Another early rise today saw us passing the ‘Damascus Gate’ at 7.30am. This gate is one of the 8 original gates into the Temple area, 7 of which remain open, the ‘Golden Gate’ entrance was closed by the Turks in 1513 as it was taught by Christians that Jesus would return through this gate and they weren’t taking any chances. It was impressed on us today the truly vast scale of the Temple in Jesus’ day, far more than just a building, it covered a sixth of Jerusalem and had open courtyards with strict rules about who could enter which one.
As it is the Sabbath, Orthodox Jews could be seen in their special Sabbath clothes – large black brimmed hats and traditional shawls. Surprisingly only 25% of Jerusalem’s Jews identify themselves as ‘Religious,’ the others being secular. The Religious are easily identifiable on all days of the week by their distinctive black dress, skull caps, which remind them that God is always above them, shawls, beards and prayers attached to the forehead and arms. On the Sabbath, Religious Jews walk to the Wailing Wall to pray as it is forbidden to drive.
Much to the relief of many of us after yesterday’s walking tour of the city, today we had the luxury of a coach, which took us to the Mount of Olives. Those expecting a mountain of olives were in for a disappointment, the area having been extensively built on, both with religious and other buildings and paved walkways. It doesn’t have the name ‘Mount’ for nothing though – this remains a steep walk even for the fit. Fortunately we were heading down hill and didn’t have to climb back up at the end!
Our first stop on the Mount was the ‘Pater Noster’ Church, so called as it marks the area where Jesus taught his disciples the ‘Our Father’ prayer. Fr Mervyn spoke about how the words encapsulate Jewish prayer and that Jesus would have used slightly different words at the various times he taught the disciples how to pray, and this explains the variations in the Gospel accounts. The original church was built by St Helena and Constantine, later destroyed by the Persians, rebuilt by the Crusaders (a small mosaic remains of their church), taken by the Muslims and most recently was bought by the French Government and handed over to nuns. To reflect the international importance of the venue, the words of the ‘Our Father’ are written in 163 languages around the courtyard – including Old Hebrew, Aramaic, Fijan, French, German, Chinese, Tomoul, Scottish & Irish Gaelic, Welsh and, of course, English. Though we may be entitled to feel a bit miffed as so much of the English translation is inaccurate – “in earth,” “Pingdom,” “und” (twice!) and “evill.” The Chinese members of our party were relieved that the translation into their language hadn’t seem to cause any problems! A trifling matter though, as the experience of praying the ‘Our Father’ together in Latin, Chinese and English in the cave where Jesus may well have sat teaching his disciples was truly humbling. We were also able to hear the words in the original Aramaic, courtesy of our driver Samir.
Of course, the Mount of Olives witnessed many other significant events in Christ’s life, it was here that he wept for the tragedies that would befall Jerusalem, began his triumphant procession on Palm Sunday, experienced his Passion in the Garden of Gethsemane and Acts tells us it was from here that Jesus ascended into heaven. Indeed our next stop was the Chapel of the Ascension. This site remains in the hands of the Muslims who only allow Christians to pray here publicly once a year, and there is a fee to enter. We were, however, able to read the account of the Ascension from Luke’s Gospel outside the Chapel. In this, Jesus instructed his friends to remain in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Fr Mervyn spoke of this being the moment when Jesus truly became “Lord of the Cosmos.” The Church that marked the place of the Ascension for many centuries was converted to a mosque and a dome added. It originally contained the imprints of two footsteps, attributed to Christ when he ascended to his Father in heaven, however one of the footsteps was removed by the Muslims and placed in the ‘Dome of the Rock,’ which marks the spot where Islam teaches that Mohammed was taken up to heaven. As is common when religions seek to expand into new areas they frequently take over the holy sites of the previous religious tradition. The ‘Dome of the Rock’ is built over the Jewish ‘Holy of Holies’ above the Temple site.
Our descent down the Mount afforded the most breathtaking views of the city, though for some the highlight may have been seeing a camel tethered at the side of the road! It is the highest point in Jerusalem and both a historical and modern day burial site for all three Abrahamic religions, there being a belief that Judgement Day would begin here and it would be an advantage to be at the front when God appeared. Among those buried here are Robert Maxwell and the Duke of Edinburgh’s mother. Jewish graves sometimes have small rocks on the top which the family uses to tap on the grave when visiting.
We were supposed to say Mass at Dominus Flavit Church on the Mount which marks the place where Jesus wept for his beloved Jerusalem, however, after some confusion we gave way to an Italian party who had also booked to say Mass. This could be viewed as fortuitous as it gave us the opportunity to have Mass in the open in these beautiful surroundings. Fr Gerardo led the Mass, which was con-celebrated by all our priests. Fr Mervyn’s homily emphasised that just as a hen gathers her chicks, The Lord always wants to gather his people together, making them stronger.
Our final stop before lunch was the Garden of Gethsemane, which for some may be the highlight of the whole pilgrimage. The word Gethsemane means ‘Oil Press’ and in Jesus’ time merchants cultivated olives here and pressed them. Eight large olive trees remain that date from 3000 years ago, meaning that we were truly experiencing what Jesus himself saw during his Agony in the Garden, and looking at the trees his exhausted disciples could not help falling asleep against, despite Jesus urging them to stay awake and watch with him. The old trees are now dead but new olive trees are growing out of them and bearing fruit, a physical metaphor for our Christian faith.
There are other olive trees growing here, the most recent planted by Pope Paul VI in 1964. The rock on which Jesus prayed is now housed in the ‘All Nations Church’ which was built by 16 nations as a joint enterprise, the work being completed in 1924. The site has experienced the familiar pattern of Christian sites in Jerusalem – first the Baslica of the Agony was built by the Byzantines in 380AD, then destroyed by the Persians in 614AD (which we’re beginning to think was a bad year to be a Christian in Jerusalem), in the 12th Century the Crusaders turned up and rebuilt it (with their famous pointy arches that thanks to Samir we are now all able to confidently identify), it didn’t last too long though as in 1200 the Turks destroyed it again.
Fortunately for Christians the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th Century afforded plenty of opportunities to reacquire the holy sites. The Franciscans pray here on Good Friday, read the Agony Bible passages and then scatter red rose petals on the rock inside the Church.
For lunch we travelled to the wealthy Kibbutz of Peace, passing Hell Valley where the people of Jerusalem used to burn their rubbish in a huge fire, it is this continually burning fire that has been attributed to be the source of the traditional Christian vision of Hell as the ‘fiery furnace.’ We passed through a greener, less arid landscape, with attractive gardens and a more wealthy looking residential area. The kibbutz is a hive of successful agricultural and economic activity, encompassing factories, shops,the Ramat Rachel Hotel and restaurant. Many Religious Jews spend their lives as part of a kibbutz, sharing all their wealth in community with one another. The restaurant and hotel complex are beautiful with delightful gardens and even a wedding canopy available for marriages. We are now becoming used to the flexible attitude to currency here, even the street sellers will accept an array of different types – Shekels, American dollars, Euros, Sterling etc. Prices tend to be given in Shekels, but sellers have already worked out a price list for other currencies (our calculation skills are getting a real polish!)
We returned to Jerusalem by coach and sang “As I Kneel Before You” in the Church of St Anne, traditionally attributed to be the birthplace of Mary, whose father, Joachim, was apparently working away from his Nazareth home as a contractor. What makes this Church unusual is that though it suffered the obligatory destruction in 614AD, it was NOT destroyed by the Turks, making it the only intact survivor of Crusader Church architecture. Instead the Turks used it as a school for teaching the Koran. However, during the Crimean War they traded it to the French in exchange for military supplies.
The French government passed control of it to the White Fathers, with whom it remains. It was the White Fathers who excavated the land around the Church and unearthed the ruins of the Pool of Bethesda. We read the Gospel account of the man lame for 38 years who sat by the pool waiting for the Angel to sir it, so that he could get to the water first and be cured. Jesus cured him without the need for the water, enraging the Pharisees by healing on the Sabbath. Standing by the Church and the ruins of Bethesda we prayed for all grandparents.
On returning to our guesthouse we were in for a treat as Fr Mervyn took us through the history of the building, many of us had been completely unaware of the significance of where we are staying. Ecce Homo is part of the ruins of Herod the Great’s Antonia Fortress. This fortress was constructed around the birth of Jesus and was intended to resemble the most splendid Roman cities. Herod rebuilt the Temple and carefully positioned the fortress so that it would allow him to spy on the Jews in their Temple. It is highly possible that Pilate was staying here at the time of Jesus’ death and that it was therefore to the street outside this building that Jesus was brought to see Pilate and subsequently be mocked by the soldiers.
In 135AD Hadrian, who hated all religions as he saw himself as a god, raised Jerusalem to the ground and built a new city, Aelia Capitolina, banning all Jews and Christians from entering. In the 19th Century the Ratisbonne brothers, Jewish converts to Christianity, bought up the area for their Order, the Sisters of Zion.In 1857 excavations revealed a pavement (Lithostrotos) and Roman road built by Hadrian, and it is plausible that stones from Herod’s original pavement were incorporated into it, meaning they were here during that tumultuous last day of Jesus. Ecce Homo was used first as a convent, then an exclusive girls school and finally a pilgrim hospice (not to be confused with the current usage of the word hospice as a place for the terminally ill). We are privileged to be staying in a location with such historical significance. On the remains of the pavement we prayed for all those unjustly condemned.
From 3.30pm we enjoyed some leisure time before dinner at 7pm. In the evening a party of 20 went to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre being locked up for the night. We hadn’t anticipated being able to revisit Calvary and the Tomb but were able to view it in the semi-darkness, with far fewer crowds. The atmosphere was distinctly different to our daytime visit yesterday, though the manners of the monk in charge of the Tomb hadn’t improved – as he continued to bark orders at all the pilgrims, which is disappointing in such a holy place. The closing of the Church is a curiously arcane ceremony that involves members of a chosen Muslim family locking up, as the 6 Christian denominations were so suspicious of each other that they couldn’t agree which of them would look after the key! A ladder is placed against one half of the door, the other half of the door is shut, the Muslim family member climbs the ladder, locks the Church, and then posts the ladder back through a large letter box in the door. You couldn’t make it up.
Tomorrow we visit Bethlehem…