Listen to the podcast episode about the Mount of Olives and read along with the full transcript:
Mount of Olives or Jabal az-Zeitun
The Mount of Olives, in Arabic Jabal az-Zeitun or At-Tur is always part of any pilgrimage program to Jerusalem. Before Covid it was one of the busiest places around the old city of Jerusalem. What is it that makes the Mount of Olives so important in all three monotheistic religions? It has sacred places for Jews, Christians and Muslims. So let’s dive into the history and location of Jabal az-Zeitun!
First of all, where is it exactly? If you look on a map you will see that Mount of Olives is to the East of the old city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is also built on a hill. All these hills are part of the mountain ridge that was pushed up by tectonic plate movements and goes from the north, from near Nablus to the south to Hebron. This ridge of mountains has its highest peak in Halhul near Hebron, where we can find the Mount Nabi Yunis which is 1030 meters high. It is called after the prophet Yonah who is said to have lived there for a year.
Generally the mountains are between 500 to 800 meter high on average. The Mount of Olives is around 800 meters. And if you are ON the Mount of Olives you have one of the best views of the Old city of Jerusalem. Most visitors go to the parking area in front of the Seven Arches Hotel on the top of Mount of Olives to look out over the city with the Golden Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa moque on the Haram al Sharif noble sanctuary. You can hear all about that in the first podcast episode of this season. You can see the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and all the other church domes and towers. You see the city walls with the big gates and you realize that Jerusalem was built on a hill surrounded by three valleys.
The valleys around Jerusalem
The valley that you are overlooking from this viewpoint is the Kidron valley that connects in the south to the Hinnom valley. And the third valley, the Tyropean valley or the Cheesemaker valley or nowadays called El Wad, which is Arabic for the valley, is not anymore on the outside of the city but it became inside the city after the city expanded to the West. You can see it clearly when you go to Damascus Gate, you walk down a lot of stairs because you are entering into the valley, into El Wad street. And when you walk in El Wad street in the city center you have on either side the connecting streets climbing up, from the valley onto the hills on which Jerusalem was built.
The Jewish cemetery on Mount of Olives
These valleys also play an important role in all the monotheistic religions because it is for Jews, Christians and Muslims the place where the final day of judgment will happen. This is where Jews expect the Messiah to come and where the deceased will rise from the death and will be judged. That is why the Mount of Olives along the Kidron valley has a huge Jewish cemetery. It is estimated that there are over a hundred thousand Jewish graves. When you see the cemetery, either from the top of Mount of Olives looking down, or from the road in the valley looking up, you see thousands and thousands of white graves with the names of the people who are buried there on the slope of the mountain.
And on the graves you often see a small pile of small stones. There are different explanations for why Jewish people place these stones on graves. It is an ancient tradition that is explained in different ways even among Jews. Some say that because the Jewish priests would become impure if they came too close to a dead corpse, that people would use these stones to indicate where people were buried so that the priests could stay away from these places. Another explanation is that it is believed that the soul dwells around the grave for a while after a person has died and that putting stones will keep the soul down in this world, which is comforting for some people. Also it is said that flowers and plants will eventually die but stones will remain and are a more permanent sign of respect for the dead. And another reason I have heard mentioning is that these stones will be used to rebuild the Temple, which is an aspiration that some Jewish people have or believe in that after the first and second Temple were destroyed, a third one will be build in Jerusalem. And they believe it must be build where the Dome of the Rock is located since 1400 years, so that causes a lot of tension in the city.
Christians have the same old testament of the Bible as the Jews, so they also believe in a final day of judgment in which the Mount of Olives plays an important role. The valley is mentioned in the Bible as the valley of Jehoshaphat.
The as-Sirat bridge between Haram al Sharif and Mount of Olives
And according to Islam on the final day of judgment there will be a bridge hanged between the Dome of the Rock and the Mount of Olives, the as-Sirat bridge. And the bridge will be only a very thin line on which only the true believers and righteous people will be able to cross and accepted by Allah. There is a stone round shaped pillar in the wall of the Haram al Sharif near the Golden Gate or the Gate of Mercy that according to legend is the place where the as-Sirat bridge will be hanged. This pillar is also known as the Pillar of Muhammad.
Ancient tombs in the Kidron valley
IN the kidron valley, which in Arabic is called Wadi al Joz, the valley of the almonds, there are also several interesting ancient tombs that you can visit. There is a walking path that leads from the main road down into the valley where you can see these tombs. Most of them date from the 1st century BC until the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. In that time, about 2000 years ago, they used to bury the dead people in shafts that they dug into the rocks. Sometimes they would use an existing cave and dig several horizontal shafts into the rock. They would push the dead body into the shaft and after a while they would come and collect the bones, place them in an ossuary, a stone box and use the tomb shaft again for another body.
This type of burial is called kokh or in plural kokhim, in Hebrew. These type of tombs were later in Byzantine times replaced by the arcosolia type tombs where the body would be placed in a niche that was cut out into the rock and the body was on a kind of table in the niche. This is often how Christians later envisioned the burial tomb of Jesus, but in the time of Jesus, the Kokhim tombs were the way of burial. And they had a rolling stone in front of the cave entrance to protect it from wild animals. That’s what we can read in the Bible that the stone in front of the tomb was rolled to the side when Mary came to visit the tomb and the body of Jesus was gone.
In the Kidron valley we find a few interesting tombs for some of the more important people in the community who had a more decorated grave with a big funerary monument also called a nefesh.
The most well known is the Absalom tomb, which is a 22 meters high big square monolith, one piece of rock, that was hewn out from the limestone rock and decorated with a conical roof that looks a a bit like a Moroccan tagine if you know these cooking pots. Muslims started referring to it as the Pharaoh’s hat, ‘Tantur Fira’un’ because of its shape.
It is interesting that it is attributed to Absalom, who was the son of King David, because he lived in the 10th Century BC and this tomb is clearly from the 1st C BC. The association with Absalom started in the Crusader time when the Crusaders were trying to find links between what they found in the land and the Bible stories. It is probably based on a text in the second book of Samuel in which we can read that Absalom in his lifetime set up a pillar for himself in the King’s valley, because he didn’t have sons to remember him.
But Absalom died in the field when he was being chased by Joab, the commander in King David’s army, and his long hairs got stuck in the thick branches of an oak tree and he was buried in the field under a heap of stones far from Jerusalem.
Before we continue to really talk about the Mount of Olives it is also interesting to know that these valleys, the Kidron Valley and the Hinnom valley, have been associated since the Canaanite times, the Bronze Age times, more than 3000 years ago, with worship of Canaanite gods to whom they may have sacrificed not only animals but also children.
Canaanite worship in the valleys of Jerusalem
In the Bible there are stories about Kings of Judah taking part in such sacrificial events to the Canaanite god Moloch. And the prophet Jeremiah cursed the location for these practices. And throughout the history this location became the symbol of divine punishment and the Hinnom valley, also called Gehenna or Gehinnom, became synonymous for hell. With the holy site on the top of Jerusalem symbolizing heaven, to walk righteously with God and the dark valley in the shadow of the city to be the hell for the godless and evil people.
So as you can hear, this area, the Mount of Olives and the Kidron and Hinnom valley, are very important in the three monotheistic religions and therefore they are very much visited by all kinds of pilgrims.
When you want to visit the Mount of Olives, the easiest way to do it, is to start from the top and then walk down. If you get to the top by public transportation, by bus or taxi, then you can walk down and visit all the sites without too much effort.
The Russian Church of Ascension on the Mount of Olives
Let’s start on top of the Mount of Olives. There is the Russian church of the Ascension with its 64 meters high tower, one of the landmarks that you can see from a far distance and that is noticeable from all sides of Jerusalem, together with the tower of the Augusta Victoria and the Hebrew University. The church was built in the 19th century by Russia under the Archimandrite Kapustin and it was the first church in Jerusalem that operated a bell in the bell tower during the late Ottoman period. The huge 8 ton bell was brought in from the port of Jaffa and was pulled on a cart from Jaffa to Jerusalem by pilgrims.
And why was it built here? Because it commemorates the story of the ascension of Jesus into heaven from the Mount of Olives. And because of this event there are several churches on the Mount of Olives. As we see in the Holy Land there are often more than one locations indicated to be the place of a bible story and that is partially because traditions would change over time, because certain places would be considered more accurate or sometimes just more convenient for pilgrims and often also because the different Christian denominations wanted to have their own locations with their own churches and chapels.
So the Russian Church of the Ascension is built around a stone that is said to be the stone where Jesus’s mother Mary stood when Jesus was taken up to heaven.
And behind the church there is also a chapel for John the Baptist, where it is said that they found a jar buried under the ground, that contained the head of John the Baptist after he had been killed by Herod Antipas. There are several other locations where they claim to have the head of John the Baptist, including Damascus, Rome, Amiens (in France) and Munich. And even more locations where they claim to have other body parts. In Palestine the oldest tradition for the burial of John the Baptist is in Sebastia and I spoke about that in the episode on Jacob’s Well and Sebastia last year.
The Bible story of the Ascension
Before we continue the tour and see more churches related to the Ascension of Jesus let’s read that story from the Bible. And I find it very interesting that the story is only really mentioned in the book of Acts and not in the Gospels of Matthew, Marc, Luke and John. And even in the book of Acts it is only a few lines. I will read them for you:
After he (Jesus) said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
That’s it. That’s all there is written about the ascension of Jesus. But it was the inspiration for many paintings and art works and for grotesque churches on the Mount of Olives.
The Eleona Church on the Mount of Olives
The first church that was built on the Mount of Olives was built in the 4th century by the mother of the emperor Constantine, Queen Helena. The first church was called the Eleona church. Eleona comes from Greek Elaion which means olive.
And the Mount of Olives is named so because of the many olive trees that this mountain once had. But over time many of the trees were cut. Already by the Roman army in the years that they besieged Jerusalem between 67 and 70 AD when they razed the complete city, they had their legions stationed around the city and they used up the olive trees for firewood and other purposes for their large army. And today we still see some olive trees here and there in the gardens of the churches but most of the Mount of Olives is now built on, paved, cemetery, church properties.
The location of this first church is just a little bit down from the Russian Church of Ascension but it is not anymore the place where the Ascension is commemorated. Over time the tradition on this location changed and it became known as the place where Jesus taught his apostles to pray the Our Father prayer. There is cave that is venerated as the place where Jesus would take his apostles and teach them how to pray and he taught them to pray : Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
The Pater Noster Church on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem
Today if you visit this church that is called the Pater Noster church (Our Father in Latin) you will find this prayer in 140 different languages on the walls on ceramic tiles.
The property with the cave and the remains of the Byzantine Eleona church were bought in 1868 by the French princess Aurelie de Bossi de La Tour d’Auvergne and she had a Carmelite convent built here. She donated the property to France and you can see the French flag waving over the church building. Just like the Saint Anne Church in the Old City and the Benedictine monastery in Abu Ghosh are French properties.
Inside the cloister of the convent you can see the sarcophagus of the princess who was buried here after she had died in Florence in 1889.
The Church of Ascension on the top of Mount of Olives
Not far from the Pater Noster Church, still on top of the Mount of Olives, actually on the highest point is the Church of Ascension that is an octagonal shaped building that dates from the Crusader time. This building that we see today was actually only the aedicule that was in the center of the church itself that was much larger and does not remain. You can compare it to the aedicule that you can still see inside the church of the Holy Sepulcher, built around Jesus’ tomb. The aedicule here on Mount of Olives was built around a stone that is said to have the footprint of Jesus that he left on the stone when he ascended into heaven.
This is the location that became the venerated place after the tradition changed from the cave I mentioned earlier, the one that became known for the teaching of the prayer. Probably pilgrims envisioned that the ascension must have taken place on the highest top of the mountain and they changed the location. It was the empress Poimenia who gave orders to build the first church here in the late 4th century. This church did not survive the Persian attacks in 614, when most Byzantine churches were destroyed. The Crusaders built a new church of which this aedicule remains.
The Zaweyeh al As’adeye mosque on the Mount of Olives
\When Salaedin took the city in 1187 he converted the site into a mosque and added a prayer niche, a mihrab, that you can still see today. The site was visited by both Muslims and Christians but for Muslims a new mosque was built next to the aedicule and in the 17th century Sheikh As’ad, the mufti, the judge of judges in the Ottoman Empire, built the Zaweyeh al As’adeye that contains a small room with the tomb of Rabe’a al Adawya, a famous sufi mystic who came from Basra in current day Iraq. She was the 4th daughter in a very poor family and sold into slavery. When she was freed she continued a very ascetic lifestyle, did many miracles and wrote poetry. She is said to have lived in Jerusalem and she is a great example for many Muslims in general and sufis in particular.
Augusta Victoria on the Mount of Olives
Now from here if you continue the street on top of the Mount of Olives you will reach to the Augusta Victoria which is named after the wife of Emperor Kaiser Wilhem II
He and his wife visited to Jerusalem in 1898, that’s when they removed part of the old city wall near Jaffa Gate, the opening that is still there until today, so that they could enter into the city without having to get out of their chariots and they could be brought in style to their hotel, the New Imperial Hotel, still exists. The Ottomans gifted the land to the emperor who decided to build a guesthouse for pilgrims.
The Augusta Victoria building was the first modern building in Jerusalem with its own generator and warm water. It was not used as a pilgrims house for very long. In the first world war it became headquarters for the Turkish military and in 1917 for the British Army. In 1920 it became the government house for the British Mandate with Herbert Samuel heaving his headquarters here. And when he moved to a new location they used the building for British soldiers to have a space to rest and relax. After 1948 the building was used as a shelter and distribution center for the Palestinian refugees. It was run by the UNRWA and the International Red Cross and the Lutheran world federation. They turned it into a hospital that had 450 beds. In 1950 the owner, which was the Augusta Victoria Foundation, transferred the building and the land to the Lutheran World Federation.
Apart from the hospital, today the complex also includes the German Protestant Church of the Ascension with a c. 50 metre high belltower, a meeting centre for pilgrims and tourists, an interreligious kindergarten and a café, as well as the Jerusalem branch of the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology.
So right here at the Augusta Victoria is yet another church dedicated to the ascension.
Now we are going to move down from the top of the Mount of Olives from near the Pater Noster church, towards the Kidron valley and we are going to pass by several other churches that are visited by pilgrims.
The Dominus Flevit Church on the Mount of Olives
The first one that we encounter is the Dominus Flevit Church. If you translate this Latin to English it means the Lord wept. This is the place where the pilgrims remember that Jesus looked at Jerusalem and he cried because he knew that the city would be destroyed completely by the Romans. It is described in the book of Luke chapter 19: 41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.
Antonio Barluzzi, Franciscan architect of the Holy Land
The church that you see here is very small, more like a chapel and it is very special. It was built in 1955 by Antonio Barluzzi, a Franciscan architect who built many churches in the holy land. He is very well known and when you visit Palestine as a pilgrim you will see several of his churches. What makes his architecture so special is that each church has a design that symbolizes the story to which the church was dedicated. So in this case he made the shape of the church in the shape of a tear drop with the tear phials on the four corners of the dome. And when you come inside you will notice that the church is not oriented to the east as is usual in churches but to the west, with a window looking out over Jerusalem, just like Jesus was looking towards Jerusalem when he wept.
Palm Sunday Mount of Olives
It is a famous view with the window with decorative wrought-iron bars that depict a cup, a loaf, thorns and a cross. And in the dome there are several reliefs from the life of Jesus, one of them depicts him sitting on the donkey when he came from the other side of the Mount of Olives from Bethany and Betphage and he rode a donkey and was welcomed by the people of Jerusalem who thought he was going to deliver them from the Roman occupation. And this story was the fulfillment of a prophecy by the prophet Zecharia done hundreds of years before the event that the King, the Messiah, would arrive on a donkey.
When Jesus came down from the Mount of Olives he saw that the people were making way for him and covering the street with branches from the palm trees.
That’s why until today there are still processions on Palm Sunday starting on the top of the Mount of Olives to the city. Pilgrims sing hymns and they carry down palm branches to the city.
Before we leave the Dominus Flevit church there is one more thing to mention which is the mosaic on the altar depicting a hen and a chicken, referring to this text from Luke 13:34
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”
Mary Magdalena Church on Mount of Olives
So now we will continue down the Mount of Olives and we will see the golden onion shaped domes of the Mary Magdalena Church. It has seven domes that reflect the sunlight and they are typical Russian style, because this is another Russian orthodox church. It is dedicated to Mary of Magdalena and it was built in 1888 by Tsar Alexander III in honor of his mother Maria Alexandrovna.
The church was dedicated to one of the most important female followers of Jesus, Mary, who probably came from the town of Magdala near the Lake of Galilee. It is said that she was possessed by demons and that Jesus healed her and that she followed him and with some other women took care of Jesus and really understood his message. She was one of the three women who stayed with him when he was crucified and also the first one to visit the tomb and to discover that the tomb was empty.
Inside the church is a huge painting of Mary Magdalene presenting a red egg to the emperor Tiberius. The story goes that after Jesus had been crucified she met with the emperor and she wanted to accuse him and tell him how wrong the Romans were to have killed Jesus but that Jesus had victory over death and was resurrected. As a symbol of resurrection and new life she held up an egg and said Christ is Risen. The emperor laughed at her and said that that there was about as much chance of a human being returning to life from the dead as there was of the egg in her hand turning red. And of course, the egg promptly turned red!
This is why many icons painted in the Byzantine Catholic style show Mary Magdalene holding a red egg.
There are also some celebrities buried in this church. One of them is Elizabeth of Hesse Darmstadt, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria and the sister of the last Russian empress, who was called Elizabeth Feodorovna in Russia. She was married to the borther of the Tsar. After her husband’s death she became a nun and during the Bolshevik revolution she was killed together with another nun called Barbara Yakovleva and both of them were later canonized as holy martyrs and buried in this church.
And the reason why Prince Charles and Prince William of England came to visit this church in particular on their trips to Jerusalem, is that the grandmother of Prince Charles and the Great Grandmother of prince William is buried here as well. She is known as princess Alice of Greece or Alice of Battenberg and she was the granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth.
Today this church is run by thirty nuns from around the world who are known for their hand painted eggs, embroideries and other crafts that they sell to sustain their community.
And now we will continue to the last two stops.
The Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives
First the Garden of Gethsemane, which will sound very familiar to people who know the story of the last night of Jesus on the Mount of Olives. He had his passover meal in the city and then he took his apostles outside the gate, outside the city wall to the Mount of Olives to a place that was called Gethsemane. This is an Aramaic word and it means olive press. And then Jesus went to pray and told his disciples to stay awake and stay on the watch, but they were tired and they kept falling asleep. Jesus prayed the following: “My C=Father if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as You, not I, would have it.” Then, a little while later, he said, “If this cup cannot pass by, but I must drink it, Your will be done!” He said this prayer three times and each time he went to check on his disciples he found them asleep and he said about them “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”
Today if you visit the gardens of Gethsemane you will enter into a courtyard surrounded by a wall, that has eight old olive trees in it. And right next to it is the church of the Agony, built by the same architect, Barluzzi, whom I mentioned before who designed the Dominus Flevit church. It is called the Church of the Agony because it remembers that Jesus was suffering and struggling. He even is said to have been sweating drops of blood.
The olive trees in the Gethsemane garden
The olive trees in the garden do NOT date back to the time of Jesus. Italian universities have carried out a research that lasted for three years and that established that the trees are about 900 years old dating back to the Crusader time. But what is interesting is that they also found through DNA analysis that the trees all had an identical genotype. This indicates that they probably originated from a common ‘parent’ tree. This suggests that the trees were originally branch cuttings taken from a larger tree, grown into new trees, which was possibly done in an attempt to sustain their lineage. So they may have a relation to older trees and who knows these were trees that were already present in Jesus’ time.
The Church of the Agony on the Mount of Olives
The Church of the Agony is a church built over the rock where Jesus is said to have prayed. It is not the first church, it is the third one, after a Byzantine and Crusader church were built there previously. As said it is designed by Barluzzi and it has 12 small domes in the ceiling, each one of them attributed to one of the nations that helped financially in building this church. That’s why it is also known as the Church of All nations.
In the design Barluzzi tried to evoke the night-time of the Agony. It is very dark in this church. There ARE windows but the natural light is filtered through violet-blue alabaster windows. In the ceiling of the domes we recognize a night sky with painted stars and olive branches.
During my last visit to this church I spoke to one of the Palestinian guardians who told me that he was present here in December 2020 during an arson attack when a Jewish Israeli man came into the church and attacked with a liquid that he set on fire.
The guard told me that often people think that the Christians in Palestine are under attack or under threat by Muslims but he says that the biggest threat are the radical settlers and zionists who are regularly attacking Christian properties.
Mary’s tomb at the foot of the Mount of Olives
Some of the holy sites are even shared between Christians and Muslims. The last site I will describe for you in this podcast episode is such a place. It is the tomb of the virgin Mary located at the foot of the Mount of Olives. From the street level you have to go down several stairs to reach the plaza in front of the entrance to the Tomb. And as you enter through the typical Crusader arched entrance, you go down even more steps under the ground through a wide vaulted arched stairway that leads into the cave of veneration of Mother Mary.
Mother Mary according to tradition did not die but she was brought here by the apostles and that’s when the assumption as it is called happened. She was taken to heaven by God.
The bench where she sat, became a place of veneration already in very early Christian times. There was a 5th century Byzantine church here before the later Crusader church was constructed. Just like in the Holy Sepulcher church you can see an aedicule in the middle of the space in which a stone bench is venerated as the bench where Mary sat. And just like in the Holy Sepulcher church they have dug around the original cave. So all the space that you see inside today’s underground church, is because they dug out the rocks, they removed the stones and just left the part where Mary was sitting. So that now pilgrims can walk around that holy spot.
In the Muslim era under Salaedin the tomb became also a Muslim holy site, visited by Muslims who prayed here. They added a mihrab to indicate the prayer direction that you can still see today. A legend tells that prophet Muhamad on his night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem saw a light shining out of this cave.
When we visited last time we saw a Muslim man coming in to pray and he actually asked the orthodox priest to take some photos of him. Which was a very special moment.
Last but not least, in a chapel in this church, Queen Melisende, the daughter of King Baldwin II, who ruled for a while on her own and with her son, was buried here in Crusader time. She was of Armenian descent. One of the few women who ruled Jerusalem.
Get the link to the video about the Mount of Olives
I am fully aware that this is not a complete description of the places on the Mount of Olives, but these are the most known and visited sites. If you visit Jerusalem you can easily spend a full day just visiting the Mount of Olives before even entering into the old city!
If you loved this episode, then pay attention. I am going to make a nice video about the sites on the Mount of Olives that will be available for those who make a donation to the podcast on Ko-fi.