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.