Mount of Olives panorama

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

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Final Day in Jerusalem . . . with the tour

My group on the Haram es-Sharif with the famous Dome of the Rock in the background.
Today was the final day of our Holy Land tour, though Rachel and I will be staying here for a few more days as I do some research and site visits for an upcoming class that I am teaching on the History and Culture of Ancient Israel, and Rachel visits and looks into Hebrew University, which she is considering for a masters degree.

With our group we covered a lot of ground, starting our day by a visit to what our Muslim friends call the Haram esh-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary Jews and Christians call the Temple Mount. We then visited St. Anne's, which is also the site of the biblical Pool of Bethsesda, and then followed the traditional path of the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

After lunch, Rachel, our friend Rust, and I went up to the roof of the Austrian Hospice for some good views of the Old City. We then rejoined our group for a walk to and through the Jewish Quarter, which included seeing the remains of the Byzantine Cardo, or a Main Street, and the remains of the wall built by Hezekiah to prepare for the Assyrian siege. We then visited the Western Wall, the holiest current site in Judaism.

The Kotel, or Western Wall, contains important remnants of the retaining wall that Herod the Great built for the Temple platform.
We then took buses up to the Jerusalem Center, where my family lived from 2011-2012, before going to the Garden Tomb, an alternative site popular with some Protestants and many Latter-day Saints because it is easier in many ways to imagine the events of the crucifixion and burial here. We then ended the tour with a farewell meal at the Christmas Hotel in East Jerusalem.

Here are some video highlights:

Haram esh-Sharif

The Al Aqsa, or "Farthest," Mosque
What Jews and Christians call the Temple Mount (הַר הַבַּיִת, Hebrew for "Mount of the House [of God]), Muslims call the Haram esh-Sharif (الحرم الشريف, Arabic for "Noble Sanctuary"). I use the latter name because Herod's temple platform currently serves as a Muslim holy place---not just the famous Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque but the entire precinct, which serves as an outdoor mosque and place of prayer. The Dome of the Rock protects and honors the rock from which the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have made his night journey to heaven. Many Jews believe that this is where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, and it is almost certainly where the Holy of Holies was in both the First and Second Temples. Christians believe that Jesus honored this site and taught here.

St. Anne's and the Pool of Bethesda

Coming off of the Haram esh-Sharif, we went to the compound of the Crusader-era Church of St. Anne, which was built to honor the (apocryphal) mother of Mary, Jesus' mother. While we were waiting to get into the church, which has marvelous acoustics and is great for singing hymns, we visited the archaeological remains of the Pool of Bethesda.

Model of the Pool of Bethesda from the Israel Museum model of Jerusalem
John 5:2 mentions a pool in Jerusalem that had five porches. Archaeology has revealed that this was a double pool, with the upper pool connected to the lower by a sluice gate in the dam between the two that could be opened up to replenish the lower and allow it to fulfill the requirements of a miqveh or ritual bath. During and after the time of Jesus, the area had a reputation for healing (the Romans later built a temple of Asclepius here). This was where Jesus healed the man who had had an infirmity for thirty-eight years, which led to his discourse on the Divine Son (John 5:17-47). I discussed this at some length, and we sang "Rock of Ages."

The remains of the Pool of Bethesda

Remains of the Crusader church that had been built, like the earlier Byzantine church, on the dike between the two pools

The interior of St. Anne's
Singing "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" and "As I have Loved You" in St. Anne's

The Via Dolorosa

We then walked the course of the Via Dolorosa, or "Way of Sorrows," established by the Franciscans in the eighteenth century. This was done partly to provide Roman Catholic pilgrims an alternate route given that so many of the traditional holy sites were owned by the Greek Orthodox. In addition, historically Jesus was probably tried before Pilate in Herod's old palace, where the Roman governors had taken residence. But the Franciscans assumed that the trial had taken place in the Fortress Antonia, which created the following path to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

A major procession follows this route every Good Friday, and regular, smaller processions take in on other Fridays as well. In addition to eight of the stations of the cross, it also takes pilgrims through many typical Old City shopping areas.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The earliest Christians venerated a large outcropping of rock and a nearby tomb where they believed that Jesus had been crucified and buried. After the Second Jewish Revolt of A.D. 132-136, the emperor Hadrian strove to co-opt, sometimes literally covering over, earlier places that were important to the Jews, such as the Temple Mount, where he built a Temple to Jupiter. Christians, especially in the Holy Land were seen as just another kind of Jew, so the rock and tomb were covered by a large platform upon which Hadrian built a Temple to Aphrodite.

When Helena, the mother of Constantine, came to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage to A.D. 326-328, she and Makarios, the bishop of Jerusalem, identified the site, and Constantine gave permission for them to raze the Aphrodite Temple, dismantle the platform, and uncover the rock. Unfortunately, the walls of the cave tomb itself were cut away to expose the burial shelf, which was enclosed in a small shrine called the Aedicule.

The original church built by Constantine around the Aedicule was originally a complex, which began with a gateway and courtyard followed by a large basilica called the Martyrium or witness. Another open court behind the basilica was called "The Garden," and recalled the original garden surrounding the Lord's tomb.  There was then a circular domed shrine called the Anastasis, or "Resurrection."

A model illustrating the relationship of the original domed shrine over the tomb (left) and the basilica (right).  In the corner of "the Garden" court the rock of Golgotha was exposed.
This church was destroyed by the Persians in 614.  It had barely been rebuilt when the Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 638.  The Arabs initially allowed the Christians to worship freely, but in 1009 the mad Fatamid caliph Al-Hakim razed the church to the ground.

In 1048 the Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachos paid to rebuild the church but could only afford to rebuild the rotunda over the tomb itself.  Later, when the Crusaders took Jerusalem, they expanded this building some, leading to the basic floor plan of the church today.

All of these changes have completely obscured the original nature of the site. The cave of the tomb itself has long since been destroyed, replaced by the Aedicule, and the rock is largely covered, encased in marble on top of which have been built Latin and Greek altars. A small window in the Chapel of Adam below the Calvary altars and a larger one around the corner in the aisle, however, expose some of the original rock.

Some of the exposed rock of Golgotha
Because of the many changes in the site and the sometimes unfamiliar patterns of worship in the Holy Sepulchre, some Protestants and many Latter-day Saints are not as comfortable here, which perhaps keeps them from appreciating the significance of the place. Even if it does not contain the actual places of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection, the faith of millions of worshipers for almost 2,000 years has made it sacred.


I always remind visitors whom I bring to the Holy Sepulchre of a few things. First, move pass the Calvary altars and the rock of anointing and make a quick turn to the left. There, away from some of the bustle of pilgrim crowds, you can see the exposed rock of Golgotha through the window and perhaps imagine what it originally looked like. Second, when entering the Rotunda, look up at the light streaming through the oculus, or skylight, of the dome. Third, if possible, enter the Syrian chapel of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, where you can see two kokkim tombs from the first century. These show that this indeed had been a burial ground and give some idea of what Jesus' resting place may have been like. 

Although a Roman temple and a succession of Christian churches has obscured the original nature of the site, chapels in its basement reveal that it was originally a stone quarry and that kokkim tombs typical of the first century were later dug there.

Walk through the Jewish Quarter to the Western Wall

Walking through the Jewish Quarter, we saw remains from the First Temple Period (a portion of Hezekiah's city wall), Maccabean ruins, Herodian remains, and the Cardo, or main street of the Roman city built after A.D. 135 (which became the later Byzantine Christian city).

What used to be called "the Wailing Wall" is more properly called the Kotel or Western Wall. The wall is not from the temple proper but rather consists of the the remaining portions of the enormous retaining wall that Herod the Great built to hold up the temple platform.  Only the lower courses of stones, massive Herodian ashlars, are actually from the Second Temple, although some 21 courses lie below the level of today's street.  Above the big stones of Herod are many rows of later Byzantine stones, topped by courses of even smaller, more irregular Arab and Turkish stones.

Because it is generally the closest that observant Jews can get to the site of the original Holy of Holies (there is a controversial passageway called the Kotel Tunnel), this is effectively the holiest site in Judaism, where people from across the world come to pray, hoping their prayers will ascend more directly to God.

Visit to the Jerusalem Center

It was great to go with our group to what is called "Mormon University" here in Jerusalem, receive the standard tour, see old friends, and be in what had been our home for a year in 2011-2012.

Garden Tomb

Our tour ended, as is traditional for LDS groups, at the Garden Tomb in East Jerusalem just north of the Damascus Gate. Discovered in 1867 shortly after Charles Gordon discovered his "Skull Hill" as an alternative to the Golgotha in the Holy Sepulchre, it has been maintained first by the London Missionary Society and later the Garden Tomb Association.

 Regardless of its relatively recent popularity and lack of archaeological or historical credentials, this beautiful spot it a favorite of many Protestants and most Latter-day Saints because it provides such a fitting setting to remember the events of that first Easter morning and and celebrate the miracle of the Resurrection. Perhaps it is for that reason that some of our own leaders have felt so strongly about the site.

We had a moving final devotional. The warm guide, Cesar, who took us around, recognized me from visits in previous years (he later said it was because he remembered how my groups sang!). He allowed me to interrupt his explanation on Skull Hill to read Luke 23:33-46 and for us to sing "Upon the Cross of Calvary." After he finished his explanation in the main part of the garden, we took pictures at the Empty Tomb before gathering in Pavilion B for our devotional. We sang "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today," and I read from and spoke about John 20. We then had a testimony meeting, after which we sang "He Is Risen" and JoAnn prayed for us.

With Johnny, our driver, and Victor, our guide. Masalaami habibi!


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