Photos taken in July 2009.
Two notes about the quality of this post. One is about the content and the other is about the photos. First, I am not an academic or a scholar when it comes to biblical musings, historical fact vs. myth, or archeological or philosophical hypotheses. I’m a teacher that went to Israel through OISE (University of Toronto) to earn my Part 2 Additional Qualification in Religious Education. So this post may be riddled with errors but it is as true as I remember. Any mistakes or omissions are entirely my own. Secondly, these photos are from ten years ago. They were taken with a good ol’ Canon Powershot digital camera. I didn’t really know much about composing a good shot nor did I ever take the camera off of auto. Therefore the photos are not what would nowadays be considered blog-worthy. But they are what I have.
I suppose I should have thought of this earlier. It’s not like I didn’t know Easter was coming. But I’ve been off my writing game for a while now so it didn’t occur to me until Holy Thursday that perhaps people might be interested in seeing some of my photos of the Via Dolorosa and other holy sites important to this weekend, from my travels to Israel ten years ago.
I have never considered myself a devout person. I was raised Catholic in a large Catholic family, went to Catholic school and eventually became a Catholic teacher. I admit that I was happy to play “the Catholic card” when looking for a job even though I really wasn’t paying attention while growing up. I have never felt “called” or felt the need to prosthelytize. There have been numerous times I’ve even wondered if I should really still call myself Catholic, I have become so disillusioned.
But whether you believe in Jesus as the Son of God or not, it is quite powerful to travel to Jerusalem and to feel the history in the walls and cobblestones. This city is important to three major religions in the world – over half the world’s population. The devout call Jerusalem “The Centre of the Universe”, the place where everything important started. In Ezekial 5:5, the Lord says, “This is Jerusalem; I have set her at the centre of the nations.” It would take a stronger person than I not to be moved by the atmosphere of this incredibly vibrant city and its stories, its tensions and its turmoils, its magnetism and its magic.
The course was two weeks long and we stayed in Jerusalem for most of the first week seeing sites in the Old City and outside its walls, travelling by coach to other nearby locations of biblical importance (ex. Bethlehem) as well as visiting important Jewish and Islamic sites in order to gain some basic understanding of the political situation, the modern history of the country, and simply to see as many of these incredible sites as we could on this once-in-a lifetime trip.
Our tour guide, a Palestinian Christian whose name I have forgotten, separated the biblical sites into three categories. The first category of sites have been archaeologically or historically proven – “yes, indeed that is the place where that happened”. The second category was for stories, events, or locations that could be accurate but cannot be proven. Sometimes a location might have scholars disagree on its historical accuracy – some say yes, it is while others doubt. The third category was for sites that have been proven to be false. The importance of this third category is not that they are true but that for so many years, in the absence of a more accurate location, date, etc. these places have retained their spiritual significance purely based on the power of the symbol. It is with these three categories in mind that we gained a more holistic idea of how the Passion actually happened.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem to the Temple during Passover. He rides in on a donkey, a symbol of peace (a horse was a symbol of war). The people welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem placed palms on the ground in his path. Jesus was riding from Bethpage, a village to the East of Jerusalem. The story of Jesus’s entrance into the city was cited in all four gospels.
While obviously not the original path, it is widely accepted (between a category 1 and 2) that this is most likely the way that Jesus had walked into Jerusalem. He came from Mount of Olives and then directly into the Temple through the Golden Gate (B on the map), also known as the Eastern Gate. The Jewish people believed the Messiah would arrive through this gate, which adds credence to the idea that this is the only gate that Jesus would have walked through. It was sealed off in medieval times. The map above routes us to the Temple through the Lion’s Gate on the north side of the Old City wall.
The Last Supper
The Last Supper takes place on Holy Thursday. Jesus gathers his disciples together to share one last meal with them before he is arrested and condemned to die. The location of this gathering is well disputed and The Room of the Last Supper (D on the map), which is above the tomb of King David is symbolic since Jesus is descended from the House of David.
The architecture of this room dates back 800 years, which makes this a Category 3 site. There is little to no evidence that this was actually the site of the Last Supper and the property has changed hands through many nations and religions but its sanctity is still held in highest regard by the Catholic Church. As there is no other viable location, the spirit and symbolism of the Last Supper is still retained in this hall. It is open to the public.
Jesus Prays in the Garden of Gethsemane
After the Last Supper, Jesus decides to go pray. He heads back to the Mount of Olives (he came into Jerusalem this way) and to the Garden of Gethsemane (E on the map), as cited in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. Here, Jesus sits on a large rock and speaks to God, his Father. It is here that Jesus seems to falter for the first and only time from his divine task of sacrificing himself. This is referred to as The Agony in the Garden.
Something to keep in mind if you are ever able to go to the Holy Land is that if something is considered holy – no matter what religion it is – there will be a building on top of it or around it or beside it. It will have been sealed shut, paved over, rebuilt, or structurally reinforced. Which makes sense due to the sheer volume of faithful who make a pilgrimage to see it and touch it and try to glean some mystical power from it. But it will hold very little resemblance to what it originally looked it or what it has been described as. Which is why I will hold the Garden of Gethsemane in my heart forever. It is still an olive grove.
There is indeed a magnificent church built beside it. But the garden itself has a section gated off from the public so that it remains in tact. Whatever scientific procedure is done to age trees has been done and while there can be no real proof that Jesus was there, the trees date back over 2000 years, making this between a Category 1 and 2. The other aspect that makes this more than just plausible is the rock.
There is a rock within the modern walls of the Church of All Nations, adjacent to the Garden that historians and scholars believe to be the rock on which Jesus sat and prayed that night. How they know I’m not sure but there doesn’t seem to be much question.
Jesus is Arrested and Imprisoned
Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and taken to Caiaphas to be questioned. Caiaphus was the high priest then and lived in a building on the eastern slope of Mount Zion, which is about a 20 minutes walk from the olive grove according to Google Maps. The church that now sits at this location is called Saint Peter in Gallicantu (F on the map) because this is where Peter stood waiting for Jesus and denied him three times before dawn. Gallicantu means “cock’s crow”.
This building isn’t really mentioned in the Gospels. It just says that Jesus is brought to Caiaphas’s house to be questioned and tried. So when we arrived, it really had no meaning for me. This is a category 2 site, one that archeologists are divided over its authenticity. Regardless, when I saw what was inside, the story of Holy Week actually started to fit together into a real history of a real person.
There is an ancient dungeon.
It had never occurred to me that Jesus had been imprisoned. But of course he had if he’d been arrested. A roughly-hewn cavity in the floor of the church (built over the original foundation, of course) that is dated as being old enough to have held Jesus while he awaited trial. As you take the stones steps down, you can peer into the cell from the guardroom through a carved stone opening. There is also a circular opening in the roof. It is believed that this was the only way into and out of the cell. Now there are steps into the cell as well as a small stand that holds a bible. It is a small cell, roughly 10×10 and has fixtures on the wall to hold chains.
This is where Jesus spent his final night. From here he would be sent to Pontius Pilate in the Antonio Fortress, now Ecce Homo Convent on the Via Dolorosa (G on the map).
Outside this church, excavations uncovered an old stone staircase that would have gone from Mount Zion to the Kidron Valley (where Mount of Olives is) so it is most likely that Jesus walked upon these steps.
After Caiaphus charges Jesus with blasphemy, he sends Jesus to Pontius Pilate who resides in the Antonia Fortress. The fortress no longer exists but its structure can still be seen in the Muslim quarter of the Old City as buildings have grown up around its remains. Ecce Homo Convent, our accommodation, was located over a large section of it. This is Station 1: Jesus is condemned to death. It is the beginning of the Via Dolorosa or the Way of the Cross.
The Way of the Cross, or the Stations of the Cross are 14 steps of devotion that relates Jesus’s final day on Earth. Catholics often observe these fourteen stations on Good Friday, as a retelling of the events that happened on this day. Each one tells of a part of Jesus’s final journey from his sentencing to his death.
In the basement of Ecce Homo, there is an uncovered section of Roman road. It is Station 2: Jesus carries his cross. It is the road that lead out from the fortress towards Calvary. This is about as close to a category 1 site as there can be in terms of the Via Dolorosa. There is no other road that Jesus would have taken with his cross.
Station 3: Jesus falls for the first time.
The stations marked along the Way of the Cross, are not as obvious as you might think. There are no crowds standing around unless you happen to find another group of pilgrims. They have a plaque and a number but everyday life goes on around and in front of them like any other day. I don’t have a photo of the fourth station, the station where Jesus meets Mary. But Station 5 is a little more obvious. Station 5: Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry his cross. There is a carved doorway with Simon’s name on it. Beside the door, just in a corner near an outcropping of the wall, there is a rock worn smooth with the imprint of a hand in it. This is the handprint of Jesus as he braced himself against the wall.
Continuing along, we happened to see a group of pilgrims doing their own Way of the Cross, complete with cross.
Station 6: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.
We continue along to Stations 7: Jesus falls for the second time, Station 8: Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem, Station 9: Jesus fall a third time and Station 10: Jesus is stripped. These four stations are not in plain view. Station 7 is behind a bustling market kiosk, Station 8 beside a souvenir shop and Station 9 is located along the back entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Station 10 is a courtyard and I didn’t find the plaque labelling it. The Via Dolorosa leads to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the most important churches in Christendom as it holds the final stations and what is believed to be the exact location of Jesus’s death on the cross.
The next two stations are the crucifixion that took place at Golgotha, which was a stone quarry at the time. If I remember correctly, our guide said that crucifixions never took place within the city walls so Golgotha would have been outside the walls, making this at least a Category 2 site. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (H on the map) was built on a hill that was originally outside the city walls, making this location a possibility. Ten years after the crucifixion, the walls were rebuilt around this site.
Jesus is nailed to the cross and after hours of horrific torture, hanging on the cross, finally gives up his spirit to God. The skies darken. The winds pick up and the sun disappears. In the Gospel of Matthew, “the earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open”. Within the church, is a cross with a highly ornate, heavily jewel-laden icon of Jesus on the cross. Under this altar, is a silver star and in the centre is a hole. Putting your arm into the hole, you can reach down and touch the place where the crucifix stood. What adds to this site’s credibility is the rock beside it, which has been split in two, presumably at the time of Jesus’s death. True, none of these things are proof. However, when many historical clues are found together, and there is no other credible location or site, then it most likely is, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, the historical site of the crucifixion.
Jesus is Laid in the Tomb
The final station is where Jesus is laid in the tomb. In three days time, he will rise again.
When I saw the tomb, or I should say, when I saw the lineup to go into the tiny shrine that encompassed what was supposedly the tomb of Jesus, I pushed this site into the third category, the category for the “not accurate” sites. But historians have said that it was possible. The glitz and ceremony around it had me a little sceptical. But here’s an article and video from National Geographic from an excavation done in 2016, which says it could be even more accurate than previously thought. Wow. Just wow.
Every Easter since, I’ve been able to hear the story of Jesus’s final days and picture these locations in my head. It has made them real. Whether you believe in his divinity or not, I cannot think of another, more powerful or influential story than this one. Can you?