Via Dolorosa: a somewhat crowded pilgrimage
Just in time for Holy Week, here comes an account of my last day in Jerusalem, encompassing visits to Rachel’s Tomb, the Mount of Olives, and the Via Dolorosa.
Among the lanes in Jerusalems Old City, the Via Dolorosa marks the last steps of Jesus Christ prior to his crucification, and is a scantily marked, mostly pedestrian street that winds through the Muslim Quarter into the Christian Quarter and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Jesus Christ was crucified and buried.
While the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is on pretty much everyone’s itinerary, the Via Dolorosa usually isn’t except for the most pious of Christian pilgrim groups, some of whom carry large crosses all along. This can definitely be observed on a Friday, when a procession led by Franciscans starts at the Chapel of the Flagellation at 15.00.
But what is it like to walk the Via Dolorosa at other times?
Geografically, its best to start at the Lions Gate, which marks the entrance to the Old City, and the area is nicely uncrowded.The Leopard reliefs were added by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th Century.
St Anne’s Church
Right after the Lions Gate you’ll see St. Anne’s Church on the right. I highly recommend a visit! Behind the church, you will find remnants of the Pools of Bethesda, the site where Jesus healed a paralysed man on a visit that would be separate to his last entry into Jerusalem. So, strictly speaking, this is not really part of the Way of the Cross but refers to an earlier miracle – No 18. in the chronological order of the 37 miracles performed by him during his ministry.
The church of St. Anne is quite simple from the outside, but peaceful and has some beautiful gardens. It is owned by the French government and and maintained by the Missionaries of Africa, also known as the White Fathers.
It is said that the parents of the Virgin Mary, Anne and Joachim, lived on this site, and in Orthodox tradition, the birthplace of the Virgin Mary is venerated here, in a separate building facing the street. Be prepared to crawl through a lot of basements, if you want to take a look at it! The whole compound is a perfect place for a little rest, and dare I say it, has the cleanest restrooms of the Old City.
St Anne’s Church, though plain, has excellent acoustics, and the pilgrim groups that make it here often sign a hymn or two, in varying quality. When I visited, a Chinese group sang “Amazing Grace” so beautifully it brought tears to my eyes. Other than the hymn singing, the White Fathers ensure the place is kept for rest and prayer, and guiding inside the church is highly discouraged.
Have a rest in beautiful St. Anne’s Gardens.
The Stations of the Cross
So, a hundred metres or so on, the Via Dolorosa starts proper at the First Station of the Cross where Jesus is condemned to Death. There is just a small plaque, and in the building across the road, is now a Muslim school.
Right across is the Second Station of the Cross, where Jesus Christ is beaten and where he accepts the cross. A small plaque in the wall marks the site on the road, and two Franciscan Churches occupy the site, the Church of the Flagellation and the Church of the Condemnation.
This is the Chapel of the Flagellation, where Jesus received a flogging prior to having his clothes taken of and a crown of thorns put on.
In the Church of the Condemnation, a Franciscan Church on a Byzantine Foundation, Jesus was given the cross. You can visit its crypt and walk on original pavement stones from the time of Jesus Christ. I only had two and a half days in Jerusalem, and coming from the Temple Mount and walking along here in the middle of the day, I did not give the Via Dolorosa the time I wanted, so, no pictures of this one, or some of the others.
Ahead, and back on the road, is the Ecce Homo Arch, its name referring to the Pontius Pilates outcry “Ecce Homo” (“Behold the man!”) when presenting the beaten Jesus Christ to the crowds. It is part of the Ecce Homo Convent, and traditionally does not have a station assigned to it but lies between Station II and Station III.
You can enter the convent and the basilica, and there is even a guesthouse on the site.
You enter the Souk as you walk along the Via Dolorosa
The closer you come to the main market area, the more you find shops, quite often geared to tourists.
They must receive many enquiries for oil lamps and coins “from the time of Jesus Christ”, there were shelves of tiny oil lamps neatly sorted by age, from pre-Jesus to _time to Jesus to “Later and Byzantine”. Don’t ask me how they determined their age! I guess it is easier with coins, though a trader in the Cardo later told me about 90% of the coins in circulation from such shops are fake. At Baltinester later, in Yafo Street, coins are usually marked as genuine or replica, if you’re in the market for such stuff. There were also beautiful icons on sale, very popular with the Orthodox, of course.
As you walk along the street, don’t miss the Third Station where Jesus Christ fell for the first time. I did! It is marked by a large round plaque, next to a Polish Chapel. Pass the Austrian Hospice to your right, then make a left turn at the T-Junction and Station IV, Where Jesus Christ was met by his mother, Mary, is to your left.
There is the Armenian Catholic “Notre Dame of Pamosyon”, mostly given over to a huge souvenir shop, built on the ruins of an earlier Byzantine Church. Next door is a leafy courtyard with a nice-looking cafe (and free wifi, too). This is also where the road turns into the Arab Souk proper, and the bit that is usually frequented by most tourists groups, so it can get really crowded.
Station V is where Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the Cross, and is marked by a tiny Franciscan chapel. Station V,VI and VII are very close together, and can be a bit tricky to find.
Station VI is easily identified by crowds of pilgrims placing their hands into what it thought a hand print of Jesus, and the prerequisite selfie sticks, of course… it is the place where Veronica wiped his tears, creating the Veil of Veronica. The veil was, until the 16th Century, one of the most important Christian relics and kept in a Chapel in St. Peter’s dome in Rome – some say it was passed around the taverns of Rome after its sack, some say it still remains there… the hand print is just as disputed, which doesn’t put people off posing with their hand… in the mould, one after the other, usually accompanied by clicking cameras and mobile phones.
In Station VII, where Jesus falls for the second time, there is another Franciscan Chapel, and despite the crowds outside, barely anyone comes in here, so in contrast to the other stations along here, it’s really peaceful.
It is okay to go for lunch
By that time, I had been on, my feet for about eight hours, and hunger called, and I began to weaken and veer away from the holy sites. Or maybe the tour groups and selfie sticks had started to bother me at this point. Just steps away from these holy sites, are tons of restaurants… I walked a couple hundred metres along Beit Habad Street to Abu Shukri, a cavernous Arab restaurant, half its clientele local Muslims, half fearless tourists. No menu, but hummus-falafel was all on offer, and for about five EURO, an excellent meal.
And onwards: this part of the Via Dolorosa can get really crowed
After lunch, back out into the souk which forms part of the Via Dolorosa over a long stretch.
If you passed on the rather pricey Roman coins and oil lamps, here is your chance to pick up a falafel press or that orange juicer.
Going up Ma’alot E-Khanka Street, it gets quieter… also, the second great lunch place, Lina, is up this street – conveniently located right across Station VIII
Station VIII is where Jesus spoke to the Women of Jerusalem. Behind its walls is a Greek Orthodox Church and Monastery (was locked when I visited) and the small stone plaque is engraved with IC-XC NI-KA, meaning “Jesus conquers”.
Before you visit the final five stations, high time for a bit of commerce, no? Pick up your neon Madonna, Holy Cross or Water form the river Jordan here. Quite some shops will happily sell pictures for the Dome of the Rock with Koranic inscriptions, Christian symbolry and menorahs and other Judaica from one shop. I liked it! It’s good to see the huge divide in people’s minds can be overcome by one thing, even if that thing is shameless commerce!
The last Stations: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
I actually took this picture of Station IX, where Jesus falls for the third time, the night before, when looking for the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Turns out I made it on its roof , which is occupied by a Coptic Monastery, and came very close, even though the actual entrance is some way away, and a bit tricky to find! I would say, follow the lane with the highest concentration of souvenir shops.
Finally finally… after a few twists and turns of the small lane, here is the courtyard that leads into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the resting place of Jesus Christ for just a couple of days, but still revered as the site of crucification, and paradoxically, by pretty much everyone but the Protestants as the tomb of Jesus Christ.
Stone of Unction
Enter, and you will immediately find the Stone of Unction blocking your way, like a massive oversized stumbling block.
If you visit in the middle of the day, you are likely to find pilgrims, mostly women, unpacking huge plastic bags of cheap souvenirs, and rub them all over the stone. After Jesus death, his body was taken down from the cross and washed and clothed in a shroud to prepare for the burial. It is also customary to rub the stone with oil. So, the modern day version would be to douse your souvenirs, hoping some holy molecules rub off, to create a contemporary relic.
Another favourite practice is to buy candles, light them inside the church, then snuff them out and take the just-lit candles home. This is supposed to make them holy.
Well. I am a rather rubbish Catholic, smiling mildly at the modern-day relic practice. I admittedly bought a (un-rubbed) rosary in Jerusalem. The only modern-day relic I own is a piece of shirt tossed by Morrissey in 2006. Can you speak of relics if someone is still alive? Long may he be alive and enchant us.
Interior of the Church
The sombre nave (Katholikon) of the Church, roped off and under the supervision of the Greek Orthodox Church. The action is elsewhere, by a tall granite structure, the Aedicule, which houses the empty tomb of Jesus Christ. Despite being empty, people queue like crazy to pray in the tiny tomb.
Aside from the Edicule, there are numerous side-chapels within the bare walls of the Church – I think this is the Chapel of St Mary Magdalene, but I am really not so sure any more.
Apologies, this is getting a bit gloomy. It was really dark in the church, but the atmosphere was rather lively. But of course, tripods are forbidden (quite rightly so) so this was all handheld on high ISO.
Another queue awaits upon ascending Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion. This, although described as a hill in Biblical times, is now reached via a narrow staircase inside the Church. Below is the crowded Stone of Unction.
The actual chapels marking Golgotha, the site of Jesus Christ Crucification, are appearing very Orthodox – look at all the gilded icons! And of you wonder why people are crawling under the altar, well… this is to be as close as possible to the site the Cross stood.
Going Underground: Saint Helenas Chapel
Templar Graffiti en route to the underground Chapel of the Finding of the Cross, also known as St Helena’s Chapel. She was the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine who became a Christian and travelled to the Holy Land in Old Age, where she is believed to have located the Cross. Quite the good Christian, she had id taken apart and left one bit in Jerusalem, took the other to Rome and sent the third one to her son in Constantinople. She had a Basilica erected where she found the cross. After her death, most of her body was buried on Rome, but for the sharing her relics, her head was presented by Emperor Karl IV to the Bishop of the Trier Cathedral.
St. Helenas Chapel. Perhaps the quietest (and my favourite) part of the Church. It is even more simple and bare than the above ground part of the church, and is the oldest part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
After finally finding daylight again, I looked for some suitable souvenirs to take home. I didn’t fancy a large cross or St. Mary in a snow dome, and I was having doubts about the water from the Jordan river or a pricey oil lamp from the time of Jesus. This incense in a corner of the souk looked good, smelled good, and once burned, would evoke the scent of the Holy City.
It also had a friendly, non-pushy seller. On the left you see the traditional incense burner. You don’t really need one but you will need the special coal which he would also sell. Don’t worry the amber is not from dead whales – most modern amber for sale is a mixture of resins, such as benzoin, styrax and galbanum, all of which are plant based.
Or take some spices home… there are spice shops all over the Old City, or in Mahane Jehuda Market. This one has the much-photographed Temple Mount, quite poignantly topped with the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine.
Best time to Visit
Even in out-of-season November, the main sites (Church of Holy Sepulchre, Church of the Nativity) were mobbed with tourists. I think, however, out of season (January-March, October to December except Christmas) are the best times to visit – there are always seats on buses, the weather is pleasant for sightseeing and wandering around, and hotels are lightly booked.
The Via Dolorosa can get crowded late mornings and early afternoons, but all the other times it is just another pedestrian street in the Old City. Come nightfall, the streets are pretty deserted except for the two main bazaar streets in the Muslim Quarter, which start closing around 6pm, but I am unsure the Old City is a great place to walk around alone after everything shuts. For those early risers there is an opportunity to visit from 4am (winter) or 5am (summer) onwards, and I have heard this is the best time to visit if you either appreciate peace and quiet or want no other people in your pictures, as it really fills up after 8am. I wish I’d had the nerve to get up early one morning, but with an already tightly packed schedule, I passed on this opportunity
The Old City is surrounded by city walls and incorporates the Temple Mount, which is of religious significance to Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. It is divided into four quarters according to different faiths.
The Christian Quarter is the most touristy and crowded one, and contains the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as well as part of the Via Dolorosa. It’s probably safe at all times, although you won’t find many people here after dark. The Muslim Quarter is the largest quarter and includes the Temple Mount and the largest part of the Via Dolorosa. I found it safe to visit, but would not stray from the busiest bazaar streets after dark.
It also has a lot of small shops – anything from clothing, household goods, produce and souvenirs, and the most authentic if not always cosy dining options. The Jewish Quarter is relatively small but contains the Western Wall, numerous historic synagogues, among them the Hurva Synagogue and the Four Sephardic Synagogies, , which you can visit, just remember they are usually gender-segregated, and there are some very nice cafes near Hurva Synagogue. I found that the nicest shops for quality Judaica were also in the Jewish Quarter. The Armenian Quarter is the most quiet, and a large part is occupied by the Armenian Apostolic Churches Jerusalem Patriarchate. There are few attractions, shops and restaurants here, but it is a lovely place for a quiet walk. The Old City is relatively small, so you are unlikely to get totally lost!
Entry Points to the Old City
Best entry points are the Jaffa Gate (tram Stop City Hall) and the Damascus Gate (tram stop Damascus Gate). Be sensitive to the security situation, as some attackes have taken place at or near Damascus Gate in recent years. There is usually a heavier police presence at Damascus Gate because of this. Coming from the Mount of Olives, the Lion’s Gate is a lovely little gate with ancient reliefs and the Beginning of the traditional Via Dolorosa. If you are heading straight for the Western Wall by car or public transport, the Dung Gate is the most convenient entry point.
I found that for visiting religious places, you’ll never be dressed wrong with long trousers, long shirt and closed shoes (for men) and longish skirt below the knee and long shirt with no decolletage (for women). I took a cotton scarf with me as a head covering, which came in really useful. In conservative Jewish neighbourhoods, even long trousers on women (my usual travelling attire) is considered immodest. Sadly, there were still plenty string vests and tiny shorts about in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which would not have been tolerated in a synagogue and probably no mosque, either!
The tram (which goes by the fancy name Jerusalem Light Rail) is great way of getting round Jerusalem. Within the Old City, you’ll have to walk. The tram, coming from the Central Bus Station stops at City Hall (handy for Jaffa Gate, the more touristy entry to the Old City, heading into the Christian Quarter) then at Damascus Gate (one of the Arab Quarter entrances to the Old City and also the main Jerusalem Hub of the East Jerusalem Bus Company, on three plots spread around Damascus Gate).
Buses are plentiful and are operated by Egged, the national Bus Cooperative, in West Jerusalem (dark green buses, display destinations in Hebrew only) and by various companies under the umbrella of of the East Jerusalem Bus Company (white and blue, destinations in Arab and English).
You can pick up an Egged Bus pretty much anywhere in town, but due to its route simplicity, I mostly stuck to the tram.
Buses outside the City Centre
The buses to Bethlehem and other West Bank Destinations, including East Jerusalem for the Mount of Olives, leave from three separate plots by Damascus Gate.
The large open square right next to the tram stop, facing the Damascus Gate, is for buses to Bethlehem. Bus No.234 goes to Rachel’s Tomb (pedestrian?) checkpoint, and you have to cross into the West Bank by foot and walk or taxi to the Church of the Nativity. However…. you have ample opportunities to see the art on the Separation Wall near the Checkpoint. Bus 231 to Beit Jala goes closer to the town centre, takes longer, as it passes through the Beit Jala check point, and it’s still a 20min uphill walk to the Church of the Nativity. A bus ride costs just under 5 NIS.
For Mount of Olives, walk along a little further then turn left into a Bus Station. Bus No 75 goes to Mount of Olives. It goes in a different direction first, but don’t worry. Just get off at Chapel of the Ascension/Rabi’a Al-Adawiya, which should take 10-15min from Damascus Gate. You will also find plenty taxis offering to take you there, but it is not really necessary. I walked from the Chapel of the Ascension to the viewpoint, then walked down past the cemetery to the Garden of Gethsemane – best do do in this direction, as its a very steep hill! When I visited (November 2018) I felt very safe walking on my own.
I stayed in an AirBnB in West Jerusalem close to He Haluts Station. I highly recommend staying close to the Light Railway. You may find more quiet the more Western you go, whereas from Central Station East you’ll be right in the shopping and business district with a lot of dining options, too. With the Light Rail going at least every ten minutes even late in teh evening, it’s really easy to get around. The well-known Abraham Hostel, for example, is very centrally located by the Ha Davidtka Stop. Since I was travelling on my own on a budget of 500 EURO (for the entire week), hotels were out of the question this time.
Jerusalem has lots and lots of eating places. The Old City ones are touristy, as you would expect! As I travelled by myself on a budget I skipped the fancier places this time and stuck to simple cafe-style places.
My recommendations for the Old City are:
Abu Shukri (no website), conveniently very close to Via Dolorosa on Beit HaBad Street. It also has a large sign and crowds, so it’s hard to miss. It’s very basic, visited by locals and tour groups alike, the food (hummus and falafel and not much else) was okay and very reasonably priced for about 30 NIS with a soft drink. Usually closes before 16.00
Lina Restaurant (no website) is close by – look out for Station VIII of Via Dolorosa and it’s opposite. The menu is somewhat bigger than at Abu Shukri, also offers fresh juices. Altogether it looked tidier than Abu Shukri, regarding taste and price, it was similar. It has loads of electricity outlets for charging your phone, too!
My recommendations for Central Jerusalem are:
Maoz Falafel, 19 King George Street, Jerusalem. Kosher snack bar with really tasty falafel, but don’t expect tables and chairs – its just a hole-in-the-wall.
Hummus Ben Sira, Ben Sira St 3, Jerusalem. Another tiny cafe with a more expensive menu and more comfy seating!
Cofix – has outlets virtually everywhere. Everything costs 6 NIS – an unbeatable price, good quality coffee, but don’t expect comfy armchairs and newspapers!
Mahane Jehuda Market – it’s a food market, but one part has small cafes, and takeway stalls are just everywhere. Also nice for getting provisions if you are self-catering, supermarkets tend mto be much more expensive.
Tours and Excursions
Jerusalem is easily explored on foot. Sandeman’s offers a free walking tour every day. For a tour of the city’s sights, Sandemans, Abraham Tours and Tourist Israel are good places to start looking, and all offer online booking.
When I visited, the situation in Jerusalem was safe and it was easy to visit Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, and Bethlehem independently and as a solo female. These are the destinations on top of many travellers list, but I would highly encourage you to visit Rachels Tomb as well. I recommend before you attempt any solo excursions, that you check the advice of your country’s travel safety advice as well as the local news. Especially in the Middle East, the situation can change rapidly and without much notice. Unlike in some other countries, tourists are generally not a specific target in Israel and Palestine.
For hearing different sides of the story, something I highly recommend in a place as disputed and debated as Israel and Palestine, I recommend seeking out dialogue with both Israeli and Palestine nationals. A fellow traveller went on a Hebron Dual Narrative Tour and highly recommended it. I don’t think I would have dared to visit Hebron by myself either, due to the complexities of the zones and checkpoints, and this is the tour I would have gone on given more time.
I had a 2011 Bradt Guide* and WiFi in pretty all public places which was more than enough. The Bradt Guide does not include the Palestinian Territories and is well out of date regarding prices and accommodation options, but a new edition (minus Palestinan Territories!) is due out in summer 2018. Lonely Planet * includes the Palestine Territories and a new edition is out in summer 2018. I generally prefer Rough Guide * as it’s often stronger on history and culture and has more diverse accommodation and dining options, but its Israel and Jerusalem guidebooks don’t look like they have been updated in the last few years.
For a very extensive history of Jerusalem, I would read Jerusalem: A Biography * by Simon Sebag-Montefiore – at nearly 800 pages, it’s not an easy holiday read, though! Unfortunately I just started reading it after my trip. It will make you want to turn every stone, for which there would be plenty of opportunity with the Temple Mount, Western Wall Tunnels and the City of David all very close to each other and revealing many layers of this fascinating city.
I read Exodus * by Leon Uris, which is a somewhat Americanised account of the history of the Country of Israel, but it’s an easy read and was hugely popular when it first came out.
More information on Israel Immigration can be found at the Ministry of Tourism.
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