JERUSALEM, April 16, 2014 – Jerusalem has been a crossroads of religion for centuries.
For travelers to the Holy Land, it’s those constantly changing layers of history that make Jerusalem a challenging destination to absorb. Unlike Rome’s Colosseum or Notre Dame in Paris or the Tower in London, much of Jerusalem lies buried or undiscovered. Guides often tell you, “This may not be the site, but we know it’s near the place where it happened.”
Many visitors annually make pilgrimages to the Holy Land to experience places familiar to them from biblical text. As a result, not being able to see specific locations where particular events took place can, at times, be frustrating. There tends to be a void that lies just beyond the grasp of someone seeking confirmation of their lifelong beliefs.
A good example of this conflict occurs at Via Dolorosa, Latin for the “Way of Grief” or the “Way of Suffering,” which is the path that Jesus took while carrying the cross to his crucifixion. Today, a labyrinth of narrow passageways between a myriad of shops and stalls lines the route from the Lion’s Gate to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Each year thousands of pilgrims walk the route, a distance of just under a half a mile, as the most significant highlight of their journey. Fourteen stations mark the way, representing important events that occurred during Christ’s excruciating ordeal.
Over the centuries, the route of the Via Dolorosa has changed a number of times, which means that it is virtually impossible to do the walk as Jesus did it. In Christ’s day, the path was relatively straight from beginning to end. Though the Old Jerusalem of today retains many ancient sensations, the layers of history have buried Christ’s original course, leaving much to a visitor’s imagination.
Thankfully, the historic stations provide specific locations to aid travelers in comprehending the dramatic events of the day. Among the most popular are stations one, two, three, four, seven and nine. Numbers one and two are said to mark Jesus’ encounters with Pontius Pilate. Many scholars now believe however, that Pilate made his judgments in another part of the city at Herod’s Palace; an example of the conundrums faced by visitors attempting to attach meanings to their faith.
Stations three, seven and nine signify locations where Christ is said to have fallen during his arduous trek. Earlier accounts claim that Jesus stumbled seven times. The falls have become a tradition, but there is no evidence that Christ literally dropped to the ground in the true sense of falling down.
The fourth station claims to be the site where Jesus encountered his mother though there is no mention of any such meeting in the New Testament. This is not an indictment against a visit to the Holy Land. Rather it is meant to emphasize that the anticipated epiphany for travelers may have some limitations. Having said that, the beginning of the Easter story does feature many inspirational sites that conjure scenes that probably look very much at they did more than 2,000 years ago.
One of Jesus’ favorite places was a mountain ridge just beyond the walls of the Old City called the Mount of Olives. It was so named because of the olive groves that once covered its slopes. Used as a Jewish cemetery for more than 3,000 years, there are roughly 150,000 graves at the site.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus traveled across and down the mount riding a donkey to enter Jerusalem. Though the olive trees no longer spread across the slope, thousands of graves can be viewed from its summit. The golden light that pervades the city, especially in early morning or late afternoon, is awe inspiring. From the crest of the mount, the Old City exudes an aura that feels much as it was two millennia ago. Also visible from the Mount of Olives is the Lion’s Gate which is situated just a short distance away across a small valley. The gate marks the entrance Christ used for the last walk from prison to his crucifixion.
While the walls of the Old City have changed over the centuries, they still surround the dusky desert hues of a place that altered the course of history for all mankind. The serpentine road down the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane just beneath it will give even the hardiest traveler a workout. It is deceptively steep and can have you rubbing your calves when you arrive.
Gethsemane is not large, and here the olive trees have, indeed, survived. With their ancient, gnarly appearance, the trees create a sensation that they could have actually been there during those historic events. It was at the Garden of Gethsemane where Judas betrayed Christ, arriving with soldiers, high priests and Pharisees to arrest him.
Jerusalem is a city where three great religions converge. It has witnessed more than its share of conflict and, if history is any indicator, it will continue to do so. Jerusalem is a place where the layers of time will continue to add to its mystery, perhaps creating more questions than answers.
Even so, there is an undeniable aura in Jerusalem where history merges with faith and its stories and, and legends are waiting to be uncovered.