The Mount of Olives is beautiful and filled with churches and cemeteries. Unfortunately, it was also raining and we didn’t have an umbrella. But our guide was great and we saw many wonderful, moving things.
Our tour drove us to the top of the mountain and we walked down, stopping along the way. We started at the Chapel of Ascension, which is actually a mosque. The Muslims share the chapel/mosque two days out of the year (Day of Ascension in Gregorian and Julian calendars). This is, of course, traditionally where Jesus ascended back into heaven.
This area is filled with apartments and homes belonging to Palestinian Arabs, the ones that are allowed to live in the East Jerusalem annexation of 1980 (following the Six-Day War of 1967). While most Palestinians are pretty peaceful now (and are probably just happy they’re not stuck in the West Bank), there are problems with Arab youths assaulting Jewish funeral-goers. And the not-forgotten bad memories of what Jordan did during its occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Old City: destroying synagogues, churning up cemeteries and using headstones for pavement, and building a hotel over a Jewish holy place. While Jordan was condemned for invading Israel in 1949ish (interestingly enough, by the Arab League), it was never condemned by the UN for destroying cultural and spiritual places of Israel during the 19 years of occupation.
On a brighter note, this is how Jesus came down from Bethany on a donkey to enter Jerusalem. The place where he traditionally stopped and cried for the temple and the Jewish people has a church, designed by the same architect/monk who did the Chapel of Angels from Bethlehem.
The outside of the Church of Dominus Flevit is supposed to look like human tears. The altar inside has a mosaic of a hen and her chicks, from when Jesus wishes he could gather his people up like a mother hen. The view from inside it astounding. This architect was blessed with vision.
We walked down a ways and saw the Garden of Gethsemane (near the bottom of the Mount of Olives, probably a 20-30 minute hike from the Old City through the Kidron Valley). Here, the same architect built the Franciscan Church of All Nations, so-named because many countries donated money to build it. It is also called the Basilica of Agony, for this is where Jesus prayed before his arrest. Originally, Empress Helena built a Byzantine church there in the 4th century, and centered the church to face a large white stone, the rock Jesus wept, bled, and prayed on. It was destroyed by the Persians and/or an earthquake, of course, and when the Crusaders came through a couple hundred years later they didn’t know about the stone. They just rebuilt the church at a different angle, covering the rock. It was eventually abandoned, until Barluzzi excavated and built a new church with the stone as the center point.
It is a breathtaking church, full of darkness and sorrow. The windows are of alabaster, a translucent stone, rather than glass, to let only a little light through. The glass doors are covered in metalworking designed to resemble olive trees, and the stones inside are all dark.
Above the stone and altar is a painting of Jesus praying on the stone. To the left is a painting of Judas’ kiss, to the right Jesus revealing himself to the guards. The front of the church was filled with pilgrims coming to touch, kiss, and pray over the white stone in the floor. This was a church created to weep in–the imminent agony and suffering of Jesus is present, but Barluzzi also made the church a perfect piece of worship all on its own, just the building. Through the architecture you cannot help but think of Jesus’ prayers in the middle of the night.
After touching the stone, Jordan and I sat and prayed for a bit. Everything seemed so real. Recalling the story of Jesus’ prayers and sweating of blood, his readiness to die for me, it felt like I was hearing it for the first time, it was that powerful. It’s amazing how easily I move through my life and forget what God did for me, who did nothing to deserve this love or sacrifice. I have people in my life, I believe, who would jump in front of a bullet for me. I have the blessing of loving many people in my life that I would do the same. But to know that someone, a real person, prayed and cried over the decision to actually sacrifice his life for mine–and did it–before I could know or appreciate it was very moving. Being in this basilica brought it all back to me.
The remains of the Garden of Gethsemane.
We ended our tour at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, a church by Greek and Armenian Orthodox. Copts, Syrians, and Ethiopians also have some rights in the church, and Muslims come in to pray sometimes. According to one tradition, after Jesus’ death Mary was taken back to John’s home and fell into a coma (perhaps from grief). She died, and was buried. On the third day Jesus came to his mother’s tomb and took her to heaven. The mourners saw the tomb was empty but smelled of fresh flowers, so eventually a church was built there in the 5th century. Evidence does exist that the church (which was built and rebuilt multiple times) is over a 1st century graveyard, but there isn’t any evidence of Christian worship before the first church there. There are other legends that Mary lived in Ephesus with John or went to Britannia with Joseph of Arimathea.
To get to the crypt, we walked down 47 steps and passed the burial place of Joseph (Mary’s husband) Mary’s parents, and Queen Melisende. She was the daughter of Baldwin II and the cousin once removed of Baldwin I, one of the main leaders of the First Crusade and the second ruler of Jerusalem (though he was the first to accept the title King of Jerusalem). Even though she was a young woman, she inherited the kingdom of Jerusalem from her father (and before that, his cousins). The crusaders and Europeans in modern-day Israel loved her and thought she was an amazing ruler. She lived from 1105 to 1161, when she suffered a stroke.
Down at the bottom of the crypt is the empty tomb of Mary, with lavishly decorated icons and reliefs around the cave walls. Pilgrims write prayers and slip the pieces of paper through the cracks in the glass case to land in the empty stone coffin. Some donate money. This place is definitely worth a visit, though I wouldn’t put it as high on the list as the Holy Sepulchre or Church of Agony/All Nations.
By then it was sunset and we had to rush to the bottom of the Mount of Olives, cross the narrow Kidron, and climb back up into the Old City. We entered through the Lion Gate, which was where the old Roman fortress was at the time of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. The guide showed us the way down the Via Dolorosa, which we followed until it was time to get to our hostel.
While it wasn’t ideal for it to be raining during our trek, we are both so glad that we made Mt. of Olives a priority on our short trip!