The lookout point on the Mount of Olives is one of the most impressive in the world. The mount has great significance in Judaism, especially in the vision of the end of days. Many famous people are buried there in one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the world.
The mount also plays an important role in the last week of Jesus’ life: It’s the place from which he entered Jerusalem for the last supper on Passover, the place where he mourned the future destruction of the city and the Temple, the place where he was handed over before his crucifixion, and the place from which he arose to heaven and from which he was supposed to return.
Prepare for the Coming of the Messiah
From the Mount of Olives you can see the area between east and west Jerusalem, between the Old City and the new, the Jewish Quarter and its buildings, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Christian Quarter, the Temple Mount with the Dome of the Rock, and the al-Aqsa mosque. The Gate of Mercy from which the messiah will arrive stands out in the eastern wall across from us.
The traditions and beliefs connected to the mount in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are many and varied. This is the place from which the messiah will arrive quickly in our time according to the Jewish tradition, and from which he has already arrived according to the Christians. In Islamic tradition, this is the place from which the black stone, the kaba’ah, will arrive from Mecca and be joined to the foundation stone underneath the Dome of the Rock, like a bride and groom.
After enjoying the lookout point on the Mount of Olives, under the Seven Arches (formerly Intercontinental) Hotel, we’ll go about 100 yards on the nearby sidewalk toward the road from which we came, until we see a path that descends to the left, as well as steps and a steep paved path to the slope of the mount.
Next to the steps is the Othman family’s yard, where you’ll find a beautiful Second Temple Period burial cave. The sign at the entrance talks about the prophets of Israel from the First Temple Period. There is a nominal fee for upkeep of the cave.
When Jesus wept
From here we’ll continue for another hundred yards till we enter the iron gate on our right that leads to the Catholic Dominus Flevit Church, which in Latin means “the Lord wept.” At the entrance we’ll see a Second Temple period burial cave on our right that was uncovered by the church’s Franciscan monks. Some of the sarcophagi here have Hebrew names and the Greek letters “XP,” which are the first two letters of the Greek word for “Christ.” There are also crosses. It’s not clear if this was a Judeo-Christian community from the first century C.E., or if the burials took place later on. Some people say this is the world’s oldest Christian cemetery.
The church was built in the mid-1950s in the shape of a tear, to represent the tears of Jesus. This is where Jesus is said to have wept over the future destruction of the city:
“For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation." (Luke 19)
In the courtyard are the remains of an impressive Byzantine mosaic as well as a wine press. The church was built by Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi, who also designed churches in Ein Kerem, Gethsemane, and other places in Jerusalem.
The entrance is small and modest, and you can see that the apse, the main altar, faces west, not east, as in most churches in the world. This is because Jesus is said to have looked to the west, in the direction of the Temple Mount, and wept for the city.
The altar has a small mosaic depicting a hen and her chicks, because of the quote from Luke 13: "O 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, but you were not willing.
The church features a beautiful picture window that provides a view of the Dome of the Rock in the background and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to the right.
From here let’s continue on the same path and go down to the White Russian Church of St. Mary Magdalene, otherwise known as the “onion church” for its onion-shaped domes, which are similar to the domes of the Kremlin.
A Russian Princess
The church was dedicated in 1888 by the Russian Czar, and Grand Duke Sergei, who attended the dedication with his wife, was assassinated in 1905.
At the time of the Russian Revolution Sergei’s widow, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna, was killed by the Bolsheviks. Elizabeth had lived for some time in Jerusalem and been very active in the city, especially in Ein Karem. Her body was smuggled to the Holy Land through China in 1919, and she was buried in this church according to the instructions in her will.
This is one of Israel’s most beautiful churches, yet it’s quite modest inside. On the right is the marble sarcophagus containing Elizabeth’s remains. There is also a portrait of Elizabeth, who was canonized in 1981. To the altar’s left is a sarcophagus with the remains of St. Barbara, Elizabeth’s companion. On the eastern wall is a painting of the Valley of Jehoshaphat, part of Nahal Kidron, which was painted by the greatest 19th-century Russian painter, Alexander Ivanov, who was brought here by Elizabeth.
Note that the church is open for visitors only on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at about 11:00 a.m.
Across from the entrance gate is a marble pillar symbolizing the place in which, according to tradition, Judas Iscariot kissed Jesus and handed him over to the Roman soldiers, as described in Mark 14:
“Immediately while He was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, came up accompanied by a crowd with swords and clubs, who were from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. Now he who was betraying Him had given them a signal, saying, ‘Whomever I kiss, He is the one; seize Him and lead Him away under guard.’ After coming, Judas immediately went to Him, saying, ‘Rabbi!’ and kissed Him. They laid hands on Him and seized Him.”
Mount of Olives - The Jewish cemetery
Let’s continue for another few yards and then turn to the left, where we’ll enter the courtyard of the Basilica of the Agony at Gethsemane, a Western Catholic church. According to tradition, this is where Jesus was brought after eating the last supper with his 12 disciples (and Mary Magdalene, according to The Da Vinci Code) on Mount Zion. Immediately after the seder meal, on a night when the moon was full, Jesus continued with his disciples to the Mount of Olives to spend the last night before he was turned over to the Romans.
Because according to Jewish law he could not leave the city, he settled in the garden we are standing in now.
According to the New Testament, Jesus had trouble sleeping and was in agony, whence the name of the church.
In the center of this modern, 20th-century church is the stone on which he leaned on that night. To the left of the rock is an impressive wall painting in which you can see Judas Iscariot’s famous kiss, which took place next to the stone pillar we mentioned. In the floor of the church an original Byzantine mosaic can still be seen in several places.
The ceiling has 12 domes, like the number of disciples, and depicts the coats of arms of countries that contributed to the building of the church, such as Spain, Italy, and France. In fact, the church is also known as the “Church of All Nations.” Its façade is one of the most magnificent in Israel, and features statues of the four evangelists from the Book of Revelations, Matthew, Luke, John, and Mark.
The angel above Jesus is holding a book with the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and omega, which represent the verse from John’s vision: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” This motif is seen in many churches around the world.
Note the impressive mosaic with two harts that symbolize the verse from Psalms 42: “As the hart pants and longs for the water brooks, so I pant and long for You, O God.”
The church is open all week from 8 a.m.-12 p.m., and from 2 p.m.-5 p.m. in winter and 2 p.m.-6 p.m. in summer.
Church of Mary’s Tomb
Let’s exit the church and go down to the Church of Mary’s Tomb in the Kidron Valley. The high steps at the entrance are meant to prevent the floodwaters from inundating the church, which is actually in a cave. We do not know what happened to Mary, Jesus’ mother. According to tradition she was buried here or she fell into eternal sleep at the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion. And it may be that this did not take place in Jerusalem, but in Turkey.
Here, too, the church is built on the remains of the Byzantine and Crusader periods. The entrance is in the shape of a cross. If we go down a few steps we’ll see a wall to our right in the chapel where Jerusalem Crusader Queen Melisanda is buried.
Below and to our right is the empty grave of the Holy Madonna, and above it is a structure called an “edicule.” Note that at the entrance there are no statues, only drawings, as is the custom in the Eastern Orthodox churches. Look for engravings that resemble a statue but have two-dimensional hands and face, meaning that they are only paintings. The church is mostly dark but it is one of Jerusalem’s most beautiful.