Around the year 326, two Syrian monks visited Jerusalem. When they woke up on their first morning in the Holy City, they both reported that John the Baptist had appeared in a dream and told them where to find his head (according to the Gospels, St. John was beheaded by King Herod).
At first the monks didn’t take their dreams seriously. But when the same thing happened two more nights in a row, they took a pair of spades and dug where they had been told. And there, to the monks’ amazement, was the head.
It happened that Byzantine Queen Helena was in the area at the time, locating sites holy to Christianity. When she heard of the monks’ discovery, the queen immediately ordered a chapel erected on that holy spot. Standing on that very site today is the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension.
Dozens of historic churches can be found in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, each with its own fascinating story. This Christmas season we offer our readers a taste of the folk tales, inspiring legends, and exciting historical narratives that lie behind their iron gates and stone walls.
INSIDE THE OLD CITY
JAMES CATHEDRAL: Armenian Orthodox
Located inside Jaffa Gate
James the Great, son of Zebedee, was one of Jesus’ 12 disciples. Sometimes called the first apostolic martyr, James was decapitated by King Herod Agrippa in the year 44. His head is entombed under the northern wall of St. James Cathedral, an Armenian church which stands on the site of the martyr’s beheading.
Built in the 12th century over much earlier ruins, the grandiose cathedral boasts a vast collection of paintings, ceramic tiles, and rich ornaments. Lit only from light which enters through a few windows, the dome, some candles, and dozens of hanging oil lamps, the church’s interior is mystic and eastern. The scent of incense permeates the air, adding to its mysterious aura.
Over the centuries pilgrims who visited the church have felt the need to leave something personal behind. Their gifts are called khatchkars, flagstones with a distinctive cross-like pattern, and are set into the cathedral’s courtyard walls.
Just outside the main entrance to the cathedral is a pair of clappers. A fourteenth-century Muslim edict forbade churches to call their worshipers to prayer with bells. These gongs — actually a wooden and an iron board called nakus in Arabic — were substituted for the bells.
Today church bells ring when it is time for prayer. However, in memory of those centuries during which bell ringing was banned, an Armenian monk emerges from within and hammers on the nakus.
CHURCH OF ST. ANNE: Catholic
Located inside Lions’ Gate
Jerusalem residents utilized a number of rainwater reservoirs during the Second Temple period, including the double pool called Bethesda. People with a variety of disabilities would linger by the Bethesda pool, for its waters were believed to have magical powers of restoration. Indeed, it is said that an angel flew over the pools once every 24 hours; whoever happened to be inside the water at that time would be miraculously healed.
According to one Christian tradition, the Virgin Mary was born in a cave near the pool where Jesus would one day cure an invalid. The Crusaders believed that a grotto they discovered next to the reservoir ruins was Mary’s birthplace and incorporated the cave into a powerfully impressive church named for her mother, Anne. Today St. Anne’s belongs to the French government and is run by the White Fathers, an order of the Catholic church named for the color of its robes.
What first strikes the visitor is the church’s simplicity, both within the unadorned interior and on the clear, clean lines of its facade. Yet there is also a sense of majesty, perhaps lent by the church’s stark cross-vaulted ceilings and giant pillars. The acoustics are amazing, and when a choir sings in the church the very heavens seem to ring.
CHURCH OF ST. MARK: Syrian Orthodox
Located on the border between the Old City’s Jewish and Armenian quarters, St. Mark’s Church is a Crusader structure built over Byzantine ruins. It belongs to Jerusalem’s ancient Syrian Orthodox community, one of the very earliest Christian sects. The Syriac language which parishioners use for prayers closely resembles the Aramaic of the Second Temple period.
The New Testament relates that when Peter followed an angel out of Herod’s prison, he fled nearby to “. . . the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark.” [Acts 12:12] According to the Syrian Orthodox, that habitat was located on the very spot where the Church of St. Mark stands today. In fact, Peter is believed to have knocked on what is now the church’s decorative door.
And, indeed, during restoration on the church in the 1940s an important sixth-century Aramaic inscription was uncovered on the site. It reads “This is the house of Mary, mother of John called Mark. The church was consecrated by holy disciples . . . It was rebuilt after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus the king, year 73.”
CHURCH OF THE FLAGELLATION: Catholic
The second station along the Old City’s Via Dolorosa – the Way of the Sorrows
During Roman times prisoners who were condemned to death were first scourged with leather whips called flagella. The Chapel of Flagellation along the Via Dolorosa is a particularly somber reminder of the torment Jesus endured.
Originally a medieval house of worship that was probably built by the Crusaders, the chapel was converted into a stable in the 17th century and later became a weaver’s shop. It was rescued by members of the Franciscan Order in 1839 and renovated in medieval style during the 1920s.
Strange and realistic three-dimensional stained glass windows are located behind, and on each side of, the altar. In one, Pontius Pilate washes the sin off his hands; in a second the thief Barabbas expresses joy at his release and in the third, his Roman jailers place a crown of thorns upon Jesus’ head.
Indeed, thorns are the basic motif of this sparsely adorned yet powerful chapel. An extraordinary mosaic crown of thorns interwoven with light-colored flowers covers the inner dome of the sanctuary, while an abstract half-circular thorn design dominates the entrance.
CHURCH OF St. JOHN THE BAPTIST:
On Christian Quarter Road
It all began with the Byzantine empress Eudocia, estranged wife of Theodosius II. Criticized for letting his wife influence state decisions, the emperor first tried murder, then eventually banished Eudocia permanently to the Holy Land. Here she was instrumental in the establishment of several fifth century sanctuaries, including the Church of St. John the Baptist.
Tucked away snugly behind a row of shops in the Old City marketplace, the Church of St. John the Baptist is hardly an impressive sight. That’s why the richly decorated interior comes as such a tremendous surprise; the green and gold iconostasis inside is one of the most ornate in Jerusalem — and the artwork on walls and ceiling is absolutely stunning.
The contemporary church was built over the original chapel sometime between the eighth and 11th centuries and later renovated by the Crusaders. Visitors descend seven meters below street level to enter the fifth-century church, a dank vaulted stone chamber that practically reeks of antiquity. On one wall hangs a small icon of Queen Eudocia who is said to have passed into eternal sleep at the age of 59, in the year 460.
Themes and icons featuring St. John are found everywhere in the cross-shaped church. One of the church’s most prized possessions, located at the entrance, is an icon of St. John’s head, conjoined with a gold and jewel rimmed relic thought to be a piece of his skull.
JUST OUTSIDE THE OLD CITY
BASILICA OF THE AGONY/ GETHSEMANE:
Located at the foot of the Mount of Olives
In the year 380, Byzantine ruler Theodosius I erected an elegant basilica at Gethsemane — the site of Jesus’ agony in the garden (Matthew 26: 36-46). The Basilica of the Agony was destroyed by the Persians in the seventh century, rebuilt by the Crusaders, and later demolished by Muslim invaders.
It was resurrected in 1924, when a striking new structure arose atop the ruins. Designed by famous architect Antonio Barluzzi, it features a phenomenal golden mosaic and imposing facade that combine to make the church exterior a Jerusalem landmark.
Also known as the Church of All Nations, the new basilica was funded by donations from over a dozen countries. Above each of the three aisles are four exquisite domes. Most of them contain mosaic works on a deep blue background, and each includes a unique theme relating to its particular country of origin.
The Greek word “Gethsemane” translates as “oil press” in Hebrew and probably originated with garden’s olive trees. A few of the trees are so thick and gnarled that they could conceivably be over a thousand years old; some researchers maintain that these are the original trees that witnessed Jesus’ agonizing last night on earth. Even if not quite that ancient, they are quite certainly offshoots of the olive trees which stood in the garden over 2,000 years ago.
THE CATHEDRAL OF ST. GEORGE:
Located on Nablus Road in East Jerusalem
Although only one of many churches dedicated to St. George, a second-century martyr, Jerusalem’s Cathedral of St. George is unique. Not only was the splendid neo-Gothic edifice intended as a base from which to convert Jerusalem’s nonbelievers to Christianity, but only seven years after its consecration it hosted a historic treaty between the Turks and the British.
In 1914, when Turkey and England were at war, thousands of the country’s non-Turkish residents were evicted from the Holy Land. The Turkish governor of Jerusalem seized St. George’s Cathedral, sealed off the church, and garrisoned himself and his troops inside the lovely compound.
When the tide turned in 1917, and the British conquered the Holy Land, history was made within the walls of this very same cathedral. It was here that the Turkish governor surrendered Jerusalem to British general Edmund Allenby and here the two signed a momentous peace agreement.
One wall of the church features the British royal coat of arms which, until 1948, hung in the seat of the British High Commissioner at Government House. When the British Mandate came to an end in 1948, the coat of arms was deposited here — in the last bastion of English domination over mandatory Palestine.
In Jerusalem, where Hanukkah is the major winter holiday, Christmas is barely felt. Yet for the city’s 14,000 Christians, Christmas is a very big deal. And it doesn’t end on the 25th of December, when Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christmas: most eastern sects will observe the holiday in January.
Israelis and visitors interested in viewing Christmas decorations in the city can visit the Cathedral, which is decked out for the holiday, or wander the Christian Quarter of the Old City. For information on visiting hours in the churches and on midnight mass, browse the Christian Information Center website: http://www.cicts.org/
This article is adapted from Aviva Bar-Am’s book: Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a photographer and licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups. All rights reserved.