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The Sites

Israel and Palestine – In Jerusalem

Israel and Palestine – Outside Jerusalem

Jordan

Egypt

Extras

Church of St Alexander Nevsky

Jerusalem

 

Solid security doors at entrance to the Church of St Alexander Nevsky (Seetheholyland.net)

Solid security doors at entrance to the Church of St Alexander Nevsky (Seetheholyland.net)

Remnants of the emperor Constantine’s original 4th-century Holy Sepulchre church can be seen inside a Russian Orthodox church that is a next-door neighbour of the present Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Church of St Alexander Nevsky — named after a 13th-century Russian warrior-prince — is often overlooked because its façade resembles an elegant residence or hotel rather than a church.

The tall and narrow façade, with solid security doors bearing notices in Russian, is at 25 Souq al-Dabbagha, about 70 metres from the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre courtyard.

Excavations here in 1883 — before the church was built — attracted worldwide attention, leading to the site becoming known as the “Russian Excavations”.

Particular attention focused on the discovery of a gate threshold believed by the excavators to belong to the Judgement Gate by which Jesus left the city on the way to the hill of Calvary (now contained within the Holy Sepulchre church). Modern archaeologists consider the gate probably dates from the 2nd century.

Reconstructed stairs on left led to Constantine's Holy Sepulchre church (Seetheholyland.net)

Reconstructed stairs on left led to Constantine’s Holy Sepulchre church (Seetheholyland.net)

The excavators also uncovered remains of the easternmost parts of Constantine’s 4th-century church, including the wide staircase that led to the church entrance.

As New Testament scholar Jerome Murphy-O’Connor put it, what was found “corresponds exactly to the eastern end of the Constantinian Holy Sepulchre as depicted in the sixth-century Madaba Map”.

 

Historical remains halted construction

The site on which the Church of St Alexander Nevsky stands was purchased in 1857 by the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, a lay organisation founded to assist faithful of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Holy Land.

The idea was to build a Russian consulate and a hostel for pilgrims, who were arriving in their thousands at the port of Jaffa and often walking the 70 kilometres to Jerusalem.

When workers digging the foundations uncovered historical remains, construction was halted. Eventually the consulate and hostel were built outside the Old City, at a site now known as the Russian Compound, and a church was built over the ruins in Souq al-Dabbagha.

Because the excavations and the church were funded by the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the property gained the popular name of the “Alexander Hospice”.

 

Stairway led to Holy Sepulchre church

Archway leading to excavated area of Church of St Alexander Nevsky (Seetheholyland.net)

Archway leading to excavated area of Church of St Alexander Nevsky (Seetheholyland.net)

Entering the excavated area in the basement of the church, one descends stairs to an archway. The right-hand column is from the 11th century; the stonework on the left is part of an entrance to the main forum established by the emperor Hadrian when he rebuilt Jerusalem as a Roman colony in the 2nd century.

Descending through the arch and turning left, one sees on the left a reconstruction of the wide stairway that led to the original Church of the Holy Sepulchre — which was much bigger than the present basilica.

Straight ahead, under a glass covering, is the gate threshold once thought to have been where Jesus left the city on the way to Calvary. This threshold may have been part of an arch built by Hadrian, but it was later re-used as an entrance to the Holy Sepulchre.

Next to the threshold is a large piece of the rock of Calvary, purchased when the church was built. Above it a crucifix has been fixed.

In the Roman wall to the left is an opening called the Eye of the Needle, intended for travellers who arrived after the gate was closed for the night.

"Judgement Gate" threshold displayed under glass (© Stanislao Lee / Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

“Judgement Gate” threshold displayed under glass (© Stanislao Lee / Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

On the other side of the threshold are the remains of another entrance to the Holy Sepulchre, cut into a Roman wall by Constantine’s engineers.

(Massive remnants of the main entrance to the Holy Sepulchre are still further ahead, in the adjoining property of Zalatimo’s sweetshop on Souq Khan al-Zeit.)

 

Chapel dedication honours medieval leader

At the top of the wide stairway is a sweeping depiction of Jesus carrying his cross. Behind it is a chapel, accessible from the ground floor.

Icon of St Alexander Nevsky from the cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria, that bears his name (Vassia Atanassova / Wikimedia)

Icon of St Alexander Nevsky from the cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria, that bears his name (Vassia Atanassova / Wikimedia)

The iconostasis, decorated in black and gold, dominates the chapel. Around the walls are hung paintings of Gospel scenes and, above these, a series of icons of Russian Orthodox saints.

The dedication of the chapel to St Alexander Nevsky honoured an exceptional leader of medieval Russia, who was accorded legendary status for his military victories over German and Swedish invaders. He was proclaimed a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1547.

 

Administered by: Imperial Russian Orthodox Palestine Society

Tel.: 02-627-4952

Open: 9am-6pm

 

 

References

Bar-Am, Aviva: Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem (Ahva Press, 1998)
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)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: Keys to Jerusalem (Oxford University Press, 2012)
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)

 

External links

Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society
Alexander Nevsky (Orthodox Wiki)

 

 

Church of the Ascension

Jerusalem

Tower of the Russian Church of the Ascension (Seetheholyland.net)

Tower of the Russian Church of the Ascension (Seetheholyland.net)

The 64-metre tower that dominates the Mount of Olives skyline belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension. It was built to this height in the 1870s so that pilgrims unable to walk to the Jordan River could climb its 214 steps and at least see the river.

Atop the freestanding square tower is a sharply-pointed belfry. It contains an eight-ton bell, cast in Russia and pulled and pushed — mainly by women pilgrims — on a circular wagon from the port of Jaffa. It was the first Christian bell to ring in the Ottoman city of Jerusalem.

While the church is dedicated to the Ascension of Jesus — an event most Christians believe took place about 200 metres further west at the Dome of the Ascension — it also claims a connection to St John the Baptist.

An old tradition says the Baptist’s head was buried on the Mount of Olives and discovered on the site of the church by two Syrian monks in the 4th century.

Since 1907 the church has been in the custody of a community of Russian Orthodox nuns from a variety of nations. They are renowned for their singing and their icon-writing.

 

Chapel marks finding of John’s head

The Russian complex of the church and associated buildings, including a pilgrims’ hostel, is set among gardens with a large olive grove.

Access is from Rabi’a al-Adawwiyya Street (which begins directly opposite the entrance to the Church of Pater Noster) and along a lane on the right called Alley 7. To the left of a big green gate at the end of the lane is a door with a keypad to request entry.

Hollow in floor where John the Baptist's head is believed to have been found (Matanya - Wikimedia)

Hollow in floor where John the Baptist’s head is believed to have been found (Matanya – Wikimedia)

The cross-shaped church is surmounted by a dome containing a striking representation of the Ascension. Stains on flagstones from an earlier Byzantine church are believed to be the blood of nuns slain during the Persian invasion of 614.

Attached to an outside wall, protected by a grate, is a rock on which the Orthodox believe Mary, the mother of Jesus, was standing when her son ascended to heaven.

Behind the church is a chapel built on the site where the head of John the Baptist is said to have been found.

The tradition holds that a follower of Christ called Joanna saw Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas, throw John’s head on a rubbish heap. Joanna recovered it and buried it in a clay pot on the Mount of Olives.

In the 4th century John is said to have appeared in a dream to two Syrian monks who had come to Jerusalem as pilgrims, showing them where his head was buried.

Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine, was in Jerusalem at the time and ordered a chapel to be built on the spot. The present chapel has a Byzantine mosaic floor with a hollow said to mark the place where the head was discovered.

Three other Ascension sites

Lutheran Church of the Ascension (Isaac Shweky / Wikimedia)

Lutheran Church of the Ascension (Isaac Shweky / Wikimedia)

The Ascension of Jesus is commemorated at three other sites on the Mount of Olives:

* The Dome of the Ascension, a small octagonal structure in a walled compound about 200 metres west of the Russian church. A church has stood here since around AD 380, but the present building is now part of a mosque.

* The Lutheran Church of the Ascension, further north towards Mount Scopus. Also known as Augusta Victoria (after the wife of the Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany who initiated plans for the church in 1989), its fortress-like compound with a tall bell tower now hosts a hospital for the Palestinian population of Jerusalem.

* The Greek Orthodox Viri Galilaei Church, between the Russian and Lutheran churches. Its name means “men of Galilee”, a reference to the question posed to the apostles by two men in white after the Ascension: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up to heaven…?”

 

Related sites:

Dome of the Ascension

Sebastiya

 

In Scripture:

Jesus ascends to heaven: Acts 1:9-11

 

Administered by: Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem

Tel: 02-628-4373 or 628-0111

Open: Apr-Sep, Tues and Thur, 10am-1pm; Oct-Mar, Tues and Thur, 9am-12 noon. Women must wear skirts.

 

 

References

Bar-Am, Aviva: Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem (Ahva Press, 1998)
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)
Rossing, Daniel: Between Heaven and Earth: Churches and Monasteries of the Holy Land (Penn Publishing, 2012)

 

Churches in the Holy Land

Eastern Orthodox

Oriental Orthodox

Eastern Catholic

Roman Catholic

Anglican/Protestant/Evangelical

More than a score of Christian churches and denominations have a presence in the Holy Land — not always co-existing in harmony. In fact the scandal of the disunity of Christians is perhaps more evident in the land where the Church began than anywhere else on earth.

In the early centuries, when the Judaeo-Christian Church was still one and undivided, its expansion required organising into geographic units. Bishops of important centres became known as patriarchs — the title accorded Old Testament leaders such as Abraham.

The earliest patriarchates were Antioch (where the name “Christian” was first used), Alexandria and Rome, with Rome (the see of Peter) accorded primacy of honour. Each brought its own culture and traditions to its church-community.

Two more patriarchates, Constantinople and Jerusalem (the “Mother Church”), were later recognised, with Constantinople eventually being accorded second place after Rome. All were Greek-speaking except for Latin-speaking Rome.

Holy Land Christians

Church leaders of East and West at an ecumenical meeting (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

From the 4th century, theological disagreements arose over the nature of Christ. Often exacerbated by political and social tensions, these led the Assyrian Church of the East and what we know as the Oriental Orthodox churches (Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syriac) to break away. They are still not in communion with either Constantinople or Rome.

In the 11th century, long-standing disputes between the Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) branches of Christianity incited the Great Schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.

From the 16th century, groups within several Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches re-established communion with the Roman Catholic Church. These became the Eastern Catholic churches.

The 16th century also saw dissent within the Western (Roman) Church spark the Protestant Reformation, resulting in a multitude of new denominations.

The main Christian groupings in the Holy Land today are Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Catholic, Roman (Latin) Catholic and Evangelical or Protestant.

Eastern Orthodox

Holy Land Christians

Greek Orthodox procession in Jerusalem (© Deror Avi)

Greek Orthodox form the largest Christian church in the Holy Land, their patriarch claiming direct descent from St James, the first bishop of Jerusalem.

Leadership in Israel is predominantly expatriate Greek, with married parish clergy and mainly Arab laity (in Jordan and Syria the leadership is largely Arab).

The Greek Orthodox holds major rights to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

The community’s St John the Baptist Church on Christian Quarter Road is one of the oldest in Jerusalem, built originally in the 5th century, and today below street level.

Russian Orthodox pilgrims from Russia visited the Holy Land from the 11th century, but the church did not establish its own institutions in Palestine until the 19th century, when an area now known as the Russian Compound on the Jaffa Road was developed.

Holy Land Christians

Russian Church of St Mary Magdalene (Seetheholyland.net)

The Russian Revolution of 1917 ended pilgrimages from Russia and also led to a Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, in opposition to the Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate. The two churches signed an act of canonical communion in 2007.

The best-known property of the Church Outside Russia is the onion-domed Church of St Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives. The main Moscow Patriarchate church is the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in the Russian Compound.

Romanian Orthodox, with their headquarters in Bucharest, established themselves in Jerusalem in 1935. The interior of their church, St George’s, at 46 Shivtei Israel Street, outside the Old City, is covered with frescoes in neo-Byzantine style.

A small number of clergy look after a big number of Romanian guest workers in Israel.

Oriental Orthodox

Holy Land Christians

Armenian Orthodox ceremony in Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Seetheholyland.net)

Armenian Orthodox form the world’s oldest national church, since Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, in AD 301.

Large numbers came to Jerusalem, where they claim the longest uninterrupted Christian presence. The Armenian Quarter occupies about one-sixth of the Old City.

St James’s Cathedral, in Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate Road, is on the site of the original church built over the place where the Armenians believe the head of the apostle James the Great is buried.

The community holds dearly to the memory of the genocide of more than a million Armenians by Ottoman Turks at the time of the First World War.

Holy Land Christians

Entrance to St Mark’s Syriac Orthodox Church (Seetheholyland.net)

Syriac Orthodox trace their church back to first-century Antioch (in present-day Turkey) and claim the apostle St Peter as their first patriarch in AD 37. Before going to Rome, Peter served seven years in Antioch.

The word “Syriac” is not a geographic indicator, but refers to the use of the Syriac Aramaic language, a dialect of the tongue Jesus spoke in first-century Palestine, in worship.

The Syriac Orthodox (often called “Jacobites”, after an early bishop) believe their St Mark’s Church is on the site of the Last Supper and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Their Patriarch of Antioch is based in Damascus.

Holy Land Christians

Coptic Orthodox chapel in Church of the Holy Sepuchre (James Emery)

Coptic Orthodox make up the largest Christian church in the Middle East, founded in Alexandria by the evangelist St Mark. Their leader, with the title of pope, is in Egypt. The liturgy is in Coptic, the ancient language of Egypt, with readings in Arabic.

The Jerusalem patriarchate and St Antony’s Church are close to the Ninth Station of the Via Dolorosa. The Coptic Orthodox also have a tiny chapel at the back of the Tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Ethiopian Orthodox trace their connection to Jerusalem back 1000 years before Christ, when the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon (1 Kings 10:1-13, 2 Chronicles 9:1-12). She embraced his Jewish faith — and apparently Solomon too, since tradition credits them with a son named Menelik, who became emperor of Ethiopia.

Christianity is believed to have been introduced into Ethiopia by the eunuch finance minister of Queen Candace who came to Jerusalem to worship and was baptised by the apostle Philip (Acts 8:26-40).

Holy Land Christians

Queen of Sheba bringing gifts to Solomon, in Ethiopian Orthodox chapel (© Deror Avi)

The Ethiopian Orthodox retain some Jewish practices, including circumcision, and use freshly-baked bread for Communion.

Their biggest church in Jerusalem is the circular Dabra Gannat Monastery on Ethiopia Street, just off Prophet’s Street. They also occupy two chapels in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and a mud-hut village on its roof.

Eastern Catholic

Greek Catholics, known as Melkites (a word meaning “royalist”), form the second largest Christian church in the Holy Land — after the Greek Orthodox, whose Byzantine liturgy they share. Their Patriarch of Antioch is in Damascus.

Holy Land Christians

Street sign for Greek Catholic Patriarchate Road (Yoav Dothan / Wikimedia)

This Arab church has big numbers in the Galilee region and a small community in Jerusalem.

The fresco-covered patriarchate Church of the Annunciation, inside the Jaffa Gate and up Greek Catholic Patriachate Road, is described in the Living Stones Pilgrimage guidebook as “arguably the most representative Byzantine church in Jerusalem and . . . perhaps the best place to introduce yourself to Orthodox places of worship”.

Within the patriarchate building is a museum of Eastern Church traditions in the Holy Land (open 9am-12pm daily, except Sunday).

Chaldean Catholics separated from the Church of the East (also known as the Nestorian Church) in 1552. Most members are in Iraq (where they are the largest Christian church) and Iran, with a refugee Iraqi community in Jordan and emigrant communities as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

Holy Land Christians

Chaldean Catholic refugees in Jordan (© Tasher Bahoo / Wikimedia)

The patriarchal seat is in Baghdad. In Jerusalem the patriarchal exarchate is at 7 Chaldean Street (off Nablus Road).

Syriac Catholics broke away from the Syriac Orthodox Church and have been in communion with Rome since the 1780s. They also trace their origins to the See of Antioch established by St Peter and retain much of the liturgy (in Aramaic) of their Orthodox counterpart.

Their Patriarch of Antioch is in Beirut. The Jerusalem patriarchal exarchate Church of St Thomas is at 2 Chaldean Street (off Nablus Road).

Armenian Catholics, who separated from the Armenian Orthodox Church, have been in communion with Rome since 1742. They have kept much of the Orthodox liturgy (in classical Armenian) and, like the Armenian Orthodox, suffered in the genocide by Ottoman Turks during the First World War.

Their headquarters is in Bzoummar, Lebanon. The Jerusalem patriarchal exarchate is at the Third Station of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa.

Holy Land Christians

St Maron, who gave the Maronite Catholics their name

Maronite Catholics, the largest Christian community in Lebanon, form the only Eastern church which has always been Roman Catholic, without an Orthodox counterpart.

Founded by St Maron, a 5th-century Syrian hermit, they use Aramaic in their worship and their patriarch is in Beirut. Their membership base in the Holy Land is in Galilee, which is just south of Lebanon.

The patriarchal vicariate is in the Old City on Maronite Convent Road, Jaffa Gate.

Roman Catholic

A Latin patriarchate was established in Jerusalem in 1099, 46 years after the East-West schism, during the Crusades. When the Crusaders were routed 90 years later, the Latin hierarchy fled the Holy Land.

Holy Land Christians

Franciscan friars in a Jerusalem market (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

In 1342 Pope Clement VI gave the custodianship of the holy places to the Franciscan order, whose founder, St Francis of Assisi, had visited the Holy Land in 1219-20.

The brown-robed Franciscans are still a familiar feature of the Holy Land, caring for holy places and active in parishes, schools and social works. Their Custody of the Holy Land is based at St Saviour’s Monastery on St Francis Street, New Gate, where St Saviour’s Church is the only Latin parish church in the Old City. They also retain possession of some chapels in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Holy Land Christians

Congregation in St Saviour’s Church (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

About 100 other Roman Catholic religious orders (70 of women and 30 of men) serve in the Holy Land.

In 1847 Pope Pius IX re-established a Latin patriarchate in Jerusalem, with headquarters in Latin Patriarchate Road. Latin-rite Catholics are predominantly Palestinian Arabs (as is the patriarch), though their numbers have been boosted by migrant workers from Asia and Latin America.

Since the mid-1950s there has also been a Hebrew-speaking Catholic community — including convert Jews, Catholic spouses of Jews, and immigrants who have assimilated into the Hebrew-speaking society — which now has its own patriarchal vicar.

Anglican/Protestant/Evangelical

The Anglican and Lutheran churches jointly set up a Jerusalem-based diocese for the Middle East in 1841, though this joint missionary venture ended in 1886. Today both churches have separate bishops (both Palestinian Arabs).

The Anglicans, usually referred to as “Evangelicals” or “Episcopals”, have St George’s Cathedral on Nablus Road, with both Arab and expatriate congregations. St George’s College, a continuing education centre, is within the cathedral compound.

Until the cathedral opened, the bishop’s seat was Christ Church, near the Jaffa Gate in the Old City. The first Protestant church in the Holy Land when it was completed in 1849, it serves Messianic Jews among its charismatic congregation.

Holy Land Christians

Hebrew-inscribed altar in Christ Church (Ian W. Scott)

Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany built the Church of the Redeemer in Muristan Road for the Lutherans and personally dedicated it in 1898.

The church has Arabic, German, English and Danish congregations, and its tall bell tower offers an overview of the Old City.

Several other Reformed churches are established in the Holy Land. They include Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Christian Brethren, Church of God, Church of the Nazarene, Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), King of Kings Assembly, Pentecostal and Seventh-Day Adventist communities. Most evangelical Protestant churches are not recognised by the state of Israel.

Among those who identify as Jewish there are groups of Messianic Christians whose theology is conservatively evangelical and whose politics is predominantly Zionist, seeing the modern state of Israel as a fulfilment of biblical prophecies.

Related articles:

Inside an Eastern church

The Holy Land’s Christians

How to contact churches in Jerusalem

PHOTO CREDITS: Where the images above are not created by Seetheholyland.net, links to the sources can be found on our Attributions Page.

 

References

Bailey, Betty Jane and J. Martin: Who Are the Christians in the Middle East? (William B. Eerdmans, 2010)
Bausch, William J.: Pilgrim Church: A Popular History of Catholic Christianity (Twenty-Third Publications, 1993)
Caffulli, Giuseppe: “Jordan’s Christians: A Living Force” (Holy Land Review, Winter 2010)
Cragg, Kenneth: The Arab Christian: A History in the Middle East (Westminster/John Knox, 1991)
Doyle, Stephen: The Pilgrim’s New Guide to the Holy Land (Liturgical Press, 1990)
Eber, Shirley, and O’Sullivan, Kevin: Israel and the Occupied Territories: The Rough Guide (Harrap-Columbus, 1989)
Faris, John D.: “Peter’s First See” (CNEWA World, March-April 2003)
Hilliard, Alison, and Bailey, Betty Jane: Living Stones Pilgrimage: With the Christians of the Holy Land (Cassell, 1999)
McCormick, James R.: Jerusalem and the Holy Land: The first ecumenical pilgrim’s guide (Rhodes & Eaton, 1997)
Macpherson, Duncan (ed.): A Third Millennium Guide to Pilgrimage to the Holy Land (Melisende, 2000)
Marchadour, Alain, and Neuhaus, David: The Land, the Bible and History: Toward the Land That I Will Show You (Fordham University Press, 2007)
Pentin, Edward: “Leading Efforts to Keep Christians in Holy Land” (Holy Land Review, Spring 2009)

 

Dome of the Ascension

Jerusalem

Dome of the Ascension

Dome of the Ascension (© Israel Ministry of Tourism)

The shrine marking the place where Jesus is believed to have ascended to heaven offers Christians a disappointing experience.

All that remains of the several churches built to celebrate the Ascension is a small octagonal structure on a property that is now part of a mosque.

Plain and unadorned, the Dome of the Ascension stands in a walled compound east of the main road that runs on the top of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The location is just north of the Church of Pater Noster — which is built over a cave that the first Christians used as a more secluded place to commemorate the Ascension.

The last church on the site was captured by the Muslim sultan Saladin when he defeated the Crusaders in 1187. Since Muslims also believe in the Ascension of Jesus, it was converted into a mosque.

An unusual feature of the tiny building is that it contains what has been traditionally regarded as the last impression of Jesus’ right foot on earth before he ascended into heaven.

 

First church was open to the sky

Dome of the Ascension

Footprint stone in Dome of Ascension (Seetheholyland.net)

The first church on the hill was funded by Poemenia, a wealthy Roman woman who was a member of the imperial family, around AD 380.

Known as the Imbomon (Greek for “on the hill”), it was a rotunda, open to the sky, surrounded by circular porticos and arches. In the centre of the stone floor was a rock on which it was believed Jesus’ final footprints could be seen in the dust.

By 670 the original structure had been destroyed and rebuilt but the English pilgrim Arculf reported to his countrymen that the footprints were still to be seen in the dust of its floor.

In the 12th century the Crusaders rebuilt an octagonal chapel, set within a fortified monastery. From this strategic position on the crest of the Mount of Olives, the Crusaders controlled the road between Jericho and Jerusalem.

The footprints were still venerated, but now they were reported to be carved into the face of the rock.

Part of this rock remains today in the Dome of the Ascension, although the Muslims have moved it adjacent to a mihrab they inserted to indicate the direction of Mecca. They took the section bearing the left footprint to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, where it was placed behind the pulpit there.

 

Christian celebrations are allowed

Dome of the Ascension

Celebrating the Ascension at the Dome of the Ascension (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

The Muslims also walled in the open spaces between the columns and put a dome over the opening in the roof.

The ornately carved capitals on top of the columns are well preserved. The designs depict foliage and fabulous animals.

The various Christian communities are permitted to hold celebrations here on their Ascension feast days. Hooks in the courtyard wall are used to erect their awnings, ribbons and flags on these occasions.

To the right of the entrance to the Dome of the Ascension is a small mosque built in 1620.

An underground tomb near the entrance is revered by all three monotheistic religions, although they differ about its occupant. Jews believe it contains the Old Testament prophetess Huldah; Christians regard it as the grave of the 5th-century St Pelagia; Muslims maintain it is the tomb of the Sufi holy woman Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya (for whom the mosque is named).

 

Three more recent Ascension churches

Three more recent churches on the Mount of Olives commemorate the Ascension.

At the summit is the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension, dating from the late 19th century. Its tall tower, one of Jerusalem’s most prominent landmarks, was built to enable pilgrims to see the Jordan River.

On the north side is the German Lutheran Church of the Ascension (also known as Augusta Victoria, after the wife of the Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany who initiated plans for the church in 1898), dating from the early 20th century. Its fortress-like compound with a tall bell tower now hosts a hospital for the Palestinian population of Jerusalem.

Between the Russian and Lutheran churches is the Greek Orthodox Viri Galilaei Church. Its name means “men of Galilee”, a reference to the question posed to the apostles by two men in white after the Ascension: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up to heaven…?”

Related site: Church of the Ascension

 

In Scripture:

The Ascension of Jesus: Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:4-11

Administered by: Islamic Waqf Foundation

Open: Daily (if door is not open, ring the bell)

 

References

Bagatti, Bellarmino: “ ‘Footprints’ of the Saviour on the Mount of Olives”, Holy Land, winter 2005.
Bar-Am, Aviva: Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem (Ahva Press, 1998)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
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

Chapel of the Ascension, Jerusalem (Sacred Destinations)
Chapel of Ascension (BibleWalks)
Chapel of the Ascension panorama (Jesus in Jerusalem)

Church of St Mary Magdalene

Jerusalem

Church of St Mary Magdalene

Onion domes and ornate frontage of Church of St Mary Magdalene (Seetheholyland.net)

Seven gilded onion domes, each topped by a tall Russian Orthodox cross, make the Church of St Mary Magdalene one of Jerusalem’s most picturesque sights.

It makes an especially striking spectacle at night, when its floodlit domes seem to be floating above the dark trees that surround it.

The church stands on the western slope of the Mount of Olives, above the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations. It commemorates the enigmatic Mary from Magdala  — revered as a saint by the Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches — who was one of the few persons named in the Gospels as being present at Christ’s crucifixion and who was the first recorded witness of his Resurrection.

In its convent live about 30 Russian Orthodox nuns from several different countries. While particularly known for the quality of their liturgical singing, they also paint icons, embroider vestments and items for liturgical use, and decorate Russian eggs.

 

Design reflects Muscovite architecture

Church of St Mary Magdalene

Medallion above door of Church of St Mary Magdalene (© Deror Avi)

The Church of St Mary Magdalene was built in 1888 by Czar Alexander III of Russia, in memory of his mother, Empress Maria Alexandrovna, whose patron saint was Mary Magdalene.

Its onion-shaped domes and the general style reflect the architecture of Moscow during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Although the intricately decorated façade appears to be made of marble, it is actually of sculpted white sandstone.

Above the entrance a circular blue mosaic medallion depicts Mary Magdalene robed in white.

 

Painting illustrates Mary Magdalene legend

In contrast to the exterior, the interior of the Church of St Mary Magdalene is rather plain. The walls are covered with designs, predominantly in shades of brown.The white marble and bronze iconostasis — the partition that separates the nave from the sanctuary — holds icons and paintings, including depictions of the four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary and the archangel Gabriel.

Church of St Mary Magdalene

Inside Church of St Mary Magdalene (© Deror Avi)

Above the iconostasis, a large canvas by Russian artist Sergei Ivanov illustrates a popular legend in which Mary Magdalene travels to Rome to tell the Emperor Tiberius of Jesus’ unfair trial and unjust sentence. She is shown presenting the emperor with a red egg, symbolising the Resurrection and eternal life.

To the right side of the iconostasis, a 16th-century icon of the Virgin Mary in a hand-carved wooden case has a place of honour. The icon is said to have miraculous powers.

 

Two Russian saints are buried

On either side of the nave is a marble sarcophagus, each containing the body of a Russian Orthodox saint.

The better known one is Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna. A German princess, she was the wife of the Czar’s brother Sergei, a sister of the Czar’s wife Alexandra — and a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.

The grand duchess took a deep personal interest in the church and was responsible for commissioning its art works.

Widowed when an assassin killed her husband in 1905, she founded a convent and became its abbess. She and her nuns did much to help alleviate the suffering of the poor in Moscow.

After the Russian Revolution, Grand Duchess Elizabeth, her companion Sister Barbara Yakovleva and other members of the Russian imperial family were thrown down a mine shaft by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and left to die.

The bodies of Grand Duchess Elizabeth and Sister Barbara (whose remains are in the other sarcophagus) were eventually smuggled out of Russia and brought to Jerusalem. Both women have been canonised as martyrs by the Russian Orthodox Church.

In a crypt below the church is buried Princess Alice of Greece, the mother of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. She had expressed a wish to be buried near Grand Duchess Elizabeth, who was her aunt.

In Scripture:

Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene: John 20:1-18

Administered by: Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem

Tel.: 972-2-6284373

Open: Tuesday and Thursday, 10am-noon

 

 

References

Bar-Am, Aviva: Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem (Ahva Press, 1998)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Convent of St Mary Magdalene — the Garden of Gethsemane
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