Jerusalem had me floored, the minute I set foot in the city. Built at a point in time, when a British law made it mandatory for all buildings to use natural Jerusalem stone, these ageing limestone buildings now add charm to the city.
The stone on which Jesus prayed before he was arrested
Approximately 200 meters east of Lions Gate–the entry point into the old city of Jerusalem–almost at the foot of the Mount of Olives and separated by the Kidron valley from the walled city of Jerusalem is Gethsemane. As we enter Gethsemane, we see a garden of olive trees, four or five of which are believed to be the only surviving witnesses to Jesus' agony. In the church alongside is the rock on which Jesus is believed to have prayed for three hours before he was betrayed and handed over to the Roman soldiers. Just outside the church are the Golden gates of the Temple of Jerusalem, but we'll tell you about that another day.
The Pilgrimage Begins
The way of suffering
We enter the Old City of Jerusalem through Lion’s gate or St. Stephen’s gate and walk past the home of saints Anne and Joachim, and the place where Mother Mary was born—St.Anne's Convent. We make our way to the beginning of the Via Dolorosa, Latin for 'Way of Grief', 'Way of Sorrows' or 'Way of Suffering'. It retraces Jesus Christ's journey to the cross, and is today, one of the most important pilgrimages for Christians.
At the beginning of the Via Dolorosa, is the compound of the Convent of the Sisters of Zion. Within this compound stand the churches of the Condemnation and of the Flagellation. Traditionally pilgrims start the Via Dolorosa walk from here.
Church of the Flagellation
As the belief goes, the churches of the Condemnation and of the Flagellation enshrine the spots where Christ was whipped by Roman soldiers and crowned with thorns, before he began his journey down the Via Dolorosa to Golgotha. Inside the Church of the Flagellation, are three stained-glass windows depicting different aspects of the church's Biblical history; Pontius Pilate washing his hands, the second flagellation and the victory of Barabas.
Once upon a Palace
Ecce Homo Arch
We walk out of the convent and look up to see the Muslim Elementary school, which was the praetorium during the time of Jesus. It is the extension of the Antonia Fortress, the palace of Pilate, when he stayed in Jerusalem. Pilate visited Jerusalem no more than twice or thrice a year—Passover was one such time. Walk under the Ecce Homo arch, where as belief goes, Pilate presented Jesus to a hostile crowd after he was scourged and crowned with thorns. This is where, Pilate is said to have uttered the words “Ecce Homo”, which mean 'behold the man'.
The wall where Jesus rested his hand on his way to Golgotha
As we continue up the path, it's easy to be distracted by the countless shops lining the narrow alley. Discs on the wall are engraved with Roman numerals indicative of which station of the cross we are at. There is also a carving depicting the station. Most of these stations are little chapels or churches. We walk on and after the fifth station, we see an imprint on one wall, where Jesus is believed to have rested his hand. While the first seven stations are in the Muslim Quarter, the eighth and ninth are in the Christian quarter and the remaining five are within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
On Holy Ground
The altar built over the spot where the cross was erected
We enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; to the right is the entrance to Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion. We make our way up to a painting depicting the 11th station, when Jesus is nailed to the cross. We follow the long line and finally we are at the altar of the crucifixion, which belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church and marks the 12th station. The rock of Calvary, believed to have cracked open when Jesus died, extends to the right and left of the altar adorned with lamps. I crawl under the altar and stick my hand in the hole marking the spot where the cross was erected. Before I make my way back down I see a few pilgrims make their way to the altar on their knees.
Below the chapel of Golgotha is the chapel of Adam. As history goes, Adam was buried below the rock on which the Cross stood. It is said that when the blood of Jesus trickled down, Adam was resurrected.
The Anointing Stone
At the entrance of the church, is a pink stone believed to be the spot where Jesus' body was prepared for burial. People bow reverently, kiss the stone and rub their handkerchiefs and rosaries over it. There's a large image of the anointing of Christ's body on a wall behind the anointing stone. This wall blocks the view of the rotunda, under which is the structure called Aedicule, which enshrines the Holy Sepulchre. If you're lucky, like I was both times I was at the church, you may not have to spend four hours waiting in line to reach the tomb. And even if you do, once you're in, you will forget about the wait.
Two at a time, we enter the Aedicule. We walk past large candle-stands adorned with angels and through the narrow doorway into the first room, which holds a fragment of the stone, as history states, which had covered the tomb. Then we duck our heads and step into the tomb itself. No more than three people can fit in at a time. My eyes take a while to adjust to the dimly lit space. To my right is a protective marble plaque, which covers the tomb. On a ledge above it are candles and flowers. We bow reverently and touch the marble plaque. There's not enough time to admire the rest of the tomb's interior. A few seconds later we're out. I look around and catch the expressions of a few people; some are crying, some staring off into the distance, while some turn around and just gaze at the Aedicule.
As I leave the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I turn around for one last look and notice a ladder just above the entrance. Curiously I ask our guide about it. “That's the immovable ladder. As all the factions kept fighting, the administration of Christian places (especially the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) was a bothersome issue for the Turk. Hence they created a law of status quo, which meant that nothing could be added or removed in the church. And each denomination would have a designated place of worship. It is believed that in the last century, one of the denominations hired a mason for some repair-work over the church rotunda. As the mason climbed up, authorities from the other denominations objected and forced the mason to descend, leaving the ladder there. The question then was, who would remove the ladder? The factions, so far, have not come to an acceptable decision.”
A Question of Faith
St. Peter in Galicantu
We make our way to Mt Zion, the western hill on which stands Caiphas's house, now called St.Peter in Galicantu. This is where Jesus is thought to have spent a night in the dungeons. After a quick tour of the dungeons, we're back in the sunshine standing before statues of Peter, a Roman soldier, two servant girls and a cock atop a pillar, representing Peter's denial of Jesus.
Tip: The church is almost always crowded and if you are planning on completing the Way of the Cross in order, you will have to wait in serpentine lines. It is easier to join the shortest lines and finish your visit in a random order.
With inputs from Kyriakose Cherian