The Via Dolorosa goes via 14 places in Jerusalem – from the place where Jesus’ trial was held, the Praetorium, in today’s the Muslim quarter, to Golgotha (the place of the skull) where he was crucified, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter.
The route takes us along narrow paths, monasteries, underground sites, wonderful panoramas of the entire Old City and the Mount of Olives, all easily done on foot passing through the shops and markets of the Old City.
As the generations have gone by, Christians of various denominations have changed the route of the Way of Suffering several times, according to their faith. The current route was determined 700 years ago by Catholic monks of the Franciscan Order, the Vatican-appointed guardians of the holy sites.
We begin our tour of the Via Dolorosa at the Lions’ Gate (St. Stephen’s Gate) on the eastern side of the Old City wall. The first station will be at the entrance to St Anne’s Church, home to Catholic monks from France, called the White Fathers because of the color of their robes. In the courtyard on the right, there is an impressive authentic crusader church that dates back to the 12th century.
According to tradition, Mary, mother of Jesus and daughter of Anne and Joachim, was born in the crypt of the church. There is a large archaeological site inside the church with the remains of a cistern from the days of the 2nd Temple. The cistern is linked to the story of Jesus’ miracle- making in the New Testament:
“Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep [market] a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue, Bethesda, having five porches” John 5.
We will leave the church and go back into the street. Continuing westwards we will see the Al-Omaria school on our left, which is built on the northern part of the Temple Mount wall. This was once the site of the Roman Antonia Fortress where, according to tradition, Jesus’ trial was held in about 29 A.D.:
“Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas to the hall of judgment: and it was early; and they themselves went not into the judgment-hall, lest they should be defiled; but that they might eat the passover” John 18.
Opposite the entrance to the school, there is a fascinating site that is associated with the 2nd station: the Church of the Flagellation and the Church of the Imposition of the Cross (where Jesus was condemned to carrying the cross on his back).
We will turn right after the gate and enter the beautiful little church. On the other side of the site, to the west, there is another church with a stone model of Jerusalem in the days of the 2nd Temple and in the days of Jesus.
Note the floor of the church which has survived since Roman times and is, according to tradition, the floor on which Jesus walked carrying the cross on his back after his trial, as depicted in the painting on the nearby wall.
We will leave the site and turn right. Looking up, we will see an arch, the Ecce Homo, which means “behold the man” and that is the phrase used by Pontius Pilate just before he passed his judgment on Jesus.
Near the arch, there is a door that leads into the Sisters of Zion Convent, built in the 19th century by Alphonse Ratisbonne, a Jew who converted to Catholicism and who built this convent and other monasteries in Jerusalem.
We will go down the steps of the convent and go back 2000 years to a fascinating archaeological site of Roman Jerusalem. The enormous cistern, burial caskets, sarcophagi and Roman inscriptions on the Roman flagstones that hint at the name of Jesus. This site draws many a pilgrim, all of whom gather here to pray on the flagstones.
The Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family
We will come out of the convent and walk westwards to the corner of Via Dolorosa and Hagai Street. On the right, there is a small fortress, the Austrian Hospice, which was consecrated by Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz-Joseph on his visit here on his way to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
This is an oasis in the heart of Jerusalem that should not be missed. There is a panoramic view of the Old City and of the Mount of Olives from the roof.
Continuing southwards (to the left) from the Hospice on Hagai Street, we will see the 3rd station of Jesus’ route on our left, the Armenian Catholic Church, where Jesus first stumbled. The 4th station is very near: the Church of Our Lady of the Spasm.
We turn right there to the 5th station where Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus to carry the cross and then begin to go up Tarik el Sari Street towards Bet Habad Street and cross the rooftop and the Ethiopian village, Deir es-Sultan, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we will see the 5 last stations of the route of Jesus’ suffering, including the place where he was crucified, anointed and buried.
You can see the 14 stations of the Via Dolorosa on the walls of every Catholic church in the world, in order that the pious can imagine the route and cherish a personal experience, Jesus’ last steps. In Jerusalem, however, they will find “the real thing”!