Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Day 34: The Mount of Olives

We ate breakfast and set off yesterday around 9 a.m.  Our destination was the Mount of Olives, which houses many churches and a massive Jewish burial ground that spans from ancient times to the present. There is a general resurrection prophesied in Zechariah, and it is said to take place in the Kidron Valley at the foot of the Mount of Olives.

We walked through the Old City, following the Via Dolorosa to the Lion's Gate exit.  Once out, we saw the mount stretching before us.  We began our ascent.  After about 10 minutes of walking, we ran into the Church of All Nations, a Franciscan church built by...you guessed it...many different nations.  The church marks the site of Gethsemane, which fences in a grove of olive trees that have been growing at the site for well over 2000 years.  Whether or not this is the true site is beyond knowing, but it was a powerful experience knowing that pilgrims had been coming to this very site for nearly 17000 years (Emperor Constantine dedicated it as such).
We then continued onward and upward with a second stop to walk along the rows of stone markers in the cemetery.  It appears as if people are buried above ground, but the sarcophagus like stones are actually blocks marking the underground burial.

Burial markers through a hole in the wall
Our next stop was a look out over the Old City, followed by our final climb to the top of the Mount of Olives, where we looked with what seemed like a thousand other tourists, over the Old City and the mount stretching before us.  Our climb up had taken about two hours.
The top of the mount, overlooking the Old City
On our way down, a small sign jutting from a building said, "Tombs of the Prophets Haggai and Malachi."  With our curiosity piqued, we stepped through the door to find humble living quarters of some Russian Orthodox monks.  We eventually came upon an old cistern that had been cut away to add stairs long ago.  A light shone in the darkness below, so we descended.  Once down, we met an Orthodox monk from France who explained the history of the cite.  It had been a cistern long ago but during the Byzantine period it was transformed into burial plots for Christians.  When the Byzantine builders were cutting out new tombs, they had accidently broken through to an earlier network of tombs.  We all lit candles and walked around, exploring the mini-catacombs.  We spoke for a while with Pierre (the monk) along the way as he told us a bit about himself and we shared about ourselves.  Once he found out we were interested in archaeology, he quickly showed us several of the ancient inscriptions carved out of the limestone walls.
Julie standing in the dark with her candle
After completing our candlelit escapade, we paid our respects and continued on our journey back down the mount.  On the way, an Orthodox convent had opened its doors that claims to house the bones of Mary Magdalene.  We stopped in the church (the girls had to cover their hair) and spent about 30 minutes looking at the icons.  One of our group even got a special tour of some of the older icons in the orthodox church.

At the bottom of the mount, there was one more site that interested me especially.  Toward the bottom of the cemetery sits three ancient markers:  Absalom, Zechariah, and B'nei Hatzir.  The markers of Absalom and Zechariah were likely attributed to their namesakes during the Middle Ages.  In all likelihood, these markers marked wealthy Jews who wanted to be as close as possible to the resurrection to take place in the Kidron Valley (which sat directly beside us at this point).  The third tomb however is rightly attributed to a wealthy priestly family of the first century C.E.  We were able to climb up into the tomb and explore the individual sepulchres.
The Old City on the right; the Tomb of Absalom on the bottom left
At night, we met up with Chad, our area supervisor, one last time before he leaves for the States tomorrow.  We went into West Jerusalem, the European-esque side of the city, to enjoy food and company before parting ways for the night.

Today, we are taking a taxi (or a bus if we can figure out where to get on) to the Israel Museum, which should be a day long endeavor.  It houses everything from modern art to archaeology (including many of the Dead Sea Scrolls!).