Christianity Jerusalem

Its complicated – Christianity, Jerusalem

“Jesus Christ” is a wording most of us throw around when things are out of the ordinary, surprising, baffling or perhaps upsetting.

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The long walk
For believers the story becomes tangible on the cobble stoned streets in the Muslim part of the Old City of Jerusalem. Behind the heavy gates of the Franciscan compound they congregate to follow in the footsteps of the prophet on the Good Friday. Mass after mass is concluded in the Church of the Condemnation and worshippers mill out to organize for the forthcoming walk. In groups they leave lead by a priest or preacher. Making their way through the gate into Via Dolorosa is a large group of Sri Lankan Christians. On a sloped stairs across the street a Norwegian group chooses to stay out of the church all together to avoid overcrowding and instead perform a short sermon and sing psalms before setting off.

Down the street Palestinian shop keepers have a busy day as crosses sell like no other day of the year. The Sri Lankans kneel to pray at the semicircle on the road marking station two before continuing in a long convoy lead by large crosses.

By the small Polish chapel marking station three, Via Dolorosa intersects with the Al Wad ha Gai Street. From here on it gets really crowded and police barriers are up to guide pilgrims. Hour’s earlier Israeli security officers were briefed on the events standing under a portrait of Jesus perhaps on the spot where he met his mother (station IV) in the Armenian compound. A nesting pigeon peaked at the scene from a ledge above.

As the crowds grow a group of Nigerians manage to make their way into station III whilst the Sri Lankans already lay hands on the worn wall at Station V where Simon of Cyrene carried the cross according to the Bible. The chapel built on the place is too small to hold more than a dozen at the time and crosses are left leaning against the wall outside as worshippers circulate.

From thereon it is uphill through the crowded streets of the souk (shuk, bazaar) where merchants take the opportunity to hawk T-shirts, more wooden crosses or anything else with pilgrim attraction. Station VI where Veronica wiped the face of Jesus and VII where he fell a second time is quickly passed. Station VIII requires a bit of a detour as city plans have changed over millennia. Not that it much more than a wall marker and a souvenir store which signs “No Photography”, cameras click. Station IX where Jesus fell a third time is for the same reason a bit off the beaten path and actually close to today’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

However to get to the last stations of Via Crucis a detour by the Muristan complex is necessary. Once the site for a hospital set up to care for pilgrims it is today swamped with souvenir shops where “Jesus” sandals can be purchased or people watching be done from one of the many cafes.

In Biblical times this was outside the walled city of Jerusalem but encompassed shortly after the time of Jesus. Rosaries dangle in the wind outside multiple souvenir shops but the goal lay behind a smallish gate.

The compound of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is an open square with the church’s doors at the far end. Inside and up narrow stairs is what many claim to be the biblical Golgotha. A hill shaped like the forehead of a human skull or in Aramaic Gagultâ, once translated into Greek, Latin and Anglicized it also became known as the Calvary. Of the hill not much is left but in a small hole under the altar is a hole claimed to be the actual hole where the cross was raised.

Of course this remains unproven as after the Crucifixion the entire city was razed around 70 AD a result of the Jewish – Roman war. Thereafter Emperor Hadrian built a temple to Aphrodite on the site. Later Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and in 313 the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre was founded. A wave of Christian immigration in 326 included his mother Helena who ordered the destruction of Aphrodite’s temple to under the ruins find the True Cross, the Holy Tunic and the Holy Nails in a well. On the spot the first Church of the Holy Sepulchre stood ready within ten years.

Steps away from the main entrance are the Stone of Anointing, where Jesus’ body is said to have been anointed before burial. Worshippers flock around and take turns to kneel, kiss and sweep the stone surface with garments, plastic crosses or candles to carry home. Above red lanterns swing and a mosaic depict the event.

Around the corner to the right a wide stairs with numerous crosses are chiseled into the wall a sort of business card left by Crusaders. Below at the bottom of the stairs the chapel of St Helena which is thought to be at the level of the floor of the former Roman temple. Down a further stair lay the (dried out) well where Helena claimed to have found the first relics, but the proof was taken to Ctesiphon, South of Baghdad in current day Iraq by invading Persians.

The key feature of the Church lay at the center of the tall Rotunda. The burial bed of Jesus has been marble clad since at least 1555. During renovations in 2016 the marble was removed for the first time since then and it was confirmed that the underlying rock is the natural limestone. Once the conclusion was reached the protective marble was replaced to be followed by renovation of the overarching Aedicule. The reasons for the long overdue repairs are not very Christly and had its roots in the animosity between the custodians the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic Churches. Through conflicts and bribery of the Ottoman rulers bickering continued throughout the four century rule. It came to an end when the Sultan reaffirmed a status quo “firman” in 1853. This required consent of the three and to a lesser extent present Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches before any renovations or other undertaking could be carried out. As no agreements were reached since then the Aedicule is in poor state and is finally undergoing renovations in the early 2017. The proof of the status quo is a ladder left in 1853 on a ledge above the main entrance, it still stands.

In the nineteenth century the traditional location of Golgotha was put into questions by Protestants. The German theologian and biblical scholar Otto Thenius put forth an alternative theory in 1842 backed by British research. He suggested that “skull” hill instead was positioned outside the Damascus Gate not far from the Fortress of Antonia where Pilatus sentenced and lashed Jesus. The theory was supported by the fact that St Stephen the first Christian martyr had also been stoned at the rock face which is still visible today. Additional supporting “evidence” was a rock tomb nearby, however it was dated to about 600-700 BC but recycling of tombs was a common practice not disproving the theory. The Garden tomb remains a pilgrim site for Protestants and is managed and tended by an Anglican Trust. Other places of crucifixion have also been suggested both outside the Lions Gate and Zions gate.

No matter what the real place of crucifixion was it is clear that the fascination with Jerusalem as the holiest place in Christianity still holds true.

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