Christianity on the Mount of Olives and Mount Zion

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.

View over the Old City of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives
View over the Old City of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

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).

Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives
Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives

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.

Church of the Pater Noster (Eleona) on the Mount of Olives
Church of the Pater Noster (Eleona) on the Mount of Olives

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.

Church of Dominus Flevit on the Mount of Olives
Church of Dominus Flevit on the Mount of Olives

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!

Inside the Church of Gethsemane in Jerusalem
Inside the Church of Gethsemane in Jerusalem

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.

Tomb of the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem
Tomb of the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem

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).

Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion
Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion

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.

Sculpture inside the Last Supper Room (Cenacle) in Jerusalem
Sculpture inside the Last Supper Room (Cenacle) in Jerusalem

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.

View over Jerusalem from Mount Zion
View over Jerusalem from Mount Zion

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.

Church of St Peter in Gallicantu on Mount Zion
Church of St Peter in Gallicantu on Mount Zion

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.

Steps leading down Mount Zion towards Gethsemane from the Roman period
Steps leading down Mount Zion towards Gethsemane from the Roman period

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.

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