The Christian sites in Jerusalem demonstrate none of the power of the Roman Catholic Church in the West. We quickly realised, the holy places of Christianity face a much greater challenge in Jerusalem.


The holy places of Christianity are littered across the streets and walls of ancient Jerusalem.  For this is the city where – according to the Christian Bible – Jesus was crucified, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Events that provided Christians with their salvation from sin and the hope of eternal life. The foundations of a religion that would dominate for the next 2000 years. Yet, the Christian sites in Jerusalem were nothing like the power and might of the Roman Catholic Church I grew up with in the West.

I was educated in Catholic schools, firmly rooted in the western version of Christianity. This meant bible study, sacraments, exams, and regular ceremonies in gracious churches. I would stare at the soaring ceilings and the majestic artwork. I would listen to choirs backed by monolithic pipe organs and I would stare in awe at the sheer display of theatre. The message was clear, these biblical stories must be showcased in the best of places.

CHRISTIAN SITES IN JERUSALEM

Dome of the Ascension  / Rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 12th Century

Via Dolorosa / 9 of the 14 Stations of the Cross

Church of the Holy Sepulchre / Location of Christ’s crucifixion in a tug-o-war between Christian sects

Tomb of the Virgin Mary / A blend of Greek, Armenian, Syrian, Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches battle for rights

So, after a fascinating day exploring Jewish history in Jerusalem, I was keen to explore the Christian sites in Jerusalem. Not just to find the actual locations of the events I had been primed to recall from a young age; the spot where Jesus healed the blind man; the gate he chose for his arrival into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; the rock that bears his footprints from his ascension into heaven. But to compare the buildings and churches of Jerusalem to those of the West.

And as I explored the churches and tombs in Jerusalem; one thing struck me immediately: this wasn’t a western depiction. Instead of soaring spires, exquisite stained-glass windows and behemoth places of worship, the Jerusalem version of Christianity is weary and dishevelled; bruised by fractious Christian sects wrestling for influence.



As travellers, the wheels of history are on our side. The lack of Roman influence makes the Christian sites in Jerusalem far more interesting and tangible. Bedraggled, dingy, unassuming and often run by Muslims, they actually tell a story that’s far more evocative than my repetitive bible study, or those Roman Catholic splurges.

But it’s not a story about Jesus’s life or the events that the devout believe took place in Jerusalem. It’s a story about the power and politics of religion and empire. It’s about how the Roman Empire selected Christianity on a whim, then shaped the version we learn about to this day. It’s about a church that has outgrown its hometown and moved to Rome. It’s about the remaining Christian sects left carrying the flame in Jerusalem, still bickering over the candlestick that holds it.

1 / DOME OF THE ASCENSION

The early Christian faithful were outcasts in a pagan Roman Empire. Persecuted for their faith, they were forced to pray secretly in small private congregations. One of these congregations met in a pint-sized cave on the Mount of Olives, to pray near the rock which was believed to hold the footprint of Jesus, implanted by his ascension into heaven.

In 313 CE, after Constantine attributed his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge to Jesus, he decriminalised Christian worship. Christianity became the religion of an empire. No longer forced to pray covertly, an open-air church was built around the sacred rock in 380 CE. The church fell into ruin, was rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 12th Century and, after the Crusaders were defeated by Saladin – perhaps the most famous Kurd in history – it was converted into a mosque.

This is the Dome of the Ascension that stands today. It’s an unassuming building; nothing more than an old squat octagonal structure with a small dome on the top. The courtyard around it is a grey dusty space which would be completely empty if it wasn’t for the odd bit of rubble and a little snack cart selling some bread rolls. Inside the dome, you can see the right footprint of Jesus. The left has been taken to the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount.

The Dome of the Ascension marks the location of one the holiest Christian sites in Jerusalem and it sits under a tiny crumbling mosque. None of the might and power you would associate with the Holy Roman and Catholic Apostolic Church exists here. No marble, no priceless artwork, no awe-inspiring structure adorned with choirs of angels. For the location where Jesus ascended into heaven, a humble stone building out the back of a rocky plot of land, administered by a friendly Muslim family, seems to do the trick just nicely.


Dome of the Ascension /8:00 – 18:00 (summer); 08:00 – 14:30 (winter). Ring bell for entrance.

2 / VIA DOLOROSA (STATIONS OF THE CROSS)

After being condemned by Pontius Pilate, Jesus was forced to take up his cross and carry it to Calvary, a small hill outside the city walls where he was to be crucified. Via Dolorosa, meaning Way of Sorrows, has become the agreed location of the stations of the cross: the final steps of Jesus.

In most Christian churches you will find beautifully carved or painted representations of the stations of the cross. Each one carefully depicting a scene as Jesus carries his cross to his crucifixion. Each one set in a prominent location high in the church, framed with ornate extravagance. Each one designed to capture your attention as soon as you step foot in the place.

At Via Dolorosa, there’s no such attention-grabbing tactics. Locating the stations of the cross here – at the agreed location of the actual events – requires ferreting around like you’re on a treasure hunt, with the treasures well disguised. Some are tucked in alcoves, others are hidden inside the entrances to buildings. Some are marked with a tiny blue plaque that you need to rub the dust off to read. All require backtracking, a good map, persistence and a sturdy determination.

For one of the most holy places of Christianity, Via Dolorosa has an incongruous business-as-usual vibe. Sellers push their wares, workers hurry off for lunch, tradesman bang away above scaffolding, and the smell of kebab and falafel fill the air. Meanwhile, determined tourists are squinting at their maps, climbing under scaffolding and feeling around doorways hoping to find an elusive station.

The actors on Via Doloroso seemed completely unaware that their street features prominently in every church in the western world.


Via Dolorosa /There are 14 stations in total, the first 9 are around Via Dolorosa, the final 5 are within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Each station has a small sign marking it.

3 / CHURCH OF THE HOLY SEPULCHRE

As the location where Christians believe Jesus died and rose from the dead, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the most sacred of all Christian sites in Jerusalem. It was built in 326 CE by Constantine and later destroyed by the Persians. It was rebuilt and destroyed again before the Crusaders completed the current reconstruction in 1149 CE. This is basically the church you see today.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is covered under the Status Quo Agreement, a decree issued by Sultan Ottoman Osman III in 1757, that preserved the division and ownership of important religious sites in Israel. This left the ownership of the Holy Sepulchre split between Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Apostolic denominations. Unable to reach agreement on even the smallest of details, the keys to the main entrance are entrusted to two Muslim families. It’s these families – custodians of the keys for around 800 years – who open the church and welcome the Christian faithful every day.

I was expecting the church to be a grand majestic shrine to Christianity. It contains the hill of Calvary where Jesus was crucified; the Stone of Anointing, where his body was washed; and the tomb where he was laid to rest. But instead the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a dilapidated building, stuck in a tug-o-war between various Christian styles and influences.

It’s broody and moody. Dark ominous chapels are lit by a combination of Greek and Armenian candles. Faithful clamber, lining up to touch the Rock of Calvary. Little nuns duck under scaffolding to get to one of the 30 chapels that make up this conglomeration of individual worship houses.

And it’s all the better for it. Far from the pristine aesthetics of Roman churches, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is full of atmosphere and character. A relaxed character that has not changed for hundreds of years. As I bent down to touch the Stone of Anointing, I wondered how many laws I would be breaking to do this in Rome.


Church of the Holy Sepulchre /Sun: 05:00 – 20:00; Mon – Sat: 05:00 – 21:00 (summer); Everyday: 04:00 – 19:00 (winter).

4 / TOMB OF THE VIRGIN MARY

The Tomb of the Virgin Mary is one of the most holy Christian sites in Jerusalem. It’s located just outside the city walls at the foot of the Mount of Olives. The tomb rests in a crypt that was part of a 5th-century church that was destroyed and rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 12th Century. The crypt survived the destruction and it is thought to be the oldest intact religious building in Jerusalem.

The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox Church share the possession rights, while the Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox have lesser rights. Although Muslims do not have any possession rights, they pray here as it is believed Muhammed saw a light over his sister Mary’s tomb during his Night Journey to Jerusalem.

I entered the crypt through the Crusader church and descended a wide stone staircase. The crypt is dark and dingy, with candles and hanging lamps providing a little atmospheric light. Smoke over the years has blackened the walls to a dirty hue. At the bottom of the stairs, various trinkets of worship in the Syrian, Coptic and Armenian styles mark the Tomb of Mary. I think. It’s hard to tell because there’s so much stuff lying around. It’s a bit like flea market, with Nana’s old ornaments lined up ready for sale.

Old Prime Ministers of the UK are buried with more aplomb the the Virgin Mary. If Mary was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, she would be honoured with the finest marble. But instead, standing in a crypt carved out of rock, as candles flicker and incense burns, the Tomb of Mary offers its own unique experience. Like many of the holy Christian sites in Jerusalem, what it lacks in grandeur, it makes up for in atmosphere.


Tomb of the Virgin Mary /Mon to Sat: 06:00 – 12:00; 14:30 – 17:00.

LIGHTBULB NEGOTIATIONS IN THE HEART & SOUL OF CHRISTIANITY

Jerusalem offers an opportunity to dwell on the remarkable influence empire and religion has on our world today. Once an underground cult, Christianity shot to fame thanks to the beliefs of one very influential Roman Emperor. Constantine’s protection of this small sect formed the basis for it spreading across the Roman and then the Holy Roman Empires.

While the most holy places of Christianity in the West are announced in stained glass, towering steeples and mammoth cathedrals across western Europe, those in Jerusalem are often opened by Muslims and squabbled over by small rival Christian sects. Agreeing who changes the lightbulbs is a long drawn out negotiation and various styles of appropriate worship blend together with complete disdain for aesthetic cohesiveness.

And it works like a gaudy charm from the Vatican gift shop. The most holy Christian sites in Jerusalem have a heart and soul their Roman counterparts have spent away.

For all the trip details, please see our full Israel Itinerary.

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Our impressions from exploring the historical sites of Christianity in Jerusalem.

Our impressions from exploring the historical sites of Christianity in Jerusalem.

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