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xEurasia Odyssey

Walking through Jerusalem

ISRAEL | Wednesday, 11 January 2017 | Views [275]

Walking through Jerusalem.

The ancient walls tower above the main highways snaking around the city. I enter the city between the Christian and Armenian Quarters through the North Entrance Jaffa Gate Tower for my first experience of this most historical of cities. I purposely do not take out the tourist map so that I can just wander around and get a feel for the place.  Signs are conveniently posted, though, and guide the uninitiated to the top spots. I decide I was fated to follow the path to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as a first stop. Before getting to the main Church, however, there is a Russian one, the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky, right next door that pulls me in. Having come directly from Russia, this seemed an appropriate bridge from one orthodox culture to the next. The church itself is small, but below the main area is an excavated gate that is said to be the Judgment Gate through which Jesus passed on his way to Golgotha and elements of an Aphrodite temple erected by Hadrian after the destruction of the Herodian Second Temple in 70 CE. The combination of pagan, Jewish and orthodox Christian elements in this small church is a remarkable introduction to the myriad layers of sacred history in the sediments of this ancient town. Leaving the Russians behind, I head over to what can be legitimately called the leading church in all Christendom, as it is considered to be on sacred ground for most Christian denominations. The old Christian churches, Orthodox and Catholic, believe that Jesus died on the Cross on the hill where the second level of the Church now stands, and that he was laid to rest in a tomb under what is now the main rotunda.

 Upon entering the Church there is a narrow set of steps heading to the Chapel of Calvary, but immediately in front is the Stone of Unction, which is said to be the place where Jesus’ body was readied for burial.  The current ca. 2x.5 meter long red marble slab was put in place in the early 19th C. Pilgrims bend down to touch or kiss the stone beneath a row of eight white glass vase-shaped lanterns hanging lowly over the marble. While I was looking at the mosaic behind the Stone of Unction, which depicts Jesus being taken down from the Cross, laid on the stone, dressed and taken to the tomb, I heard chanting off to my right.  A procession of black clad young priests, with candles, prayer books and incense was being led to the area directly below the Calvary behind the Chapel of Adam, by a royal blue with gold trim clad bishop. The procession lasted a good five minutes and I was surprised at the ages of the priests; it didn’t appear that any were much over 30 and some were much younger. I tried to follow them into the hall where they went, but was promptly shoed away as I was clearly not Orthodox and clearly not a priest. This was my first introduction to the sectarianism that this Church is famous, or rather infamous, for.  As Jerusalem has different quarters for different ethnic and religious groups, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has separate sections for the various old Christian churches.  Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Egyptian Copts and Roman Catholics, all have their own sections for prayer. All, though, seem to agree that the Chapel of Calvary with its two sections are the places where the 11th -13th Stations of the Cross occurred, where Jesus was nailed to the cross, where he was crucified, and where Mary received his body as he was taken down from the cross. There is a hole in the rock below the altar by the 12th station that is said to be where the cross was placed. Pilgrims crawl into the small space to touch the gold rim on the hole. The last station in this chapel, where Mary received the body of her son, is next to the altar to the right. The 10th  station, namely where Jesus was stripped of his clothes, the Chapel of the Franks, is now closed off and only accessible from the outside of the church. From the terrace by these Chapels one looks out over the Stone of Unction to a tall red marble canopy with a bronze angel held basin with flame, where people kneel to pray in front of the light. To get to the Rotunda, with the Aedicule in the middle, one goes past the eternal flame. The Aedicule has been redone a number of times, as has the tomb itself. The Dome above the Aedicule has an oculus to let light shine on the structure protecting the tomb. Priests usher in the masses of pilgrims lining the sides of the Aedicule waiting to get into the small tomb one by one first into the Chapel of the Angel, which has a stone in the center that is said to be the rock on which the Angel sat while pronouncing Christ’s resurrection. Another priest then hurries the faithful out of the tomb to let newcomers in the small chapel into the tomb area.  There is little time for prayer, not even enough to say a quick Lord’s Prayer, before one is immediately shoed out again.  This is not at all a peaceful or meditative experience.  

 According to tradition, ceremonies to commemorate Christ’s resurrection were near the Rotunda area from shortly after the crucifixion; during one of the earlier Roman persecutions of Christians, Hadrian built a Temple to Aphrodite on the site, which Constantine then replaced with the first official church in 335. A special house for the tomb wasn’t constructed until 384 as the tomb needed to be released from the adjoining rock.

 Across from the Aedicule is the Katholikon, the old Crusader church, where the main masses are held with two bishops chairs on either side of the room and the Omphalos, the Navel of the World, marked by a large marble basin.  The Crusaders remodeled Constantine’s 4th C mostly destroyed church and much of what now exists is from their time. On the left side of the Katholikon is a passageway around the church that leads to the entrance down a set of stairs to the Chapel of Helena, named for Constantine’s Christian mother. Below her Chapel to the right is the spot where she is supposed to have found a fragment of the True Cross during the construction of the first church.

 I was fortunate to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre a number of times during my visit at various times of the day.  Most days the church was packed with people, and people of seemingly many faiths.  On one occasion, just after noon on a Tuesday, I was quite lucky as there weren’t hordes of people, and I could actually find a place to sit in peace and contemplate the events this site bore witness to.  During those few moments, there was a stillness and grace exuding from the stone walls. It wasn’t like the awe I feel on a quiet day in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, or the amazement at the beauty of St. Peter’s, but a more subtle sense of wonder.

 The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the apex of the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa.  The way is lined by shops and small museums, and on the corner of the Damascus Street, that goes directly to the Damascus Gate, and the Via Dolorosa is the Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family. The building was dedicated in 1863 and Emperor Franz Josef, whose many titles also included the ‘King of Jerusalem,’ stayed in the pilgrim’s house during his trip to the Holy Land. Today, dorm rooms are still available and the café serves real Viennese coffee and pastries. The view of the city from the top of the Hospice is perhaps the best in all Jerusalem. I found it singularly fitting to watch the Austrian flag, a country since WWII dedicated to peace and neutrality, flutter in the wind over this strife-ridden city.

 Leaving the view behind and walking up Damascus St. through the Gate of that name and further up Shekhem Rd. takes one to the Garden Tomb.  While the old Christian churches believe that Golgotha is located on the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, since the 19th C, Protestants and Evangelicals, i.e, some of the newer Christian churches, believe that the Garden Tomb is the place where Jesus’ body was laid to rest and Christ resurrection took place. This site is next to a small hill with caves, probably originally burial chambers, which form the shape of a skull; a translation of the word ‘Golgotha’. The garden is lush and beautifully maintained. The tomb is reminiscent of fairly typical Roman tombs found elsewhere in the Middle East, Greece and Southern Italy. There is no real way of knowing which tradition is correct. The Protestants are correct in that burials took place outside the city walls and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is inside them, the garden is an appropriate location for the tomb, and the hill does look like a skull. On the other hand, historical tradition, including oral history, establishes the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the site.  In the end, it really doesn’t matter, as it is the prayers, hopes, and wishes of a people that contribute to the sacredness of a site, but once again, the different locations for this central event in the faith is an indication of the divisions that spring from this ‘holy’ ground.

 While differing Christian denominations have their separate sites, there is agreement on the holiest site for those of the Jewish faith, the Western, also called Wailing, Wall, the last remnant of the Temple built by King Herod on Mt. Moriah. Prior to its destruction and for many centuries thereafter, Jews prayed in the direction of the Second Temple, with the same kind of respect Muslims pray towards Mecca, home of the Kaa’ba. Titus’s Roman troops destroyed the Temple and most of Jerusalem, including the area around where the ceremonies of the early Christians were taking place on Calvary, in 70 CE during the Great Revolt when the citizens refused to worship the Emperor and the city fathers refused to pay the required taxes. Thousands of Jews were sent to Rome as slaves to join in with thousands of others from across the empire to become the builders of the Colosseum. The Third Revolt, the Bar Kochba Revolt from 132-136, led to the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem and to their dispersal across the Middle East and Europe. Today, the ancient wall that lies directly below the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, is the symbol of the struggles of the Jews and hope for the future of the people. Men and women have separate sections on the Wall for prayer, much the way Orthodox churches and Muslim mosques do, but regardless of sex, the Wall is covered with small pieces of paper or cloth inscribed with prayers, wishes, requests and hopes in the belief that the sentiments will go directly to heaven from this special place.

To the left of the Wall is an entrance to the ancient tunnels. Tours through the tunnels are conducted just about every hour and are often led by American volunteers.  My guide was from Brooklyn, and I am not sure how much any of the other tourists who were not native speakers of American English understood from his very good, but incredibly fast New Yorkese, explanations. He was passionate about his heritage and the history related in the ancient walls, tunnels and arches, so even if the facts weren’t comprehendible, his emotion definitely came through.

 At the end of the Western Wall is a covered walkway leading up to the Temple Mount. Guards check bags at the entrance to the walkway, which is the only way tourists are allowed to visit the area with the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Muslims living in the Muslim quarter have their own access, but this is not open to foreigners. Non-Muslims are also not allowed in either of the two religious buildings on the Temple Mount, but are free to walk around them.  While there, I was approached by a 30ish year old man, who tried his best to convert me to Islam.  He was intent on saving my soul, but as I happen to have a different religious outlook, am afraid I disappointed him.

 One site that is revered by all three religions is on Mt. Zion, just on the outside of the city walls above the ruins of the City of David.  King David is a forefather of the religions of the Book and his tomb is on the ground floor of a building that has the site of the Last Supper on the second floor and a minaret arising from the top floor. Not too far from this structure is Dormition Abbey, an unusual 19th C German structure. Mary’s Tomb, however, is said to be not far from the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations, otherwise known as the Basilica of Christ’s Agony, near the foot of the Mt. of Olives.  Mary’s Tomb is also supposed to be just outside of Ephesus in Turkey.

 There are innumerable guided tours through Jerusalem and beyond that are offered through hotels, tourist agencies and the official information offices.  I chose to do one half day to the Mt. of Olives as well as day tours to the Sea of Galilee and to the West Bank including Bethlehem. The guides were helpful and knowledgeable and I’m glad I did the tours rather than simply visiting the sites by myself with just a couple of guidebooks.  It was good to be able to ask questions and receive educated responses as well as to get a different perspective on current events than I had gotten from others in Jerusalem. I was also glad that on both of the day tours, we stopped at Jericho and I was able to climb to the top of the hill alone after the others had gone into the shop for cold drinks and have the site to myself. Looking down and across the layers of ruined walls it was difficult not to think of the futility of building them as a means of keeping people and time out. Walls built to support, like the Wailing Wall, are different from walls that are meant to separate. Jericho’s multiple layered walls fell time and again; 21st C walls will do the same.

 The two day tours also took me to the two different Israeli-side-of-the-Jordan baptismal sites.  The original one, which is directly across the river from the Jordanian baptismal site, is in the middle of a military area and was officially off-limits, although there were a number of African pilgrims celebrating their immersion in the river while we were there. Guards with rifles were on both sides of the muddy brown water.  The main tourist baptismal site is now further south towards Jerusalem in clearer water and is a huge complex with multiple areas for immersion, a café, a series of changing rooms and stores galore.

 The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was undergoing renovations while I was there, so I couldn’t really get a good feel for it.  The grotto was also too crowded with other pilgrims for me to be able to give an adequate description.  What I did learn in Bethlehem, however, was how the Christian Palestinians are even more oppressed than the Muslim Palestinians. To the Israelis, they are Palestinians, and to the Muslims, they are Christians. Either way they are not considered to be equal and this plays out in their educational and economic opportunities – or lack thereof.  Any changes in policy will affect these Christians as well as their Muslim neighbors.

 My time in Israel was mostly in Jerusalem. It is a city of history and legend. The buildings, alleyways, walls, tunnels, arches all have stories to tell. Sometimes the stories are understandable, and sometimes not.  The Israel Museum and the Biblical Archeological Museum near the Knesset along with the Rockefeller Museum by the Old City walls, are all excellent and well worth visiting.  The Israel Museum should not be rushed; it has an extensive collection including a large Asian section, as well as a sculpture garden complete with a very large model of ancient Jerusalem. (& a couple of Rodin statues as well!) A full day is easily spent exploring its galleries.

 A few of the main religious sites in the city are not open to those of another faith. The jerusalem.com/tour site has 3-D tours of the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre along with many others.  The 3-D tours are a good introduction to the sites, although the technology cannot recreate the feeling, scent or sense of a sacred place, nor do the re-creations do justice to the beauty of the gardens or images in the churches. For those experiences, one needs to travel.

Tags: city visit, religious tradition


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