Mount of Olives and Gethsemane
All week long, we’ve looked over at the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem. We’ve seen the hillside of graves from the ramparts, from the rooftops, from the Lutheran Tower. On Saturday, it was time to go–getting there early enough to watch the sunrise on Jerusalem and to visit the onion-domed Russian Church which is only open for visitors a few hours on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
We got out before sunrise and headed through a quiet Muslims Quarter and out Stephen’s Gate. There must have been an early morning Muslim prayer service at the Dome of the Rock, because there were lots of people pouring out and getting in cars parked along the streets just outside the gate. We walked down the hill, crossed the road, and began the walk up the narrow street to the Mount of Olives in the dark light of early morning.
As the light slowly came, we could notice tall cyprus trees behind the stone walls enclosing a narrow road up. The gates to the Valley of Jehosophat were open–thousands and thousands of white stoned, above-ground graves reflecting the pink-blue light of dawn. I’d read this was where Jewish people liked to be buried since it is believed the Messiah will enter Jerusalem through the Golden Gate…and this is a prime location by the gate.
We took some hospitality from the Seven Arches Hotel at the top of the hill and came back out to enjoy the sun as it peeked over the top and began warming Jerusalem. The Dome turned a brilliant gold and we could see the details in the honey colored walls of Jerusalem. We stayed up there for a long while…looking at the graves, the city, our hotel, and the Golden Gate which is sealed shut.
On the way back down, we stopped at the garden around Dominus Flevit (which means “the Lord wept”) was a quiet place overlooking the Jewish graveyard, the onion domes of the Russian Church and smelling of cedar. We sat there for a while enjoying the peacefulness.
I was very much looking forward to going into the Russian Church–the beautiful Mary Magdalene with 7 golden onion domes. It’s a convent and is only open 2 hours on a couple days each week–and today from 10-12 would be our last opportunity to see it. The tall green metal gates were closed tight. So we went looking for coffee while we waited.
The Garden of Gethsemane was open now–next to the Church of All Nations. The actual garden was much smaller than I’d imagined. I guess the churches have taken some of the old garden. Less than an acre is all that’s left. But the olive trees…my goodness. The trunks are massive–as befits any 2,000+ year old tree–gnarly old things. BUT the newer branches are STILL BEARING OLIVES! Hard to imagine who may have walked among these trees–and only the trees know. Only 16 trees in there, and a few patches of flowers. Vines of jasmine, fuschia around the walls.
Finally around 10 a.m., we went into the Russian Church grounds behind a group of Eastern Europeans. I covered my hair with a scarf like all the other ladies did and entered. A nun closed the big green gates behind us. She spoke with the tour group and we walked slowly on, up the path dappled in shade, through tall cyprus and olive trees, finally rounding a bend and there before us with the church–the domes shining in the sun.
The inside of the church was crowded–obviously other tour groups had been there for a while. Smoke from incense hung in the air. I stood at the door for a few minutes looking at the golden art/icons hanging all around. And I noticed a counter clockwise motion–there was a circuit to pay respects to the icons. People entering the church began to the right, stopping at an icon, bowing, making the sign of the cross, kissing the icon, touching their forehead to it, standing up, another signing of the cross and then moving to the left to the next icon. I watched the circuit and a priest swinging an incense burner praying over candles and an icon with two other people.
Outside, in a small alcove off the front, a nun had opened a small shop–selling rosaries, religious medals, sacred oils and small carved boxes. It was a crowded affair in that little room. She pieced together answers to questions for many people–not sure what languages everyone spoke. She had only a few words in English–as I asked about the medals. I looked at one that had onion domes and some soil enclosed in plastic on the back. I asked “is it this church?” I pointed to a postcard of the church and then the medals. She smiled and said “aahh, no!” and handed me a square medal featuring Mary Magdalene. She then pointed to some small vials of oils and offered me a sniff–she was telling me what Mary Magdalene held in her hands. There were rose and myrrh oils. I bought the Mary Magdalene medal for $14 U.S. She was looking for $1 change and I made the gesture for “no, it’s ok” and she smiled, stuffing a postcard and a bookmark into my little bag.
I walked up behind the church in the quiet graveyard with eastern crosses and cyrillic writing. Very peaceful up there. A nun was working in the gardens…pulling weeds from the graves, watering, putting down fresh dirt. I envied her. Maybe she’d taken a vow of silence and simply spent the days working in the sunny garden in quiet contemplation overlooking the domes of Jerusalem.
After a while, we walked back down to the road passing in front of the Golden Gate, and around to come in to Jerusalem through Dung Gate.