I’m in a group called the Jerusalem Expat Network, which organizes tours around the city and region once a month. Today it was the Mount of Olives churches, led by a Danish woman who is married to a Palestinian and has lived here for 30+ years.
I had hiked up the Mount of Olives and we have several times visited friends at the Augusta Victoria, a German and Lutheran “compound” up there. From the Old City, you can clearly see many churches lining the side of this holy hillside but until today I had never been inside most of them. Just like my morning on Mount Zion, it was another “high density” experience for me, so many stories and prayers packed into a couple of hours of time and less than a mile of distance.
We started at the very top, at the Mosque (and Chapel) of Ascension. The Muslims who govern the space lend it out to Christians on two days a year (Western and Orthodox Ascension Days). The little building has beautiful birds flying in and out of it, and a footprint (said to be from Jesus on his way up) in its ancient floor.
Across the street was the first of several Jewish settlements on the Mount of Olives, flying an enormous Israeli flag.
Next up, the Pater Noster Church. Jesus is said to have met with his Apostles in this cave. It was packed with pilgrims and had notes and prayers pressed into every crack and cranny in the rock. More moving to me was the courtyard, which has tiles with the Lord’s Prayer (recited for the first time, here) in hundreds of languages. People come here from all corners of the earth. You can buy yours to take home.
Next stop downhill was the Dominus Fleuvit church. Apparently Jesus saw the view of the Temple from here and cried. Now the view from the altar squares on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Today was hazy; apparently there are sandstorms in the desert.
Ancient and newer Jewish graveyards line the Mount of Olives and the Kidron Valley below. No flowers are allowed, so visitors bring rocks. In two weeks, at Pesach, the rocks will be cleaned off and the annual cycle will begin again.
Lise planned our tour so we could visit the Russian Orthodox Monastery. Everyone knows these glorious gold domes, but few people get inside as it’s only open four hours a week. (If you go, wear a skirt. The sisters didn’t approve of our jeans and gave us enormous floral aprons to wrap around ourselves!). There’s an icon inside with a piece of Mary Magdalene’s skull.
Next up was the biggie: the Garden of Gethsemene and the Church of All Nations. The garden has 2,000 year old olive trees, some of them still yielding new branches. I found them so beautiful and moving.
And the final stop was the empty tomb of the Virgin Mary.
Pilgrims were everywhere today and will just increase in numbers through Easter. We’ll be away, but on Palm Sunday there’s a huge and jubilant march of thousands of people down the same road we used today.