Mount of Olives panorama

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

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Jerusalem Day 3: Gethsemane, BYU Jerusalem Center, the Western Wall and the Temple Steps, and the Garden Tomb

The Orson Hyde Memorial Garden

We began the final day of our tour by visiting and holding a devotional at the Orson Hyde Memorial Garden, which commemorates the mission of Latter-day Saint apostle Orson Hyde to Jerusalem from April 1841 to December 1842. On October 24, 1841, he climbed the Mount of Olives and, while overlooking the Holy City, dedicated the land, as recounted by my colleague Steve Harper in 2011:

For further discussion of Elder Hyde's mission and the the establishment of the Orson Hyde Memorial Garden in 1979, see my October 23, 2011, blog entry.

Given that we do not know exactly where on the Mount of Olives Jesus' Gethsemane experience occurred, the Memorial Garden provided us with a peaceful, and private, spot, to have one of the most meaningful devotionals of our trip. We began by singing by singing “God Loved Us So He Sent His Son,” after which Natalie Blackwell prayed for us. After discussing the meaning of Gethsemane as “the place of the olive press,” I then asked Chris Rawlins to consecrate some olive oil for the group. I then read from Luke 22 and D&C 20 and compared Jesus’ “loneliest journey” to the sacrificial practice of ancient Israel in which the guilt of the worshiper was placed on the victim, which was led to the altar and then sacrificed. We then sang “Reverently and Meekly Now” before giving everyone 15 minutes of private reflection time.

With our local guide and my friend, Abu Marwan (Salah Siyam)

The Basilica of the Agony and the Garden of Gethsemane

We then walked down the hill to the Basilica of the Agony, which has on its grounds several ancient olive trees that recall the trees that witnessed the suffering of Jesus Christ as he shouldered the crushing burden of our sins, sorrows, and infirmities.


The current church is built on the footprint of the first Byzantine Church that contained in its apse the stone one which early Christians believed Jesus knelt to pray. A later Crusader church  was built on a slightly different orientation. Today's basilica is sometimes called "The Church of All Nations" because some 20 countries contributed to build it on the original plan. 

My wife, Elaine, and I attended a moving service on the Thursday before Easter in 2012, after which we joined a candlelight procession through the Qidron Valley to the Church of Peter Gallicantu. Scroll to the bottom of my April 6, 2012, blog entry to read the section entitled "Holy Hour and the Candlelight Walk," which has pictures and video clips of the experience.

The BYU Jerusalem Center

Levon next drove us up to the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center for Ancient Near Eastern Studies, which is on Mount Scopus just north and a little west of the Mount of Olives. this was our family's home for one year, August 2011-August 2012. After watching the orientation video, the group went into the Auditorium with its spectacular views of the Old City. They were treated to an organ concert and were able to walk around the grounds of my "second home."

The view as one approaches the upper entrance of the Jerusalem Center
The upper gardens

The view of the Old City through the windows of the Auditorium

Barbara Nagle and Matt Gardner, who are from my Provo ward

One of my favorite reading, praying, and thinking spots on the grounds

Another great reading place!
The amazing views from the Jerusalem Center

The Western Wall

Levon drove us back to the Old City, where we once again entered through the Dung Gate, passed through security, and entered the Western Wall Plaza. This used to be the Mughrabi Quarter, inhabited by Arabs originally from North Africa. Before 1948, Jewish worshipers who wanted to get as close to the temple as they could, needed to access a single stretch of exposed retaining wall in a narrow alley. In those days it was often called "The Wailing Wall."

Photograph from the League of Nations of prayers at the Western or Wailing Wall in Jerusalem in 1929.  This image is from the collections of The British National Archives. See
After the Israelis gained control of the Old City in 1967, the Mughrabi Quarter was demolished, and the large plaza that replaced it has opened up the Western Wall as a sacred space for thousands of worshipers.

The Kotel, or Western Wall, contains important remnants of the retaining wall that Herod the Great built for the Temple platform.

The Davidson Archaeological Gardens

After the Western Wall, we entered the archaeological excavations around the base of the Temple Mount. Salah and I explained the excavations around the southwest corner and southern side of the Temple Mount, where the massive Herodian ashlars of the retaining walls are in plain view, as are many stones that the Romans pushed off the top of the mount when the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70.

The stones that the Romans threw down from the top of the Temple Mount when they destroyed it literally dented the Herodian street below. Now they serve as a continued fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy that "one stone would not be left upon another" (Mark 13:2).

 On the remains of the steps below the Huldah Gates, we sang “We Love Thy House, O Lord.” This is an area where one can actually say, "I walked today where Jesus walked," because this is the way Jesus and the apostles, like other Jewish pilgrims, would have entered the House of God.

The arch of one of partially exposed Double Gate that led into the Temple Courts
The now closed Triple Gate leading into the Temple Courts

One of the many miqwa'ot at the base of the temple steps that were used for ritual purification

Gordon's Calvary and the Garden Tomb

As British and other European Protestants increasingly came on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the nineteenth century, the often found the Holy Sepulchre and the Greek, Roman, and Armenians rites celebrated there to unfamiliar and even off-putting.  In 1883, a visiting British general named Charles Gordon became interested in a rocky escarpment north of the Old City not far from the Damascus Gate. It was close to the spot where tradition held that Stephen had been stoned to death (see Acts 7:54-50), and Gordon wondered whether this might also have been a place where crucifixions took place. In fact the rocky cliff face looked much like a skull, which was the meaning of "Golgotha." When an ancient tomb was discovered nearby, he wondered whether he had found not only the actual place of the Crucifixion but the site of Jesus's burial as well.

The Garden Tomb Association was organized to purchase, develop, and maintain the site, and it is now a lovely venue to recall the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. For this reason it is preferred by some Protestants and many, if not most, Latter-day Saints. In my 2011 book on Holy Week entitled God So Loved the World, I wrote this about the differences between the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb:

The identification of the Garden Tomb is not without its own problems. Archaeologists have dated the tomb itself to the seventh century before Christ, much too early to have been the “new tomb” described by the Gospels. Although it is possible that earlier tombs might have been adapted and reused in later periods, this unlikelihood, together with the lack of any earlier local traditions about the site, makes it uncertain that the Garden Tomb could actually have been the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid.
Nevertheless, in many ways the Garden Tomb provides an attractive alternative to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre because it provides a place that some Protestants and Latter-day Saints find more conducive to reading, praying, and quietly reflecting on the miracle of the Resurrection. In addition, two LDS Church presidents, Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball, felt strongly about the location when they visited it. Perhaps one way of understanding the seemingly conflicting suggestions of archaeology and tradition on the one hand and sentiment and inspiration on the other is to remember that, in the end, we commemorate events, not places. The essential point is that we celebrate the truth that on that first Easter morning, Jesus came forth from a tomb in a garden where his body had lain.
I have found that I feel the Spirit in both places but for different reasons. In the traditional site, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I am stirred by the visible devotion of countless pilgrims who come there to honor the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord. Over the course of two millennia, their faith has made that site sacred. But near the Garden Tomb I am better able to imagine and relive, in a sense, what that first Easter was like. And I draw inspiration from the words of President Gordon B. Hinckley, who said, “Just outside the walls of Jerusalem, in this place or somewhere nearby was the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, where the body of the Lord was interred.” (God So Loved the World, 101)
The Garden Tomb Association provided us with a  nice, Protestant Irishman as our guide.

Gordon's Calvary is now called "Skull Hill." Although we did not have time to sing or have any devotional there beyond the introduction our friendly Irish guide gave us (the garden was very full that afternoon), the site made me think of the Crucifixion, a part of Jesus' atoning sacrifice that we as Latter-day Saints do not always appreciate enough. I am inserting here a talk I gave in 2016 on the importance of the cross at BYU:

After we finished the formal tour, we started our final devotional by singing “Upon the Cross of Calvary.” After Joy Patten prayed, and we sang“Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” I then read much of John 20 and lead ouor group in the traditional responses “He Is Risen, Alleluia!” and “Alleluia, he is risen indeed!” Following testimonies by several in our group, we then sang “He Is Risen” and I prayed one last time. 

It was a wonderful way to end our pilgrimage.

Salah and Levon then took us to Christmas Hotel in East Jerusalem for our Farewell Dinner, and what a farewell it was. For just over a week we shared meals, bus rides, historical discussions, fun, and spiritual experiences. It was a wonderful group, and I enjoyed each person in it. It was hard to say good bye.

God be with you, until we meet again.

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