In the closing years of the nineteenth century, the Aegean coast of Turkey witnessed three of the greatest archaeological finds of all time. Two of these – the discoveries of the ruins of Ephesus and Troy – made international headlines overnight. The third, however, in 1881, was immediately enveloped in secrecy.
It was kept a secret because nobody in the Vatican believed that an obscure French priest, following the visions of an equally obscure German nun and mystic, could possibly have found the actual house where the Virgin Mary spent her last years. Yet by the end of the century the evidence had become so compelling that scholars had pronounced the discovery authentic and Pope Leo XIII had declared the site a place of pilgrimage.
Today it is one of the holiest shrines in Christendom. Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II have both made special journeys there to worship, and over a million people visit every year. For Christians around the world, it has become quite simply the most important house on earth.
In Mary’s House, Donald Carroll, the author of twelve books and an acknowledged expert on Turkey, goes back two thousand years to trace the history of a pile of sacred, forgotten stones which were to provide, for the first time, precious clues to the life that Mary lived after the Crucifixion.
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In the years immediately following the Crucifixion, the little sect of troublemakers known as Christians enjoyed a period of relative tolerance in Jerusalem. But as their numbers and influence expanded, the patience of the Jewish authorities shrank until, in 37 AD, it disappeared altogether. That year saw the martyrdom death of St Stephen, and with it the beginning of active persecution of Jerusalem’s Christian community. Over the next five years the persecution became more intense, reaching its climax when Herod Agrippa I ascended the throne in 42 AD and ordered the imprisonment of St Peter and the beheading of St James, the brother of St John.
By then, however, most of the Christians, including St John and the Virgin Mary, had fled. The majority escaped into Judea and Samaria, but those who like St John were charged with spreading the message of Jesus went much further afield. In St John’s case, he went to Ephesus and, true to his commitment to the dying Jesus, took Mary with him – and Mary Magdalene, and several others of the faithful.
One can scarcely imagine the hardships that must have accompanied a journey of that length, in those conditions, over that terrain. Mary especially must have suffered during their long flight out of the Holy Land; she would have been in her sixties by this time. Nor can one imagine the reaction of this little group of refugees when they first beheld the splendour of Ephesus. Here was the greatest city of the East, the financial centre of the Roman Empire, home of the world’s first bank, a city of vast wealth and a quarter of a million citizens. The effect must have been overwhelming
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