Mount of Olives panorama

Mount of Olives panorama
A panoramic view of the Mount of Olives

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Few More Sites on the Mount of Olives

As I move into my final months in the Holy Land, I have been generating lists of places to see and things to do before I leave.  Today after class (and after seeing several friends and colleagues who all happen to have come to the center for a tour of the facilities as part of different groups), Kent and I drove over to the top of the Mount of Olives to visit a few sites and check them off of my list.

Russian Church of the Ascension

Despite its name, the Russian Orthodox convent does not commemorate Jesus' ascension into heaven, though it is not far from the traditional site of that event.  Instead, it is a Russian foundation on an earlier Byzantine site whose major claim to fame was the possession of the head of John the Baptist, now "hidden" or lost, which was supposedly buried here after his martyrdom.

Anyone who has been to Jerusalem is probably familiar with the tall bell tower of the convent that dominates the Mount of Olives.  I have seen it on each my previous visits to Jerusalem and it has been a constant fixture in our neighborhood while we have been living here, but I have never actually visited the site.

The tower, actually, is freestanding, not attached to a church.  The main church on the property has been marvelously renovated, and all of its icons and frescoes are in  brilliant color.  Another small chapel is built over the original Church of the Discovery of the Precious Head.  Some of the original mosaics from the earlier church are incorporated into the floor of this chapel.

The convent is entered from a non-descript gate in the Arab neighborhood of At-Tur

Chapel of the Head of St. John the Baptist
Back of the same

This cross sports the skull and crossbones of Adam under Jesus' feet

Some of the original mosaics in the floor of the "Chapel of the Discovery of the Sacred Head"

Another view of the free-standing bell tower

The main church

Jesus delivering the Mount of Olives Discourse

Mosque of the Ascension

Through some quirks of history and changes of ownership over the ages, the traditional spot of the Risen Lord's ascension into heaven is now part of a Muslim mosque.  Early Christians (before Constantine) originally commemorated the Ascension in the Cave of the Mysteries, which was incorporated into the Eleona Basilica (today's Pater Noster) by the empress Helena.  The Byzantines later built a fine, if unusual, church to commemorate Jesus' return to heaven.  A large, round church, its center was open to the sky.

This church was destroyed or otherwise fell into ruin in the early Islamic period, but the Crusaders rebuilt it as a  large octagonal Romanesque.   When Saladin retook Jerusalem, he deeded the property to Muslims, who added a mihab or prayer niche and then closed in the roof over the small aedicule that had contained one of Jesus' footprints.  The piece of stone with the other footprint was taken to the Al Aqsa Mosque.  The courtyard around the smaller Muslim Shrine still preserves the walls of the larger Crusader chapel.

Standing next to the small Muslim shrine that stands within a courtyard which includes the walls of the earlier, larger Crusader church

Inside the mosque

The footprint of Jesus?

The newer, functioning mosque next to the Mosque of the Ascension

Tombs of the Prophets

In the same area is a first century tomb complex usually known as "The Tomb of the Prophets," which its owners (the Russian Orthodox Church) have at times claims contains the tombs of Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi, the last Old Testament prophets.  The identification comes from Medieval Jewish legend but is certainly incorrect.  Still, the kokhim type grave shafts that extend from the semi-circular galleries are representative of the type common at the time of Christ.

Plan of the tomb complex
Kent descends into the tombs

We were given candles to explore them!

Semi-circular gallery with kokhim radiating out from the floor level
Close-up of a few kokhim

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