Mount Zion in Jerusalem

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From Zion Gate to Jaffa Gate, the route passes between buildings bearing secrets and historical tales, and touches upon cultures and periods from ancient times to the modern day

One of Jerusalem’s best known names is “Zion,” which originates in the Bible. Mount Zion, which is known to us today in the southwestern part of the Old City, only received its name in the Middle Ages. The mount is sacred to the traditions of all three major religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Mount Zion was enclosed within the walls of Jerusalem in ancient times, but the Ottoman wall built in the 16th century divided the mount, and its peak remained outside the boundaries of the city.

The Armenian St. James Monastery, located within what is known as the Armenian Quarter, is an impressive and old complex that offers its visitors a journey to the culture of the Armenian people.

The Zion Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem

Photo: Ron Peled

The tour passes between the sites of Mount Zion and Old City sites near Jaffa Gate, encountering ancient traditions, tales from the modern age and the intricate labyrinths of Jerusalem history.

On the border of Jerusalem – Zion Gate

This is one of the eight gates in the Old City walls built in the 16th century, in the days of Suleiman the Magnificent, the first Ottoman ruler of Jerusalem. Its location on the top of Mount Zion, by the wayside of the city’s main thoroughfares and commercial life, caused the gate to be of secondary importance – although its Arabic name, “Bab al-Nabi Daoud,” the Gate of the Prophet David, hints at its proximity to a site of great importance – King David’s tomb.

The Mount Zion Compound

Photo: Ron Peled

When the walls were built, explosives were already in use. Nonetheless, the builders were careful to retain traditional defensive elements such as the small gallery (machicolation) that made it possible to observe those coming through the gate, and if need be – pour boiling oil on the city’s enemies. The large number of bullet holes marking the front of the gate attest to the battles that took place here in the War of Independence. 

From 1948 to 1967, the border line passed here: Mount Zion was in Israeli territory, whereas the Old City was under Jordanian control.

Dinner in the Coenaculum – the Room of the Last Supper 

Christian tradition identifies this as the upper room, or Coenaculum, where Jesus and his disciples gathered on Passover eve for the Last Supper, before the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus poured wine for his disciples – a symbol of his blood that was to be spilled, and gave them bread – a symbol of his body that was to be sacrificed on behalf of his believers. This ceremony recurs in the Christian Mass customs that have been held for centuries in churches. The New Testament relates that on Pentecost, fifty days after the crucifixion, the disciple of Jesus and his mother Mary gathered here.

The Last Supper Room – Cenacle

Photo: Ron Peled

They were filled with the Holy Spirit and started to speak in many tongues. The knowledge of these tongues enabled them to spread Christianity among the nations. The day of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples is marked on Pentecost.

This hall was built by the Crusaders about 800 years ago, as part of a large church built over the remains of the Hagia Sion Byzantine church. The building received its present form in 1335, when it was renovated by monks of the Franciscan order, the Custodians of the Holy Land. In the southern wall there is a Muslim prayer niche, a Mihrab, from the 16th century. The niche is dedicated to King David.

Longing from Mount Zion – view from the roof of David’s 

Tomb The lower levels of the building were built in the Roman period, its first storey holds King David’s Tomb, the Room of the Last Supper is on its second storey, and the minaret on the roof was built during the Ottoman period. The building and its tale represent a microcosm of the complexity of Jerusalem’s history as a whole.

Dormition Abbey & Nabi Daud Mosque on Mount Zion

Photo: Ron Peled

In the years when Jerusalem was divided and access to the Western Wall was forbidden, thousands of visitors streamed here every year, wishing to take a look at the Western Wall and the Temple Mount from afar. Therefore, the balcony was known as the “Temple Mount lookout.” It is told that Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben Zvi, was among those who made pilgrimages to Mount Zion. A sign on the door of a small room on the roof marks the “President’s Room” – the place where he used to seclude himself.

Opposite us is the conical dome of the Dormition Abbey, and in the background the buildings of West Jerusalem can be seen. East of us are the Mount Scopus and Mount of Olives ridge. Looking southward, we can see the Armon Hanatziv ridge.

Before coming down from the roof, we can stand by the railing and look down into the courtyard of the complex. We can now see the inner courtyard of the Franciscan monastery built on Mount Zion in the 14th century, which is a cloister (courtyard surrounded by arches).

Today most of the complex is held by the Diaspora Yeshiva.

Mystery of the tombs of the House of David – 

King David’s Tomb “And David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David” – as written in I Kings 2:10. 

Today, the location of the City of David is known, but a medieval tradition identifies David’s Tomb as being on the Mount of Zion. In 1167, the Jewish traveler Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela describes how the tomb was accidentally discovered by two workers who were asked to do construction work for the Patriarch of Jerusalem. They cleared away an old building, and upon moving the ancient stones, they uncovered the opening of a cave.

King David and the Dormition Abbey

Photo: Ron Peled

The workers entered the cave, and a wonderful palace was revealed to them. They were blinded and fell down in a swoon. When they awoke, they fled from the cave as quickly as they could, but told their story to the Patriarch. The latter told the story to the rabbi, who understood that the cave in question was King David’s Tomb. The opening of the cave was sealed and kept secret for many years. In the 16th century, a mosque was built at the site. The tomb was held by the Muslim Dajani family, and Jews and Christians were barred from entering the site.

In the years when Jerusalem was a divided city, David’s Tomb was the most holy site to Jews within the boundaries of the State of Israel. Thousands of visitors went there every year, and ceremonies were held there.

Today too, many Jews visit the spot and read chapters of Psalms there, which are attributed to King David. The status quo in force in the building ensures freedom of worship for members of all three religions.


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