Today was a day spent in the Old City of Jerusalem. We woke up earlier than usual to climb aboard the bus at 7:30 to make our way to the southwestern corner of the Old City. This morning, we visited the holiest site for Judaism today, the Western Wall of Herod’s Temple Complex. This wall is the closest point to the place where the Holy of Holies was located prior to the temple’s destruction in 70 A.D. This place, also known as the “Wailing Wall,” has been a place of pilgrimage for Jews for centuries. It was an extraordinary experience to walk down to the plaza and join with the Jewish people who pray before the wall. Women and men were separated to go down to the wall as they are not allowed to pray together. I had to pick up a loaner yarmulke to wear as a head covering before proceeding down to the wall to pray. Many of us had written a prayer on small scrolls of paper and placed them between the stones in the wall before placing our hand on this sacred wall to pray. It was wonderful.
After spending a few moments at the wall, we continued on through the Western Wall Tunnel, a tunnel adjacent to and revealing the entire length of the Western Wall, most of which is underground and hidden beneath the Muslim Quarter. We viewed stones in the wall dating from the time of Christ, the largest of which is 45′ x 10′ x 15′ and weighs 570 tons. It is an engineering marvel that walls containing such huge stones could have been constructed 2000 years ago. We also saw a number of cisterns, including the “Struthion Pool” built by Herod the Great in the 1st century B.C., which lies underground near Herod’s Antonia Fortress.
We exited the tunnel onto the Via Dolorosa, the “Way of Suffering,” upon which Jesus was said to have carried his cross through the streets of Jerusalem on the way to his crucifixion. There are nine stations of the cross found on the Via Dolorosa, and five more in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We made our way through each of them: The first station is at the site of the Antonia Fortress where Jesus of Nazareth was tried and scourged, the second is the Ecce Homo (“Behold the man”) speech of Pilate. Stations three, seven, and nine deal with the three falls of Christ. The other four stations commemorate encounters of Christ on his way of suffering. The fourth station involves a meeting with his mother, Mary; the fifth with Simon the Cyrene who helped Jesus carry his cross; the sixth with Veronica who wiped the sweat from Christ’s face with a cloth that was then permanently imprinted with his face on the cloth (the “Veil of Veronica”); and the eighth with a group of pious women. While thankful to have walked this way of sorrow through the streets of Old Jerusalem, the magnitude and emotional impact of the experience is attenuated by the crowds and noise, and the the pace with which we must proceed. There was little time left for reflection as we made our way along.
Our “sorrowful” journey ended when we entered the courtyard in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a holy pilgrimage site since the 4th century. It is said to contain the hill of Golgotha upon which Christ was crucified, as well as his tomb and place of resurrection. It is also the site at which St. Helen, the mother of the emperor Constantine, was said to have discovered the true cross upon which Christ was crucified. Constantine (and Helen) erected a church here in 325 A.D. The site had previously been occupied by a Temple to Venus erected by Hadrian in order to make Christians forget this holy site (He also erected a Temple to Zeus on the Temple Mount for a similar purpose.) Upon entering the church, we turned to the right and walked up a stairway which led to Golgotha, the place of Christ’s crucifixion. We then walked back down the stairs to view the stone upon which his body was said to have been anointed for burial. Beneath the large rotunda of this impressive church lies what is known as the Aedicule, a small building which contains the rock-cut tomb in which Christ was buried. When the church was built, most of the surrounding part of the rock was carved away leaving only the tomb itself, which is now contained in this smaller structure. The first room of the aedicule contains part of the stone that was rolled away, while the innermost room contains the tomb itself. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures inside the Aedicule. But, it was a wonderful experience to visit this sacred site. So, the question is: Was this the site of Golgotha and the Tomb, or was it the Garden Tomb we visited the other day? It is hard to provide indisputable evidence for either, but I tend to think that the site at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the actual site given the antiquity of the tradition. This place has been held to be the site of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection of seventeen-hundred years, while the Garden Tomb dates to only the nineteenth century.
When we finished visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we had a brief lunch, and then backtracked to the area of the Western Wall to stand in line to enter the Temple Mount itself. We had to wait for half an hour in line, but at least we were entertained by two Bar Mitzvah groups singing and playing drums in celebration as they made their way toward the Western Wall. Soon, however, we were walking up the ramp and into the courtyard of the Temple Mount near the site of the Al-Aqsa mosque, which along with the Dome of the Rock, is considered the third holiest site in Islam (behind Mecca and Medina). Muslim’s believe that Muhammad was transported here in a Night Journey, making this site holy for them. We then walked up to the Dome of the Rock, which is not a mosque, but a 7th-century shrine over the rock which holds great significance for both Jews and Christians. This is the rock situated on Mt. Moriah, upon which Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac. The Holy of Holies of Solomon’s (and Herod’s) temple was located over this rock. Muslims now prohibit access for non-Muslims into the Dome of the Rock. Additionally, access to enter onto the Temple Mount is severely restricted and all entrants are subject to strict security. After walking around the Dome of the Rock, which is much larger and more beautiful than I had envisioned, we walked down to the Golden Gate, which has been long-sealed by the Muslims, through which Christ entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
Our next stop was the Archaeological Park below the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount. It was thrilling to visit this area, because lying at the foot of the Western Wall lies the actual street upon which Jesus and his disciples walked. The massive stones which the Roman’s pushed over from the wall of Herod’s Temple still lie in rubble at the base of the wall. From the street which runs along the Western Wall, we walked over to the southern steps, which constituted the main entrance to the Temple during the time of Christ and his followers. We climbed the same steps as did Christ and his apostles as they made their way to the Temple. Amazing!
We spent all day walking around the Old City and were worn-out by the end of the day. But, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I was tired, but wouldn’t have missed anything. Tomorrow will be another busy day, beginning with the City of David.