Israel travels

On Mount Zion, a crossroads of faith and fable

From the supposed tomb of King David to the site of the Last Supper, one of the world’s holiest hilltops remains a multi-tiered enigma

Mount Zion (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Mount Zion (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

After the crumbling walls of the Old City were repaired by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1538, he assumed everything had been done to his liking. But on his tour around the walls, the story goes, he suddenly fell into a terrible rage. His two architects had left historic Mount Zion outside the walls! Fully aware of Mount Zion’s strategic and religious value, the furious Sultan reputedly executed them both.

A fascinating tour of this very same Mount Zion includes a visit to some of the holiest sites on earth, like Dormition Abbey, whose name is an abbreviation for the longer phrase in Latin: Dormitio Beatae Mariae Virginis — the slumber of the Saint Virgin Mary.

View of Dormition from a Mount Zion rooftop (photo: Courtesy)
View of Dormition Abbey from a Mount Zion rooftop (photo: Shmuel Bar-Am)

During the Byzantine period many Christian traditions arose, among them the belief that Mary wasn’t dead but lay deep in eternal sleep. Mary’s crypt was said to be here, and Dormition Abbey was built over the 14th-century church believed to house it. Completed in 1910, the Abbey’s massive towers give it the look of a medieval fortress.

Beautiful mosaics decorate the church’s upper hall, while brilliant blue stained-glass windows add stunning color to its interior. A life-size statue of Mary lies in eternal rest within the basement crypt. Made of cherry-tree wood and ivory, the impressive figure is bathed in the glow of burning wax candles.

Mount Zion also hosts the Cenacle, or Coenaculum in its Latin form. This is the traditional site of the Last Supper — the Passover Seder held the night before Jesus was crucified. It was here that Jesus offered his followers his own bread and wine, identifying the broken bread with his body and the cup of wine with his blood. And many Christians believe that here, exactly seven weeks after the Passover Seder, on the Pentecost — known to Jews as Shavuot, the festival of Weeks — the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit.

During the 19th century, an enlightened Muslim ruler permitted Franciscans two visits a year — on Good Friday and on the Pentecost. However, they were allowed to read only from the New Testament. And they were under no circumstances entitled to kneel.

With its vaulted ceilings and columns crowned with intricately decorated capitals, the Cenacle looks very much like a Crusader hall. And no wonder: it was almost certainly part of a Crusader church taken under the wing of the Franciscans and renovated in the 14th century.

Muslim rulers expelled the Franciscans from the site in 1552 and converted the Cenacle into a mosque called Nebi Daoud — the “prophet David,” a reference to the biblical king. A Muslim prayer niche, or mihrab, was introduced into the southern wall, facing the holy Muslim city of Mecca. During the 19th century, an enlightened ruler permitted Franciscans two visits a year — on Good Friday and on the Pentecost. However, they were allowed to read only from the New Testament, and under no circumstances were they entitled to kneel.

Since the establishment of the State of Israel, three popes have visited Mount Zion and toured both the Cenacle and Dormition Abbey. Pope Paul VI came in 1964, when Jerusalem was still divided, and Israel and Jordan cooperated to construct a special road that would take him up Mount Zion. Pope John Paul II made a historic pilgrimage during the millennium year of 2000, and celebrated Mass in the Cenacle. In 2009, in the Cenacle, Pope Benedict XVI spoke at length about divine love to the Catholic clergymen who accompanied him.

The Cenacle (photo: Courtesy)
The Cenacle (photo: Shmuel Bar-Am)

From the Cenacle, there is a short climb up to the rooftop, where a door leads to the President’s Room. Despite specific provisions in the Jordanian-Israeli armistice agreement allowing free access to holy sites, Jews were not permitted in the Old City after the War of Independence. Mount Zion was the closest place in Jerusalem from which they could view the sacred Temple Mount, and Jews would often climb up to this rooftop to pray. One of them was Itzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second president. He kept this special room on the rooftop for that purpose.

As early as the 12th century a noted Jewish traveler wrote that Mount Zion had become established as the site of David’s tomb. That traditional burial site of King David is down a flight of stairs and through an arched outer courtyard.

Legend has it that during the Middle Ages, with Jerusalem under Muslim rule, a Jewish woman with a desperately ill child made a pilgrimage to the tomb. As Jews were not allowed into the site, a Muslim guard barred their way. After the woman offered him a bribe the guard, hoping for a reward, ran straight to the city’s ruler to report what had happened.

David's Tomb (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
David’s Tomb (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

But in the meantime, the woman and her son had stepped inside the chamber housing the tomb. Just as they heard footsteps approach, a door opened up from within and the two moved quickly inside. A white-clothed old man with a beard — most likely Elijah the prophet, who appears often when needed — led them through a tunnel, emerging in the safety of a Jewish Quarter synagogue.

A lovely church named for St. Peter is on Mount Zion’s eastern slopes. Peter was a disciple who, during the night of Jesus’ arrest, denied any connection to him. A few hours earlier, Jesus had predicted this would happen: “This very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times” (Matthew 26:34).

Peter subsequently regretted his deed, and early Christians erected a shrine dedicated to his remorse. Destroyed later by Muslims, the church was rebuilt by the Crusaders and given a new name: St. Peter in Gallicantu. Gallicantu means “cock-crow” in Latin, and today a golden rooster protrudes prominently from the church’s roof.

The upper sanctuary in the contemporary church is an amazing blend of modern lines, primitive art, and antiquity. Beneath it lies an unusually light and airy glass-enclosed chapel whose walls incorporate some of the mountain’s natural bedrock. On an even lower level there is easy access to a succession of caves from the Second Temple period, 2,000 years ago. According to Catholic tradition, Jesus may have been held prisoner in one of these underground dungeons the night before the crucifixion.

Zion Gate, just outside the Old City Walls, bears numerous scars. They are sad reminders left from the War of Independence, when the Old City’s Jewish Quarter was under siege by the Jordanian Arab Legion.

On May 19, 1948, soldiers from Israel’s fledgling army succeeded in breaking through the Old City walls by way of Zion Gate. But that same day over 3,000 newly arrived Jordanian Legionnaires began shelling Jewish neighborhoods outside of the Old City, and most of the Israeli troops were withdrawn from the Jewish Quarter.

The handful of defenders who remained could not hold out. Less than two weeks later, on May 28, the Jewish Quarter was forced to capitulate to the Arab Legion and the Old City fell. Jerusalem was torn in half, and would remain divided for the next 19 years.


Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides customized tours in Israel.

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