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Bethlehem Folklore and the Virgin Mary

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 18.09.2009:

The following is mainly collected by dr Issa Massou, and available on the website of Dr Adnan Musallem of Bethlehem University, at

Basins of Peas

To the north of Bethlehem, on the way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem at a distance of one kilometre from the town, there are some fields known as the “Basins of Peas.” The tale attached to this site is very famous. It is said that Jesus Christ (in some tales the Virgin Mary or Saint Joseph) were passing by those parts when he saw a peasant sowing peas. He asked him, “What are you sowing?” The peasant replied briefly, “Stones.” Whereupon Jesus answered, “Very well, then you will reap stones.” And it was as he said. In the harvest time, when the sewer came to collect his product, you cannot imagine how great his shock was when he found nothing but petrified peas. Visitors to that place have, until recently, kept some stones that looked like peas.

The Virgin Mary and the plowmen

When the Virgin Mary, peace be on her, was on the flight to Egypt with the son in her arms, she passed by some plowmen making furrows in their field. She said to them: “Though today you are only sowing, before the sun rises tomorrow morning, your field will be ready to harvest. But remember, if anyone comes this way and asks about me, say, “She was here just as we were getting ready to plant these chick-peas.”

Indeed when the Beni Israil, who were after the Virgin, came to the place on the very next day, these same plowmen were busy harvesting chickpeas. The Beni Israil asked: “Has a woman carrying a child passed your way recently?” The plowmen replied: “By God, such a one did go by, but that was when we were digging the furrows to sow this crop.” “O ho,” said her persuers, “that must have been some time ago. How will we catch up with her now?”

Miriamiya, “Sage of Virtue,” and other aromatic herbs

A fair damsel (girl) of Artas, just returned from the market in Bethlehem, came into the room with her hands held awkwardly behind her back. “O lady,” she began, in the breathless tone of one who has considered what best to say while walking all the way back home and must get it out at once, “O lady, I went to the market for the meat for supper, just as you bid me, and there was none in the market save that of a camel which had been run over by a motor car, and I knew you wouldn’t like that. But I have brought you this,” and with a great flourish she produced a plant of Sage torn up by the roots. “O Miriamiya! O Blessed Thing” (Ya Miriamiya, Ya Mubarake) cried those who recognised it. “Yes” (triumphantly) “and I had to carry it back all the way under my dress for fear of the Government (this is because the plant is too valuable to be rooted up carelessly). I knew if I brought you this you wouldn’t mind about the meat.” A chorus of approval from the botanists followed. “Truly plants are our meat and drink,” they said, “and this one is blessed beyond all others. Thanks to you for bringing it” (negligently, as an afterthought), “we will have eggs for supper.”

But why is the Miriamiya so blessed? This is the story of the Miriamiya. When Our Lady Miriam fled from King Herod into Egypt with Our Lord Jesus and he was yet a little Child, she sat down, weary, under the shade of a shrub. And she broke a sprig from the shrub and wiped the sweat from her face with the leaves until she found refreshment because of its fragrance. Then she said to the plant “Be thou blessed for ever” and since that day the plant is called Miriamiya in her memory, and truly it is blessed.

So the women of Palestine value and love the plant, believing it full of healthful virtue. The leaves are sometimes used in an infusion with sugar or honey, but more usually they are chewed while fresh. Sometimes the leaves are thrown on red hot charcoal to incense a room “to keep illness away,” a most reasonable disinfection.

Mary and the Church of Nativity (1)

According to a legend, some armed groups tried to ruin the Church of the Nativity and to massacre the Bethlehem Christians who took shelter in the church. The invaders were coming from the west towards the east, with the intention of destroying the Church of the Nativity. When they reached the Qaus (termed “Az-Zarrarah” later), the Virgin Mary appeared to them in a most dazzling brilliance which took the shape of a wall of light. They were thus blinded and could not proceed any farther, but when they turned eastwards to go on with their attack they were again blinded. So finally they decided to retreat whence they had come. This story furnishes a clue to the feminine form of “Az-Zarrarah” (the female Cornerer), a form which probably refers to the Virgin Mary.

Mary and the Church of Nativity (2)

Another story which is still in circulation, is that “a long time ago” a great earthquake shook Bethlehem, and subsided when the Virgin Mary appeared in the Church of the Nativity and placed her fingers on a column. The holes mark the traces of her fingers on the column.

Milk Grotto

The Milk Grotto: From the Church of the Nativity and at a distance of 300 years to the south east, the Milk Grotto or Women’s Cavern is situated. It is a large irregular cave now converted into a chapel belonging to the Franciscans. “The traditional story is that before their flight into Egypt the Holy Family stayed a short time in the cavern. One day a drop of the Blessed Virgin’s milk happened to fall on the chalky rock, and immediately endowed it with miraculous properties. Until the sophistication of recent years the rock was much prized by women of the countryside as a healing agency and aid to lactation.”

Well in Beit Sahour

At a mile’s distance to the east of Bethlehem lies Bait Sahur. Sepp supposes the name to be derived from Ashhur (1 chron.ii, 24, iv,5)(12). The most popular story about Bait Sahur proper excluding the stories connected with the Shepherds Field one mile to the east of Bait Sahur – is that one connected with Bir Issidah (The Well of the Lady). Baedeker briefly refers to it as follows: “There are several grottoes and cisterns here. The deepest of the latter, situated in the middle of the village, is famous as the scene of a traditional miracle, The inhabitants having refused to draw water for the Virgin, the water rose in the well of its own accord,”(13)

The present writer (Dr Issa Massou) has heard the story of this traditional miracle(14) of Bir Issidah, in the following way. Bir Issidah is a religious endowment belonging to the whole town. Jacob the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham was the one who dug it, The Virgin Mary while on her way to Egypt passed by it; and being thirsty, she asked some women to give her a drink from a pail of water, as the well was deep, but they refused. So the Virgin Mary gave utterance to the imprecation that their number should never exceed forty at any time, and truly the number of the family to which the people at the well belonged, never exceeded forty members for some time.

Religious Folklore Surrounding the Bait Jala Area

Almost in the center of Bait Jala there is a church sacred to the Virgin Mary known as “Knisit is-Sideh”. The Church is very famous for its stone known as “Hajar is-Sideh” or “Srir is-Sideh”. Sideh is the Arabic colloquial for “Sayyidah” -lady- here referring specifically to the Virgin Mary. The story attributed to this stone, which is very well known, is associated with the Field of Peas, a place on the northern outskirts of Bethlehem. The Virgin Mary, so the story goes, as she was passing the Field of Peas, asked the workers there to give her some,” No, these are not peas, they are stones,” came their reply, “Then let it be so,” answered the Virgin Mary. The peas were then instantly transformed into stones. The workers then pursued the Virgin Mary, who hid in a rock which split itself to conceal her after the Virgin’s uttering of these words, “inshaqqi ya sakhra wi-hmi-iI Adhra” (i.e. “Split, Oh, rock and protect the Virgin). The rock used to be kept at a house belonging to a Bethlehem family called Saqa. Later it was placed in the Church of the Virgin in Bait Jala, because the land of the Saqa family is inside Bait Jala territory.

Bir ‘Onah (The Well of ‘Onah)

Going down the road from Mar Nichola’s Church northwards, one reaches the bottom of the valley where Bir (Well) ‘Onah is situated, about which a very well known story connected with the Virgin Mary is told.

According to this story the Virgin Mary once passed by the well while some women were drawing water. She asked for water to drink, but the women inhospitably refused her request. The Virgin then knelt on the well-mouth, and asked God to offer her a drink of water. The water was soon raised from the Well and Virgin drank, then the water receded. The Virgin’s kneeling left traces on the well-mouth.

Proverb from the Bethlehem area

A woman considers her children to be better than other women’s children, hence, “Our Lord Solomon said to the owl, ‘Fetch me the best of birds. “She rose and went and returned with her daughter.”

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