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Church of St Mark

Jerusalem

 

The Church of St Mark is home to one of Jerusalem’s smallest and oldest Christian communities, but it is the setting for a remarkable set of traditions — including the claim to be the site of the Upper Room of the Last Supper.

Church of St Mark

Entrance to St Mark’s Church (Kudumomo)

This hard-to-find Syriac Orthodox church is in the north-eastern corner of the Old City’s Armenian Quarter, on Ararat Street which branches off St Mark’s Street.

Its worship employs the oldest surviving liturgy in Christianity, based on the rite of the early Christian Church of Jerusalem. The language used is Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic that Jesus spoke.

St Mark (also known as John Mark) came from Cyrene in Libya. He became a travelling companion and interpreter for St Peter, and used Peter’s sermons when he composed the earliest of the four Gospels.

Church of St Mark

Interior of St Mark’s Church (© Fili Feldman)

Mark’s mother, Mary of Jerusalem, had a house where members of the early Church met. It was to this house that Peter went when an angel released him from prison (Acts 12:12-17).

The Syriac Orthodox believe the Church of St Mark is on the site of that house — a belief supported by a 6th-century inscription discovered there in 1940.

 

Variety of events claimed

By associating the Church of St Mark with the Upper Room, the Syriac Orthodox believe it was the location of these events:

  • The Last Supper (Mark 14:12-25)
  • The election of Matthias as an apostle to replace Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:21-26)
  • Post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples, including the one in which he showed doubting Thomas the wounds in his hands and side (John 20:24-28).
  • The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4)
Church of St Mark

Painting attributed to St Luke (© Fili Feldman)

While there is oral tradition to support these claims, scholars generally accept that the Upper Room was on the site of the Cenacle, near the summit of Mount Zion.

Another Syriac Orthodox tradition holds that the Church of St Mark is at the place where Mary, Jesus’ mother, was baptised. A baptismal font purportedly used can be seen inside the church.

The church also displays a painting on leather of Mary and Jesus. It is said to have been painted by St Luke, but experts date it to the early Byzantine period.

 

Inscription identifies ‘house of Mary’

Church of St Mark

Claim to be “The first church in Christianity” (Seetheholyland.net)

A notice beside the door proclaims the Church of St Mark to be “The first church in Christianity”, in the belief that it is on the site of the original house-church of Jerusalem’s early Christians.

Just inside the entrance, set into a pillar, is an inscribed stone discovered during a restoration in 1940. Its inscription, believed to be from the 6th century, is in ancient Syriac. It says:

“This is the house of Mary, mother of John, called Mark. Proclaimed a church by the holy apostles under the name of Virgin Mary, mother of God, after the ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ into heaven. Renewed after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in the year AD 73.”

The interior of the church is dark, but the decoration is ornate. The sanctuary is richly embellished, though often partly hidden by a curtain representing the veil in the Temple.

The present church was built in the 12th century over the ruins of a 4th-century church. Steps lead down to a crypt, believed to have been the lower floor in the house of Mark’s mother.

 

First native people to adopt Christianity

Church of St Mark

Inscription from 6th century (© Israelseen.com)

The Syriac Orthodox Church claims St Peter as its first patriarch, in Antioch in AD 37. The word “Syriac” is not a geographic indicator, but refers to the use of the Syriac language in worship.

Syriac Christians see themselves as the first people to adopt Christianity as natives of the Holy Land. At the time of Christ, the Roman province of Syria included today’s Syria, Lebanon, most of Palestine, and parts of Jordan and Turkey.

Often called “Jacobites” (after an early bishop), the Syriac Orthodox form one of the Oriental Orthodox churches that became separated from the mainstream of Christianity in the 5th century over a disagreement about the nature of Christ. They are not in communion with either Constantinople or Rome.

Their community in Jerusalem, centred on the Church of St Mark, numbers only about 600.

The Syriac Orthodox also worship in the Chapel of St Joseph of Arimathea and St Nicodemus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

 

In Scripture:

Church of St Mark

Pilgrims outside Church of St Mark (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

The Last Supper: Mark 14:12-25

Matthias is elected to replace Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:21-26)

Jesus shows Thomas the wounds in his hands and side (John 20:24-28).

The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4)

Peter goes to the house of Mark’s mother: Acts 12:12-17

 

Administered by: Syriac Orthodox Patriarchal-Vicariate of Jerusalem and Jordan

Tel.:  02 628-3304 or 052 509-0478

Open: Apr-Sep 9am-5pm; Oct-Mar 7am-4pm; Sunday 11am-4pm

 

References

Bar-Am, Aviva: Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem (Ahva Press, 1998)
Brownrigg, Ronald: Come, See the Place: A Pilgrim Guide to the Holy Land (Hodder and Stoughton, 1985)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Hilliard, Alison, and Bailey, Betty Jane: Living Stones Pilgrimage: With the Christians of the Holy Land (Cassell, 1999)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Prag, Kay: Jerusalem: Blue Guide (A. & C. Black, 1989)
Shahin, Mariam, and Azar, George: Palestine: A guide (Chastleton Travel, 2005)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

St Mark’s Monastery (Syriac Orthodox Resources)
Syrian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem (YouTube)

 

Cenacle

Jerusalem

Cenacle

Cenacle or Upper Room (© Israel Ministry of Tourism)

The Cenacle room on Mt Zion in Jerusalem is where two major events in the early Christian Church are commemorated: The Last Supper and the coming of the Holy Spirit on the apostles.

• The Last Supper was the meal Jesus shared with his apostles the night before he died. During this meal he instituted the Eucharist.

• The coming of the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost, is recognised as marking the birth of the Christian Church.

The Cenacle is on the upper floor of a two-storey building near the Church of the Dormition, south of the Zion Gate in the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Above it is the minaret of a Muslim mosque; immediately beneath it is the Jewish shrine venerated as the Tomb of King David (though he is not buried there).

 

Different from da Vinci

Cenacle

Pilgrims in the Cenacle (Berthold Werner)

The Cenacle is not universally accepted as the site of the “upper room” mentioned in Mark 14:15 and Luke 22:12.

But archaeological research shows it is constructed on top of a church-synagogue built by the first-century Jewish-Christian community of Jerusalem. Fragments of plaster have been found with Greek graffiti, one of which has been interpreted as containing the name of Jesus.  This would have been the first Christian church.

The only competing site is the Syrian Orthodox Church of St Mark (also on Mt Zion), which also claims to possess the “upper room”.

Wherever the site, the original place of the Last Supper would have been a simple dining hall — quite different from those depicted in paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and other artists.

Symbol of a pelican’s blood

Cenacle

Pelicans feed on their mother’s blood on a column in the Cenacle (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

The present Gothic-arched Cenacle is a restoration of a Crusader chapel built in the 12th century as part of the Church of Our Lady of Mount Zion.

Among the architectural details of the Crusader period is a slender marble column supporting a stone canopy in the south-west corner. Carved into the capital at the top of the column are two young pelicans feeding on the blood their mother has drawn from her breast — symbolising Christ giving his blood for the salvation of humankind.

In the 16th century, after the Turks captured Jerusalem, the room was transformed into a mosque in memory of the prophet David. Its mihrab (a niche indicating the direction of Mecca) and stained-glass windows with Arabic inscriptions remain.

 

Where Peter was left knocking

According to one early Christian tradition, the “upper room” was in the home of Mary the mother of John Mark. He was the author of the Gospel of Mark (and presumably also the young man who fled naked, leaving behind his linen garment, to escape the authorities when Jesus was arrested in the garden at Gethsemane, an event he recorded in Mark 14:51).

This house was a meeting place for the followers of Jesus. It was inside the city walls of Jerusalem, in a quarter that was home to its most affluent residents.

It was also the house to which Peter went after an angel of the Lord released him from prison. Acts 12:12-16 says a maid named Rhoda was so overjoyed at recognising his voice that she left him knocking at the outer gate while she went to tell the gathered disciples.

 

Obtained at huge cost

The site of the Cenacle was also the first holy place the Franciscans obtained, bought in 1335 through the efforts of King Robert and Queen Sancia of Naples, “after difficult negotiations and huge expenses”.

The structures around the “upper room” are in fact remnants of the Franciscan medieval friary.

Over the centuries the buildings the Franciscans constructed were frequently destroyed and friars were ill-treated and even killed.

 

In Scripture:

The Last Supper: Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-23; John 13:1—17:26

Institution of the Eucharist: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

The coming of the Holy Spirit: Acts 2:1-4

Administered by: Israel Ministry of the Interior

Tel.: 972-2-6713597 (Franciscan chapel)

Open: 8am-5pm daily

 

 

References

Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Mackowski, Richard M.: Jerusalem: City of Jesus (William B. Eerdmans, 1980)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: Keys to Jerusalem (Oxford University Press, 2012)
Notley, R. Steven: Jerusalem: City of the Great King (Carta Jerusalem, 2015)
Pixner, Bargil: With Jesus in Jerusalem – his First and Last Days in Judea (Corazin Publishing, 1996)
Poni, Shachar: “Renovating Royal Tomb” (The Jewish Voice, February 5, 2010)
Walker, Peter: In the Steps of Jesus (Zondervan, 2006)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Church of the Apostles found on Mt Zion (Biblical Archaeological Review)
The Cenacle (Biblical Archaeology)
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