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!
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.
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.