The village of Ein Kerem, on the west side of Jerusalem, is according to tradition the birthplace of John the Baptist.
In ancient times, the village was a Canaanite site which evolved around the spring that gave its name (Ein Kerem - "the spring of the vineyard"). The site is identified as "Beit Hakerem" from the Israelite period (Jeremiah 6:1): "O ye children of Benjamin, gather yourselves to flee out of the midst of Jerusalem, and blow the trumpet in Tekoa, and set up a sign of fire in Beit Hakerem."
According to Christian tradition, the village was a summer house for Zacharias and Elizabeth, parents of John the Baptist. The village was called "city of Judah" in the description of the visit by Luke.
Elizabeth (Elisheva) was the cousin of Mary, mother of Jesus. As per Luke, Mary visited Elizabeth when both were pregnant (hence the name of the shrine - Church of the Visitation). During the visit, the baby leapt with joy in Elizabeth's womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, knowing that Mary was about to give birth to the Son of God. Mary then stayed with her cousin for three months until John was born, and returned to Bethlehem.
The village and the spring is holy for Christians, and several churches and monasteries were built during the Byzantine period. The Crusader Church of the Visitation, on its "upper" floor, was built over one of them. The Church of St. John the Baptist was also built over ruins of Byzantine period.
The Franciscan monks started to settled here in 1674. They purchased lands and houses. After the village expanded, more Christians established their presence in the popular pilgrimage site. The churches and monasteries were reconstructed in the late Ottoman period and Modern times:
- St. John Ba Harim was built in the end of the 19th century and completed in 1920.
- The Monastery of the Sisters of Zion was built in 1860/1.
- The Greek Orthodox church was built at the end of the 19th century, and was reconstructed in 1975.
- The Visitation church was reconstructed in 1955.
- The Russian church started construction in 1905.
The Franciscan Church of Saint John the Baptist is built over the traditional spot where St. John was born. It was mentioned in the the accords "De situ Terrae Sanctae" of the pilgrim Archdeacon Theodosius (530 AD). The Byzantine chapels were destroyed in the Samaritan revolt against the Byzantine Empire (529 and 556 AD). The church is also 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." After regaining Jerusalem in 1104, the Crusaders rebuilt the chapel above the Byzantine ruins. The "Hospitallers" - the order of the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John - where behind the reconstruction, and are named after St. John. It was destroyed in the 12th century and remained in ruins until the late Ottoman period.
The Franciscan monks started to settled here in 1674. They purchased lands and houses, including the area of the monastery. The monastery was completed in 1895. The modern church was built in the end of the 19th century and completed in 1920. The construction was financed by the Spanish monarchs and since then the monastery is headed by the Spaniards.
In 1941–1942 they conducted excavations in the area immediately west of the church and the adjoining monastery. Several rock-cut chambers and graves were found, as well as wine presses with mosaic floors and small chapels with mosaic tiling. The southern rock-cut chamber contained pottery of a type found elsewhere in Jerusalem, probably from the first century CE.
A stairway leads down to the so-called Grotto of the Benedictus, considered to be the place where John the Baptist was born. A marble star beneath the altar bears a Latin inscription: "Hic precursor Domini natus est" (Here was born the precursor of the Lord).
The Russian Orthodox Monastery also claims to have a grotto where St. John the Baptist was born.