Last week, I made my first visit to Bethlehem. We don’t go there on the tour guide course, as Bethlehem is part of what is known as Area A of the West Bank, i.e. under full Palestinian control, and Israeli tour guides are not allowed to guide there without special permission from the Palestinian Authority, which is only granted for a short and limited time in any event.
I was surprised quite how close it was to Jerusalem – I was aware that it was close – but in fact our journey seemed more like driving into a Jerusalem suburb than a new city. In ancient times of course it would have been further from the Old City of Jerusalem to the Old City of Bethlehem, but not a great deal more.
We were met at the border by a Palestinian Christian guide, who led us towards the Church of the Nativity, originally constructed by St Helena, who also was responsible for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As with the church in Jerusalem, it is divided, this time between Greek Orthodox and Armenian groups. The Catholics do not run part of the church but do have a sizeable area at the back.
Refurbishment work was taking place in the main basilica but it was possible to get some idea of the impressive nature of the church and also to see down to some remains of an original Byzantine mosaic.
After waiting what seemed to be an interminably long time, we were able to descend into the crypt, which is believed to house the site of Jesus’ birth (marked by a star) and where his crib would have been situated. The theft of the star was actually the pretext for the Crimean War in the mid-19th century; it was cause for reflection that 150 odd years later the Crimea was again in turmoil, although for different reasons.
Our time in Bethlehem was brief, but it was interesting to have this insight into this holy city, and to have the opportunity to see its main holy site. Although we do not visit it on the course, we are taught about what we should expect to see there (also in Jericho), so as to be able to answer any questions from tourists who have visited or about to do so. Still, nothing beats seeing it for oneself!
Today was another catch-up trip, this time focusing on Jerusalem in the Roman and Byzantine periods, i.e. from the 1st to 7th centuries CE.
However, because of its location, we actually began the day at the site known as Zedekiah’s Cave (also known as King Solomon’s Quarry), just next to the Damascus Gate. It is a site I have passed several times but never visited; it looks singularly unimpressive from the street. On entering, however, you realise that the small opening widens out into a jaw-droppingly huge cavernous interior that was a quarry for the famous Jerusalem limestone from either the 1st or 2nd temple periods.
If it was indeed from the first temple period (this is disputed), then maybe King Solomon used these quarries to construct his temple, hence the site was named King Solomon’s quarry and became a popular site with Freemasons who identify their origins in the builders of his temple. A Jewish tradition also developed that this was the escape route of King Zedekiah from the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem.
Exiting the cave, we proceeded to the Damascus Gate (in Hebrew the Shechem, or Nablus Gate). This grand structure was constructed by Suleiman the Magnificent, but below, to the left, it is possible to see an arch belonging to a Roman gate from the 2nd century. There are also remains here of the Crusader gate.
Heading into the Old City, we arrived at the Church of Alexander Nevsky. Owned by the Russian Orthodox church and named for a major Russian hero, this site is also important as archaeological excavations prior to construction unearthed remains of an arch, steps and grand columns. Although the dating of these structures is disputed (Roman, Byzantine, or perhaps running through both periods) it seems that here was the grand entrance first to the pagan temple to Aphrodite, constructed by Hadrian, which was later replaced by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the Byzantine emperor Constantine the Great and his mother Helena, in the 4th century.
It was therefore only appropriate to continue to the modern day Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is no longer accessible through its original Byzantine entrance. We focused on the areas of the church that were constructed during the Byzantine period, visiting the Chapel of Joseph of Arimathea, located behind the burial tomb of Jesus; noting the arches built by the Byzantine emperor Monomachos as part of his reconstruction of the church following destruction by the Muslim rulers in the 11th century. We also descended to the chapel of St Helena, into the foundations of the original basilica structure, noting the foundation walls and hearing the story of pilgrim graffiti which is hidden behind the Armenian altar.
Exiting the church, we visited the cardo in the Jewish Quarter of the city. The remains here are from the Byzantine period; we used an enlarged version of the Madaba Map to learn about the main streets in Jerusalem during Roman-Byzantine rule (there were two cardo streets running north-south in the city) including different theories about where the city gates where in the different periods.
We concluded our day at the ruins of the grand Nea Church, constructed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian and in fact the largest church to have ever been constructed in the Byzantine period, anywhere in the world. Today it is only possible to see remains of the apse, but the tale of the search for the remains of this church over the decades and its eventual discovery was quite the adventure.
So concluded our day with the Romans and the Byzantines!
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…
Today’s trip was dedicated to Haifa, the third largest city in Israel and the largest city in the North of the country. Located on the Carmel Mountain, where its steep slopes meet the sea, it was a tiny settlement eclipsed by its northern neighbour Acre (Akko) until the British decided built a major port in the 1920s; it is now the largest port in Israel and an important gateway into the Mediterranean.
The day began with a small celebration; this was our 40th field trip out of 80 on the course; our half-way point. One of our class put a lot of effort into making a cake to celebrate which was served with wine for a l’chaim, putting everyone in a good mood at 8am in the morning!
After enjoying a look out over the city from the Louis Promenade high up atop the Carmel mountain, we visited the city’s main attraction, the Bahai Gardens. These beautifully designed and maintained gardens dominate the hillside from a distance; consisting of several terraces and a large shrine in the centre. Inside the shrine are buried two of the most important figures in the Bahai faith, the Bab and the Abdul Baha.
As we descended through the immaculately tended gardens we learned about the Bahai religion; its establishment in Iran and the persecution which led to its relocation in Israel. Adherents of the faith are now spread out across the world but these gardens in Haifa are the main holy site together with another location in Acre. Sculpted gardens are a very unusual site in Israel and also contrast starkly with the industrialised scenery of the port – it is a beautiful area of serenity within the hustle and bustle of a busy city.
Having descended to the shrine, we left the area of the gardens and drove further up the mountain to the Centre for Ahmadiyya Islam in Israel. We visited the mosque and learned about this minority Muslim group, adherents of which were brought from India to Israel by the British to help construct the port. Their leader’s message of peaceful coexistence was well received although we were saddened to learn that they are persecuted within the Muslim world to the extent that going on the Haj (the pilgrimage to Mecca which every observant Muslim man should do once in his lifetime) is actually often too dangerous to attempt.
Continuing the theme of different religions, our next stop was at the Stella Maris church, belonging to the Carmelite Order, a group of monks and nuns who since Crusader times have been connected to the Carmel Mountain. Inside the church is a cave believed to have been frequented by the prophet Elijah; there is also a small display of artefacts excavated on Carmelite land on the Carmel.
Outside the church, our guide discussed the history of the sanctity of the Carmel, which seems to go back to an association with Helios, the sun god of the Greeks and Romans, from the second century BCE. Helios has a close association with Elijah (the name; the fact that they both ride in fiery chariots) and it seems that Elijah’s association with the Carmel may have been inherited from Helios as a result.
We also learned about Napoleon’s campaign in the 18th century, which passed through the area of modern day Haifa, and indeed the church was used as a hospital for his wounded following defeat at Acre.
We hiked a short trail down the hill to arrive at the Cave of the prophet Elijah. A holy site for Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druze (as opposed to the Stella Maris, which is holy for Christians), it is believed that Elijah spent time praying here before challenging the prophets of Baal (referred to in 1 Kings 18) at the Mukhraka. We discussed the life of Elijah, a (literally) fiery character, and noted the ancient pilgrim graffiti inside the cave.
After a spot of lunch we turned to the topic of modern Haifa and had a walking tour in the area of the German Colony. Founded in 1868 by a group called the Templers, consisting of German Christians, it largely consists of a beautiful wide avenue straddled by buildings that were clearly not built by local architects. All the buildings have a biblical quotation above the doorway, and the German member of our class kindly obliged with translations! We learned about the history of the Temple Society, some of the key figures, and its influence on the technological innovation in Israel, particularly with regard to the early Zionist pioneers.
We concluded the day in Nachal (or Wadi) Siach, a small valley that lies between two spurs of the Carmel Mountain on which the city is built. After a steep climb we were able to see the remains of a British Mandate period bathhouse and garden, based on channeling the springs further up the slope. As we continued further we found the remains of a Crusader church, believed to be the one in which the Carmelite order was founded. The area is currently not in a very good state but apparently the municipality has plans to refurbish and develop the area which could make it a very pleasant stop on future Haifa tours. Still, it does not stop the locals from coming here to cool off in the springs and pools during the hot months of the summer.
A day of multiple religions, modern and ancient history, and even a little hiking. Next week we will travel slightly further north to the ancient port city which Haifa usurped in importance: Akko (Acre).
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!
The last time I was in Ramla I spent a day stacking shelves in a huge supermarket. It was part of my training in my previous job to help me understand the supply chain. It was very interesting but I did not imagine there was much more to the city. Most Israelis associate Ramla and Lod with crime. So, I had very low expectations of this field trip.
I could not have been more wrong. Ramla in particular is a little bit of a hidden gem. Situated close to Tel Aviv (and serviced by the train), it is understandably not an obvious destination for first or second time visitors to Israel given the richness of sites spread around the country. However, for those who are regular visitors and are interested in something a little different, I think it’s a great option.
We began our day in the Karaite Centre. Karaite Jews split off from mainstream (rabbinic) Judaism in around the 9th century. The main difference between them and rabbinic Jews is the status of the oral law. Rabbinic Jews believe that the oral law was given at Sinai together with the Torah; Karaite Jews believe it was written by rabbis and so has a lesser standing. So, for example, they will happily eat milk and meat at the same meal, but on the other hand will refuse the assistance of a gentile to turn on lights on the Sabbath. We heard a very interesting presentation about their background and visited their synagogue, adjacent to the centre.
We then moved on to the city centre and began a walking tour of the old town. Until the mid 19th century Ramla was on the main route from Jerusalem to Jaffa and many travellers would rest here overnight. We saw many old traveller inns related to various religious institutions including the site where Napoleon Bonaparte slept one night in 1799. Unfortunately he did not take kindly to the muezzin at the nearby mosque waking him in the early hours of the morning; so much so that he took his musket and shot him dead. When Napoleon eventually left the Holy Land the local Christian communities suffered recriminations as a result.
We then moved in to the area of the Hospice of St Nicodemus and St Joseph of Aramithea. It is believed that St Joseph (who helped bring down Jesus from the cross and who gave him his burial cave) was from this area. The church inside the complex contains an original masterpiece by the Renaissance artist Titian – a very unusual thing to see in Israel.
We continued to the original centre of the city, which was founded by the Caliph Suleiman in the 8th century, as the capital for the region. We learned about Ramla’s history; at one point it was one of the largest and most flourishing cities in the world; a huge centre of trade and commerce. Little remains of the 8th century city which was devastated by a huge earthquake, but there are remains of a 12 century tower, known as the White Tower, built by Saladin. We enjoyed an amusing tale of folklore about the inhabitants of the neighbouring city of Lod trying to steal the tower, without success.
Next was the Arches Pool. As usual, we arrived at the site and talked about its history (in this case it was built in the 8th century). The pool is an underground reservoir that is filled by a spring underneath it. It is not dissimilar in structure to the famous Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, although it is much much smaller. The pleasant surprise came when we descended and discovered we could paddle around the pool in little boats. It was very cute and a nice break from the searing temperatures outside.
We continued on to the Great Mosque (also known as the Al-Omari Mosque), in the city centre. Our guide used our visit as an opportunity to teach us various things about Islam, which we have just started studying in class. However, of more interest is that this is in fact the largest original and complete crusader church in Israel. The reason for this is that the Sultan Baibars converted it into a mosque instead of razing it to the ground.
After marvelling at the crusader architecture we separated for lunch (some great foodstuffs to be had in the Ramla market) and then visited the city museum which has some nice pieces that have been dug up from the Islamic period.
With this, our time in Ramla was done, and we headed over to the adjacent city Lod. On the way we passed the British military cemetery, site of a modern day pilgrimage to the grave of a Private Harry Potter who passed away in WWII!
Lod’s main attraction is the Church of St George, patron saint of many countries, among them England. I hoped that visiting the church on the day England were due to play Italy in Tel Aviv in the UEFA Euro U21 championship was a good omen. Sadly this was not the case as England crashed to a rather humiliating defeat. Still, we were able to enjoy the ambiance of the church where we visited St George’s sarcophagus in the crypt and heard the stories of his heroic feats and his martyrdom.
We concluded the day at the Jisr Jindas, a fine example of a Mamluk bridge dating back to the 13th century stretching over Nachal Ayalon.
I really was pleasantly surprised by the trip, particularly by Ramla. The city council are now trying to promote tourism to the city and I hope it can take off as it will no doubt also help regenerate the area. For those who think they have seen all Israel has to offer, I’m sure Ramla will prove a pleasant surprise for you also!
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.
Our journey of discovery into the world of Christianity continued with a day based around important sites along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, known as the Kinneret in Hebrew. We swapped the rolling hills of the lower Galilee for the calm and beauty of the lake shores.
Our day began at Kibbutz Ginosar and the museum named after one its most famous former inhabitants: Beit Yigal Allon. The museum is about man and nature in the Galil but of particular interest for Christian visitors is the ‘Jesus boat’. This 2000 year old boat (matching the time period of Jesus’ life) was found in 1986 covered in mud along the shores of the Kinneret. After a major restoration programme it was put on display in this museum. Although there is no evidence directly linking Jesus to the boat, given that many of his disciples were fishermen, and Jesus himself lived along the Kinneret shoreline for a time, it gives a unique insight into his way of life. There is also a short movie explaining the find and the complicated restoration process (2000 year old wood is quite delicate!).
We left the kibbutz and travelled north to the Mount of Beatitudes. This is considered the site of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount and is so named after the blessings, or beatitudes, that are contained within the address. The site is managed my Franciscan nuns and the modern day Church of the Beatitudes is built a little up the hill from ruins of the 4th century Byzantine church marking the same event.
There are commanding views over the Sea of Galilee and the church has been built with wide windows to allow the visitor to be inspired by the beautiful scenery and to try to imagine the surroundings within which Jesus would have spoken to his audience.
We headed down the hill to Tabgha, site of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes. This site, managed by German Benedictine monks, commemorates Jesus feeding 5000 men (and therefore around 20 000 people, with their families taken into account) with just two fishes and five loaves of bread. We entered the church and were impressed by the beautiful Byzantine period floor mosaic commemorating the event; one of the most famous mosaics in Israel as it directly connects a miracle to a site. I reflected on when aged seven my teacher gave us fish fingers and pieces of toast in class to commemorate this miracle. Sadly, no fish fingers were available on this occasion, but we had been promised some St Peter’s Fish for lunch, so there was something to look forward to.
We continued by foot to the Church of the Primacy of St Peter. This church is really right on the edge of the Sea of Galilee and as our guide told us the story behind it we watched pilgrims washing their feet in its holy waters. We heard the story of how Jesus appeared here to Peter and the disciples, charging Peter with looking after his flock in his absence. Inside the church is a rock called Mensa Christi (the Table of Christ) which is considered the rock upon which Jesus laid out the food for his apostles. As with many other churches in the area, it is also built on the ruins of a Byzantine site, proving that this has long been considered the location of this miracle.
We continued on to Kfar Nachum, or Capernaum, via a brief stop for a lunch of some St Peter’s Fish (so named as it is believed to be the species of fish that appeared with a golden coin in its mouth to Peter in the story in Matthew 17.
Jesus moved to Capernaum after being expelled from Nazareth, living with Peter and his family. While here he performed several miracles and gave many important sermons. Our first stop was in the Orthodox Church of the Twelve Apostles, close to the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is a small but pretty building with an interior decorated with beautiful murals in the byzantine style, showing various important scenes in the life of Jesus and his followers.
We then visited the part of Capernaum owned by the Franciscans. Here is the Church of St Peter’s House, a modern structure built over the remains of a Byzantine church, which itself is built on the remains of a very interesting structure. In the vicinity excavators have found many houses from the Second Temple period (i.e. the time of Jesus) and one of them with a very interesting difference from the rest. In one of the houses, one room was covered in plaster at some point between 50-100 CE and became an early place of Christian worship. Later layers of plaster contain Christian graffiti and the room was enlarged in the 4th century (once Christianity was no longer a persecuted religion). This type of site, one of Christian ritual before the establishment of church buildings, is called a domus ecclesia. There are not many of them around and this is considered the oldest one in existence. As the oldest site with evidence of Christian practice, it is very significant. And it is believed that the ritual began here because it is the site of Peter’s house.
There are also excavations of a synagogue in Capernaum. It was clearly rather large and may even have had a second floor. Most of the site is reconstructed so it is unclear if it is similar to the original structure, but it was still impressive to see.
From Capernaum we continued around the Sea of Galilee to Kursi. This site is quite unusual in that it is a holy Christian site owned by the Israel Parks Authority. This is because it was actually discovered very recently, when after the 1967 Six Day War meant that this area became more secure, Israel decided to build a road. When digging for its construction they discovered the ruins of a Byzantine period church, and up the hill a small chapel by a large boulder, together with a monastery. This site is considered the location of the Miracle of the Swine, when Jesus banished evil spirits into a nearby heard of pigs. We heard the story from the New Testament and enjoyed the delicacy of the ancient mosaic floor, although sadly it had undergone an iconoclasm in the Muslim period so many of the animals had been defaced. The actual site of the miracle is considered the large boulder by the small chapel.
Our day was drawing to a close and our final stop was in the south of the Kinneret where the River Jordan flows out and south towards the Dead Sea. Here is Yardenit, a relatively new site where many Christian pilgrims come to be baptised in the holy waters of the Jordan. We were privileged to witness a ceremony by some visitors and also heard the tale of Jesus being baptised in the Jordan by John the Baptist.
It is a beautiful and calm place and a nice site at which to complete what had been rather a hectic day. Next week our Christian odyssey continues in Jerusalem.