th century, is a small, domed structure in a cross-shaped plan, with a small anteroom, remnants of a kitchen and an altar room. The last has a statue of the Virgin in an alcove in the wall. Flowers and candles, offerings from pilgrims, are on the altar and on the ancient Turkish carpet. A small brick alcove to the left has a Turkish Bible open at the John 19 passage. Another icon of Mary is in the alcove to the right. This then is Mary’s house.

Outside, people are lighting white candles and the rows of flickering flames make a lovely picture. To one side is the wishing wall, where rags and scraps of paper tied to racks hold the heartfelt wishes of devotees. Quite a few Muslims are found making the pilgrimage; indeed, tying pieces of white cloth or paper is Turkish Muslim custom rather than Christian. Nearby is a fount, where spring water, said to have healing properties, is being collected.

The site sees thousands of visitors each year, Christians, Jews and Muslims making up the majority. Christianity has always held an important place in the history of this land, virtually at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Central Asia. The New Testament books of Galatians, Ephesians and Colossians were all written for congregations in Turkey, and the seven cities of Asia Minor addressed in the Book of Revelation were all here as well. St. John the Evangelist wrote the Book of Revelation during his exile on the Aegean island of Patmos, just off the coast of Turkey.

The place is peaceful, infused with grace and serenity. I sit on a stone slab, gathering my thoughts, which linger on a heartbroken mother who had to travel far from the scene of personal trauma, with the heavy knowledge that her son was no longer with her. Did Mary find some solace in this corner of Turkey? One can only hope so.