Remnants of the emperor Constantine’s original 4th-century Holy Sepulchre church can be seen inside a Russian Orthodox church that is a next-door neighbor of the present Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The Church of St Alexander Nevsky – named after a 13th-century Russian warrior-prince – is often overlooked because its facade resembles an elegant residence or hotel rather than a church.
The tall and narrow facade, with solid security doors bearing notices in Russian, is at 25 Souq al-Dabbagha, about 70 meters from the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre courtyard.
Excavations here in 1883 – before the church was built – attracted worldwide attention, leading to the site becoming known as the “Russian Excavations”.
Particular attention focused on the discovery of a gate threshold believed by the excavators to belong to the Judgement Gate by which Jesus left the city on the way to the hill of Calvary (now contained within the Holy Sepulchre church). Modern archaeologists consider the gate probably dates from the 2nd century.
The excavators also uncovered remains of the easternmost parts of Constantine’s 4th-century church, including the wide staircase that led to the church entrance.
As New Testament scholar Jerome Murphy-O’Connor put it, what was found “corresponds exactly to the eastern end of the Constantinian Holy Sepulchre as depicted in the sixth-century Madaba Map”.
St. Mary Magdalene
Bringing a taste of the Kremlin to Jerusalem, the 19th-century Church of Mary Magdalene is a distinctive Jerusalem landmark on the Mount of Olives.
The Church of Mary Magdalene was built by Tsar Alexander III in 1888 in the traditional Russian style. Easily spotted from the Temple Mount, the Russian church’s seven golden domes have been newly gilded and sparkle in the sun. Combined with its multiple levels and sculpted white turrets, the church looks like something out of a fairytale.
The church is worth a close-up visit as well, for it stands in a tranquil garden and is filled with Orthodox icons and wall paintings inside.
The crypt holds the remains of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, who was killed in the Russian revolution of 1917.
Also buried here is Princess Alice of Greece, who harbored Jews during the Nazi occupation of Greece.
The garden of Gethsemane, near the foot of the Mount of Olives, is named in the New Testament as the place where Jesus went with his disciples to pray the night before he was crucified.
The garden, about 1200 square metres in area, was well known to the disciples as it is close to the natural route from the Temple to the summit of the Mount of Olives and the ridge leading to Bethany.
The name in Hebrew means “oil press”. Oil is still pressed from the fruit of eight ancient and gnarled olive trees that give the garden a timeless character.
Beside the garden is the Church of All Nations, built over the rock on which Jesus is believed to have prayed in agony before he was betrayed by Judas Iscariot and arrested.
About 100 metres north of the church is the Grotto of Gethsemane, where Jesus and his disciples often camped at night. In this natural grotto, it is believed, the disciples slept while Jesus prayed.
Near the grotto is the Tomb of Mary, where a Christian tradition holds that the Mother of Jesus was buried after she “fell asleep” in death.
How old are the trees?
In the garden of Gethsemane, behind a fence of iron tracery with Byzantine motifs, stand the gnarled trunks of eight hoary olive trees. They create a spiritual atmosphere for visitors to the garden of Gethsemane, although the flower beds and paths around them introduce an artificial element.
The trees also generate conjecture about their age. Were they silent witnesses to the Agony of Jesus the night before he died?
Israel has many ancient olive trees. Two in the town of Arraba and five in Deir Hanna have been determined to be over 3000 years old.
The present Gethsemane trees, however, were not standing at the time of Christ. The historian Flavius Josephus reports that all the trees around Jerusalem were cut down by the Romans for their siege equipment before they captured the city in AD 70.
Research reported in 2012 showed that three of the eight ancient trees (the only ones on which it was technically possible to carry out the study) dated from the middle of the 12th century, and all eight originated as cuttings from a single parent tree.
The Gethsemane olives are possibly descendants of one that was in the garden at the time of Christ. This is because when an olive tree is cut down, shoots will come back from the roots to create a new tree.
In 1982 the University of California carried out radiocarbon-dating tests on some root material from Gethsemane. The results indicated that some of the wood could be dated at 2300 years old.
What happens to the fruit from the Gethsemane olive trees? When it is harvested each year, the oil is pressed for Gethsemane’s sanctuary lamps and the pits are used to make rosary beads, given by the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land to notable pilgrims.
Grotto where the disciples slept
Access to the Grotto of Gethsemane is along a narrow walled passageway leading to the right from the open courtyard in front of the Tomb of Mary.
The natural grotto, about 190 square metres in area, is basically unchanged from the time of Jesus. It is believed to be where the disciples slept while Jesus prayed, and where Jesus was betrayed by Judas and arrested. It may also be the location of Jesus’ night-time meeting with Nicodemus (John 3:1-21).
Over the main altar is a representation of Jesus Praying among the Apostles, while the paintings over the side altars depict the Assumption of the Virgin and the Kiss of Judas.
On a more mundane level, bronze figures beneath the main altar depict two of the sleeping disciples.
The grotto is also known as the Cave of the Olive Press. To the right of the right-hand altar is a hole in the wall. It is just at the right height to hold one end of a wooden beam which, when weighted at the other end, pressed crushed olives piled in loosely woven baskets.
In the 4th century the grotto became a chapel. The floor was paved with white mosaic through which graves were subsequently dug. More than 40 graves, mainly from the 5th to 8th centuries, have been discovered.
The inscriptions on the wall have been interpreted in various ways. The line around the sanctuary seems to mean: “Here [in these representations]: The King sweated blood. Christ the Saviour frequented [this place with his apostles]. My Father, if it is your wish, let this chalice pass from me.”
The Mount of Olives Convent of the Ascension of Our Lord owes its existence to Archimandrite Antonin (Kapustin) and Igumen Parthenius. Father Antonin bought land on the summit of the Mount of Olives and in 1870 built the church of Ascension with a bell tower 64 meters (approximately 200 feet) in height. Simultaneously, cisterns were dug, gardens planted, quarters for pilgrims erected and excavations started.
But it was Father Parthenius’s wish to establish a monastic community on the site. With this in mind, he started performing services twice a week. Slowly, pious maidens began gathering and in 1906 the Holy Synod formally acknowledge the community.
A year later the sisterhood numbered 100. New buildings were built. For support, the sisters opened an iconpainting studio and did embroidery, which is done to this day.
Tragically, in 1909, Father Parthenius was found stabbed to death in his cell. Neither the criminal was ever found, nor the reason for murder established.
During the First World War the new monastic community found itself in very difficult conditions. Curfew was introduced in Jerusalem and it was not safe to venture outside, prices for foodstuff rose enormously, Turkish soldiers were quartered in the dormitories, and services ceased, because the Mission priests, together with ten senior sisters, were expelled to Egypt.
Russian – Moscow Mission
Holy Trinity Cathedral
At the end of the 1850s the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission temporary resided in the Monastery of the Archangel that was granted to it by the Church of Jerusalem. The number of pilgrims increased, and in order to provide better care for people coming to the Holy Land the Mission’s direction purchased in 1860 several pieces of land to the north-east of the Old City.
The location for the compound, which offered accommodations for 2,000 pilgrims, was chosen because of its proximity to the Old City and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Eventually, as Russian influence declined, the buildings were converted for other uses; they now house the Jerusalem police station, among other institutions.
The recently restored church welcomes visitors every morning (except Mondays) until 1:00 P.M. The whole surface of its interior main hall and dome and two aisles is painted an inspiring celestial blue with salmon accents and numerous depictions of saints.
One of the oldest sections of central Jerusalem, the Russian Compound includes the massive, striking Holy Trinity Church and several other buildings and courtyards. The compound, which is located off Jaffa Road just up from Zion Square, was constructed in the 1860’s.
After the State of Israel was established, the Israeli government bought most of the buildings from the Russian Patriarchate. Today the compound houses Jerusalem’s district courthouse and the police headquarters, and the area is a happening restaurant and pub district.
About 100 years ago, the Russian Compound served the needs of Russian pilgrims to the Holy Land, many of whom stayed in its hostels. That was good while it lasted; however, when World War I broke out, the Ottoman authorities expelled the Russians. Then, when the British captured the city, they used the area for various administrative offices.