Sometime during his reign, King Herod Antipas murdered John the Baptist — at least that is what Roman historian Josephus Flavius recorded in his 1st-century volume “Antiquities of the Jews.” After the deed was done, according to the New Testament, Antipas severed John’s head from his body.
Antipas’ superstitious sister-in-law, Herodias, believed that John had magic powers. Worried that if his head and body were buried together he would come back to haunt her, she threw the head into a rubbish heap. One tradition holds that a woman who saw Herodias toss the head into the trash carefully removed it, placed it in a clay pot, and buried it on the Mount of Olives.
During the fourth century, 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.
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.
At the time, King Constantine was the ruler of the Byzantine Empire and his mother Helena was in Israel locating sites holy to Christianity. When she heard of the monks’ amazing discovery, Helena ordered a chapel erected on that holy spot. Clearly visible as it towers above the Mount of Olives, it is known today as the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension. And inside its chapel is the hollow in which John’s head was buried.
Over a dozen churches are spread out along the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem where, according to the New Testament, Jesus spent his last free night in agony over what was to come. Each house of worship boasts its own special style and its own unique story.
Before the pandemic struck, hundreds of pilgrims wandered the slopes of the Mount of Olives daily and on Christian holidays there were thousands. Today, those of you who live abroad can only visit from afar. Here are but a few of the mount’s churches:
Catholic — Franciscan Order
Located on the upper slopes of the Mount of Olives
Two thousand years ago, when you descended the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem, an incomparable tableau unfolded before your eyes. The Holy Temple towered above the Kidron Valley — its marble columns and enormous bronze doors a shimmering vision in the morning sun. Indeed, the dazzle of the city’s glorious palaces and shiny white marble towers must have blinded the eyes of its beholders.
As Jesus walked toward Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, he could have been overwhelmed by the glory of the sight. Knowing the tragic fate which would soon befall the Holy City, and aware of the devastation and desecration that lay in store, Jesus wept.
Facing the Old City’s magnificent panorama is a sanctuary called Dominus Flevit, which means, in Latin, “the Lord wept.” To symbolize what occurred on or near this site, the sanctuary was fashioned in what the architect envisaged as a teardrop (look at it upside down to see the resemblance).
One of the newest churches in Jerusalem, Dominus Flevit sits atop a very ancient site. During construction in 1955 archaeologists uncovered artifacts dating back to the Canaanite period as well as tombs from both the Second Temple and Byzantine eras. Also unearthed were the remains of a lovely Byzantine shrine with an elaborate mosaic floor.
The chapel’s most remarkable feature is its arch-shaped picture window, purposely situated behind the altar. Thus worshipers and visitors have a stupendous view through the window of the contemporary Old City and the glittering golden Dome of the Rock.
Church/Mosque of the Ascension
Under Islamic control
Located on the top of the Mount of Olives
Near the end of the fourth century, a wealthy Roman woman named Pomenia lived in Bethlehem with some friends. One day she ordered workers to build a church on the Mount of Olives — a rotunda open to the sky. Erected upon the site where tradition holds Jesus rose to heaven, her church was destroyed by the Persians less than 300 years later, during their conquest of the Holy Land.
Crusaders reconstructed the shrine, but gave it an octagonal shape, added fortifications, and made it part of a chain of defensive citadels. From its position at the crest of the Mount of Olives, the Crusader church controlled the road between Jericho and Jerusalem.
Saladin defeated the Crusaders in 1187, and the Church of the Ascension ended up in Muslim control. With little deference to the sanctuary’s truly unique architecture, the conquerors plugged up the spaces between its slender, decorative columns and enclosed the open ceiling within a dome. The shrine to Jesus’ Ascension had become a mosque.
Although many a Crusader church was converted into a mosque after the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land, this one is of particular interest because a tradition endows it with a print of Jesus’ foot. Early pilgrims reported seeing the print indelibly implanted in the rock at the time of the ascension to heaven, located in the center of the original church. Today the print remains set in a venerated rock which the Muslims moved to one end of their mosque.
Church of all Nations and Gethsemane
Catholic – Franciscan Order
Located at the foot of the Mount of Olives
Theodosius the Great ruled the Byzantine Empire from 379 to 395. A fervent advocate of Christianity, he erected an elegant church on the Mount of Olives in 380 and called it the Basilica of the Agony. For according to the New Testament, it was here in a garden of olive trees that Jesus spent an agonizing night in prayer before he was arrested.
Destroyed by the Persians in the 7th century, it was rebuilt a short distance away by the Crusaders, and demolished by invading Muslim forces several hundred years later. The church was resurrected at the beginning of the 20th century, when a striking new structure arose atop the ruins.
Designed by renowned Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi in 1919 and inaugurated in 1924, the contemporary sanctuary is one of Jerusalem’s most stirring houses of worship. Indeed, its phenomenal golden mosaic and imposing facade combine to make the church exterior a Jerusalem landmark. Also known as the Church of All Nations, the new basilica was funded by Catholic communities from over a dozen different countries.
Next to the church, a large garden is filled with olive trees and called Gethsemane — which means “oil press,” in Hebrew. A few of the trees are so thick and gnarled that they could conceivably be over 1,000 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 almost certainly offshoots of the olive trees which stood in the garden 2,000 years ago.
Church of the Assumption — Mary’s Tomb
Located in the Valley of Kidron at the foot of the Mount of Olives
Although the New Testament doesn’t tell us what fate befell the Virgin Mary after the Crucifixion, it is widely believed that she died in Jerusalem. Indeed, tradition tells us that Mary fell into eternal sleep on Mount Zion and that her lifeless body was carried just outside of the Jerusalem walls for burial. Once there, Mary was lifted out of her tomb and “assumed” into the glory of heaven.
The first shrine above Mary’s earthly burial and assumption site was built in the Byzantine era. It was shaped like a cross, with Mary’s tomb situated in the center. That sanctuary was destroyed by the Persians in the year 614. When the Crusaders erected a sanctuary over the tomb four centuries later, it naturally became known as the Church of the Assumption. The upper portion of the Crusader church was demolished by Saladin’s forces, but the lower part, the contemporary house of worship and the tomb itself, still remains.
Seen from the sidewalk, the Church of the Assumption is not an impressive sight. That is because the original basilica, an integral part of the church, is located well below today’s street level. To reach Mary’s tomb and the assumption site, you descend a vaulted inner staircase and walk down almost 50 steps. Once inside, the church’s murky interior can be incredibly gloomy. And why shouldn’t it be — the tomb is located in a very ancient underground chamber.
Church of St. Mary Magdalene
On the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives
Built by Alexander III of Russia, the Church of St. Mary Magdalene is probably the most conspicuous house of worship in Jerusalem. It owes its prominence to the presence of seven gilded, onion-shaped domes jutting out from a monumental Muscovite-style body that stands proudly against the sky.
From a distance what you see of St. Mary Magdalene are its memorable bulb-like cupolas. But the building is as remarkable as its domes. Indeed, the palatial exterior features a mind-boggling variety of styles and decorations that is fascinating to behold. And although it appears to be made of marble, the facade is actually a stunning, sculpted white sandstone.
Over the iconastasis — the eastern Orthodox partition that separates the prayer hall from the sanctuary — is an enormous canvas by 19th-century artist Aleksandr Ivanov. It illustrates a popular legend in which Mary travels to Rome to tell Emperor Tiberius of Jesus’ unfair trial and unjust sentence. It is said that Mary held an egg in her hand, representing life. But it turned red when she handed it to the emperor, thus becoming a living symbol of blood and resurrection. Quite possibly, this is the origin of the custom of dying eggs on the Easter holiday.
Adapted for The Times of Israel from Aviva Bar-Am’s book “Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem.”
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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