With winter winding down, the blossoming of almond trees in Ein Kerem is at its glorious peak. The charming village, with its narrow streets and alleyways, is nestled in the ancient terraced slopes west of Jerusalem proper, between Hadassah-University Medical Center and the suburban sprawl of Har Nof. A sunny and warm early spring weekend is the ideal time to follow in pilgrims' footsteps, marvel at the town's beauty and enjoy a rural repast in a quaint restaurant while visiting historic churches and picturesque domed houses. Today part of municipal Jerusalem, until 1948 Ein Kerem was a mixed Christian-Muslim village known in Arabic as Ein Karm (Spring of the Vineyard), although traces of settlement have been found dating back to 6000 BCE. Following the April 1948 massacre at nearby Deir Yassin, some 3,000 panicked women and children fled. The remaining villagers and fighters battled IDF forces in July of that year and also abandoned the town. After the founding of Israel, in their place came Jewish refugees from Romania and Morocco, followed by artists and urban homesteaders, making Ein Kerem today one of the most sought-after locations in Jerusalem. According to tradition, John the Baptist was born and lived in Ein Kerem with his parents Zacharias, a priest at Herod the Great's newly rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, and Elizabeth, a cousin of Jesus' mother Mary. The Gospel records that Elizabeth - whose Hebrew name Elisheva means "My God is my oath" - hosted her virgin yet pregnant cousin here for three months before Mary made her way to give birth in Bethlehem (Luke 1:5-25, 39-66.) The village contains a number of churches commemorating these sacred events that lie at the heart of Christianity. While the Byzantine and Crusader-era shrines have long since been destroyed, the Christians never abandoned their claim to the area. The Franciscans established themselves here in 1674, and in 1681 persuaded four Christian families from Bethlehem to resettle what was at the time an abandoned medieval village. In the 19th century, as the various European powers competed for prestige in the Holy Land, a number of impressive monuments and shrines were built here, creating a pilgrimage industry along a well-trod route from Jaffa through Jerusalem to the Jordan River and Jericho. Most pilgrims started the local leg of their procession here at Ein Sitti Maryam (Mary's Fountain, also called the Fountain of the Virgin), which bubbles to the surface in a cave on Rehov Hama'ayan. There pilgrims bottled holy spring water to take back to Mother Russia, where according to a 14th-century tradition Mary drank while on her way to visit Elizabeth. An inscription there bears the words of the Prophet Isaiah: "Lo, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters" (Isaiah 55:1). Atop the spring sits a vaulted, timeless maqam, a modest Muslim house of prayer akin to a shtiebl. Abandoned in 1948, the ruined mosque and minaret stand in mute testimony to the events by which the Palestinians became dispossessed of their land even as Israel experienced its near-miraculous birth. Ein Kerem has two Churches of St. John the Baptist - one Roman Catholic and the other Greek Orthodox. The first, owned by the Franciscans, contains a grotto where tradition holds Jesus' baptizer was born. Steps down to the cave reveal a Byzantine mosaic. The other John the Baptist Church, built in 1894, is mostly deserted. Another impressive Franciscan site is the Sanctuary of the Visitation, recognizable by the bronze statues of Zacharias and Elizabeth. An alcove contains a boulder, behind which Elizabeth hid John from Herod's legionnaires during the infanticide which echoed Pharaoh's edict from the Book of Exodus. The modern church was built in 1955 on top of the ancient church remnants and was designed by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi, who designed many other 20th-century churches in the Holy Land, including the Church of All Nations in Gethsemene. In 1860 the Sisters of Our Lady of Zion arrived, and built their convent between 1862-1890. Funded by the French-Jewish convert brothers Theodore and Alfonse Ratisbonne, the building also functioned as an orphanage. Alfonse himself lived there and is buried in its garden. Thirteen nuns from the order of Sisters of Our Lady of Zion now occupy the site, which contains a silent, magical garden and a guest house run by the nuns. The French nuns were followed by the Russian Orthodox, who arrived in 1871 and developed a huge compound, originally called "Gorny Monastery," along the south ridge of Ein Kerem, complete with two churches and cottages for nuns. Villagers nicknamed the place "Moskobiyya" (Arabic for Moscow). After more than a century of seclusion and isolation behind a high wall, the Russian village recently opened its gates to visitors. The compound today is home to some 100 women, most of whom are nuns, and one monk, Brother Serafin. In 1884 a German princess bearing the regal moniker Her Grand Ducal Highness Princess Elisabeth Alexandra Luise Alice of Hesse and by Rhine married Grand Duke Sergei, the younger brother of Czar Alexander III of Russia. Assuming the title Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna, she and Prince Sergei Alexandrovich soon arrived in Jerusalem to build the Russian Compound, just north of the Old City. The Sergei Building, erected in 1890 as a luxurious abode for visiting princes from Moscow, stands as a monument to his piety - and love of comfort. As reported in In Jerusalem("The lease of our problems?" October 27), Russia wants to regain the landmark - as symbol of its pre-communist prestige - on which the State of Israel holds a long-term lease. The royal couple also began construction of the main Russian Orthodox church in Ein Kerem. But the edifice was never completed. Anarchists assassinated Prince Sergei in 1905; his widow became a nun and gave away all her royal possessions. Construction continued fitfully but the church was left roofless by the outbreak of World War I, and then during the 1917 Russian Revolution, the princess was murdered along with other Romanov blue bloods. While touring the site three years ago, a senior Foreign Ministry official recognized the unfinished church as a valuable asset in cementing Israeli-Russian ties. Meetings with the patriarch of Moscow led to the construction of the roof's striking domes, in exact accordance with the original blueprint. The festive inauguration ceremony was to have been held on April 7, 2006. Russian President Vladimir Putin delayed the ceremony in the hope that prime minister Ariel Sharon - who was then in the intensive care unit at Hadassah Hospital a mere kilometer away - would recover from his massive stroke and be able to attend. No new date has been set at the time of this writing.

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