One thing I hadn’t really anticipated about Jerusalem was just how ‘compact’ it is. I just hadn’t really thought about how close together many of the known sites actually are. Maybe it’s the result of living in a medium-sized town or having lived in a city for a number of years, but I’m used to things being a ‘fair distance’ apart. Within the walls of the old town of Jerusalem you’re really never more than 15 to 20 minutes walk from anywhere (crowds permitting). It is, after all, a rough rectangle with its longest side about 1 mile long. Many of the events recorded in the New Testament which took place within Jerusalem happened within a good stone’s throw of each other (ish).
Even moving beyond the city walls, things are never really far away (at least in terms of Biblical sites – modern Jerusalem is a sizeable city, similar in size to Edinburgh); a trek from one place to another only extended because of having to descend into and out of the Kidron Valley or the Valley of Hinom (Gehenna). After our morning visit to the Haram, we spent the afternoon wandering across to the Mount of Olives and viewing many of the sites there and enjoying the views from it.
Before we got there though, we stopped off at Bethesda – the place of the healing miracle in John 5. What is fascinating about this place is the excavation of the site. In essence, you can see the ‘layers’ of history. In many respects, when you walk around Jerusalem you’re not entirely walking in Jesus’ footsteps. Many of the buildings and the paths now sit atop the rubble and stone of centuries of building and rebuilding. The site at Bethesda reveals some of those layers, going back, indeed, beyond Jesus’ time. The pool and site is associated with a much older ‘healer’ – Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of medicine. It reminded me of my fascination with the archaeological dig under St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva (which I never did get around to blogging about). That site in Geneva had a ‘spiritual’ link going back far into pre-Christian history – it was a burial site for a venerated warrior which, over time played host to various pagan and Christian churches. What fascinated me was the sense that a physical location could become a deeply spiritual place and make that link to the spiritual search within us which pre-dates Christianity and points to our innate spirituality and need to express the ‘beyond’ in some way. Bethesda, in a sense, falls into the same category – a ‘touching place’ with the ‘other’, with God, where the water would ripple from time to time and healing was believed to take place. The miracle Jesus performed didn’t require the water, of course. And how much more powerful would the impact of that miracle have been having been done, in that way, in a place normally associated with healing? Of course, the subsequent events show just what that impact was.
But onwards to the Mount of Olives.
I’m going to skip to the top (believe me, I didn’t do this on the day – it’s a steep climb and it was hot) because we visited the main churches on the way back down. We stopped off at:
- The Church of the Ascension: Russian Orthodox church on the site where it is said Christ ascended to heaven from, leaving just a footprint in the rock.
- The Church of the Paternoster: home to tiled panels with the words of the ‘Our Father’ prayer in many, many languages.
- The Basilica of the Agony (in the Garden of Gethsemane): also known as the Church of All Nations. stunning mosaics depicting Jesus’ prayers on the night of his arrest. It’s either deeply moving or completely over-the-top depending on perspective and mood.
- A couple of people also nipped in to the Dominus Flevit Chapel: meaning ‘the Lord wept’ (over the fate of Jerusalem). A modern church with a breathtaking view across to the Old City.
The churches were, again, a reminder of key events and of just how close together, geographically, they were. I think it was also odd to be looking down on the Old Town and the Temple area. When I think of the Psalms of Ascent I tend to picture the Temple being ‘up’. And, of course, it is. One must first descend into one of the valleys before approaching the Temple from below, pretty much regardless of the direction you come from. But it’s by no means the highest point around.
It was pointed out to us though that the Mount of Olives lies on the road from Bethphage and, as the festive crowd crested the Mount of Olives, the Temple and its courts would be laid out before them. It’s a stunning sight now and, to a crowd of travellers coming to worship in the Temple, would have been, I guess, just as stunning then. It’s no wonder a great shout went up from them as they neared their journey’s end.
The walk up (and down) the Mount of Olives was my last full day in Jerusalem and getting such an ‘overview’ was a great way to spend it. As I’ve said, the ‘compactness’ of the area struck me. I don’t know why I should think things were more spread out. Maybe I just didn’t really give it any real consideration before, more concerned with events than geography. But there’s no doubt that getting a sense of the geography gives colour to the picture we draw of the events which we read of.