Friday, May 9, 2014

A Visit to Mount Zion

Just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem is a hill that is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. This is Mount Zion, mentioned in the Bible as being part of the Jebusite stronghold captured by King David and his capital city. As written in the book of Samuel, "David took the stronghold of Zion: the same is the city of David." The hill's name 'Zion', (Tsiyon in Hebrew), later became synonymous with the Land of Israel, and the source of the term Zionism.

Mount Zion is regarded as the traditional site of King David's Tomb, as well as the room of the Last Supper. Surprisingly, the two are located in the same building, one flight of stairs apart.

A visit to Mount Zion is a serene escape from the hubbub of Old City tourism, although many pilgrim groups and visitors do come to see the holy sites on this hill.

Most prominent on the Mount Zion landscape is the towering Dormition Abbey Church, dedicated in 1898 upon the arrival of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The church is 14 meters wide, 31 meters high; its basilica is very feminine in nature. The acoustics inside are bad, but apparently good enough for monthly concerts. The church was built on the remains of two Byzantine churches.

Dormition Abbey on Mt. Zion

Down a spiral flight of stairs is the crypt, which centers around a horizontal statue of the Virgin Mary. The entire church commemorates the Virgin Mary's memory, as this is the traditional site of her death (the name 'dormition' means "eternal sleep").

Mt. Zion is also the traditional site of the Virgin Mary's death

Walking further through the pleasant alleys on the hill, one comes to a very contemporary statue of King David, gift to the city of Jerusalem. Jewish tradition frowns on the commemoration of Biblical figures in paintings and statues. Unfortunately, someone took this to an extreme and vandalized the statue, breaking off King David's nose.

King David

King David's Tomb is a holy site, with strict segregation between men and women. Men must cover their heads when visiting and no photography is allowed on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays. Most archaeologists and historians do not think the Biblical king was actually buried in the tomb, although it is regarded as a holy site by adherents of all three major religions. One will always find religious Jews praying inside the tomb.

King David's Tomb on Mt. Zion

A flight of stairs in the courtyard outside the tomb leads to the room where Christians believe that Jesus and his disciples ate their Last Supper.

Courtyard on Mt. Zion

Also known as the Cenacle, the "Upper Room" is a simple empty space, once used as a mosque. Hardly impressive, the room is considered the site where many other events described in the New Testament took place, including resurrection appearances of Jesus. According to some opinions, the present structure dates to the Crusaders, although the connection of Christians to this site goes back at least to the 4th Century.

The Room of the Last Supper

Climbing higher still brings one to the roof of the structure, which offers a beautiful view of the surroundings. This was the closest that Jews could get to the Old City of Jerusalem during the years of Jordanian rule, 1948 - 1967. Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who served as Israel's president 1952 - 1963, kept a room on the roof because of his love for Mt. Zion.

A walk on the hill brings one to the The Chamber of the Holocaust (Martef HaShoah), the precursor of Yad Vashem. There are five cemeteries on Mt. Zion. Just as Jews traditionally bury their dead on the Mount of Olives, to be close to the holy city when the Messiah resurrects the dead, Christians have considered Mount Zion as a very important burial site.

The Catholic cemetery on the slopes of Mount Zion is covered with weeds in many places. The tombstones are faded; many of them belong to Polish Catholics from the 1940s. But one gravestone is regularly visited, marked with small stones and pebbles, sign of its many Jewish visitors.

The grave of Oskar Schindler

This is the grave of Oskar Schindler, a controversial German industrialist who is credited with saving many Jewish lives and whose story is told in the award-winning film, "Schindler's List". Schindler visited Israel 16 times; he died in 1974. He is the only former member of the Nazi Party to be honored with a burial in Israel. Schindler was named a 'Righteous Among the Nations' in 1963 for his role rescuing Jews during the Holocaust.

Our final stop on the Mt. Zion tour is the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, a Roman Catholic church located on the eastern slopes. The church is quite stunning and I had never seen, or heard of it previously. It is definitely worth a visit!

Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu

The Latin word "Gallicantu" means "cock's-crow". The church takes its name from Peter's triple rejection of Jesus. "The cock will not crow this day until you have denied three times that you know me." (Luke 22, 33-34).

According to Christian tradition, this was the place of the palace of high priest Caiaphas, where Jesus was brought to jail after his arrest. There was a Byzantine church located at the site, and later a Crusader church. The present church was built by a French Catholic order in 1931. The interiors of the church are constructed in the mountainside, and there are also areas marked as ancient caves and cisterns.

Inside the Saint Peter in Gallicantu Church

Outside the church, we begin walking back up the hill toward the Old City of Jerusalem. Mount Zion's peaceful slopes held many beautiful surprises. The holy hill should definitely be on every visitor to Israel's itinerary.

View of the southern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem, seen from Mt. Zion

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  1. Jerusalem, aka the only city on earth who has the honor of being regarded as sacred by three major religions. I am reading the Bible right now. Nice pictures, certainly help me visualize the stories in the sacred text. Thanks a lot! ;)

    1. Many tourists visit the Old City of Jerusalem without taking the time to visit Mt. Zion. It's definitely worth the visit! Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Great photos of this place of pilgrimage. I visited in 1996, not exactly as a pilgrim--rather as one who is deeply interested in the history of religion. Still, I received (and framed) my "Attestation of Pilgrimage" certificate.

    1. Great! It's about time for you to make another visit!

  3. Definately on my bucket list. I would LOVE to visit someday. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Just found your blog. My husband's grandmother is buried in Mount Zion Cemetery. She lived in the Jerusalem German colony and passed away during childbirth along with her only son who would have been her seventh child. This was in the early 1900's. Thank you for sharing this wonderful information and pictures.