You can’t help but soak up religious history when you’re in Jerusalem. Everywhere you turn there are religious buildings, sites or icons vying for your attention. Having had a quick peek at what the Russians and Ethiopians showcased, we headed off to journey in the final footsteps of one of the most influential men to have walked the earth, Jesus Christ.
The Via Dolorosa is Latin for Painful Way or Way or Suffering, marking the path that Jesus walked enroute to Calvary where he was crucified. The current route, having been in place since the 18th century, begins where the Antonia Fortress would’ve stood, at the northwest corner of the Temple Mount and travels some 600 metres before terminating at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Anyone who has been inside a Catholic Church will be familiar with the paintings that adorn the walls illustrating the various incidents that occured during Jesus’ final walk after his condemnation by Pontius Pilate, to his crucifixion. These mark the stations of the cross which are used to help the Christian faithful make a spiritual pilgrimage through contemplation of the final period in the life of Jesus, known as the Passion of Christ.
We began at Station 1 at the El-Omariyah School for Boys, which is supposed to be where the Antonia Fortress used to stand before heading to the second Station, where there was a lot more to see.
Here, two early 19th-century Catholic churches now occupy the area, having taken their names from events that occurred. The Church of the Flagellation is a beautiful small church with three stained glass windows showing various scenes from Jesus’ trail by Pilate.
When looking up to the dome’s ceiling, you can also see a mosaic design of a crown of thorns. Simple in design, moving in impact.
The Church of the Condemnation and Imposition of the Cross is located within the same Franciscan compound and has a number of sculptures of Jesus’ condemnation and subsequent imposition.
We spent about 45 minutes at the compound and could easily have spent more. Like most of the places we visited, the interior is loaded with a lot of interesting artefacts and things to see. It also wasn’t crowded and had a real feel of tranquility about it.
Moving on, we passed through Station 3, where Jesus fell for the first time, before arriving at what we thought was a souvenir shop at Station 4, where Jesus is said to have met his mother Mary (not, unfortunately for a spot of shopping, though). At the back of the shop, stairs lead down to a statue depicting the actual scene where he meets his mother.
If you look closely, you can see a pair of sandal marks in the mosaic floor, which is supposed to be where Jesus stood when meeting his mother. Ascending the stairs took us up through the Armenian Chapel of Our Lady of the Spasm and out onto the Way, once again.
Beside a small Franciscan church is the 5th station, dedicated to Simon the Cyrenian, who assisted Jesus with the cross. Here, an old square stone has an indentation, where it is said Jesus placed his hand. We were told it is tradition for pilgrims to place their own left hand in the same spot as if we too had fallen sideways while walking up the Way.
Station 6 needed no introduction for our party of pilgrims, being the site where Saint Veronica is said to have wiped the face of Jesus. Our own Veronica has had plenty of practise doing that with our own kids and is still awaiting her sainthood.
At this point we started to lose our own way. Church bells were chiming for 12 noon and tired and hungry pilgrims needed to be watered and fed.
One thing we've already learnt while travelling, is that best-laid plans of mice and men not only oft go astray, but almost always go astray. Hence, even though we intended to see each of the Stations, by Station 7, the enjoyment and interest factor was lacking from the (smaller) girls and rather than trying to keep flagellating dead horses, we called it a day.
As we were keen to visit each of the stations, we fronted up the next day for round two. When I’d booked this part of the trip, I’d wanted to avoid most of the crowds and booked after Easter. What I hadn’t realised is that not only was it Passover, but it was also Orthodox Easter, which differed in dates from that of Catholic Easter.
The difference in dates is mostly due to Orthodox Churches using the Julian calendar for Easter, whereas Catholic churches use the Gregorian calendar (first introduced in 1582), which is 11 minutes shorter per year. This doesn’t sound like much but when compounded over centuries, it makes enough of a difference in relation to the changes of seasons and subsequent date upon which Easter Sunday falls, that most years Easter is celebrated on different dates. They do line up about 30% of the time but not this year. In fact, the next time the Easter falls on the same date isn’t until 2025. This became something of an issue, as the following day was Orthodox Good Friday and everything was crowded, to say the least.
Still, we forged on with our own path through the stations, arriving at Station 7 where Jesus fell for the second time.
And then on to Station 8 where Jesus is said to meet the woman of Jerusalem.
All the remaining Stations take place in and around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the 9th where Jesus fell for the third time being adjacent to the church). We'd visited the church the previous day and had another go at it on Orthodox Good Friday, where it was a lot more packed.
At the entrance to the Church, is the Chapel of the Franks is Station 10 where Jesus is stripped of his clothes. By this stage, we were being shepherded along by the police and waves of people, so it became a lottery as to whether or not we saw anything.
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is Station 11 where Jesus was nailed to the cross. Here a Franciscan altar is said to mark the spot of Calvary.
Station 12 where Jesus dies on the cross is a Greek Orthodox crucifixion altar. We’d unintentionally arrived during the Greek ceremony during which the monks carried the cross up to the alter and performed a ceremony. As you could imagine being four deep, we didn’t get to see much.
When you first enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the first thing you’re likely to see is the Stone of Unction also known as the Stone of Anointing. The faithful believe this to be the place where Jesus’ body was laid down, after being removed from the crucifix and prepared for its burial, by Joseph of Arimathea. This marks Station 13.
What seemingly is a church within a church, is actually the Aedicule - the tomb of Christ and the site of the final station.
I don’t mind queueing and in actual fact can queue almost as well as a Brit, but the lines and wait time to get in to see the tomb were beyond ridiculous, hence our decision to not enter.
Travelling the Via Dolorosa was a good experience, however, the mass amount of people made it very hard to get a high degree of satisfaction from our visit. The first day was much the better of the two where crowds were much smaller and we could actually view the sites. Good Friday viewing was almost a write off. Had we come outside the Easter/Passover period, I’m sure things would’ve been very different.
Having seen one end of Jesus life, it was time to go back to the beginning, with a trip to Bethlehem.