Highlights include: St. Anne’s Church, the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Jesus came to Jerusalem on the eve of Passover, accompanied by his followers. The events that took place during the week following his arrival in the city until crucifixion and resurrection have become the foundations of the Christian faith. After eating with his disciples (“the Last Supper”), Jesus went the Garden of Gethsemane. It is here that he was caught, handed over to the Romans and sentenced to die on the cross.
The path Jesus walked from the place of his judgment to the site of his crucifixion is sacred in Christianity and is known as the” Via Dolorosa” – the Way of Suffering. Fourteen stations along the route signify events that are mentioned in the New Testament and later Christian tradition, and various Christian sects emphasize certain traditions and stations over others.
The current route of the Via Dolorosa was set down during the Middle Ages.
It originates with events from the 1st century CE, but their significance for believers crosses the boundaries of time and space.
We begin our tour at the Lions Gate.
Lions at the gates to the city – the Lions Gate The gate gets its name from the pairs of stone “lions” seen on either side of the gate’s façade. Legend has it that Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who built the walls around the Old City in the 16th century, dreamed about lions who were about to devour him because he had not seen to the defense of the city of Jerusalem. Upon awakening, he ordered that the walls be built and that lions be placed at the city’s gate.
There are those who believe that they are actually panthers, the crest of the Mameluke Sultan Baybars, and it would seem that they were originally part of an older building. In Arabic the gate is known as Bab Sitt Maryam, named for the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, who is buried at the foot of the Kidron Valley.
In Christian tradition the gate is called St. Stephan’s Gate for St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr who was stoned to death. During Easter Week, Palm Sunday processions pass through the gate on their way from the Mount of Olives to the Old City, following the tradition of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. During the Six Day War, IDF paratroopers breached this gate in order to reach the Old City.
At the top of the gate is a small turret. In Arabic this is known as a meshikuli, from the English “machicolation,” a small parapet or turret through which it is possible to observe those entering the city and if necessary – to pour boiling oil or tar on your enemies. We enter the Old City through the Lions Gate and continue along Lions Gate Road (Derech Sha’ar Ha-Arayot). To our left is one of the gates to the Temple Mount, called in Arabic Bab al-Asbat – the Gate of the Tribes.
To our right there is a ‘sabil’ or water fountain, with an Arabic inscription. We continue past a Greek Orthodox chapel which marks the place which Christian tradition identifies as the site where the Virgin Mary was born. A few meters to the right is the entrance to St. Anne’s Church. Please note: Some parts of the compound are accessible. The church itself is not accessible.
Healing and mercy – St. Anne’s Church and the Pool of Bethesda
Christian tradition identifies St. Anne’s Church as the home of Anne (Hannah) and Joachim, the parents of Mary, mother of Jesus, and this is the origin of its name. It was built in the 12th century and it is one of the most beautiful Crusader churches in Israel. In 1192, after the fall of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, Saladin turned the church into the Salahiyye theological school for the study of Qur’an, which is commemorated in an inscription over the entrance to the church.
The building was abandoned during the Ottoman period. In the 19th century the compound was given to the French Order of the White Fathers. The order renovated the church and uncovered
the remains of the old churches that we can see in the adjoining site.
Behind the church are the remains of ancient pools, a Roman temple and churches. The pools have been identified with the Pool of Bethesda mentioned in the New Testament, as the place where Jesus healed a crippled man by speaking to him.
During the Roman period this site was the location of a temple to Asclepius, the Roman god of healing. A church was built over the ruins of the temple and the pool in the 5th century, and today we can see the great arches that supported the floors.
On your right is a plan of this impressive archaeological site. We can see here the remains of ancient pools, two ruined churches, one Byzantine and the other Crusader, and a few surviving stones of a Roman temple.
The small valley in front of us was used as a reservoir in ancient times. Witness the two large reservoirs from the Second Temple era some 2,000yers ago.
We proceed along Lions Gate Street towards the first station of the Via Dolorosa.
Please note: Ascending this part of the street involves considerable effort, and is recommended only with the assistance of a helper who is physically fit.
We are now next to the steps leading to the first station of the Via Dolorosa, the al-Omariya School for Boys. Note the Roman numeral “one” on the metal circle above the school sign. Nine of the fourteen stations along the route are marked in this way. This route is based on a devotional walk organized by the Franciscans in the 14th century. Every year thousands of pilgrims religiously follow Jesus’ final route, stopping to pray at each station along the way.
The First Station of the Cross: The condemnation of Jesus
This is where the Antonia Fortress stood, which housed the Roman guard. This is why the site is connected to Jesus’ trial by the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate. During the Ottoman Period the fortress housed a barracks, prison and government seat, and tribunals were held here. For the Christian faithful there is some support for the historical connection and the belief that Jesus was tried here.
The steps used to descend from the location of his trial to the street were sent to Rome during the 4th century to the Scala Sancta church – the Church of the Holy Steps.
Today this is the site of the Al-Omariya School for Boys. Friday afternoons a Franciscan procession leaves from here, which continues down the length of the Via Dolorosa.
Enter the Franciscan Monastery of the Flagellation across the s treet from theAl-Omariya School.
Please note: There is a step at the entrance. Use the ramp to go down to the level of the church.
The Second Station of the Cross: Jesus is given his cross Before us are two churches – the Chapel of the Flagellation to the right and the Chapel of the Condemnation and Imposition of the Cross to the left. The Chapel of the Flagellation marks the affliction of Jesus after his trial, and the entrance to the church is adorned with a relief similar to the crown of thorns the mocking Roman soldiers placed upon the head of Jesus.
There are also stained glass windows, one of which depicts Pilate washing his hands – a gesture symbolic of his being innocent of responsibility for the crucifixion, because after Pilate offered to release a prisoner from jail in honor of the Passover holiday, the people preferred that he free the prisoner named Barabbas, rather than freeing Jesus.
After leaving this chapel, cross the courtyard where archaeological exhibits are on display, to the Chapel of the Condemnation on the other side.
The Chapel of the Condemnation was built on the ruins of a Byzantine church. Its floor contains street paving stones from the 2nd century CE, with grooves intended to keep horses and carriages from slipping on the smooth stone. This is the flooring known as the Lithostrotos. On the decorations you can see Pontius Pilate (who is washing his hands) sending Jesus for crucifixion and the placing of the cross on Jesus’ shoulders.
In the courtyard are wooden crosses and contemporary pilgrims carry these on their backs during processions along the Via Dolorosa. The compound, which also houses a Franciscan academy and institute, was built in the 20th century.
The institute includes a library and a museum.
Return to the street and turn right. Continue west until you reach Aqabat el-Rahbat (the Stairs of the Nuns) on your right.
Please note: There is a difficult incline from Feisal Street to the Ecce Homo Arch and it should be done with the assistance of a helper who is physically fit.
Behold the man! The Ecce Homo Arch
Above the street is the Ecce Homo Arch (“Behold the man” in Latin). According to the New Testament, these were the words uttered by the Roman procurator when he presented Jesus to the people before being sentenced. The arch was built in the 2nd century CE during the time of
Emperor Hadrian, as the entrance gate leading into the Roman Forum (the public square).
On either side were two smaller arches: the northern arch was integrated into the Ecco Homo Basilica. Also located nearby is the Convent of the Sisters of Zion, where ancient ruins were found beneath its foundations. There is an archaeological site here with diagrams and finds from the excavations.
Continue down the street toward al-Wad Street. Turn left over the old Roman paving stones. On your left you can see the Third and Fourth Stations of the Cross, at the entrance of the Armenian Catholic compound.
The Third Station of the Cross: Jesus falls for the first time Here according to tradition, Jesus, bearing the cross, fell for the first time.
To your right is a Polish Catholic church, which was actually purchased by Armenian Catholics based in Poland. The relief at the entrance depicts Jesus falling for the first time under the weight of the cross as he walked along the Via Dolorosa. The church compound stretches along the street until the Fourth Station of the Cross.
The present chapel was built in 1947 through donations made by Polish soldiers.
The Fourth Stations of the Cross: Jesus meets his mother
The Fourth Station, commemorating Jesus meeting his mother, also belongs to the Armenian Catholic Church. Excavations brought to light a section of a mosaic floor, perhaps of a Byzantine church, depicting a pair of sandals. According to tradition, the Virgin Mary stood here and observed the suffering of her son as he carried the cross on his way to his death.
Another part of the church was built over the ruins of a Mamluk-period public bath, known as Hamam es-Sultan.
Please note: The Armenian Catholic compound itself is not accessible.
Continue along al-Wad Street until you reach the continuation of the Via Dolorosa on your right. On the corner, at the bottom of the climb, you can see the lintel of a small chapel, with a Latin inscription and crosses.
The Fifth Station of the Cross: Simon of Cyrene
“As they led him away, they laid hold upon one Simon, a Cyrenian, coming out of the country, and on him they laid the cross that he might bear it after Jesus.” (Luke, 23).
We are now in front of the Fifth Station of the Cross. At this site the Roman soldiers forced passersby to offer assistance to those who had been sentenced, as they began the final ascent towards the crucifixion hill.
This is the Chapel of Simon of Cyrene. To the right of the lintel, near the corner of the wall at shoulder height, is a smooth stone with a hollow. According to Christian tradition this hollow was an imprint made when Jesus stumbled and rested his hand upon the wall to keep his balance, and the touch of centuries of pilgrims has smoothed out the stone and made the depression deeper.
The chapel belongs to the Franciscans, as indicated by the symbol on the building’s façade: The “Jerusalem Cross” consisting of one large cross with four smaller crosses in either corner, the cross that was adopted by the Franciscan order; and the symbol of the Franciscans depicting the crossed arms of Jesus and St. Francis of Assisi underneath a dove that symbolized the Holy Spirit.
We turn back and return north along al-Wad Street until it intersects with Suq Khan a-Zait Street. As you reach the intersection, turn left onto Suq Khan a-Zait Street.
Please note: The street is very crowded and the old pavements might be slippery. We recommend the assistance of a helper who is physically fit.
Al-Wad and Suq Khan a-Zait Streets
These two streets are the commercial crossroads of the Old City, and offer a wonderful mixture of merchandise, scents and colors. The market is designed for mostly local consumption. The two streets are built over the route of ancient Roman streets from the 2nd century CE, when Jerusalem was rebuilt as a pagan city called Aelia Capitolina.
Damascus Gate in the north and the area of the Dung Gate in the south were connected by the
eastern Cardo – al-Wad Street of today. The western Cardo crossed the city from Damascus Gate to the area of Zion Gate – Suq Khan a-Zait Street and Jewish Quarter Street of today.
Continue south until you reach the Seventh Station of the Cross on the right.
You have rejoined the Via Dolorosa. You are now in front of a Franciscan chapel, built in 1875.
The Seventh Station of the Cross: The Gate of Judgment,Jesus falls for the second time
This is the gate through which Jesus left the city of Jerusalem for his crucifixion outside the city and here his guilt was proclaimed. He was declared as the “King of the Jews,” a proclamation that meant rebellion against the Roman empire. According to later tradition Jesus fell a second time, on the threshold of the gate. (The Russians identify this gate as being in a nearby compound owned by them.)
At the entrance we see the base of a Roman column that stood on the ancient thoroughfare, the Cardo
Maximus, whose path and commercial nature are preserved to this very day. Inside the chapel is a relief showing Jesus kneeling with the cross on his back. According to tradition, Jesus left the city through the so-called Judgment Gate, where the Romans reaffirmed the death sentences.
A monumental gate of the period is today enshrined within the nearby Russian Church of St. Alexander Nevsky.
Continue along the crowded street and turn right onto Ad-Dabbagha St. Follow the curve for a few moments until reaching the entrance to a church on your right. This is the Russian church of St. Alexander Nevsky, named for the Russian military leader who lived in the 13th century, and became a venerated figure in the Russian community.
Please note: The church is not accessible.
The Church of St. Alexander Nevsky
Alexander Nevsky was the patron saint of Czar Alexander III, who promoted Russian building in Jerusalem during the 19th century. Built in Baroque style, with Oriental red and white stone ornamentation, the church was dedicated in 1896 on land already bought by the Russian Consul in the 1850s.
Excavations at the construction site uncovered important archaeological findings, however, and delayed the completion of the planned Consulate and pilgrim lodge.
The excavations uncovered a large gate and stairs. Researchers assume that this was one of two triumphal gates existing in 2nd-century CE Jerusalem. According to Russian Orthodox belief, this was the entrance to the Roman forum. Some assume that the staircase led to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher during the Byzantine period, as depicted in the 6th-century mosaic map of the Holy Land found in Madaba, Jordan.
We see at the top of the building the emblem of the Imperial Russian Orthodox Mission in the
Holy Land, the entity that undertook the development of Russian properties during Ottoman rule. The symbol includes the letters “chi” and “rho” – representing the name of Christ in Greek. The mission’s flag flies alongside the Russian one over the building.
Continue straight past the St. Alexander Nevsky Church, past a number of souvenir stores, and through a narrow arched doorway to the plaza in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. You can view the entire façade of the church from the corner of the plaza.
Please note: There is a steep ramp over the few steps leading down to the plaza. Descend carefully. If you are using a wheel chair, it is recommended to descend backward.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher
We are now in front of what is considered the holiest place for most Christian communities, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – the site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Christ. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was originally constructed in the 4th century by Queen Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine who instituted Christianity as the imperial religion, while on a visit to Jerusalem. It was larger and was known as the Church of the Resurrection, actually referring to Jesus’ resurrection from the grave.
In the Byzantine period, an enormous church compound was erected, which became the Christian religious center of Jerusalem for hundreds of years. The church was seriously damaged in the Persian conquest in 614, and almost totally destroyed in 1009 on order of the Fatimid ruler al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah. This was one of the main historical events that sparked the First Crusade. After the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099, the church was rebuilt and has maintained its medieval dimensions ever since.
The high arched entrance dates back to the Crusader period – the 12th century. The church is the fourth one to be built on this site.
In the 13th century, following constant disagreement between the sects, the keys to the church were handed to the Muslim family of Nuseibeh for safekeeping, and they are still responsible for opening the doors at sunrise and locking them at sunset. Most of the compound is run by the Greek Orthodox, the Catholic and the Armenian sects, with smaller chapels set aside for the Coptic Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox.
In the 19th century a “status quo” was signed, an agreement that defines the ownership of the different sects and arrangements for worship and other ceremonies at the church; this agreement is still in effect today. To our left is a bell tower that was built during the Crusader Period.
The Tenth Station of the Cross – Jesus is stripped of his garments A small stairway outside the church leads to the Tenth station. Up the staircase to the right, beneath a silver dome, is a Franciscan chapel that commemorates where Jesus was stripped of his garments, which were distributed among those who placed him on the cross. This was the place from which pilgrims would climb up to Calvary (the Latin name for the site of the crucifixion).
Please note: The Tenth Station of the Via Dolorosa is not open to visitors.
We now enter the church.
Please note: The church as a whole is only accessible at ground level
There is one step at the entrance.
Just inside the doorway of the church, the steep stairs on your right lead to the top of a small hill, and the Eleventh and Twelfth Stations of the Cross.
The Eleventh Station of the Cross: Jesus is nailed to the cross Here Jesus was nailed to the cross. A crusader mosaic in the ceiling describes Jesus as the ruler of the world, and on the wall is an image of the Binding of Isaac which, according to ancient tradition, actually took place at Calvary – hinting at the crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection.
This section of the compound belongs to the Catholic Church and is therefore known as the Latin Calvary.
The Twelfth Station of the Cross: Jesus dies on the cross The area to the left (the Twelfth Station of the Cross) marks the site of the crucifixion. This section belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church and is called Greek Orthodox Calvary.
Pilgrims climb the steep steps to touch the sacred rock where, it is believed, his cross stood. At the time of Jesus, this hill was outside the city walls and near a burial site. In Byzantine times – from the 4th to the 6th centuries – the rock stood in an open courtyard, but in the 12th century the Crusaders roofed the area and incorporated the various chapels in one large church.
In the New Testament the place where Jesus was crucified is called Golgotha (from the Aramaic for “skull”). Tradition says that Adam was buried underneath the Rock of Golgotha and that Jesus’ blood dripped onto Adam’s skull, symbolizing atonement for Adam’s Original Sin (in the Garden of Eden).
On your right is the Chapel of Adam. Part of the rock is visible in the Chapel of Adam, beneath us, especially the red veins in the stone which are thought to be the blood of Christ. In the background we see Jesus on the cross and above him is his indictment “This is Jesus the King of the Jews.” Below the alter is a round niche in which the cross stood. A long line of people waits to visit this site, and the faithful prostrate themselves in holy awe.
The Thirteenth Station: Jesus is taken down from the cross Between the previous Stations of the Cross is a statue of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Sorrow, and above this is an arch that says “Stabat Mater” (“the mother stood”). In Catholic tradition this is where Mary stood and observed her son on the cross; other traditions place this spot at the entrance to the church. This is the Stone of Unction, where the body of Jesus was laid out and anointed with oil and spices, and prepared for burial.
Pilgrims who visit here kiss the stone and bring cloths that have been soaked in oil. The mosaic on the wall depicts the removal of Jesus from the cross, his anointing and his burial in the cave. The Fourteenth Station of the Cross: Jesus is laid in the Tomb and is resurrected Jesus was removed from the cross as the Sabbath was approaching, and there was no time to find him a proper burial site. A man by the name Joseph of Aramathea offered his family’s burial cave that was located nearby, and thus the location of the most holy site in Christianity was decided. When Mary, Jesus’ mother, returned to the tomb on Sunday with Mary Magdalene in order to arrange for a more permanent tomb they did not find his body and an angel told them of his miraculous resurrection.
Continue along the circular corridor. On your right are tiny chapels that belong to different Christian denominations. Proceed to the Rotunda, a large round hall with an imposing structure at its center. We are now at the core of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
The tomb of Jesus is located in the center of a round hall, inside a rectangular structure known as the Edicule. Leading to it is the Chapel of the Angel, which contains a piece of the stone that was rolled in front of Jesus’ tomb and opened at the time of the resurrection; in an interior room is the Holy Sepulcher, the Tomb of Jesus.
Every year on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter) the Holy Fire ceremony is celebrated as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch enters the Tomb and prays.
The Holy Fire, symbolizing the Resurrection of Jesus, descends from Heaven, lights the candle in the hand of the Patriarch and the flame is passed along to the believers standing around him. Behind the tomb is a Coptic chapel and opposite the entrance to the chapel is a Roman burial cave, evidence of the fact that this was once a burial site.
Across from the entrance to the cave is the Greek Orthodox Catholicon that contains a round vase containing a large ball. This is known as the omphalos and signified what is thought to be the center of the world.
Encircling the Rotunda are the chapels belonging to other denominations.
One can visit additional sites inside the church, such as the Chapel of St.
Helena or the Chapel of the Cross, at the bottom of the stairs leading out of the hall behind the Catholicon.
Exit the church, leave the plaza and go back through the small arched gate.
Turn right onto Muristan Street. On your left is an impressive church with a bell tower, the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, built in 1898. On the other side of the road is the Avtimos Market, built in the early 20th century by the Greek Orthodox.
Please note: Parts of it are accessible and offer pleasant resting places.
Our tour ends here. To exit the Old City, proceed along Muristan Street and through a short, arched tunnel. Turn left on David Street and then right onto Jewish Quarter Street.
Please note: There is one step at its entrance.
The street takes you into the Jewish Quarter, where public transportation is available.