As the Judeo-Christian holy land, Israel is filled with churches.
While the Church of Mary Magdalene, Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Church of the Nativity may be the most famous, the churches and monasteries listed below house many relics, including ancient ruins, Medieval artwork and the tombs of several saints and apostles.
Some are in fairytale locations with breathtaking views, from the heart of the desert to mountaintops overlooking Israel’s seas. Others, however, warrant stripping down to your bathing suit for a quick spiritual dip.
In the fourth century AD, Byzantine monks retreated to the Judean desert to live a simpler, more remote life. During that time, more than 60 monasteries were built into the landscape. While many were destroyed by invaders and a large 19th century earthquake, a handful remain active today.
Possibly one of the most beautiful examples is St. George Monastery, a Greek Orthodox monastery built seamlessly into the side of the rocky mountain canyon at Wadi Qelt, a popular hiking spot. With a complicated history, the monastery sits parallel to the ancient road to Jericho, referenced in Jesus Christ’s Good Samaritan parable, and is said to be the setting of the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” from Psalm 23.
What to know before visiting: Wear your walking shoes. The buildings of the monastery can only be reached on foot via a 10-15 minute hike. Visiting hours: Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
2. St. James Cathedral (Armenian Church), Old City Jerusalem
Tucked away in the less treaded Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City is St. James Cathedral.
The Armenian Orthodox church, where Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West had daughter North baptized on the family’s reality TV show, is a 12th century, walled-in marvel on a large chunk of the city’s coveted real estate. It was established in honor of two different St. James: Christ’s apostle and Christ’s relative, who was Jerusalem’s first head bishop.
One of Israel’s only fully intact Crusader-era churches, it houses an astonishing number of gilded altars and chapels, each with palpable ties to history, such as one that holds a cross owned by Constantine the Great’s mother Helena.
The church is also the site of 130 religious paintings, magnificent skylights, carved stone crosses, giant pillars, elaborate chandeliers, ancient frescos, 18th century blue and white Armenian tiles, an 18-meter-tall dome ceiling and the beautifully adorned burial vault where the Virgin Mary is said to have laid the head of the Apostle St. James.
What to know before visiting: This church has restrictive hours to ensure it stays a quiet, spiritual refuge. Passersby may enter at prayer time, signified by the sounding of a gong. Try visiting on weekdays from 6:30-7:30 a.m. and 3-3:30 p.m., Saturdays at 8 a.m. or Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
It’s not often that you pack your bathing suit for a visit to a historical church — but you probably haven’t been to the Church of Saint Mary in Tiberias.
A beacon of calm and tranquility overlooking the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the church is dedicated to Mary Magdalene and the various legends surrounding her. It is
maintained by nuns and is part of a small farmstead that includes fruit trees. A series of restorative pools around nearby natural springs are said to have healing powers in which visitors can take a refreshing dip.
What to know before visiting: The church is not an official tourist site but is open to the public. Typically, it is open from 9-12 p.m. and 3-5 p.m. daily.
4. The Wedding Church, Kafr Kanna
A spot in the Lower Galilee where Jesus is said to have turned water into wine at a wedding feast, the Wedding Church, renovated in the 1990s, houses ruins that date back to the fourth century synagogue it was built upon as well as the Byzantine tombs that followed.
Couples to this day renew their wedding vows at the Roman Catholic church, which also showcases evidence of the archeological findings discovered there and features a fascinating Gothic-style façade covered in sculptures of angels and other religious figures.
5. Dominus Flevit Church, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem
Situated on the Mount of Olives with a straight view onto the Temple Mount, Dominus Flevit, Latin for “The Lord Wept,” is one of many churches on the mountain not to be missed.
The tear-drop shaped Roman Catholic church was built in 1955 upon the ruins of a fifth century Byzantine church and contains preserved Byzantine mosaic floors, excavated tombs dating back to the late Bronze Age and a courtyard with ancient olive trees where Christ is said to have wept over the city of Jerusalem.
What to know before visiting: Open every day from 8-11:45 a.m. and 2:30-5 p.m.
6. Monastery of St. John in the Wilderness
Just west of Ein Karem, a picturesque Jerusalem neighborhood known for its Christian holy sites, the Monastery of St. John in the Wilderness sits nestled into the green hillside next to Moshav Even Sapir.
Representing the wilderness in which St. John the Baptist grew up, the Catholic monastery and accompanying church were built next to the natural cave-turned chapel where John is thought to have once lived.
The quiet and tranquil retreat, complete with water features and viewpoints, holds immense meaning for Christians as it was built next to The Spring of the Hermit, which contains the tomb of Elizabeth, John’s mother.
What to know before visiting: The monastery sits on a steep hillside. Reaching different parts of the site requires climbing a series of pathways and stone stairs. Make sure to wear proper footwear.
7. St. Mary of the Resurrection Abbey, Abu Ghosh
A Benedictine monastery in Abu Ghosh, an Israeli Arab town 10 kilometers west of Jerusalem, this Basilica-style church was constructed during the 12th century Crusader Church of Resurrection and was built over top of Roman ruins in what is thought to be the Biblical city of Emmaus.
Like many other churches of great biblical significance, it too was built on an ancient freshwater spring.
The vaulted ceilings and interior arched stone walls, carrying the calming harmonies of the praying monks, are covered in partially preserved Crusader-era frescos. The church also showcases a section of original mosaic floor, as well as beautifully kept grounds filled with flowers, date palms, grapevines and olive trees.
What to know before visiting: The church is an easy find right off the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Highway 1. Visitors are welcome on Sundays and feast days for Lauds at 7 a.m., Mass at 10:30 a.m. and Vespers at 5 p.m., as well as weekdays for Lauds at 7 a.m., Mass at 11:30 a.m. (excluding Fridays) and Vespers at 6 p.m.
On top of Mount Carmel in Haifa sits Stella Maris (Star of the Sea) Carmelite Catholic Church, a monument to history and a religious institution.
Housing the cave where the Prophet Elijah is said to have hidden — a spot just under the altar where worshippers can pray — Stella Maris also has a beautifully painted interior dome with Biblical scenes, including that of Elijah ascending to Heaven in a chariot of fire.
Inside, visitors can also marvel at a statue of the Virgin Mary carved from Lebanese cedar, a permanent nativity scene and walls made of white marble. A spectacular view of the Haifa Bay greets visitors outside, where they can pay respects at a memorial to the French soldiers who died at the hand of Ottoman Turkish forces after Napoleon’s retreat from Akko in 1799.
What to know before visiting: Open to the public every day from 6:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 3-6 p.m.
Built over what is believed to be the site of Joseph’s carpentry shop, St. Joseph Church is just one of the inherently special churches in Christ’s Galilean hometown.
While it often takes a back seat to a series of other significant churches in the area, such as the adjacent Basilica of the Annunciation, it is no less fascinating to visit.
Built in 1914 on top of the ruins of a 12th century Crusader church, which had been built over an earlier Byzantine church, St. Joseph Church has a series of caves below it, including one with archeological findings from Biblical times and one thought to have been Joseph’s workshop.
What to know before visiting: Open Monday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the winter and Saturday to Sunday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the summer.
(Edited by Fern Siegel and David Martosko)
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