Christian tradition holds that Saint John the Baptist was born in Ein Karem, this leading to the establishment of many churches and monasteries in the area. It attracts three million visitors a year, one-third of them pilgrims from around the world.
According to the New Testament, Mary went "into the hill country, to a city of Judah" (Luke 1:39) when she visited her cousin Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah.
During the Byzantine period, Theodosius (530 CE) gives the distance between Jerusalem and the town of Elizabeth as five miles.
The Jerusalem Calendar (Kalendarium Hyerosolimitanum) or the Georgian Festival Calendar, dated by some before 638, the year of the Muslim conquest, mentions the village by name, "Enqarim," as the place of a festival in memory of Elizabeth celebrated on the twenty-eighth of August.
The English writer Saewulf, on pilgrimage to Palestine in 1102-1103, wrote of a monastery in the area of Ein Karim dedicated to St. Sabas, where 300 monks had been "slain by Saracens", but without mentioning any tradition connected to St. John.
It contains many notable Churches.
The Church of the Visitation, or Abbey Church of St John in the Woods, is located across the village to the southwest from St. John's. The ancient sanctuary there was built against a rock declivity. It is venerated as the pietra del nascondimento, the "stone in which John was concealed," in reference to the Protevangelium of James. The site is also attributed to John the Baptist's parental summer house, where Mary visited them. The modern church was built in 1955, also on top of ancient church remnants. It was designed by Antonio Barluzzi, an Italian architect, who designed many other churches in the Holy Land during the 20th century.
The Catholic Monastery of St. John ba-Harim is centered on a church containing the cave identified by tradition as the birthplace of Saint John the Baptist. The church is built over the remnants of a Crusader church and its porch stands over the remains of two Byzantine chapels, both containing mosaic floors. The current structure received its outlook as the result of the latest large architectural intervention, finished in 1939 under the guidance of the Italian architect, Antonio Barluzzi. In 1941–1942 the Franciscans excavated the area west of the church and monastery. The southernmost of the rock-cut chambers they found can probably be dated to the first century CE. Some remnants below the southern part of the porch suggests the presence of a mikve (Jewish ritual bath) that is dated to the Second Temple Period. The church is mentioned in the Book of the Demonstration, attributed to Eutychius of Alexandria (940): "The church of Bayt Zakariya in the district of Aelia bears witness to the visit of Mary to her kinswoman Elizabeth." The site of the Crusader church built above the traditional birth cave of St John, destroyed after the departure of the Crusaders, was purchased by Franciscan custos, Father Thomas of Novara in 1621. After a decades-long struggle with the Muslim inhabitants, the Fraciscans finally managed to rebuild and fortify their church and monastery by the 1690s.
The monastery of Les Sœurs de Notre-Dame de Sion (Sisters of Our Lady of Zion), built in 1860, was founded by two brothers from France, Theodore and Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne, who were born Jewish and converted to Christianity. They established an orphanage here. Alphonse himself lived in the monastery and is buried in its garden.
According to a Christian tradition which started in the 14th century, the Virgin Mary drank water from this village spring, and here is also the place where Mary and Elizabeth met. Therefore, since the 14th century the spring is known as the Fountain of the Virgin. The spring waters are considered holy by some Catholic and Orthodox Christian pilgrims who visit the site and fill their bottles. What looks like a spring is actually the end of an ancient aqueduct. The former Arab inhabitants built a mosque and school on the site, of which a Maqam (shrine) and minaret still remain. An inscribed panel to the courtyard of the mosque dates it to 1828-1829 CE (1244 H.) The spring was repaired and renovated by Baron Edmond de Rothschild.
Biblical sources tie the Mount of Olives with future miraculous occurrences that will take place during the Redemption. As a result, the Mount of Olives became an important site in Jewish tradition and various customs developed. The mountain was sanctified and it became a place of Jewish pilgrimage. The mountain’s sanctity, its proximity to the city and its soft chalky consistency which made it easy to dig into, contributed to the mountain becoming a place of burial throughout the generations. The tradition of burial began during the First Temple period, and continues to this very day.
Today, visitors flock to the Mount of Olives for its breathtaking views and to learn about its history in special guided tours. Its rocks whisper stories from centuries past, engaging visitors with its secrets and glorious history.