HISTORY IN JERUSALEM: CHRISTIAN TRADITION
Is it possible to see Jerusalem in a day? I did.
Twenty eight years ago, following a trip to Israel, I published three articles. I was speaking on technology in Tel Aviv and had only 24 hours to visit Jerusalem. The city may have changed, but the historical sites haven’t. I’ve updated the articles for clarity and currency.
In all my travels across two million miles and fifty countries, no other city in the world is quite so moving, so awe-inspiring as Jerusalem… at least to a historian.
Jerusalem is the “Holy City,” sacred to the three major Abrahamic monotheistic world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
I had an opportunity to visit the holiest places of each of these in the city. I will begin with the Christian locations, as it was Passion Week (or “Holy Week”) for Christians.
- Jerusalem is the #1 pilgrimage for Christians the world over.
- Rome is the #2 pilgrimage destination.
- El Camino de Santiago is the #3 most popular pilgrimage for Christians.
The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem
The Mount of Olives is important to Christians for several reasons. On Palm Sunday, Christians remember the “Triumphal Entry” when Jesus crossed over this mountain from Bethphage and Bethany, just to the east of the city, and entered Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey accompanied by cries from the crowd of “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:28-40).
About halfway down the mountain, heading west through the Kidron Valley toward the city, Jesus stopped to weep over the city.
This location is now enshrined with a small Roman Catholic church shaped like a tear, with tear-holding vases at the corners. It is called Dominus Flevit, from the Latin “the Lord Wept.”
As I looked through the chapel window, I could see the beautiful Dome of the Rock, sitting upon the Temple Mount, across the valley to the west. In Jesus’ day, he would have seen the wall of the Temple proper.
Jesus did not weep that he would be crucified in five days, but he looked ahead almost 40 years to mourn that the Romans would destroy the Temple and the city in 70 AD (Luke 19:41-44). All that is left now of that view are the walls, and the Western Wall in particular, but I’ll cover that in my next article about the Jewish tradition.
Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem
Below the Dominus Flevit, at nearly the bottom of the valley, is the traditional site of the Garden of Gethsemane (olive press). This is next to a Roman Catholic church, the Church of All Nations, also called the Basilica of the Agony, built in the 1920s.
In the Garden are ancient olive trees, which though centuries or a millennium old and supported by stone trusses, are probably not the originals. But olive trees can live for two thousand years. Three of these trees have been carbon-dated to be a thousand years old. Jesus came here with his disciples to pray after the Last Supper and before his arrest (Mark 14:32-42).
An extensive Jewish cemetery is along the western slope of the Mount of Olives as I walked down to the floor of the Kidron Valley. Jews from around the world will have their remains sent here because of a Jewish tradition that claims that when the Messiah appears on the Mount of Olives just up the hill (Zechariah 14:3-4), the dead here will be resurrected.
It is worth noting that Christians believe that Jesus, the Christ (“the anointed one,” the Messiah) ascended into heaven from atop the Mount of Olives and will return in the same way. (Acts 1:9)
Looking up and to the west from the bottom of the valley to the (now Ottoman Turkish) walls of the city, one can see the sealed Golden Gate (or Mercy Gate) on the eastern wall. Some Jews believe the Messiah will return to the Temple Mount through this gate. Muslims closed this gate in 810 AD, but the Crusaders reopened it.
Ottoman Turk Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent rebuilt the walls but walled up this gate in 1541 AD. A Jewish resident told me that the Turks sealed this gate and placed a cemetery in front of it to block this path. I offer another perspective in my third article.
It was from the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed, that he was arrested on Thursday night (or Friday morning) of Passion Week and led through a high part of the Kidron Valley through the next gate farther north along the wall to a series of trials.
This was called St. Stephen’s Gate, where the first Christian was martyred (Acts, Chapter 7.) Its more modern name is Lion’s Gate. According to legend, Suleyman, in the 16th century, dreamed he must build a new wall around the city (the current Turkish walls) or else be devoured by lions.
Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem
Christians trace from this point the Via Dolorosa (The Way of Sorrows) that Jesus followed during his last hours, from his condemnation by Pilate to his crucifixion and burial. The “Stations of the Cross” are rehearsed by Christian pilgrims throughout the city, especially during Passion Week.
It is unlikely that all these specific locations were along the actual footsteps of Jesus, as these streets were not built until a few centuries ago and, in most places, due to soil accretion, are several dozen feet above where the city of 2,000 years ago would have been. Nevertheless, some of the locations are authentic.
Antonia Fortress, the First Station of the Cross
According to tradition, the first Station of the Cross is the Antonia, the Roman fortress (named for Herod the Great‘s patron Mark Antony) directly adjacent to the corner of the Temple where Roman soldiers would have been stationed for mobilization to keep the peace.
Here is located the Ecce Homo Basilica, a beautiful little church of the Sisters of Zion convent. The name represents the praetorium, where Pilate condemned Jesus with the Latin words “Ecce Homo,” Behold the man.
While the Antonia is authentic to Roman history, some historians believe that Pilate would have actually taken up residence across town at the somewhat more hospitable old Herodian Palace elsewhere in the city and not used to barracks, as his wife was with him during this visit to Jerusalem during Passover. My article on Pontius Pilate follows that logic.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Last Stations of the Cross
The end of the Via Dolorosa is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where many believe Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected. The crucifixion was at Calvary, also known as Golgotha, the “place of the skull.” Different Christian churches sponsor each of the Stations of the Cross there. One where Jesus was nailed to the cross, another sponsored by the Greek Orthodox Church where the cross stood.
Another station was sponsored by the Roman Catholic church, where Mary received the dead body of her son from the cross. And a fabulous Russian Orthodox chapel where Jesus’ tomb lies. The entrance is low, and one must bow to enter. There is a long line and many deeply reverent supplicants. I reflected that Jesus would have lain here for only about 40 hours.
Garden Tomb, Anglican site
Anglicans, however, believe that the tomb was elsewhere. The Garden Tomb is a competing location just north and outside the (Turkish) city walls. Anglicans reason that Jews don’t bury inside the city walls; hence he could not have been buried at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
To that point, during my visit to the Calvary Station of the Cross in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I asked a Greek Orthodox cleric about this, and he snorted that, of course, his location there was authentic. In Jesus’ time, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was outside the Jewish city walls. The Turkish walls were built centuries later, and besides, the remains of other crucified people had recently been found inside the precincts.
Realistically, the Garden Tomb “looks” right; the hill behind it is shaped like a skull. Ironically, I could not get in, it being Sunday. However, I found my way around the back way, upon the hill, which is now an Islamic cemetery. This stands behind the bus station where, seven days after my visit, a bus bomb killed ten and injured 20.
Continued in Part 2
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian