On his one and only visit to Jerusalem, in late October of 1898, Theodor Herzl began climbing the steps to the belfry of the Russian Ascension Church on the Mount of Olives. In his diary, Herzl wrote of the tower’s “unparalleled view.”
Although he got dizzy and stopped climbing before he reached the very top, he and the friends who did make it to the roof reveled in the sight of Judea’s mountains, the Dead Sea, the Jordan Valley, and “the eternal city of Jerusalem.”
It isn’t surprising that there was such a spectacular view from the church’s tower: at 64 meters (210 feet) high it was the tallest building in the city. Because of its location on the heights of the Mount of Olives — and despite the myriad of towers now springing up all over Jerusalem — it probably remains so today.
But Jerusalem is a veritable wonderland of overlooks and rooftop views. Here are a few of the best, and the stories that come with them.
Augusta Victoria Complex
Herzl, known as the father of modern Zionism, was not the only prominent visitor to Jerusalem in 1898 to walk up the Mount of Olives. In fact, Herzl timed his visit to the Holy City in order to meet with Wilhelm II, the last Emperor of Germany, who was there as well. But although Herzl had hoped to convince Wilhelm to back his idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the emperor wasn’t particularly interested.
With his wife Victoria, Wilhelm took part in a private prayer service on the mountain. That’s when Victoria mentioned how nice it would be if she owned property on its heights. The king’s aide de camp got things moving, collected money from Germans around the world, and presented her with the deed on the couple’s silver wedding anniversary in 1906.
Sadly, they never made it back to view the Augusta Victoria complex, completed four years later. It included a church, a hospice for people suffering from malaria, and comfortable lodgings for pilgrims to the Holy City. Today it includes a medical center and hospital, with plans in motion for the construction of a large pilgrim center.
It is said that Wilhelm wanted the belfry to be so high that visitors would be able to spot Jordan’s Moab Mountains to the east and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. While a little lower than the Russian Ascension belfry (although both claim to be the highest towers), it is 50 meters (164 feet) tall, and at 850 meters (2,788 feet) above sea level offers a superb view of the surroundings.
Much effort and expense were invested in transporting four huge, heavy carillons from Germany. The names of the emperor and his wife are inscribed on the two bells donated by the royal couple.
Large statues of the eagle — a widespread German symbol relating to the great conqueror Charlemagne — stand on both sides of the entrance to the church and bell tower. Inside, magnificent mosaics and paintings on the ceilings and the walls decorate this surprisingly ornate Lutheran church.
The Augusta Victoria compound has the look of a medieval fortress, as massive rectangular buildings surround an inner courtyard and the whole enterprise is enveloped by stone walls. The entire complex is so handsome that Sir Herbert Samuel, the very first British High Commissioner in Israel, chose Augusta Victoria as his residence in 1920.
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer
Wilhelm’s father, Frederich III, purchased ruins from a Crusader sanctuary inside the Old City in 1869. Originally built in the eighth century by Emperor Charlemagne, it was restored 300 years later by Italian merchants and repaired again by the Crusaders.
Frederich had planned to reconstruct the church, but the work was held up for nearly two decades, during which time he died. It was Wilhelm, on his visit to Jerusalem, who got the project off the ground. Indeed, some say that he designed the august bell tower with its fabulous views all by himself.
Like Father Abraham, the Maronites originated in Aram (an enormous area stretching from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean Sea). Over time, they dispersed throughout the Middle East. When Muslims swooped into the region early in the seventh century, they tried to force Islam on the Aramean population in general and the Maronites in particular. Yet despite immense pressure, the Maronites, like the Jews, refused to abandon their faith.
Most of the area’s Maronites eventually moved for safety into the Lebanese mountains, where they tilled the rocky hills. Thousands were killed in a bloodbath that took place in the mountains in 1860. Thousands more fled to countries all over the world, including Palestine.
Jerusalem’s Maronite Church lies within a compound located on Maronite Lane inside Jaffa Gate. Built in 1851 as a residence for the British consul in Jerusalem, it was later turned into a hospital run by a German Lutheran congregation of Deaconess Sisters and treated about 650 patients annually.
In the early 1890s, Maronites purchased the building. Today it is the seat of the Maronite Patriarchal Vicar, and nuns from the Lebanese Congregation of St. Therese manage the charming guesthouse.
The compound includes a second-floor chapel, originally intended for Protestant pilgrims, that was preserved by the Maronites in its original Gothic form. From the roof, there is a breathtaking 360-degree panoramic view of Jerusalem that includes a cluster of red roofs over the Old City’s Christian Quarter.
Christian Information Center
During recent preparations for the exciting new multimedia presentation at the Franciscan Christian Information Center, someone came up with a rather unique idea. After the 45-minute show, called the Experience of the Resurrection, visitors would take an elevator up to the rooftop for an up-close look at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and a great view of the Old City of Jerusalem.
A tiny kitchenette was discovered while the rooftop was being prepared for visitors. It was really only an afterthought, says Sister Naomi Zimmerman, but that kitchen was turned into a cafe offering coffee and homemade cakes.
The Christian Information Center is a handsome structure inside Jaffa Gate. It was built in 1858 to accommodate the Imperial Austrian Post Office, 11 years after the Austrians opened a consulate in the Holy Land. Widely renowned for its efficient and reliable service, the Austrian Post Office was utilized by Jerusalem residents who wanted to make certain that letters reached their foreign destinations.
Closed down during World War 1, the post office later reopened as a branch of the Bank of Rome. Following World War II it saw use as a storehouse, hosted youth clubs, and served as lodging for Italian workers doing repairs on the Mosque of Omar.
Franciscan monks purchased the lovely building in 1965 and began its renovation. It opened as the Christian Information Center exactly 50 years ago, and photographs from the inauguration are on display in the lobby. Also currently on view is a fairly large, and wonderfully detailed, model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The post office’s colorful original sign is on view behind the reception desk, where visitors will find a wealth of information not only on Christian sites but also about Jewish and Muslim places of interest.
Russian Church of Ascension Complex
Tradition holds that Queen Herodias took possession of John the Baptist’s head following his murder by her husband, King Herod Antipas, in the first century CE. It is said that Herodias was highly superstitious and believed that John had magical powers. Worried that if his head and body were buried together he would come back to haunt her, she threw the head in a rubbish heap. A woman named Joanna saw Herodias toss the head into the trash. She carefully removed it, placed it in a clay pot, and buried it on the Mount of Olives.
Sometime around 326 CE, two Syrian monks visited Jerusalem. They woke up on their first morning in the Holy City, and both reported having dreamed that John the Baptist appeared and told them where to find his head. After the same thing happened several nights in a row, they took a pair of spades and dug where they had been told. And there, to the monks’ amazement, it was.
It happened that Queen Helena of Constantinople was in Israel at the time, locating sites holy to Christianity. When she heard of the monks’ discovery, the queen ordered the erection of a chapel on that very spot.
A huge bell, weighing eight tons, fills the belfry. Sent from Russia to the Holy Land port of Jaffa in 1885, the bell was too heavy to transport by horse. In the end, a special wheel-shaped wagon was built to house the bell, which was pulled, pushed, and rolled by Russian pilgrims — most of them women — all the way to the Mount of Olives. The trip took three weeks and several pilgrims fell by the wayside. But eventually, singing hymns, the group reached Jerusalem and the bell was lifted into the tower.
Visitors are not allowed to climb to the top of the belfry, but there is a good view to the south even from the grounds. However, because both the Russian church and Augusta Victoria are on the peak of the Mount of Olives, you can see the same glorious sights (and a mass of modern construction) from the German complex. And when you climb back down its 200-plus steps, you can stop at the airy Café Augusta Victoria for coffee and homemade cakes. Open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
For more information, including visiting hours and small fees for climbing to the rooftops, contact the Christian Information Center via email or call between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday: 02-627-2692.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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