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Free things to do Jerusalem

Church of the Holy Sepulchre: A Full Visitor’s Guide

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is a sight to see, no matter if you are Christian or non-Christian. As a tour guide in Jerusalem, I’ve been to this church dozens of times, but it manages to amaze me over and over again. Usually, it’s packed with tourists and pilgrims, and you can barely see anything. But nowadays, with the coronavirus pandemic, the church stands empty. It gave me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to look around without rush.

So why is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre so important to Christians around the world? What can you see inside? And when should you come? Here’s a full visitor’s guide to the magnificent Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Table of contents:

  1. Why is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre important?
  2. History of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
  3. The Status Quo
  4. What is the best time to visit the church?
  5. How to get there?
  6. Etiquette rules
  7. What to see in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?
  8. More things to do in Jerusalem

Why is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre important?

Thousands of Christian believers visit the church every year. According to tradition, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is the place where Jesus was crucified and buried. Three days afterward, he resurrected and left his tomb, which is why it is empty today. So, the church is so important because it is the place of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

History of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

In the time of Jesus (the 1st century):

Archeological excavations suggest that in the time of Jesus, this place was a rock quarry. This rock quarry operated between the 7th century BCE and the 1st century CE. Till today, you can still see some remnants of this quarry at the bottommost floor of the church.

Inside the church, you will also see ancient tombs from the time of the Second Temple. These tombs suggest that there was a cemetery here. Generally, Jews do not bury within the city. This means that this area might have been outside the city walls at that time.

A pagan temple is built:

In 135 CE, when the Romans turned Jerusalem into Aelia Capitolina, a pagan temple was built on top of the quarry. The temple was dedicated to Aphrodite-Venus, the Goddess of Love.

The first church is established:

After years of persecution of Christians by the Roman empire, the Christian religion was legalized in 313 CE by the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great. Helena, the mother of Constantine, visited the Holy Land in 326 CE. She decided to break down the pagan temple that stood here and to look for Jesus’ tomb. With the help of a local Jew, she found it underneath the temple. That is why she ordered to build a church on this place.

In 335, the church was inaugurated and named “Anastasis”, which means “resurrection”. Only when the Crusaders arrived in the 11th century, people started calling it the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which means “the Church of the Holy Tomb.” 

When the church was first built, it was much larger than we see today. In the middle of the church was a large open-air garden. Inside the garden was a large rock, which is believed to be the rock on which Jesus was crucified. Today, we call it the Golgotha. West to the garden was the rotunda, where the empty tomb was and still is located. The original entrance to the church was from the east, from one of the city’s main streets. 

Here is how it might have looked like:

This painting was uploaded by Tamar HaYardeni, who found it in the church

Destruction and rebuilding of the church:

Almost 700 years passed. The Persians and the Muslims conquered Jerusalem, but the church remained quite unharmed. This changed in 1009, when the Fatimid caliph, al-Ḥākim bi-Amr Allāh, gave an order to demolish the church. While most of the church was destructed, you can still see some rows from the original wall inside it.

When the Christians rebuilt the church in 1048, it was much smaller than the original. The entrance to the church moved from the east to the south, where it is located today.

Later, in 1099, when the Crusaders arrived as part of the Crusades, they were shocked by the looks of the church. They were expecting to see something splendid and divine but instead, found something extremely modest. So, they decided to rebuild the compound and make major changes. They built a huge roof and domes above the church, so the garden was no longer open to the sky.

In modern times:

The church stood almost unharmed for centuries until a fire broke in it in 1808. This fire caused much damage and required extended renovations. The owners of the church used the opportunity to add a few more walls to the compound. This made the church darker and more claustrophobic.

Later, in 1927, an earthquake shook Jerusalem and the church. It led to another round of renovations. Catholic archeologists used the opportunity to make excavations in the church for the first time. These excavations helped us learn a lot about the history of the holy place.

The Status Quo:

In Latin, “Status quo” means “the existing state of affairs.” The property rights and liturgy rights in the Christian holy places of the Holyland have been dynamic for centuries. But they have stopped being dynamic since the mid-19th century. Following the Crimean War, several great powers signed the Paris Treaty in 1856. Amongst other things, they pledged to observe the status quo of the Christian holy places. So, they could no longer change the existing state of affairs unless the owners agreed.

The agreement refers to only four sites in the Holyland: The Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, Mary’s Tomb at the base of Mount of Olives, the Chapel of Ascension on Mount of Olives, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem.

When the Status Quo started, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was divided between six Christian denominations. Those denominations are the Catholic-Franciscans, the Greek-Orthodox, the Armenians, the Copts, the Assyrians, and the Ethiopians. Each one of the denominations is responsible for different spaces in the church. Some spaces are owned by two different denominations, which sometimes causes problems because then they need to both agree to change things in the particular space. The ownership of the different spaces has stayed the same since the mid-19th century.

When is the best time to visit the church?

Normally, when there are tourists, the church is packed during the afternoon. If you’re planning to enter the empty tomb itself, be aware that the waiting time might be very long, sometimes even more than an hour. If you want to get away from the crowds, come early in the morning or late in the evening. I advise coming before 9 AM or after 6 PM. In the early morning, it is usually less packed. But keep in mind that the first hour of the morning is dedicated to cleaning. Also, entrance is no allowed half an hour before closing time. By the way, entrance is free of charge!

The opening hours of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre vary according to month:

From April to August from 5 AM to 9 PM.

In September, from 5 AM to 8:30 PM.

In October, from 5 AM to 8 PM.

From the end of October to February from 4 AM to 7 PM.

In March, from 4 AM to 7:30 PM.

For the most accurate hours, visit the Christian Information Center website.

How to get there?

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. To get there, you will need to walk. You can enter the city through Jaffa Gate, the New Gate, or Damascus Gate. It’s about a 5-minutes walk from all of them.

Etiquette rules:

  • Take off your hat before entering the church. I have already been with someone who was walking around with a hat, and one of the monks asked him to take it off.
  • Dress modestly.
  • Do not smoke in the area of the church.
  • Do not eat or drink beverages in the church.
  • Be respectful of the place. Try to keep as quiet as possible and definitely do not laugh.

What to see in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?

I think the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the most magnificent churches in the world. It is enormous, so there’s a lot of things to see inside. So, I won’t go over every detail, but I’ll tell you about the main things to see:

The façade:

Before you enter the church, take a look at its façade. Yes, it’s quite simple, but there are some things to talk about:

The stairs:

You can see a short staircase on the right side of the façade. The staircase leads to a small chapel with a dome. In 1149, the Crusaders used this chapel as the direct entrance to the Golgotha, the crucifixion point. Instead of entering the church and then climbing up to the Golgotha, the pilgrims could simply climb up from here.

The Unmovable Ladder:

Look below the right-hand window, and you’ll see a wooden ladder. In Wikipedia, it is called “the Unmovable Ladder.” After the Crusader period, the rights of the Christians of Jerusalem were very limited. They had to block part of the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and were not allowed to ring the bells. Also, the church was locked throughout the year, and they were allowed to open it only once or twice a year on important holidays. The problem was that the monks lived in the church. They had to get food. So, they climbed down the ladder to the windowsill, lowered a rope with a basket, and someone loaded it with food supplies.

In 1831, an Egyptian ruler named Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt arrived and improved the rights of the minorities. Since then, the church is open every day. The ladder was no longer needed, but for some reason stayed there. And then, in 1856, the Status Quo kicked in, and the ladder became its symbol. It shows that even the smallest thing is not changeable. Even if they would want to move the ladder, it would be a problem. It is not clear who is the owner of the ladder. The windowsill belongs to the Greek-Orthodox, while the room behind the window belongs to the Armenians. Only the rightful owner can move it from its place.

The doors:

Here’s a fun fact: The keys to the church are kept in the hands of two Muslim families. They claim that they got the keys in the time of Saladin, around the late 12th-century. If you’re lucky, you might meet the family representative on the bench inside the church. They hold the keys because that was the state in the mid-19th century, and it stayed that way because of the Status Quo. They also perform the opening and closing of the church every day.

The facade of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Stone of Anointing:

When you enter the church, the first thing you see is the Stone of Anointing, also known as the Stone of Unction. If there are pilgrims, they will usually be on their knees next to the stone, touching it. Some also place small items on it for a few seconds and then take them back home. They believe that the items absorb the holiness of Jesus because his body was laid here after being removed from the cross. Here, they believe he was prepared for burial.

Jesus was a Jew, and Jews cannot be buried during the holy day of Shabbat. According to tradition, Jesus died on Friday morning. Though, there are scholars who believe he died on Thursday afternoon (see this article for example). Anyway, they had to prepare him fast to bury him before Shabbat enters on Friday eve. The preparation included anointment and wrapping of the body in shrouds.

Look on the wall in front of the Stone of Anointment. There’s a modern mosaic depicting the crucifixion, the preparation for burial, and the burial itself.     

The Stone of Anointing

The Golgotha:

From the entrance, turn right, and climb up a set of steep stairs to the second floor. Here, you can see the topmost edge of the Golgotha, believed to be the rock on which Jesus was put on the cross. Today it is secured underneath a thick layer of glass so pilgrims won’t break a piece to take home.

The space is made of two chapels, one is Catholic-Franciscan and the other Greek-Orthodox. The first chapel you enter is the Catholic one, with beautiful modern mosaics on the walls. One of the mosaics shows the scene of the Binding of Isaac. There’s a ram, a male sheep, caught in the thickets. In the Biblical story, Abraham sacrificed it instead of Isaac. The other mosaic in the chapel shows Jesus nailed to the cross. In the background, there’s a bush, but there’s no ram caught in it. That’s because Jesus is going to be sacrificed. In this case, according to Christian belief, Jesus is like the ram for humanity.

The Greek-Orthodox chapel rises above the Golgotha. The Golgotha is about 5 meters (16 feet) tall. In the past, this area was an open garden, and you could really appreciate the height of it. But now you can only imagine. If you want to see a bit more of the Golgotha, climb down the other set of stairs and then turn right. You’ll see another bit of the rock behind glass.

Jesus nailed to the cross
The Golgotha

The Chapel of the Finding of the Holy Cross:

Exit the Golgotha from the other set of stairs and then turn right. Continue through the curving corridor until you see another set of stairs to your right, going down. As you climb down the stairs, notice the small crosses sunken in the stone walls. These are ancient graffiti done by thousands of pilgrims over the years.

At the bottom of the stairs, you’ll reach the Chapel of Saint Helena. It’s a beautiful chapel owned by the Armenians, with many mosaics, paintings, and wall paintings.

On the right side of the chapel, you’ll find another set of stairs. They’ll lead you to the Chapel of the Finding of the Holy Cross. The chapel walls are probably part of an ancient quarry, that existed here in the time of the Romans. According to tradition, this is where Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, found the True Cross. There’s a statue of Saint Helena here, holding the cross on which Jesus was crucified.

There are many legends connected to the finding of the True Cross. One of them tells that Helena forced a Jew to tell her where the cross was hidden. She made him starve for a week in a dry well until he led her to this place. Then, he dug and revealed three crosses. One belonged to Jesus, one to the Good Thief, and one to the Bad Thief. All three were crucified together on the same day. So, which one belonged to Jesus? Luckily, a funeral passed by, and Helena hurried to test the crosses on the dead body. They placed one cross on the body, and nothing happened. They placed the second cross, and nothing happened. Then, they placed the third cross, and the man came back to life.

The Holy Sepulchre:

Climb back up to the corridor and walk to the other side of the church, the circular Rotunda. There, you’ll find the Holy Sepulchre, the empty tomb of Jesus. Look up to see the spectacular ceiling. If you’ll come during daylight, you’ll see the sun rays spilling through the hole in the ceiling.

According to Christian belief, Jesus was buried here, in a burial cave originally intended for Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was a rich man and a disciple of Jesus, and because Jesus didn’t have a burial cave, he offered his own. Three days after the burial, on Sunday, a group of women came to visit the tomb. But they found it open. When they stepped inside, they saw an angel that told them: “You came to visit Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, but he is not here, because he was raised from the dead.”

The Holy Sepulchre is found inside the Aedicule, the small chapel in the middle of the Rotunda. The Aedicule is made of two rooms. In the first one, you’ll find a relic of the Angel’s Stone. This stone is believed to be part of the large stone that sealed the tomb. In the second room, you’ll find what is believed to be the tomb of Jesus. When there are many tourists, entering the Aedicule could take a very long time, sometimes even more than an hour. And every visitor can only stay a few moments in the chapel.

Light above the Holy Sepulchre

About the Holy Fire:

One of the most important Christian ceremonies take place in the Aedicule every year, on the night before Easter Sunday. The Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem enters the Aedicule and comes out with the “Holy Fire.” Then, the fire is passed between thousands of believers, who want to take a bit of the holiness back home.

Watch this video by the Christian Youth Channel to get a better understanding of the ceremony:

The Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea:

West of the Aedicule, you’ll find a door leading to the Chapel of Joseph of Arimathea. What’s interesting here are the ancient niche tombs located just outside the chapel. They are typical of Jewish burial in the Second Temple period. According to a new tradition, these are the tombs of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Both helped prepare Jesus for burial. Joseph of Arimathea gave him his tomb; Nicodemus brought a large mixture of myrrh and aloes to make it a royal burial.

Jewish people never buried their dead within the walls. That is why these niche tombs are important. They prove this area was outside the city walls sometime during the Second Temple period. So, it is one of the archeological proofs that this could be the place of Jesus’ crucifixion.

“The Center of the World” – the Catholicon:

Get back to the Rotunda and walk to the other side of the Aedicule. Right in front of its entrance, there’s a huge hall called the Catholicon. Usually, it is closed by a rope.

The Catholicon was built by the Crusaders on the place of the Holy Garden. It was the central nave of the Crusader-era church. Above it, is the largest Crusader-era dome in Israel.

In the hall, there’s a low, circular object made from stone, called “omphalos.” According to Greek-Orthodox tradition, this omphalos symbolizes the center of the world. Jews also believe that Jerusalem is the center of the world, but they say it is where the Foundation Stone is, beneath the Dome of the Rock. That is where the Holy Temple stood. In Christianity, the tradition moved to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and specifically to the Catholicon.  

Guided tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

As you can see, there’s a lot to see in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. If you want to learn more and get answers to all of your questions, consider joining a guided tour. Many guided tours combine the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in their route. If you want a more personalized experience or only want a guide for the church, I’ll be happy to be your private guide. Contact me at lior@backpackisrael.com or read more about my guided tours here.

More things to do in Jerusalem:

The Many Sites of Mount of Olives: What to See?

Ein Karem: Following John the Baptist

Top Free Things to Do in Jerusalem Old City

Top Free Things to Do in Jerusalem


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If you need any help with planning your trip to Israel, feel free to contact me at lior@backpackisrael.com.

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Yours,

Lior

Categories
Free things to do Jerusalem

The Many Sites of Mount of Olives: What to See?

Mount of Olives is the beautiful mountain that stands to the east of the Old City of Jerusalem. Well, it’s not really a mountain. It’s more like a hill, rising to a height of around 825 meters. But when it comes to the Mount of Olives, the height doesn’t matter. It is a holy place to Christians, Jews, and Muslims and one of the top attractions in Jerusalem. Whether you’re seeking churches, spectacular views, or fascinating stories, Mount of Olives is a great place to visit.

Post was last updated on 28 June 2021.

Table of contents:

Why is Mount of Olives important?

How to get to Mount of Olives?

Important to note

What to see on Mount of Olives?

Why is Mount of Olives important?   

In the Hebrew Bible:

Jerusalem is a great place to open the Hebrew Bible and read from the holy scripture. The first reference to Mount of Olives appears when the Bible talks about King David’s flight from Absalom. In Samuel 15:30 it is said: “And David went up by the ascent of the Mount of Olives and wept as he went up.” Though, Mount of Olives appears mainly in context to the End of Time and the resurrection of the dead.

According to the apocalyptic prophecy of Zechariah: “On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south” (Zechariah 14:4). This is what many people believe will happen at the End of Time. Based on this prophecy, Jews also believe that the resurrection of the dead will begin on Mount of Olives. That is why many want to be buried in Mount of Olives cemetery, with their face toward Temple Mount. Some are even willing to pay more than 20,000 USD to be buried there.

In Jewish rituals:

Mount of Olives always played an important part in Jewish rituals. At the time of the Holy Temple, the ceremony of the burning of the red cow took place on Mount of Olives. The ashes of the red cow were used to purify people from the impurity of the dead. They were allowed to enter Temple Mount only after this ceremony.

The Romans burned down the Second Temple in 70 CE. Jewish people were forbidden to enter Jerusalem and get close to Mount Moriah, on which the temple once stood. So, they used Mount of Olives as a temporary replacement because it faced the former place of the temple. They also believed that the divine presence of GOD moved from Mount Moriah to Mount of Olives. It stayed there for three and a half years. That was why it was a proper place for prayers and the seven circuits during Hoshana Rabbah.

Jesus on Mount of Olives:

Mount of Olives is mentioned many times in the New Testament. According to the Christian belief, Jesus ascended to the sky from the top of Mount of Olives. They also believe that Jesus will return to Earth from the same point.

But let’s talk about what happened before the Ascension. Jesus went across Mount of Olives many times on his way into and out of Jerusalem. He spent several days on the mountain during the last week of his life. When he arrived, his followers celebrated by lining his path and waving palm branches. Two days before the crucifixion, Jesus foretold the destruction of Jerusalem in his Olivet Discourse on Mount of Olives. A day later, he prayed on the western slope of the mountain, traditionally in the Garden of Gethsemane. Then, he was betrayed and arrested.

“Agony in the Garden” by Andrea Mantegna

In Muslim tradition:

The Muslims also link Mount of Olives to the End of Time. According to Muslim tradition, a bridge will appear between Mount of Olives and Al-Aqsa (Temple Mount). The bridge will be extremely thin and will stand on seven arches. Only the righteous will be able to cross it safely and reach the Garden of Eden. The sinners will fall to the burning fire of hell.

Near the Mount of Olives Viewpoint is the Seven Arches Hotel, inspired by this tradition. The hotel was built in the 1960s by the Jordanian royal family when they still ruled East Jerusalem.

How to Get to Mount of Olives?

Mount of Olives lies to the east of the Old City. The Kidron Valley divides between the two. Here are several ways to get to the top of the mountain:

1 – By bus:

Take a bus to the Seven Arches Hotel, located near the viewpoint. Bus line 275 leaves from the Sultan Sulliman Terminal near Damascus Gate. Ask the driver where is the nearest station to the Seven Arches Hotel or the Chapel of the Ascension. There’s also Egged bus line 84, which leaves from the Ammunition Hill Light Rail Station. Both rides take about 15 minutes and cost about 6 shekels.

How to get from Damascus Gate to Sultan Sulliman Terminal

 2 – By taxi:

Taxis get to the top of the mountain but are very costly. It costs around 50-70 Shekels from the city center. If you take a taxi from the valley next to Mount of Olives or from Lions Gate/ Dung Gate, it should cost less than 50 Shekels. Keep in mind that taxi drivers ask for more than needed, especially if you are tourists. So, negotiate on the price before boarding the taxi.

Mount of Olives is right next to the Old City, with the Kidron Valley as a borderline between them. It’s a very steep climb from the Kidron Valley to the top of Mount of Olives. So, be prepared. The climb can take about 20 minutes.

There are two ways to climb to the top:

One way is to climb on the road. The climb begins from behind the Church of Gethsemane, where there’s a paved road turning right. Cars are driving up and down, sometimes at tremendous speed, and the road is narrow with no sidewalk, so keep watch.

If you prefer not to walk on the road, there’s also a staircase which leads to the top. Continue to the small cafe situated a bit above Gethsemane. You’ll find the staircase to its right. There are a LOT of stairs. So the climb won’t be easier, but at least you won’t have to be worried about cars. The staircase leads to the Church of Pater Noster, so to get to the viewpoint, you’ll need to turn right and walk a short while along a road.

The staircase leading to the top of Mount of Olives

Getting to the base of the mountain:

If you’re coming on foot from the Old City, here are some ways to get to the mountain:

Way #1 – Shortest Way – Walk through the Muslim Quarter in the Old City and exit from Lion’s Gate.

Way #2 – Nicest Way – Exit the Old City from Dung Gate (near the Western Wall) and walk along the road going in the direction of the Mount of Olives. There is a pleasant promenade along the road, and you can see different monuments at the foot of Mount of Olives. If you look closely, you might also notice small rectangular holes in the mountainside. Those are tomb caves from the First Temple period.

Way #3 – Longest Way – Exit from Zion Gate and walk through the parking lot to the road leading down to the Mount of Olives. After a few minutes of walking, you’ll get to the same part mentioned in Way #2. This walk can take about 20 minutes.

Important to note:

  • Some churches on Mount of Olives close during the afternoon for about two hours, usually between 12 to 2 PM. So try fitting your visit in the morning or after 2 PM. Usually, the sites are less crowded in the second half of the day. Though keep in mind that the churches close around 5-6 PM, depending on the season.
  • Mount of Olives is holy, but that doesn’t mean that thieves stay away from it. There are pickpockets on the mountain, especially near the top. So, if you’re walking in crowded areas, make sure you have your valuables in a safe place.
  • It is required to take off hats before entering the churches. Also, please keep quiet inside the churches to respect the place.

Guided tours on Mount of Olives

It’s always good to have a tour guide when traveling in Jerusalem. This way, you can ask questions and notice things you wouldn’t have noticed alone. I’ll be happy to guide you on Mount of Olives. We’ll visit the important churches, talk about the three religions, and hopefully have a great time together! Contact me at lior@backpackisrael.com or read more about my tours.

What to see on Mount of Olives?

There are many places to see on Mount of Olives. Here they are, from the bottom to the top:

At the base of the mountain:

The Church of Gethsemane:

This beautiful church lies at the base of the Mount of Olives. It is also called the Church of All Nations and the Church of Agony. In Hebrew, we call it “Gat Shemanim,” which means “olive oil press.” Here is believed to be the place where Jesus prayed before his arrest in Gethsemane.

In the courtyard, there’s a lovely olive grove with the most ancient olive trees in Israel. Many are about 900 years old. Two trees were planted by Popes.

Inside the church, there are purple alabaster windows. Purple is a color of grief in Christianity, and this is what Jesus felt when he prayed here. If you look at the ceiling, you’ll see the inside of 12 domes, each with a different flag. Those represent the 12 Catholic communities that donated to the establishment of this church.

There’s free entry.

Opening hours: Every day from 8 AM to 5 PM. In summer, it’s open till 6 PM. There is no afternoon break.

The Church of All Nations

Tomb of Mary:

This church also lies in the valley, near the Church of Gethsemane. Just cross the road, go down some stairs, and you’ll reach it.

The Tomb of Mary is the property of two Christian communities: the Armenian Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. When you enter, you need to go down a long flight of stairs until you reach the empty tomb of Saint Mary. According to Catholic tradition, Saint Mary’s body was buried here and after three days, taken up to the sky by Jesus as part of the Assumption of Virgin Mary.

The church is quite dark. When you go down the stairs, it’s worth stopping halfway to appreciate the tombs of important Crusader Queens of Jerusalem.

There’s free entry.

Opening hours: Mondays to Saturdays from 6 AM to 12 and from 2:30 PM to 5 PM.

Gethsemane Grotto:

This small cave lies right next to the Tomb of Mary, to the right of the church. It is believed to be the place where Judas betrayed Jesus and helped arrest him.

There’s free entry.

Opening hours: Every day from 8 AM to 12 and from 2:30 PM to 5 PM. In summer, it’s open till 6 PM.

Tomb of Mary from above

On the western slope:

There are several sites on the western slope of Mount of Olives, along the road that leads to the top. So, if you want to visit them, you will need to go on the road and not use the stairs. Here they are from bottom to top:

Judas Column:

Start walking up the road, and you’ll soon see a green door to your left. Usually, it’s closed. Opposite the door, there’s an old column known as Judas Column. According to tradition, this column was present at the time of Jesus’ arrest. In the past, it stood next to the Gethsemane Grotto but was moved here.

 

Church of St. Mary Magdalene:

When looking at Mount of Olives from afar, you will probably notice a church with golden onion-shaped domes. That’s the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, owned by the Russian Orthodox church. This magnificent church lies beyond the green door, opposite Judas Column. To reach it, you need to pass through a beautiful garden. It is open only two hours a day, three days a week, so you need luck and planning to see it.

The church was built in 1888 by Tsar Alexander III in honor of his mother, Empress Maria Alexandrovna of Russia. Inside the church are displayed the relics of two martyred saints, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia and Varvara Yakovieva.

It is dedicated to Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ greatest followers. According to the Gospel of Mark, she was the first to see Jesus after his resurrection.

There’s free entry.

Opening hours: Tuesdays to Thursdays from 10 AM to 12. If you are Orthodox Christians, you can try coordinating a visit outside these hours by calling (+972) 02 628 4371.

 

Mount of Olives Cemetery:

Keep on climbing on the road, and you’ll see to your right the vast cemetery of Mount of Olives. It is the largest and holiest Jewish cemetery in the world, containing about 70,000 graves. Burial on Mount of Olives began already in the First Temple period. The most ancient burial caves are near the Arab village of Silwan, at the foothills of the mountain. The cemetery is also the final resting place of famous figures, including Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who revived the Hebrew language, and Menachem Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister.

You might notice that there are no flowers on the gravestones, only stones. It is due to an ancient Jewish tradition. If you leave a stone, it will remain there for a long time until someone moves it. This way, people know that someone visited and honored the buried there. Flowers, on the other hand, wither and die.

There is an option to search for a specific grave on the Mount of Olives website. Unfortunately, the search works well only in Hebrew.

There are several entrances to the cemetery and it’s free of charge.

 

Dominus Flevit Church:

Climb a bit further up the road, and you’ll see the Dominus Flevit Church to your left. The church was designed by Antonio Barluzzi,  the “Architect of the Holy Land.”  He also designed the Church of All Nations. He designed Dominus Flevit Church to resemble a teardrop. According to tradition, it was here that Jesus stopped on his way to Jerusalem during the Holy Week, looked over the city, and mourned over it, as he foresaw its destruction. It was destroyed by the Romans a while later,  in 70 CE.

You might notice that the church is not directed to the east as most churches but rather towards the Old City, to the west. It is because Jesus turned towards the Old City when he wept and mourned here. Outside the church is a breathtaking view of Jerusalem and mainly of Temple Mount. Peer inside the church, and you’ll see that the cross stands directly opposite of the Dome of the Rock, where the temple stood.

Near the entrance to the property is an exhibition of ancient ossuaries dating from the Second Temple period. The Franciscans found them while building the church. They believe these ossuaries were part of a cemetery of Jewish-Christians, the first of Christ’s followers.

There’s free entry.

Opening hours: Every day from 8 AM to 11:45 AM and from 2:30 PM to 5 PM. In summer, it is open from 8 AM to 12 and from 2:30 PM to 6 PM.

There are toilets on the property.

 

Dominus Flevit Church

Tomb of the Prophets:

After some more minutes of climbing, you’ll see a tall staircase ahead. Just before it, to your right, you’ll see an entrance to the Tomb of the Prophets. This site is important to both Jewish and Christians. According to tradition, this is the burial site of the three last Biblical prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Inside you’ll be given a candle to light your way through the impressive catacombs, containing about 35 burial niches.

The prophets were people chosen to deliver GOD’s messages to the people. They were also able to predict the future.

There’s free entry.

Opening hours: Mondays to Thursdays from 9 AM to 3 PM. Closed on Sundays, Fridays, and Saturdays.

 

At the top:

The Chapel of the Ascension:

When you finish the climb, you need to turn left and then left again to Rub’a el-Adawiya Street. Then, you’ll find the Chapel of Ascension to your right. Christians believe that Jesus ascended to heaven from this very point, the highest point of the mountain. The exact location isn’t mentioned in the New Testament, but it seems like the right place. They say that he will also return to this point.

You can enter through the gateway into a large circular courtyard, encircling a small chapel. Inside the chapel is a rock, on which you can see a footprint believed to have belonged to Jesus. The chapel was built during the Byzantine period. Later, the chapel was destroyed by Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah in 1009 and rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 12th century. When Saladin arrived in 1189, the chapel was handed over to the Muslims. Today, it is the property of the Muslim Waqf, who also see Jesus as a holy figure because they believe he was one of the last prophets before Muhammed. It is also known as the Ascension Mosque.

To enter the chapel itself, you will need to pay a small fee of money to the Muslims in charge of the place (cash only).

Opening hours: Every day from 8 AM to 5 PM.

The Chapel of the Ascension

Augusta Victoria Church:

About 1 km south of the Chapel of Ascension, you’ll find the Augusta Victoria Church, officially called the Ascension Church. It’s located inside the complex of Augusta Victoria Hospital. Augusta Victoria was married to the German emperor Wilhelm II and was the last German empress and queen of Prussia. She visited the Holy Land with her husband in 1898. When Wilhelm II built this complex in the early 20th century, he named it after his wife.

The church is outstanding, with a great number of mosaics, ceiling paintings, and stained glassworks. They all depict scenes from the New Testament, some of which occurred on Mount of Olives. There are also figures from the Hebrew Bible, including King David and Isaiah.

If you have energy, you can also climb up to the top of the bell tower, rising to a height of 60 meters. From the top, you can enjoy a fantastic view of the surroundings.

There is a small entry fee in cash.

Opening hours: Mondays to Saturdays from 8 AM to 1 PM. The church is closed on Sundays.

Augusta Victoria Church

 

Pater Noster Church:

This church, also known as Eleona Church, is the property of the Carmelites and commemorates the place where Jesus taught his students the Pater Noster prayer. All around the courtyard are porcelain tablets, on which the prayer is written in many different languages, including Hebrew. The original church was one of the four first churches to be built by Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great.

There is a small entry fee to the church.

Opening Hours: Mondays to Saturdays from 8 AM to 12 and from 2 PM to 5 PM. The church is closed on Sundays.

Pater Noster Church

Mount of Olives Viewpoint:

The grand finale of the tour on Mount of Olives is the viewpoint. It is one of the most breathtaking view platforms in Jerusalem and named after Rehavam Ze’evi, a former Minister of Tourism who was assassinated in 2001. The viewpoint is located south of the road leading up to the top of the mountain.

From this point, you can enjoy the view of the Old City, Temple Mount, and the New City. It’s a magical sight during the day as well as during the night. And the magical sounds of the city around you add to the uplifting experience. Sometimes I get up there and hear the Mu’adhin calling for one of the Muslim prayers and the bells of the churches ringing. There is truly no place like this. Right beside it is the Seven Arches Hotel.

 

I wish you a great day on Mount of Olives!

Get more ideas for things to do in Jerusalem by reading my guide to Jerusalem.

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Yours,

Lior