Today began in a sombre atmosphere as we visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s official museum to the Shoah (the Holocaust). As the second most visited tourist site in Israel it is a very important place for us to know well. I have visited the new museum here several times but this was my first time going through with a guide, the amount of material can be quite overwhelming and I felt that being taken through the museum with explanations of the key exhibits really added to my experience.
The site was set up in the 1950s but the present museum structure dates only from 2005. It tells the story of the Nazi persecution of the Jews which culminated in the famous ‘Final Solution’ – the mass genocide that killed 6 million. It was as always a moving experience; each time I find myself flabbergasted by the fact that human beings were capable of doing such things to each other. It is really impressive that so many of the visitors to Israel come here – it is not exactly a fun way to spend your holiday. But it is important to try to understand what happened – on each visit I learn something new – so that we can try to prevent similar events in the future.
After the museum, we visited some of the many memorials and monuments that are around the site. We began at the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations, a collection of trees and monuments dedicated to those non-Jews who endangered themselves to try and save the lives of Jews during the Shoah. Among them are Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands in Hungary, and Oscar Schindler, made famous by the Spielberg film.
Our guide explained how these individuals are researched and recognised – the committee in charge of doing so apparently recognises about 500 more people every year. Many have now passed away but their families are notified of the award.
We visited next the Valley of the Communities, an large space which recalls all the Jewish communities which fell under Nazi control during the war, many of which were wiped out. Organised in a rough geographical order, we wondered around marvelling at the amount and variety of these places, our guide told us some of the stories of the communities from before or during the war. For the first time I was able to locate the village from which my family came in Bavaria, Gunzenhausen. Fortunately, my grandmother and her family were all able to escape Germany before war broke out.
We also made sure to visit the Children’s Memorial, dedicated to the 1.5 million children who were murdered by the Nazis. These huge numbers are simply beyond our comprehension and the memorial tries to help the visitor come to terms with the size of this destruction while at the same time reminding us of the names of the individual children whose lives were brutally cut short.
Finishing at Yad Vashem, we ascended up the hill to the Mt Herzl cemetery. Here we paid our respects to some of the greats of Israeli history – the thinkers and activists Herzl and Jabotinsky; the prime ministers and presidents, military heroes such as Hannah Senesh; the defenders of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem in 1948; Yoni Netanyahu. Of particular interest was the relatively new memorial to the many Ethiopian Jews who died during the long walk to Sudan to be flown to Israel. Built in the style of an Ethiopian village, it is nice that these relatively recent arrivals to the country also have an important portion of the symbolic national cemetery.
We concluded our day with a visit to the Herzl museum. It quite cleverly tells the story of the pioneer of political Zionism through films and sets, trying to transport the visitor into the atmosphere of his life. The final part of the museum challenges the visitor to continue to try and shape Israel in Herzl’s vision – a country at peace within with its different communities and social groups making up the population; at peace without with its neighbours. Still very much a work in progress, but in Herzl’s words: “if you will it, it is no dream”!
An interesting trip today as we visited ‘institutions in Jerusalem’, based around the area of Givat Ram where you can find a variety of museums together with a large amount of government buildings and also a large campus for the Hebrew University.
We began our day at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Before entering we spent some time admiring the grand statue of a menorah outside it. The menorah (a seven-branched candelabrum) is an ancient Jewish motif, important because of its status in the temple. This statue was commissioned by the British government and gifted to Israel in 1956. It features a variety of motifs from Jewish history and our guide diligently explained its symbolism and history.
Our attention then turned to the Knesset building opposite us; in use since 1966. Interestingly, it is on the site of ancient Jewish catacombs from the period of the Second Temple. Entering, we took part in a guide tour, enjoying the art of the Chagall Hall (beautiful tapestries and mosaics) and learning about the history of the Knesset itself. As with many things in Israel, it is filled with symbolism and a connection to the past. It has 120 members, based on the number of people who sat in the Great Assembly, the Jewish governmental body which existed into the beginning of the period of the mishna.
Unfortunately Bibi had decided that he would not be able to meet us, so we walked through the beautiful Wohl Rose Garden to arrive at the Supreme Court. It is a relatively new building, opened only in 1992, housing five courts in which its 15 judges sit. The architecture of the building is filled with symbolism; a contrast of lines (representing law) with circles (representing justice). The building also hearkens back to ancient times; the entrance to each court is through a structure resembling the ancient Israelite city gates, as justice in the bible was carried out in the city gates, by the city elders. The courts themselves are designed as a basilica, the style of public building introduced by the Romans and later used in Byzantine churches and synagogues.
Our guide also explained the Israeli judicial system and how cases may end up in the Supreme Court. We visited a case in session although the discussion was based around a very technical legal point which I can’t claim to have understood! The court is free to enter and you can go without arranging it in advance and just wander around; it is well worth a visit.
Our final stop was at the Israel Museum, where we focussed on the wing dedicated to archaeology. This was our chance to review all that we had learned until now; together with our guide we whizzed through history in just over 2 hours: pre-history; the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods; the Bronze & Iron ages, the Hellenist and Roman periods. It was exhausting and thrilling; we saw in the flesh many exhibits that til now we had seen only in photographic or replica form. It was very rewarding to realise that I was able to identify many of the exhibits from afar, and also to now be able to fully appreciate them, having knowledge of their history and importance.
The Israel Museum’s collection is truly remarkable and in my opinion among the best in the world. However, it really is worth being guided through the exhibition; either by hiring a guide to take you around Jerusalem or going on one of the scheduled tours. This will help you appreciate quite how incredible the exhibits are.
We finished the day with a visit to the Herod exhibition (it closes in January, so check it out soon!). I had been before but having visited Herodion a couple of weeks previously it was much more rewarding.
Sadly we did not get to visit the rest of the museum but it is good to have reasons to return!
The final trip before our summer break was imaginatively titled “Jerusalem: Hashlamot”. I was trying hard to think of a good translation for this. Literally it means ‘Jerusalem: filling in the gaps’. But perhaps a better phrasing would be ‘Jerusalem: miscellaneous’. So, what was this all about? We’ve had many trips in Jerusalem that have been themed by historical period: First Temple, Second Temple, Roman/Byzantine, Islamic, Crusader. Also several Christianity themed trips. But the problem is that there is just so much to visit and see in this city, that not everything fits into the trips that belong with that theme. So, this was a day completely without theme, with various sites that we needed to see but had not yet managed to reach.
Our day began at the Church of St Etienne. The property of Dominican monks, it is on the site of a 5th century Byzantine church that is believed to have been the Church of St Stephen. According to tradition, here were brought the bones of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, although now they are long gone. The modern church is built more or less on the outlines of the Byzantine, with the objective of showing how a Byzantine church would have looked. It even contains original mosaic flooring. We were guided by the most amenable Pavel, a monk in the Dominican order, who carefully explained to us the history of the church and the architectural features.
Attached to the church is a very well respected school for bible and archaeology. Visitors are not normally allowed inside (researchers can request access to the library); we were treated to entry together with a glance at some of the more interesting books in the collection, including ones used by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda when he came here to work on creating the modern Hebrew language.
A short walk away was the Armenian Ceramics Workshop. Our guide told us how these master potters arrived in Israel. On taking control of the area in WWI the British were dismayed by the state of the Dome of the Rock which was in remarkable disrepair. They brought three families from Turkey to help refurbish the outer ceramics, and later to make the beautiful street signs around the Old City. In this workshop the tradition continues; it is possible to see the ceramics under production and marvel at their beauty. There is, of course, a shop for those who wish to purchase.
Also close by was St George’s Cathedral, the seat of the Anglican Bishop. It is a beautiful church with a lovely wooden roof (very unusual in Israel) and a grand organ. Our guide told us about the history of the Anglicans in Israel and at the end of our visit pointed out the British seal hanging on the wall. This was the seal of the Mandate government; it was relocated to this church in 1948 when the Mandate ceased to exist.
Back to the bus we went and a short drive took us to the City of David. We had been here before, but this time we were to go through ‘Hezekiah’s Tunnel’, an impressive feat of engineering. Inside this tunnel was discovered an inscription from the First Temple period explaining how workers dug the tunnel from each entrance, meeting in the middle by using a technique of sounding to find each other. Indeed, in the middle of the tunnel it zig zags extensively, perhaps as they tried to find each other.
The tunnel’s purpose was to divert water into the city via a hidden route, in case of a siege. It is possible to walk the 533m down the tunnel, but the water still flows; hence we left it for the summer. Wet feet and shorts are much more pleasant at the end of July than in February!
This was it for me. The rest of the group continued on to walk up a Roman period sewage tunnel to the 2nd Temple period excavations in the south and west of the Temple Mount. Because I missed a couple of trips, which I had to catch up with other groups who have slightly different content for their trips, I had fortuitously already visited these sites (see the blog here), so our course coordinator (who had been my guide for the previous trip) told me to go home early.
A nice way to finish the year! Although I am already looking forward to the resumption of our trips in September. For now – a bit of time to catch up on all my notes from class and begin preparations for the final exams…
We returned to the Old City of Jerusalem, this time to examine the impact of the Crusaders on the Holy City. They conquered Jerusalem in 1099 and held it until the force of Saladin’s military might forced its surrender in 1187. Added to the 15 years in the mid 13th century that it was also under Crusader control and these European knights had a good hundred years to make their impact on the city.
Much of the efforts of the rulers was to (re)build and restore sites of Christian importance, many of which had been either destroyed or had fallen into disrepair after over 500 years of Muslim rule. One of these was the Tomb of King David, and above it the Last Supper Room (the Cenacle) where we began our day. Although we had been here previously, on this visit our guide emphasised the impact of the Crusaders on the structure and pointed out various examples of Crusader architecture on the site.
We continued into the city walls and down to some excavations on the edge of the Jewish Quarter. I am constantly amazed, each time we enter the Old City, about things that I must have walked past hundreds of times over the years, and yet never noticed. We explored the ruins of the Ayyubid gate (this would have been built under Saladin’s rule) and then proceeded to the ruins of the Crusader Nea Church, built very close to the site of the original Byzantine version.
We continued into the Jewish Quarter, stopping at the St Mary’s Hospice of the German Knights. This used to be the base of the Order of Teutonic Knights in Jerusalem and it is possible to see remains of their chapel, hostel and living quarters.
Stopping for a rooftop viewpoint over the Temple Mount on the way, we wandered through the narrow streets which used to form the city market in the Crusader period. Our guide explained how they would conduct their trade, what sorts of goods were on sale in which streets, and also how they would have accessed their Templum Domini on the Temple Mount (they converted the Dome of the Rock into a church). An important source for this period is the ‘Citez de Jherusalem’, effectively a Medieval guide book for the Christian pilgrim to Crusader Jerusalem. It was quite remarkable to think that around 800 years after it was written, we were still able to use it as our guide through what has become the Arab souk.
As part of this trip through the markets, we took a particularly entertaining diversion. We entered into a large fabrics store under which they have discovered some Crusader remains – they are now visible through the transparent floor. Of more interest, however, was the owner, Bilal Abu Khalaf. His family have been in the fabrics business in Jerusalem for generations and he donned traditional garb to tell us all about the history of his trade. Interestingly, he produces fabrics for Muslims, Christians (up to the Patriarch of Jerusalem) and ultra-Orthodox Jews. He had some really beautiful fabrics in his store, including some woven with 18 carat gold thread. Not much to do with the Crusaders but fascinating nonetheless!
After a most pleasant luncheon of hummus (I have now decided where to take my tourists!) we visited the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. The church is relatively recent but is built on the land which used to be home to the convent Saint Maria Latina and the Hospital of St John (site of the establishment of the Hospitaler Knights of St John) in the Crusader period. We explored the remains of the Crusader cloisters next to the church and also enjoyed the little museum containing some artefacts from excavations on the site.
We continued to the Coptic Church of St Helen. The church is built above a quarry, which was turned into a cistern in the 4th century. The cistern is holy, as it is believed that St Helen herself created it to meet the needs of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, next door. As we descended the slippery steps down into the cistern (which still contains water), we were amazed by its size. The light down there does not facilitate great photography, but in the picture above you can possibly make out a little apse to the left and a flat space ahead which is used as an altar; the priest paddles around to it in a little boat.
The acoustics in the church are fantastic; we were treated to some singing by the class vocalist laureate (he has a beautiful voice) and then together sang a poem by Hannah Senesh – A Walk to Caesarea, better known as Eli Eli. It was really rather moving.
Our final stop of the day was at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We had been there before but used this visit to focus specifically on the Crusader elements of the church (the church today is largely from the Crusader period), and also to enter the main basilica, which had been closed on our previous visit for a mass, and to see the point marking whence the world was created, according to the Christian tradition.
Again, even though this is the third time we have visited, there is always something to add. For example, I had no idea that just in front of the church entrance, under some wooden planks, is the tomb of the English knight Philip d’Aubigny, a signatory on the Magna Carta. He had probably wanted to be buried inside the church, like the first two Crusader kings. In retrospect, he was fortunate; the tombs inside the church were raided soon after the Crusaders left, and then destroyed in the 19th century renovations.
Another day of surprises in Jerusalem. Next week, we are heading north to explore Haifa.
After a brief hiatus we returned to the topic of Christianity; this was the final of five field trips exclusively themed around Christian sites (although we are sure to visit more as the course continues) with a specific emphasis on how to guide these places for pilgrim visitors. As avid readers of this blog will no doubt recall, we spent two days in the north of the country in the area around Nazareth and then around the Sea of Galilee; then followed two trips in Jerusalem, the first around the Mount of Olives and Mount Zion, the second along the Via Dolorosa. This final trip included various sites of Christian interest in the surroundings of Jerusalem, namely Abu Ghosh, Ein Kerem and Beit Jamal.
We began our day at the Benedictine Monastery in Abu Ghosh. At first we met with a rather fantastic monk, called Olivier. He is French but speaks fluent Hebrew and gave us a brilliantly entertaining and informative talk about life as a monk and the Benedictine tradition. He peppered his speech with Hebrew slang and many jokes. It seems he is quite a character; also a huge promoter of coexistence and is proud of his monastery in the midst of an Arab village, next to a mosque, where everyone gets on. He also has close relations with Jews in the area and proudly sang to us the opening verse of the Jewish hymn Adon Olam inside the church!
Speaking of the church, it is one of three examples of a complete Crusader church in Israel – the others were all destroyed at various points. Again, avid readers might recall that the other examples of this are St. Anne’s Church in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque of Ramla. It was fascinating to be inside and also note the original frescos which have recently been made visible via careful restoration. The crusaders believed this site marked Emmaus, where Jesus appeared following his resurrection.
We left Abu Ghosh and travelled to the picturesque town of Ein Kerem in the suburbs of Jerusalem. This site is believed to have been the home of St Zachary and St Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist. It is therefore important for two reasons: John the Baptist is an important figure so his birthplace is significant; furthermore Mary visited Elizabeth during her pregnancy. This event is marked at the Church of the Visitation which is reached via a relatively steep climb up the hill. As this is high up the hill it is considered the summer house of Zachary, and therefore based on the timings of the visit, it is considered that they would have met here.
We returned down the hill, pausing briefly at Mary’s Spring, where she would have stopped to drink on the way to visit Elizabeth. We also learned a little here about the history of the town which until relatively recently was a very small village far from the Jerusalem city limits. They have also found remains of homes going back to the Second Temple period, which is helpful for supporting the belief that John was born here.
In the middle of the town is the Church of St John the Baptist, considered to be his birthplace and the regular home of the family. In the crypt is a cave which is considered to have been their home, and the church itself is decorated with beautiful Spanish tiles; its refurbishment (it was originally constructed in the Crusader period) was funded by the Spanish royal family.
Leaving the quaint confines of Ein Kerem, we stopped off in the nearby moshav of Even Sapir. He is the Church of St John in the Desert, marking the location described in Luke 1:80: “And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.” The Hebrew word midbar is often translated as ‘desert’ but really means ‘wilderness’; therefore despite the green airy location of the site it can still make sense; and clearly in ancient times it was relatively deserted although still not too far off from the birth place of John in Ein Kerem.
In the recently refurbished church there are beautiful murals; interestingly some of them contain Hebrew words and phrases as an example of Christians connecting with the original language of the Holy Scriptures.
We returned to Abu Ghosh, where following an excellent hummus lunch (Abu Ghosh is well known for its hummus), we moved up the hill to visit the Church of Our Lady the Ark of the Covenant in Kirat Yearim (Kirath Jearim). This site is identified with the biblical settlement of the same name, which is of great importance as it was a resting place for the Ark of the Covenant for either 20 or 50 years, depending on the reading of the scripture. The church is modest but beautiful and it is possible to enjoy the original 5th century mosaics from the Byzantine structure on the same site, as well as the view over the surround hills.
From Kiriat Yearim we continued southwest to Beit Jamal. Here, on the grounds of a Salesian Monastery, we first visited a convent of the Sisters of Bethlehem. The nuns here live in relative isolation in their own individual rooms during the day and even have individually partitioned areas in the church for them to pray. We learned about their lifestyle and enjoyed the view into the church.
From there we walked over to the monastery of the Salesian monks and entered into the Church of St Stephen. The site is identified with Kfar Gamla, which was considered to be the home of the great Torah sage Rabban Gamaliel the Elder. He is identified as the Gamaliel who speaks on behalf of St Stephen during his judgement as detailed in the Book of Acts. Tradition then holds that following Stephens martyrdom (Stephen was the first Christian martyr) he took him to be buried in his home.
This site, home to remains of a 5th century church, is considered to be that burial site, although it is known that the bones of St Stephen were later found and removed, first to Jerusalem and later to Rome. The modern church is quite beautiful and has an interesting fresco style which is designed to appear as if it is a mosaic.
We exited the church and enjoyed the last rays of light over the Judean Lowlands before heading home. I have really enjoyed these Christianity themed trips; the background to all the sites is fascinating and the churches are beautiful. I look forward to one day guiding them myself!
We have been studying Islam in class of late and so it was time to spend some time in Jerusalem exploring some of the holy sites and the history of Muslim rule over the city.
We began our day in the area commonly known as the Temple Mount, referred to by Muslims as al-Haram ash-Sharif. This plateau is considered to be the place referred to in the Qur’an as al-Aqsa, or the farthest mosque. In this famous passage Mohammed travels from Mecca to this far away place in an episode known as the Night Journey. He then tethers his horse and ascends to heaven.
Although the Qur’an does not specifically mention Jerusalem in this episode, early commentaries already identify al-Aqsa as being synonymous with the city, and for this reason it is the 3rd holiest city in Islam after Mecca & Medina. The two large mosques on the site are the grey-domed al-Aqsa, marking the site where Mohammed arrived with his horse, and the famously striking Dome of the Rock (Masjid Qubbat As-Sakhrah), with its stunning gold dome, which marks the site where Mohammed ascended to heaven.
Unfortunately it is no longer possible for non-Muslims to enter the mosques, but I recall visiting the Dome of the Rock as a child on a family trip and remember seeing inside it the rock from which it takes its name. There is an indentation on the rock identified as being Mohammed’s footprint; the rock is also considered to be the site of the story of the binding of Isaac.
Access to the area which I will for convenience’s sake refer to as the Temple Mount is complicated. There is one entrance for non-Muslims – the Mugrabi Gate which is just to the right of the Western Wall. There you are checked thoroughly for weapons or any Christian or Jewish prayer books/bibles – the area is very sensitive and non-Muslim prayer is forbidden. The Israeli authorities who control access to the site are very concerned to avoid any potential provocation, hence the strong controls over who can access the site; where, when and with what.
Once through the security it is possible to enjoy the impressive expanse of the Herodian podium and the two remarkable mosques based upon it. The original mosques were built in the 7th century when the original Church of the Holy Sepulchre was still standing. Our guide illustrated to us that in fact the structure was almost an exact copy of the Church – a rotunda (marking the site of the miracle); a basilica for members of the public to pray and also a garden in between.
Although our focus was on the Muslim sites we took advantage of our visit to also look out for and learn about areas of the Jewish Temple and the Crusader church known as the Templum Domini. We also saw where the Templar knights were housed in this period.
We continued around the site as our guide pointed out examples of 14th century Mamluk architecture and also the mausoleum for leaders of the Palestinian liberation movement.
We exited the plateau and began a tour of the Muslim Quarter. As this was largely constructed by the Mamluks, we focused on further understanding their architecture and also noting the various madrasas (schools) that they constructed. Through the use of maps from different periods our guide explained to us how the streets of Jerusalem changed over the centuries and by whom the alterations were made.
After enjoying a good bowl of hummus in the famous Abu Shukri restaurant we made a short stop at Jewish site, although one located in the Muslim quarter. Known as the Little Western Wall, this is a continuation of the Western Wall, north of what is currently exposed in the plaza. The plaza is a relatively new phenomenon, and what is nice about his section is that it is at the height and width of the wall until the Israelis created the plaza in 1967 when they captured the old city of Jerusalem. It is possible to relive the experience of being at the wall in the centuries before the state, and interestingly it is not separated between men and women unlike in the main plaza. I had no idea it existed so it was a very interesting discovery; some Jews even say it is holier than the Western Wall which most people visit as it is closer to where the Holy of Holies would have been situated.
We continued wandering the streets of the Muslim Quarter, witnessing more examples of Mamluk architecture such as the alternating light and dark style of the ablaq masonry, before the day drew to a close.
Time for another catch-up trip this time with the group from the university of Haifa. It was an important day as we explored the remains of the 2nd temple period in and around the Old City of Jerusalem.
The 2nd temple period was saw the peak of the monumental buildings in the land of Israel and the greatest of these was the Jewish temple and the temple mount which was the most impressive building in the Roman empire at that time. The historian Josephus gives us an account of the history of the Jews in this period which most historians consider reliable (except for when he exaggerates on numbers) so in many cases we were citing him on this field trip.
We began the day in the City of David, where we had previously been on the 1st Temple period trip, but this time were filling in a few gaps for the later period. We descended to the Shiloah pool (also known as the Pool of Siloam) which was used for drinking and also for ritual purification at the time. It was also site of a miracle where Jesus cured a blind man in the New Testament. We then went to sit on an original Herodian stepped street where we listened to an audio presentation about Jewish resistance fighters in the Great Revolt fighting against the Romans (and ultimately losing).
We then ascended up the route of the Tyropoeon valley through a drainage channel which the Romans had dug underneath this paved road. As we walked through the passage, passing through an ancient cistern and mikve, we learned about some of the archaeological findings in it including a Roman sword preserved in its sheath, which is very unusual.
We exited the tunnels at the excavations by the south point of the Western Wall and went to the nearby Davidson Centre. The centre is a nice museum explaining a bit about the history of the construction of the temple and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. We participated in a ‘virtual tour’ where they use a 3D computer model to take you around a reconstruction of the 2nd temple highlighting modern day archaeological finds and explaining the experience of a pilgrim. It was very interesting indeed but sadly is only available for groups on the whole, and not individual visitors.
We moved up to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. We first visited a column found in excavations from the Nea Church with a capital that based on its unusual features and dating may well have formed part of the Second Temple structure.
We continued to the Burnt House museum, the site of a home from the Second Temple period. Of great interest is the fact that are signs of burning/destructing dating to the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. Furthermore they have found vessels that would be appropriate for Cohanim (priestly families) and an inscription referring to the House of Katros; we know from ancient Jewish sources that Katros was indeed one of the priestly families. The site is accompanied by a video where actors attempt to reconstruct the lead up to the temple’s destruction portrayed through the lives of those in the house.
We then moved to the Wohl Museum of Archaeology, also known as the Herodian Quarter. This is another excavation site which has unearthed a great deal of remarkable finds; one of the oldest mosaics in Israel; a huge private home with very impressive wall frescos; a great deal of private mikvaot (ritual baths) indicating that in addition to clearly being an area for the wealthy families of Jerusalem, this may have been an area of priestly families. Of particular interest is a wall design showing a menorah. Given that it may have been commissioned by a priestly family who would have seen the menorah in the temple on a daily basis, it could well be the most accurate representation we have of the menorah; it notably differs in its base from the design on Titus’s Arch in Rome.
The museum is really well done and definitely worth a visit; it’s easy to pass by but really gives a great insight into life in the second temple period for the Jerusalem elites.
To conclude the day we returned to the excavations by the outer walls of the temple mount to be able to enjoy them when it was slightly cooler and more shaded. We began by the western wall, walking along the original Herodian street and imagining the shops either side which would have sold animals for the temple sacrifice or other things to meet the needs of pilgrims. Looking at their ruins around us I imagined the thousands of people ascending to the temple mount on the foot festivals; tried to picture the chaos among the throngs, the noise of the animals, the shouting of the traders. We could also see the mikvaot where pilgrims would have purified themselves before ascending to the temple; the steps were divided so that the impure would descend on one side, the pure on the other, to avoid post-immersion contamination.
We noted where the Romans had destroyed the temple and sent huge stones crashing onto the paving slaps below, leaving indentations that were still visible today. You could also see the signs of the fire on the blackened rocks.
We moved around to the southern part of the wall. We walked up the 15 steps, each of which was probably representative of one of the 15 Psalms of Ascent; a theory exists that they would have recited the psalms as they ascended. We imagined where the gates would have been (all is now blocked up) as this was probably the main entrance to the temple mount. It really is remarkable to see how much is left of this 2000 year old structure, to think about how much it is played a role in the prayers and thoughts of the Jewish people since, and to consider the fact that today it is so accessible. It is a great privilege.
Today was dedicated to the final moments in Jesus’ life as he walked along the Via Dolorosa. But before walking the famous pilgrim route we began our day at the Garden Tomb just outside the Old City walls.
The Garden Tomb was identified as a possible crucifixion and burial site for Jesus in the 19th century. There is a rocky cliff face nearby which has the appearance of a skull, which may help explain the name of the crucifixion site in the New Testament: Golgotha, which is Aramaic for ‘skull’. Further evidence supported the theory – the Gospel of St John refers to the event taking place next to a garden; it seems this site was a garden in the time of Jesus. Furthermore excavations discovered an ancient Jewish burial cave nearby.
Today the site is a beautiful and peaceful garden in stark contrast to the crowds and chaos in the Old City. Run by an independent British NGO, the site is particularly popular with Protestant pilgrims to Israel who are inspired by the setting. It is also possible to visit the ancient tomb and hold a mass if so desired.
We left the Garden Tomb heading by foot into the Old City. One more stop awaited us before the Via Dolorosa began; the Church of St Anne. This site, gifted to the French for their support of the Ottomans in the Crimean War, and run by the White Fathers, is believed to be the birth place of the Virgin Mary. There is large and very impressive Crusader church on the site which survived the conquests of Jerusalem unmolested over the years because Saladin decided to use it as a madrasa. In the crypt is the site believed to be where Mary was born.
Next to the church are archaeological excavations of an area that used to be a pool dating back to the 1st temple period. Later water was channelled from here via a Hasmonean aqueduct to the Temple Mount. For Christians, the area is important as it has been identified as Bethesda, the location of one of Jesus’ healing miracles. There are remains of an ancient Byzantine and a later Crusader church on the site.
Finally, it was time to begin our walk up the Via Dolorosa, or ‘Way of Grief’. This route contains 14 stations marking various events during the final moments between Jesus’ sentencing and his burial, culminating at his tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The paving stones are well worn from centuries of pilgrimages from around the world by those keen to follow in Jesus’ final footsteps.
The first stations are opposite each other. The first is the site of the Antonia fortress, believed to be the location where Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion. Above it is the famous ecce homo arch on which Pilate is said to have stood to pronounce the final judgement. The site is now a school and so is not open to visitors.
Across the street is the Franciscan Convent of the Flagellation, containing the Chapel of the Flagellation, where Jesus was flogged by the Roman guards, and then the Church of the Condemnation where he was placed in kingly clothes (together with the crown of thorns) and given his cross to bear.
We continued down the street just a couple of hundred metres where, overcome with fatigue from a lack of sleep and the flogging, Jesus fell; this event is marked by a small chapel. Next to it is an station 4, the Armenian Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Spasm, which marks the site where Jesus met his mother en route to his death and she was overcome with grief.
We continued to station 5, a small Franciscan chapel dedicated to Simon the Cyrene who according to Luke 23:26 assisted Jesus with the burden of his cross for part of the way. The chapel was established in 1229 and was the first Franciscan site in Jerusalem.
Further up the hill is station 6, the Greek Catholic chapel of “The Holy Face”. It is considered to be located at the site of the home of St Veronica, who wiped Jesus’ face with a silk veil. The chapel inside is not normally open but it is possible to get a sneak peek through the door.
We ascended further up the steep incline to the depths of the souk in the Old City, where we found station 7. In Roman times this would have been an intersection with one of the main city streets, the Cardus Maximus. After a strenuous ascent, this station marks Jesus’ second fall with a small Franciscan chapel.
Station 8 is slightly further up the hill, and there is no chapel or church marking it. Rather, there is a plaque on the wall of a Greek Orthodox monastery marking the site where Jesus spoke to the ‘daughters of Jerusalem’ as referenced in Luke 23. Geographically it is very close to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which in Byzantine times actually came down to the Cardo street, but the later addition of the monastery prevents thoroughfare and the later church was significantly smaller.
We returned to the former Cardo and walked up some stairs to arrive at station 9, marking Jesus’ third fall. For pilgrims who make their way along the Via Dolorosa carrying a wooden cross, this is the site where you leave it, and there were a couple of these resting on the wall.
We continued on, passing through areas administered by the Coptic and then Ethiopian churches, arriving in the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Our guide explained to us some of the history of the site, and also the challenges of maintaining a site with shared ownership – different areas inside the church are owned by a total of 6 different Christian groups who all have to coexist. In order to assist with this, the keys to the church are actually kept by a local Moslem family who have been in charge of them for centuries; every night they lock the church and every morning they open it up again.
From the outside of the church we were able to see station 10, the Chapel of the Franks. It was not possible to enter this small chapel, adjoined to the large church, which marks the site where the Roman soldiers divided up Jesus’ clothing before he was to be nailed to the cross.
We entered the church and went up to the raised area considered to be the site of Golgotha. Station 11 is the Franciscan Chapel of the Crucifixion marking where Jesus was nailed to the cross, just next to it is station 12, the Chapel of the Calvary, administered by the Greek Orthodox, marking the site where the cross stood. Part of the bed rock is visible through a glass case and there is a small silver disc under the altar marking the exact spot where the cross is believed to have been mounted.
We descended to station 13, right opposite the entrance to the church, which is considered to be where Jesus was laid having been taken down from the cross and prepared for burial, and is known as the Stone of the Anointing. Interestingly, together with the burial cave itself, this station has joint ownership between the Roman Catholic, the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian churches. Many pilgrims kneel to kiss the stone.
On the way to station 14 we passed through other interesting parts of the church which are unconnected to the traditional Via Dolorosa. Underneath the Golgotha area is the small Chapel of Adam, said to be the burial place of Adam (the first man). It is said that when Jesus was crucified there was an earthquake, cracking the rock so that his blood dripped down onto Adam’s remains and thereby redeem him.
We then descended to an area which used to be a quarry in the first temple period, and the Chapel of the Finding of the Cross. Here it is said that Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, who built the original church at this site, discovered three crosses. In order to ascertain which belong to Jesus, a sick woman was asked to touch each one in turn. When she touched the one on which Jesus was crucified, she was healed.
We continued around the apse of the church passing through a Catholic colonnade area, where we were lucky enough to witness a mass conducted by the deputy Patriarch of Jerusalem. Surrounded by chanting monks, dressed in habits, it was remarkably atmospheric.
We finally arrived at station 14, the aedicule marking the site of Jesus’ entombment and later resurrection. Unfortunately it was closed, so not possible to enter, but our guide told us about the ceremony of Holy Fire held each year on Orthodox Holy Saturday; the event is considered a miracle where fire descends from heaven and spreads throughout the church. It sounds pretty amazing and I wonder if one year I might be able to see it myself.
Next week: a change of course as we visit Ramle and Lod.
Following two trips in the footsteps of the New Testament in the Galilee, it was now time to turn to the major Christian sites of Jerusalem, the majority of which are dedicated to events surrounding the final days of Jesus’ life and shortly after.
Our day began on the Mount of Olives, a mountain ridge east of Jerusalem’s Old City, so called because of the olive groves that used to cover its slopes. It commands wonderful views over the Old City and Temple Mount.
At the peak of the Mount of Olives is the Chapel of the Ascension, the site from which it is believed Jesus ascended to heaven 40 days after his resurrection. Inside is a rock which many believe has an imprint of his foot left as he went up. As with many of the important Christian sites in Israel, it is built on remains of ancient chapels on the site dating to the Crusader period (1099 – 1291) and the Byzantine period (324 – 638).
Unusually however, a lot of the Crusader chapel remains in place. Under Mamluk rule some churches were destroyed, but as Jesus is also important in Islam some sites were preserved, but converted into mosques. This chapel is actually part of a mosque today and you can see the minaret standing next to it; there is also a mihrab inside (an alcove in the wall in the direction of Mecca). In fact, although Christian visitors are allowed to pray here, they cannot hold a mass except on Ascension Day, when the courtyard around the chapel becomes filled with different Christian groups taking part in the ceremony.
We continued a short walk down the hill to the Church of the Pater Noster. The earliest church on this site was actually called Church Eleona (Church of the Olives – named after the mountain) and was one of the four monumental churches constructed by Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, in the Holy Land. The church is built above a cave considered to be the site where Jesus would teach his disciples. Inside the cave are buried many important figures including Bishops of Jerusalem.
In the Crusader period the church was reconstructed and renamed Pater Noster (Latin for ‘Our Father’) as the tradition developed that this was the site where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer (which begins with the words ‘Our Father’). On hearing this I was whisked back to my primary school memories; for four years I would hear the Lord’s Prayer every morning in school assembly.
The area was later bought by a French noblewoman in order to construct a Carmelite convent in the 19th century; in the 1920s the French government excavated the old church and began to build a modern church on the site, but with the onset of war it was never completed. Some of the modern church is on the site however, including an altar (located above the cave), and masses can be held there.
Our next stop was about half way down the mountain slope at the Church of Dominus Flevit. This is owned by the Franciscans and as with many of their churches in Israel was designed by Antonio Barluzzi. The name of the church means “The Lord Wept” and it marks the site where on Palm Sunday Jesus prophesised the destruction of Jerusalem and wept. Barluzzi always tries to incorporate the story into his architecture and the roof of the church gives the impression of a tear drop. Inside the altar is situated in the west of the church; this is very unusual (altars are almost always in the east) but it means that visitors can look out through the window beyond the altar over the Old City of Jerusalem, imagine Jesus’ view and see the fulfilment of his prophecy.
The church is constructed over old Byzantine ruins but also of interest on the site is the huge Jewish necropolis from the Second Temple period – over 150 tombs making it the largest such site in the Jerusalem area. Many beautiful ossuaries were discovered within which are now in the Franciscan museum.
We proceeded to the bottom of the Mount of Olives and entered the Church of Gethsemane. The name of this area comes from the Hebrew Gat Shemanim meaning ‘oil presses’ – this would have been an area for the manufacture of olive oil from the surrounding groves. The church actually has in its courtyard the oldest olive trees in Israel although I’m not sure they are still bearing fruit!
The church here marks the site where Jesus came to pray after the Last Supper, accompanied by his closest disciples. Inside, next to the altar, is a large part of bedrock where it is believed he lay while praying. The church is also designed by Barluzzi and the interior has a dark, gloomy feel in keeping with the sadness of this night time scene.
A short walk away is the Gethsemane Grotto, considered to be the site where Jesus came with all his disciples that evening before moving slightly further away with his three closest companions; later he returned here and was arrested. Next to this cave is the Church of Mary’s Tomb, a site jointly owned by the Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches which contains a cave considered the site of the Virgin Mary’s tomb. The building is largely the original Byzantine structure with some steps later added by the crusaders. On the way down the stairs you pass sites traditionally identified with the tombs of St Joachim and St Anna (Mary’s parents) and also St Joseph.
Having been on foot for most of the day we now returned to our bus for a short drive over to Mount Zion, beginning at the Dormition Abbey. We talked here about the name Zion, it’s historical association with different areas in Jerusalem and eventually its use to refer to the whole of Israel (hence the term Zionist).
Today’s church is not on the same outline as the ancient church and is largely dedicated to the assumption of Mary’s soul to heaven. According to tradition, she did not die but rather fell into an eternal sleep at which point Jesus took up her soul; the meaning of the name of the church is ‘Church of the Sleep’. In the crypt is a statue of Mary at the site where it is believed this took place. She would have then been taken down to Gethsemane for burial, hence the site of the previous church.
We moved on to the site of the Last Supper room (also known as the Cenacle or Cenaculum – Latin for dining room), marking the venue of the Last Supper and also later the Pentecost. As with many sites in Jerusalem, this has a complicated history. It existed in Byzantine times as part of the Hagia Sion church, and then later the Crusaders made it a separate building, combined with King David’s tomb. In 1333 the land was purchased by the Franciscans and it was their base in Israel – they have been here ever since but were exiled from the site by the Muslim rulers who made it a holy site for them (the mihrab is still inside the Last Supper room) because of the site of King David’s tomb.
As if this was not already complicated enough, the site is important also for the Jews as a result of the location of King David’s tomb, and became even more significant when after the War of Independence in 1948 this was the closest Jews could get to the Old City. Today, the site is controlled by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The tomb operates as a synagogue and the Last Supper room is largely empty; mass is not allowed at the site except on Pentecost and also on visits by the Pope.
Our final stop was slightly down the hill out the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu, which commands impressive views eastwards of Jerusalem. This is considered the site of the home of the High Priest Caiaphas, to where Jesus was taken from Gethsemane after being betrayed by Judas, for interrogation by the Jewish leadership. Excavations at the site have revealed evidence of wealthy Jewish homes from the Second Temple period.
Gallicantu is Latin for ‘crow of the cockerel’ and refers to Jesus’ prophecy at the Last Supper that Peter would deny him three times before the cock crows. This is the site where this denial would have taken place. The church is very beautiful and based on three levels; each one becomes darker with a more sombre atmosphere. In the crypt is the dungeon believed to be where Jesus was interrogated and also the pit where he would have stayed the night.
Outside the church are excavations showing steps down the hill which have been dated to the Roman period of rule. The steps lead down to Gethsemane from the direction of the Last Supper room; it is therefore reasonable to consider that Jesus would have himself passed along these steps twice; once from the Last Supper down to Gethsemane to pray, as a free man; once in chains being taken from Gethsemane to the home of Caiaphas.
We concluded a long and intense day (this has been a long blog!) but it really was fascinating to visit these sites and marvel at the thought put into the construction of the churches and their beauty. Next week, we travel the Via Dolorosa.
We have a whole day dedicated to Jerusalem in the First Temple period, and a whole day dedicated to Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period, but it’s still not enough time to cover the vast amount of material, so this week’s trip was about filling in some of the gaps.
We began in Binyanei Hauma, also known as Jerusalem International Conventions Center. This venue more normally hosts concerts and conferences than tour groups; I was somewhat surprised then when we entered and stopped in front of a display case showing artefacts from the Roman period, which I had never noticed previously. It turns out there was a big camp here for the 10th Legion of the Roman Army, we then headed downstairs and saw the remains of a kiln; it seems that it was quite a big centre for the manufacture of clay pots, roof tiles, bricks etc, all with the 10th Legion’s imprint. There was even an imprint of a sandal in one of the cases, a reminder of a sloppy soldier around 2000 years ago. I will be back in the Convention Center next month for the President’s Conference and will look forward to sharing my knowledge with the other delegates!
We continued to David’s Tomb on Mount Zion. Here we discussed the history of the site and why it is considered to be the location of the tomb of King David (and also why some argue it is elsewhere). The site also houses the room which is considered to be the location of the Last Supper, but we shall return to visit that on our trip to Christian Jerusalem later in the course.
We moved on by foot into the Old City to the Western Wall Tunnels. The famous image of the Western Wall that is exposed above ground is actually only a small section of the wall’s full length and height. Through the tunnels it is possible to walk much further along the wall, to get a greater idea of the grandeur of the building that was – the Western Wall of today is only an outer foundation wall for the podium on which the temple was built.
It was an incredible feat of engineering exemplified by the quite frankly massive stones that were involved in its construction. The largest that has been found is 14m long and the experts at the Technion have calculated its weight at 570 tonnes. And it is about half way up the wall, so they would have had to have lifted it there. There was a short and very illuminating film illustrating how they would have put these stones into place.
We continued down the tunnels, past the closest point to the Holy of Holies, walking along an original 2nd Temple period street and into a Hasmonean period water channel, before exiting into the Muslim Quarter. We returned to the Western Wall, known as the Kotel, where our guide told us about some of the legends associated with it explaining why it was not entirely destroyed like the rest of the temple.
Afterwards, a small treat. Facing the Kotel are some archaeological excavations which are complete and ready for the public but for some reason not yet open to them. But somehow our guide had obtained a key and we went down to see what was the Eastern Cardo (a shopping street) in the 2nd Temple period and also the remains of a First Temple home. It was nice to get this advance preview (although the excavations are visible from above, you can see more up close).
We then exited the Old City and walked down into Nachal Kidron, also known as the King’s Valley. Here are three ancient and imposing mausolea, two of which are often attributed to Avshalom (King David’s son) and Zechariah respectively, but in fact they are from the Second Temple period, i.e. a very long time after these personages would have lived. The architecture is interesting due to the unusual mishmash of Doric and Ionic columns together in the same structure; you can tell we’ve been learning about classical architecture in class!
Our next stop was at the Menachem Begin Center, located on Ketef Hinnom. I was wondering what Menachem Begin had to do with the ancient temples as we breezed through the centre, exiting out of the back, going up some stairs, and being confronted with a First Temple period burial site. As with the morning, it was fascinating to find this juxtaposition of ancient and modern at a venue which I had visited several times previously for various events, completely unaware of what lay just a few meters away.
It was interesting to look at the excavated tombs and learn about the burial methods; even more fascinating was to learn that in one of the tombs excavators had unearthed some tiny rolls of silver. Written on them was the priestly blessing of the Cohanim, the oldest existing example of biblical text found outside the bible. The scrolls are now in the Israel Museum.
We exited the Begin Center and walked down the nearby valley, referred to as Gei Ben Hinnom. Here we heard about the Judaean King Achaz’s worship of the god Moloch; part of the ritual involved sacrifice of first born baby sons and would have happened in this valley. Somewhat unsavoury stuff.
We then branched off a bit from the ancient period, looking at the cable going from across our heads over to Mount Zion opposite us. In the 1948 war this was a secret way of getting supplies over to troops isolated in the mountain – a replica cable car was above our heads. As we wondered down further into the valley more surprises were in store – a Karaite cemetery where we paused to briefly learn about this religious group who only keep the laws of the first five books of the Bible without the later exegesis. We enjoyed the view down the valley leading to Nachal Kidron (whence we had come) and returned to our bus for the return home.