On my last trip to Israel I fell in love with Jerusalem, so I awoke very excited to return! Today, there are just over 800,000 people in Jerusalem, and the city itself has expanded to a metropolis with suburbs. There is the Old City within the old walls (my favorite part), and then there are all the typical city structures outside those walls.
Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the spiritual center of the area with Christians, Muslims, and Jews claiming Jerusalem as the holy site of their faiths, so they share the Old City of Jerusalem. In fact, it is divided into four quarters – each quarter being “controlled” by four religious groups: Christian, Muslim, Jews, and Armenians.
Our guide explained that while Jerusalem (in and out of the walls) is supposed to be “unified,” the infrastructure and services provided are very different for each of the occupants. For example, some Palestinians live in Jerusalem and are citizens of Israel, yet they are not allowed to travel freely and cannot go back to their villages. While Jewish Israelis can come and go wherever and whenever they wish.
Historically, Jerusalem has always been fought over. According to our guide, it’s been seized 23 times, destroyed 13 times, and conquered 17 times. The walls that surround Jerusalem today were the ones built by Sulemon the Magnificent in 1514. They are 10-11 meters high and have eight gates by which to enter. On this day of sightseeing we won’t enter any gates, for our sites are all outside the Old City gates.
The Garden Tomb
We started our morning in a beautiful garden setting that boasts the possibility of being the garden that holds the tomb of Jesus, though most would say it’s not very authentic. What it does have are tranquil garden paths and benches where prayer is encouraged. And it does have an actual tomb that would have been MUCH like what Jesus would have been laid in. It was a most lovely way to start the day.
We walked the paths through the garden to a spot where we could see a rocky hillside that has a skull-like façade, and its location just outside the Jerusalem walls makes it a likely spot for Golgotha, where Jesus was hanged on the cross. I have to admit…the rocky hill had a skull-like appearance.
Our tour guide gave us more history of the garden as we headed to the tomb, then we each took turns entering.
The serene atmosphere, the hymns being sung in many languages, by multiple Christian groups throughout the garden, and the mix of colorful flowers and ancient artifacts stirred us all.
We ended our time in a tiny cave-like (I’d say Hobbit-like) structure where we held our own communion service, singing great songs as “He Lives!”
Mount of Olives
Our next stop today was the Mount of Olives, a favorite hangout spot for Jesus and his disciples. It is one of three hills on a long ridge to the east of Jerusalem. And the view of the Old City of Jerusalem is second to none. We took so many pictures!!
The valley between the Mount of Olives and the Old City of Jerusalem is called the Kidron Valley, also known as Valley Jehoshaphat. “Shaphat” means judgement, so this valley is where the Bible says Judgement Day will happen.
The Temple Mount (an elevated area within the walls of Old Jerusalem where the original Jewish Temple was built) and a Muslim cemetery are on the west side of the Kidron Valley; the Mount of Olives, a large Jewish cemetery, the Garden of Gethsemane, and several churches line the east side of the valley.
In Jesus’ day the Palm Sunday Road would have zig-zagged down the Mount of Olives toward the Temple Mount, but today it is a narrow, asphalt road that goes straight and steep.
We walked it, carefully, down to the Garden of Gethsemane.
Can you think of things that happened on the Mount of Olives? Several times in the Gospels, Jesus and his disciples would go to the Mount of Olives to pray, to get away from the crowds of Jerusalem. Even on the night of Jesus’ arrest, Jesus and his followers had gone to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, and it was there that He was arrested. Not long before his arrest, Jesus stood on the Mount of Olives, looked across the valley toward Jerusalem and wept for the city’s future. It’s also the place Jesus from which He ascended to heaven after his forty days on earth in his resurrected body.
So, of course, there are churches all over the Mount of Olives to commemorate all of these great occasions.
The church that commemorates Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem is called Church of Dominus Flevit. The Italian architect, Berlucci, built this church to resemble a teardrop because he wanted his building to tell the story of the place. Jesus wept for the future of Jerusalem just as He was about to make his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. In Luke 19:37-44, Jesus prophesied that the enemies of Jerusalem would surround it and leave no stones standing because the people there failed to recognize the visit of God (Jesus). Within 40 years, His prophecy came true when Romans besieged Jerusalem and leveled the Temple. He had good reason to weep.
We saw three churches that all remember Jesus’ ascension: Greek Orthodox, German Protestant, and Catholic. There was also a mosque in the same area that said “Chapel of Ascension,” which didn’t make sense because Muslims don’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection. But our guide explained the church had been first erected by Queen Helena, so it had Christian history as a holy site for a long time. Christians still come to this chapel to celebrate “Ascension Thursday” each year.
Garden of Gethsemane
Near the bottom of the Valley is the Garden of Gethsemane. Today it is a small grove of olive trees, some of which are nearly 2000 years old. These old trees are amazing to look at – their wood is gnarled, and the main trunks are several feet wide – and they’re considered to be the offshoots of the trees that were in this very spot when Jesus walked this “mount.”
As is the case throughout the Holy Land, a church stands here to mark the holiness of the site. The Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemane was first a Byzantine Church, but the Persians destroyed it. In 1924, (as our guide would say…) our favorite Italian architect, Berlucci, rebuilt it.
After our lunch in East Jerusalem, at Pasha’s, we were dropped off outside the Damascus Gate and walked to Mount Zion, which is the highest point in ancient Jerusalem, to the south of the Old City of Jerusalem.
In this section of the city: Jesus and his disciples took their Last Supper; Jesus was taken after his arrest to see the Jewish High Priest, Caiaphas, in his home; and the disciples gathered on the day the Holy Spirit came upon them, Pentecost.
We saw “King David’s Gate” just outside Mount Zion and passed Dormition Abbey, which means “the last sleep.” This little church has the crypt and a statue of Mary (mother of Jesus). The dome above these has women of the Bible painted on it.
We walked through the Mount Zion area to an “upper room,” which is believed to be where these events (Last Supper and Pentecost) occurred. It was a beautiful room, and it was amazing to think Jesus could’ve been there, but our guide told us it’s not likely since the structure dated back only to the 14th century.
We did pop-in to a Jewish site that claims to be the site of King David’s tomb. Again, our guide told us this is unlikely but that tradition is sometimes stronger than fact. We women were a bit offended that the men got to go in to view the room, while we were left to peek through the window. Truly…we weren’t offended. We just liked acting as if we did to get reactions from the guys in our group. But, it was a reminder of just how different cultures can be.
We wove our way out of Mount Zion and walked across the street to a place called Church of St. Peter of Gallicantu. Gallicantu is a Latin word that means “cock-crow.” That might be enough of a clue to help you know what this church commemorates – the night of Peter’s denial of Christ, which Jesus had prophesied Peter would do by the time the rooster crowed.
This site had beautiful grounds and several sections to it. There was the courtyard that had a statue of Peter at his final denial (with the obligatory rooster on top), Caiaphas’ home, and the pit where Jesus was kept.
At some point on our trip, someone smart showed us a diagram of Jesus’ path the night of his arrest, called the Triangle of Agony. He traveled from the Garden of Gethsemane to the High Priest Caiaphas’ home, then to the Antonio Fortress. The Church of St. Peter of Gallicantu is on the actual site where Caiaphas’ home had been, so after the Roman soldiers arrested Jesus, they took him to see the Jewish High Priest.
Our guide told us this site is most authentic…that even the steps coming out of the Kidron Valley up to the house/church date back to Jesus’ era.
It was in Caiaphas’ courtyard where Peter was asked by three different people if he was a follower of Jesus. On his third denial, Peter turned to see Jesus looking at him. What Peter saw in Jesus’ eyes was not condemnation but love. Peter fled in shame, but Jesus wouldn’t let it end there. (Recall the story of Peter’s forgiveness on the rocky beach!)
Caiaphas’ home was built above a network of caves that would have been used for storage and as a cistern for water collection. Jesus was put in a pit in these lower caves to await his fate.
Because of the crowds at the church the day we were there, we met under the trees on the beautiful grounds of this church to hear the history and to put ourselves into the narrative.
We didn’t get to go into the pit, but after reading Psalm 88 aloud, we were able to pass by a window that allowed us to see it. A firsthand experience like this makes Jesus’ suffering more real.
The view from this site was amazing. We could see the two valleys, Kidron and Himnon, come together and merge toward the Dead Sea.
We could also see the construction of more modern-day walls. The crazy thing is these particular walls separate Palestinians from Palestinians, which means families are separated, and in some cases, families are separated from their farms, vineyards, and orchards. Despite the beauty of this site and its view, there’s a heaviness that lingers because of its history. Add to that the heaviness of the present situation (that we could see from this holy site), I left Gallicantu full of emotion.
Jerusalem and Bethlehem
We loaded back on the bus to head back to Bethlehem, but we made a stop at a place in town, The Promenade, which offered a great view of Jerusalem and the surrounding suburbs, which in Israel are called settlements – many are Israeli, some Palestinian. It has surprised me just how hilly the Jerusalem area is, so atop higher hills the views are amazing!
Entering Bethlehem after our full day of touring Jerusalem held quite the contrast. Jerusalem has color coming from the meticulous gardens and flowering plants, tourist groups from all over the world, and lots of new construction and growth. Bethlehem, however, has almost no greenery or flowers, significantly fewer tourist, and very little (if any) new construction.
When we asked why this was the case, we learned that behind the walls, which are supposed to be Palestinian lands, Israel still rules every aspect of life, including their water supply. Typically, the water in the Palestine areas behind the walls are turned on once a week, though this past summer it sometimes went as long as two weeks. To compensate, the Palestinians have created tank systems that allow them to store water, then they conserve it greatly…which means watering gardens and plants that are for aesthetics only are not worth the water.
Another thing Israel holds control over is construction. Palestinians have to submit requests to renovate, add-on, or build new structures – homes or businesses — and these permits can take years to obtain. For the most part, the requests are never filled. As a result and out of great need, Palestinians build anyway, risking demolition, which is the consequence for illegally building without a permit.
That night we headed out to our favorite evening pastime – hanging out at Manger Square after dinner. We made more purchases from some of the shop keepers we’d met the night before and heard a few more stories.
Something unusual about Manger Square is that there’s a narrow one-way road that surrounds it, so small cars (ha! That’s really the only size in Israel) would literally race by us as we sat enjoying our minty drinks. It seemed to me they were trying to see how fast they could get in a very short distance and still be able to stop at the corner. It rattled us a bit, but the locals didn’t seem to notice. So, we just tried to ignore them and prayed no one would step out in front of these high velocity vehicles.
Today was Day One in Jerusalem. I went to bed excited to enter the gates of the Old City in Jerusalem the next day. Did I mention … I LOVE the Old City of Jerusalem?