In the 12th century, during the Crusader occupation of the region, groups of religious hermits began to inhabit the caves of this area in imitation of Elijah the Prophet.
Within a century, these monastic hermits were organized into the Carmelite order and the Carmelite order spread throughout Europe.
While the Carmelite order's flourished in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, its founders on Mount Carmel were exiled at the time of the Mamluk conquest in 1291 and did not return until the 18th century. Construction of the present monastery and basilica was begun in 1836.
An earlier monastery complex on this site served as a hospital for Napoleon's soldiers during his unsuccessful siege of Acre (Akko) in 1799. Many abandoned French soldiers who were slaughtered by the Turks after Napoleon had retreated.
Situated across the street from the Old Lighthouse, with a magnificent view of the sea, the entire ensemble of buildings, including the Lighthouse, is known as "Stella Maris."
The Stella Maris church is a beautiful structure, with Italian marble so brightly and vividly patterned that visitors sometimes think the walls have been painted.
Colorful paintings on the dome, done by Brother Luigi Poggi (1924-28), depict episodes from the Old Testament, the most dramatic being the scene of Elijah swept up in a chariot of fire. The statue of the Virgin Mary, carved from cedar of Lebanon, is also notable.
The cave situated below the altar, which you can walk down into, is "Elijah's Cave," where the Old Testament prophet is believed to have lived. Many little votive candles burn on the altar above the cave, each representing a Carmelite community in another country (the United States has its candle up on the left).
In the rooms to the right of the entryway, there is a charming nativity scene, a museum with artifacts from the Byzantine church that once stood on this site, and a small souvenir shop.
One of the monks will gladly give you a free pamphlet with information about the history of the site and the Carmelite order dating back to the arrival of the crusaders on this mountain in the late 12th century. They will answer any questions you may have, and guide you to the various interesting details of the church.
The pyramid in front of the church is a memorial to the French soldiers who died here after Napoleon's retreat. It bears the inscription "How are the mighty fallen in battle," from King David's lamentation over Saul and Jonathan.