Land, fertility rites and the veneration of female saints: Exploring body rituals at the Tomb of Mary in Jerusalem

Nurit Stadler*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


This article explores the connections between rituals, embodiment, and territorial claims by taking stock of Christian Orthodox rites at the Tomb of Mary in Jerusalem. As part of a comprehensive ethnography of this shrine, I have examined a wide array of body-based female practices that revolve around Mary's tomb. By rejuvenating embodied practices that are associated with fertility, parturition and maternity, devotees enlist the grottos womb-like interior as a platform for kissing, touching, crawling, bending, and other physical acts of devotion that make for a powerful body-based experience. As demonstrated herein, the mimetic journey of a fetus/pilgrim through this womb-tomb expanse elicits a sense of rebirth, which is analogous to reclaiming the land and establishing a "motherly" alternative to the masculine and bellicose disposition in Israel/Palestine.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)293-316
Number of pages24
JournalAnthropological Theory
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2015

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This article is part of a larger research project on holy sites in Israel/Palestine that I am conducting with Nimrod Luz, whose jolly company and full cooperation on all aspects of this enterprise is much appreciated. I am indebted to the Israeli Science Foundation for its generous support of this study (Grant no 131/12). Moreover, the first phase of this endeavor would not have been possible without the backing of the Shaine Centre. I embarked on my first pilgrimage to the crypt with Oren Golan, who much to the benefit of this project accompanied me on many return visits. Within the framework of the Humboldt Foundation’s Connection Program in Berlin (2012), Claudia Liebelt helped me rethink fertility and gender. Special thanks to Claudia and the Foundation, not the least to Stephanie Dill, for their assistance. David Lehmann commented on numerous drafts of this paper and has influenced my outlook on religion and pilgrimage. Yoram Bilu has enhanced my understanding of revered tombs and the cycle of fertility rituals. Besides encouraging me to pursue this subject matter, Tamar Rapoport offered invaluable advice on the standing of gender goddesses in holy places. I would also like to thank Edna Lomsky-Feder for joining me at Mary’s Tomb, where she shared her insights on its womb-tomb structure and related themes. Tens of students lent a hand both out in the field and inside the library. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Jonathan Ventura, who wrote his dissertation on the basis of our joint fieldwork, Liron Shani, Erez Maggor, Elad Or, Lior Chen, Chen Reuveni, and Emily Kattan. Agnes Arbeli handled all the administrative facets of this work with a meticulous and steady hand. Last but not least, I would like to thank Avi Aronsky for his editorial craftsmanship.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2015.


  • Body based rituals
  • Ethnography
  • Jerusalem
  • Orthodox Christianity
  • Tomb of Mary
  • embodiment
  • territoriality
  • womb-tomb


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