Where He Walked: A Visit to the Mount of Olives

Jesus came out and proceeded as was His custom to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples also followed Him.
Luke 22:39

You may remember the very first installment of Wordless Wednesday, this photo of the Mount of Olives. It depicts just a small swath of the more than 150,000 graves on the mountain, as seen from the Old City.

The Mount of Olives is a large hill just to the east of Jerusalem’s Old City. It was probably a favorite place of Jesus, since the Bible says it “was His custom” to go there. Also, this hill divides Jerusalem from Bethany, and Jesus probably hiked over it many times in order to visit his good friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha. The Mount of Olives is also the site of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

It is also mentioned several times in the Old Testament: for one, the Jews gathered olive branches from this mountain for the first Sukkot, or Feast of Tabernacles, after their return from exile in Babylon (Nehemiah 8:15). It is also mentioned in biblical prophecy of the End of Days (see Zechariah 14:3-5). Christians believe that someday this is the place to where Jesus will return (see Acts 1:9-11), and Jews believe that this will be the site of Judgment Day, starting with the resurrection of the dead. Jewish oral tradition also states that the olive branch brought back to Noah’s Ark by the scouting dove was brought from the Mount of Olives. For more Bible passages mentioning the Mount of Olives, see here.

Meanwhile, Muslims believe that, on Judgment Day, a bridge with seven arches no wider than a hair will stretch across the valley between the Mount of Olives and the Temple Mount, the location of the Dome of the Rock. (The Dome of the Rock commemorates The Prophet’s ascension to Heaven to receive the pillars of Islam from the mouth of Allah, and thus the rock inside is seen as a sort of portal to Heaven.) The righteous will cross the bridge and ascend to Heaven, while the unrighteous will fall from the narrow bridge into Hell. Since it’s essentially a front-row seat to the most important day a dead person can hope to experience, it is a favorite resting place for Jews from all over the world, and the oldest active cemetery in the world, in constant use for over 3,000 years. There are also several Christian and Muslim cemeteries on the mountain, though far fewer than Jewish ones.

Everyone who is buried on the Mount of Olives is buried with their feet facing towards the Old City, towards the Temple Mount, so they will be prepared to walk there when the time comes.

Today I would like to show you some sights from a recent walkabout on the Mount of Olives. Here are the other treasures to be found on this holy mountain, from the top down.

First, at the top of the mountain, tucked between a mosque and various residential buildings, is the Chapel of the Ascension of Jesus. This very small round chapel on the highest point on the Mount of Olives was originally a Crusader church built without a roof. The Crusaders believed that, since Jesus would return “in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:9-11), that He would return to this very spot, and they didn’t want to inconvenience Him by putting a building in His way. Muslim invaders who came several centuries later added the roof as a juvenile taunt to prevent Jesus from ever returning there. The building served as a mosque for several centuries, but it has now been decommissioned to allow for visitors of all faiths. There is still a mihrab in the Mecca-facing corner to attest to its past. For more about the chapel, see here.

Not far from the Chapel of the Ascension is the church of the Pater Noster, or the Basilica of Eleona, the olive grove. This church was built on the site of an ancient Byzantine church to commemorate Jesus’ teaching of the Lord’s Prayer, or the “Our Father.” The church is a huge open-air church, an unfinished reconstruction of the ancient church, with over 100 versions of the Lord’s Prayer appearing, mostly on painted tiles, in every language from Aramaic, that is, Jesus’ actual words in their original language, to Latin, from Cherokee Indian to Pidgin Creole, from Chinese Braille (as well as Mandarin Chinese and American Braille) to African tribal languages with fewer than 500 speakers. Shown in this photo are Niçard (regional French dialect in Nice), Thai, Korean, Kashubian (regional language of Poland), Sami (Lapland), Kadazan (Malaysia) and Finnish. This place is a linguist’s dream! To learn more about the Church of the Pater Noster, see here.

A little further down the mountain you get the best panoramic view of the Old City…

… and a view of thousands of graves. Instead of flowers, Jewish visitors to the graves of loved ones bring rocks to set on top of the tombstones.

See the conical tomb at the lowest point in the valley? That is what’s known as the Pillar of Absalom, one of the oldest and most ornate graves on the Mount of Olives. To learn more about Absalom’s Pillar, see here.

Near the lookout, there is also a place for tourists to catch a camel ride!

As late afternoon falls over the cemetery, the rocks brought by loved ones are particularly visible. And you realize what a peaceful and lovely place this is for the departed to lie in wait for their final journey…

But, sadly, it hasn’t always been so peaceful. From Israel’s war of Independence in 1948 until the Six-Day War in 1967, the Mount of Olives was in the part of East Jerusalem that was under Jordanian rule. Angry Arabs broke into parts of the cemetery to deface and destroy Jewish gravestones, some of which are now beyond restoration.

Level with the graveyard is the modern Catholic Church of Dominus Flevit, Latin for “The Lord wept.” This beautiful teardrop-shaped church designed by Antonio Barluzzi commemorates a moment from the Gospel story of Jesus’ triumphant entry to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday. Overcome with emotion, Jesus stopped near this spot and cried over the beauty of the Temple, which he foresaw being destroyed, and the impending destruction of Jerusalem followed by another exile of the Jewish people.

The view from inside the church is the view over which Jesus wept. The Temple has since been replaced by the Dome of the Rock, and Roman fortresses replaced by skyscrapers, and the gentle hill up to the Golden Gate has been replaced by a Muslim graveyard and a walled-off gate. But if you squint, you can almost imagine the beauty and the heartbreak that drove our Lord to tears. There are also ancient tombs that have been excavated at the site. To learn more about Dominus Flevit, see here.

A little farther down the hillside is a Russian Orthodox church dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Its beautiful onion-shaped golden domes sparkle in the setting sun, with more graves covering the hillside behind. To learn more about the Church of Mary Magdalene, see here.

At the foot of the Mount of Olives is an ancient Greek Orthodox church, mostly underground, which commemorates the traditional site of the Tomb of Mary, the mother of Jesus. According to ancient Christian tradition, Mary’s body was assumed into Heaven after she died, and so her tomb was found empty soon after her death. This empty tomb, surrounded by an edicule, is now the main feature of this underground church, parts of which date back to the 5th century. There is a very long and ominous stairwell leading to the underground level of the tomb, and the church is very old and very dark. Maybe it’s the years and years of wax from all the candles, but for some reason Orthodox churches in the Holy Land always appear so dark and ancient.

Also at the foot of the Mount of Olives is Gethsemane, home to the Church of All Nations, also known as the Basilica of the Agony.

This was the site of Jesus’ fervent, tortured prayer on the last night of His life and the place from which He was taken by Roman soldiers after He was betrayed. It was also the site of an ancient Byzantine church, then later a Crusader church. The modern church, also designed by Antonio Barluzzi, was built to echo the Byzantine one, on the same foundations and in the same shape. Beautifully intricate mosaics from the Byzantine church were unearthed during construction and worked into the design of the modern church. The modern floor mosaic is a reproduction and continuation of these ancient patterns that are now preserved under glass as part of the decoration.

The modern mosaics take it even a step farther, with beautiful details and Byzantine motifs.

Even on a bright day, the church is very dark inside to emulate the darkness of the night when the Lord prayed here. A mosaic over the altar depicts Christ’s agony. The stone floor below the altar is part of the original rock where Jesus is believed to have prayed.

Each of the church’s twelve ornate domes is dedicated to one of the nations who funded the project. This is why the church is known as the Church of All Nations. Here is the American dome. (See the American eagles in the top left and lower right corners?)

The church is surrounded by a peaceful ancient grove of olive trees. The trees that were here at the time of Christ were cut down by Roman invaders soon after that time. However, olive roots are able to survive underground without a tree, and the trees themselves live a very long time. It is entirely possible that these trees come from the roots that were here when Jesus was here. At the very least, these trees are estimated to be around a millenium old. To learn more about the Church of All Nations, see here.

Standing at the front door of the Church of All Nations, you can see to the now-walled-up Golden Gate leading into the Old City. This is the gate that Jesus entered through on Palm Sunday. It is also the gate through which Jews believe the Messiah will enter at the end of days, and for this reason (among other strategic defense reasons), the gate was walled up by Islamic Ottoman conquerors, who also encouraged a Muslim graveyard in front of it, in the 16th century. To learn more about the Golden Gate, see here.

The Mount of Olives, Jerusalem’s holy mountain, is a place teeming with history and tradition. Though, these days, you’re more likely to see foreign visitors or rowdy local children than prophets on this hill, this is a place of peace, a place where one can gaze and weep over Jerusalem just as Jesus once did. Like many places throughout the Holy Land, it is amazing to think that this is a place where Jesus actually walked, and now, centuries later, we can walk here, too.

“And they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” But how could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget her skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you.”
Psalm 137


Filed under Catholic Life, Playing Tourist, Walking Where Jesus Walked

2 responses to “Where He Walked: A Visit to the Mount of Olives

  1. Kris

    Good tour!

    One question, the line that says “Muslims believe that, on Judgment Day, a bridge with seven arches”, should that be “Jews believe”, I got confused there🙂

    • Jessa

      No, it is Muslims! That’s why this mountain (and this city) is so interesting– it’s a very important place for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike! There is also a big hotel on the Mount of Olives called the Seven Arches, which was built during the Jordanian rule and is named after this belief.

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