As we approach Easter, I would like to share a Catholic/Christian tradition that is more symbolic than biblical. Via Dolorosa, or “Sorrowful Way” traces the last steps that Jesus walked on earth.
The Sorrowful Way
The winding route from Antonia Fortress to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is only about 600m, but it is one of the most traced Christian pilgrimage. However this route was only established in 18th century, after several amendments since the 15th century, but generally everyone agreed that there are 14 stations, 9 on the route and 5 inside the Holy Sepulchre church.
The traditional route starts just inside the Lions’ Gate (St. Stephen’s Gate) in the Muslim Quarter, at the Umariya Elementary School, near the location of the former Antonia Fortress, and makes its way westward through the Old City to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter.
I will use the gospels, and particularly Gospel of Luke, the gospel for the Gentiles, and Gospel of John to retrace this momentous journey of Jesus.
Station I – Jesus is condemned to death
“And they were instant with loud voices, requiring that he might be crucified. And the voices of them and of the chief priests prevailed. And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required.” – Luke 23:23,24 (KJV)
Church of Ecce Homo
Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him. Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man! – John 19:4-5 (KJV)
“Behold the man!” or “Ecce homo” in Latin. Jesus, despite Pontius Pilate’s intervention, was sentenced to death by crucifixion when the crowd demanded it and Pilate fearing an ensuring riot if he didn’t.
When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he brought Jesus forth, and sat down in the judgment seat in a place that is called the Pavement, but in the Hebrew, Gabbatha. – John 19:13 (KJV)
Church of the Flagellation
Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him. – John 19:1 (KJV)
According to tradition, the church enshrines the spot where Jesus Christ was flogged by Roman soldiers before his journey down the Via Dolorosa to Calvary. The interior of the church consists of a single aisle.
However, this tradition is based on the assumption that an area of Roman flagstones, discovered beneath the adjacent Church of the Condemnation and the Convent of the Sisters of Zion, was Gabbatha, or the pavement the Bible describes as the location of Pontius Pilate’s judgment of Jesus
Some noteworthy points of interest include the three stained glass windows, each depicting a different aspect of the biblical narrative of the trial of Jesus by Pilate, and the inside of the mosaic-clad golden dome. The northern window depicts Pontius Pilate washing his hands (Matthew 27:24), the central one behind the altar depicts the Flagellation (Mark 15:15, John 19:1), and the southern one the victory of Barabbas (Matthew 27:26, Mark 15:15, Luke 23:24–25). The dome with its mosaic and translucent elements is designed as a crown of thorns.
Prison of Jesus
And they cried out all at once, saying, Away with this man, and release unto us Barabbas: – Luke 23:18 (KJV)
In the northeast side of the Holy Sepulchre there is the Prison of Christ, alleged by the Franciscans to be where Jesus was held. The Greek Orthodox allege that the real place that Jesus was held was the similarly named Prison of Christ in their Monastery of the Praetorium, located near the Church of Ecce Homo between the Second and Third Stations of the Via Dolorosa.
The Armenians regard a recess in the Monastery of the Flagellation at the Second Station of the Via Dolorosa as the Prison of Christ. A cistern among the ruins beneath the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu on Mount Zion is also alleged to have been the Prison of Christ. To reconcile the traditions, some allege that Jesus was held in the Mount Zion cell in connection with his trial by the Jewish High Priest, at the Praetorium in connection with his trial by the Roman governor Pilate, and near the Golgotha before crucifixion.
Station II – Jesus carries His cross
Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be crucified. And they took Jesus, and led him away. – John 19:16
The Church of the Condemnation and Imposition of the Cross is a Roman Catholic church located within the Franciscan compound that also contains the Church of the Flagellation.
The church marks the spot traditionally held to be where Jesus took up his cross after being sentenced to death by crucifixion. This tradition is based on the assumption that an area of Roman flagstones, discovered beneath the building and beneath the adjacent Convent of the Sisters of Zion, are those of Gabbatha, the pavement which the Bible describes as the location of Pontius Pilate’s judgment of Jesus.
Archaeological investigation now indicates that these slabs are the paving of the eastern of two second-century forums built by Hadrian as part of the Aelia Capitolina. The site of the forum had previously been a large open-air pool, the Strouthion Pool, which was constructed by the Hasmoneans, and mentioned by Josephus as being adjacent to the fortress in the first century. It is still present beneath Hadrian’s flagstones.
Station III – Jesus falls the first time
Although no such thing is recounted by the canonical Gospels, and no official Christian tenet makes these claims, popular tradition has it that Jesus stumbled three times during his walk along the route.
The first fall is represented by the current third station, located at the west end of the eastern fraction of the Via Dolorosa, adjacent to the 19th-century Polish Catholic Chapel; this chapel was constructed by the Armenian Catholics, who though ethnically Armenian, are actually based in Poland. The 1947–48 renovations, to the 19th-century chapel, were carried out with the aid of a large financial grant from the Polish army. The site was previously one of the city’s Turkish baths.
Station IV – Jesus meets His mother
The Armenian Catholic Church of our Lady of Spasm marks the Fourth Station, when, according to tradition, Jesus meets His mother. The church dates from 1881, but the original church was built in the 5th century during the Byzantine period.
Continue through a gift shop and downstairs to find the fourth station, which is closer to the original level of the street. The name of the church refers to the emotional state of grief of Mary when she faced his son from the crowds of onlookers.
Although there may not be a meeting, but there’s the lament that Jesus made while on the cross looking down at Mary.
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! – John 19:25,26
Station V – Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross
The fifth station marks the place where it is said that the Romans asked Simon of Cyrene to help Jesus carry the cross. From there began the final ascent to the Golgotha. The station is marked by the Jerusalem cross – a symbol of the Franciscan order that depicts a large cross with four smaller crosses in each corner, with the intertwined arms of Jesus and St Francis of Assisi below.
Chapel of Simon of Cyrene
And as they led him away, they laid hold upon one Simon, a Cyrenian, coming out of the country, and on him they laid the cross, that he might bear it after Jesus. – Luke 23:26 (KJV)
Although this narrative is included in the three Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John does not mention Simon of Cyrene but instead emphasises the portion of the journey during which Jesus carried the cross himself.
Station VI – Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
Coming out of the fifth station, you will turn left onto Aqabat al-Khanqah street and ascend into the souk. On the left is a chapel built where, according to traditional, Veronica wiped the face of Jesus. Her name is composed of the Latin words for “true icon.” The Church of the Holy Face and Saint Veronica was built here in the 1800s supposedly over the site of her house.
Church of the Holy Face and Saint Veronica
The path starts to go a little bit uphill here, and you’ll begin to enter the souk (market area). It is said it was here where Veronica wiped the face of Jesus with her veil, which then became imprinted with the face of Christ. This cloth, known today as the Veil of Veronica, has become one of the most important relics in Catholicism and is kept by the Vatican.
The present building is administered by the Little Sisters of Jesus, and is not generally open to the public. But I was lucky that day.
Station VII – Jesus falls the second time
Continuing through the souk, you’ll soon reach a door with bright red details which marks the place where, according to traditions, Jesus fell for the second time.
In Hadrian’s era, this was the junction of the main cardo (north-south road), with the decumanus (east-west road) which became the Via Dolorosa; and in modern days an intersection of Via Dolorosa with Khan es-Zeit (the Oil Market). The remains of a tetrapylon, which marked this Roman junction, can be seen in the lower level of the Franciscan chapel.
Station VIII – Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
This is the only station that does not have its own chapel and is marked only by the bronze disc. Jesus tells the daughters of Jerusalem to weep for themselves and not for him.
But Jesus turning unto them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children. – Luke 23:28 (KJV)
Shortly after turning left you’ll then need to turn right uphill on Aqabat al-Khanqah. Here you’ll see the 8th Station on your left (some stores will be on the right hand side of the street). This is where Jesus met the daughters of Jerusalem (very religious ladies) and comforted them. Station 8 is located closest to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and is dedicated by the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint Charalampos; their monastery is located behind the wall.
The eighth station is marked by the Greek word Nika (victory) carved in the wall with a cross. Then go back on yourself back to the street you just came off (Khan al-Zeit), turn right and continue walking.
Station IX – Jesus falls the third time
According to tradition, Jesus falls the 3rd time further up the hill and close to the place of crucifixion, Golgotha.
The third fall is represented by the ninth station, which is not actually located on the Via Dolorosa, instead being located at the entrance to the Ethiopian Orthodox Monastery and the Coptic Orthodox Monastery of Saint Anthony, which together form the roof structure of the Armenian Chapel of Saint Helena in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches split in 1959, and prior to that time the monastic buildings were considered a single Monastery.
Coptic Orthodox Church of St. Helen
Near ninth station is a small Coptic Orthodox Church of St. Helen. Inside the church is a large underground water cistern that is accessed by a staircase. According to the Coptic church it was discovered in the 4th century by Constantine’s mother Helen, and provides water to the Church of Holy sepulcher.
Ethiopian Church of St. Michael
Around the 9th station are other several interesting sites, located behind the Holy Sepulchre. The cupola is the top of the underground Armenian Chapel of St Helena. On the left side of this roof courtyard is the entrance to the Ethiopian Church of St. Michael. On the far left are quarters of the Ethiopian monks.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is shared among the different denominations. All the major Churches each have their own section of The Church of the Holy Sepulchre that they are responsible for – and the Ethiopian Church occupies the roof. We entered the church grounds from the rooftop level through the door next to the Coptic chapel which houses the ninth station.
From here, we crossed the rooftop courtyard and descended back to ground level through a series of Ethiopian chapels.
The Last 5 Stations
The Stations of the Cross now leave the Via Dolorosa. The final stations 10 through 14 are within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which encloses the crucifixion, death, and burial sites of Jesus in Jerusalem.
It is believed this Church is built on the site where Jesus was crucified (Calvary/ Golgotha), where he died and where he was buried. For the uninitiated, the Holy Sepulchre can be a daunting place. Here’s a layout of the place.
The compound of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was first built in the 4th century under Helena, mother of Constantine. Today it is jointly managed by the Catholic, Greek, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian Orthodox. Interestingly, the keys to the church were handed to a trusted Muslim family in the 7th century to avoid conflicts between the rival Christian sects, and this family is still today responsible for unlocking the doors at sunrise and locking up at sunset. It is a very large Church and quite confusing once you are inside. There are no signs in here depicting what anything is either.
Station X – Jesus is stripped of his garments
Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also his coat: now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout. – John 19:23 (KJV)
The Tenth Station is located at the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the room called the Chapel of the Franks. It is seen in the photo below on the right side, with stairs that lead to the small chapel.
Station XI – Crucifixion : Jesus is nailed to the cross
You will see two altars when you come up the stairs. The one to the right is the Roman Catholic one, and the one to the left – the much larger one, is the Greek Orthodox altar. At Station 11 – the first altar you will come to (the Roman Catholic one), is where Jesus was nailed to the Cross.
And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left. – Luke 23:33 (KJV)
The site is based on tradition and revelation of Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. Modern archaeological evidence would put the site about 66 feet away.
Golgotha, also known as Calvary both translate to mean ‘place of the skull’. Golgotha/Calvary was a skull-shaped hill and was the place where Jesus was crucified. Interestingly, some sources also claim that Golgotha is the place where Adam’s (from Adam and Eve) skull was buried.
It is not known 100% for sure where Calvary is, but since the 4th Century Christians have favoured a site that was identified by Helena, mother of Constantine I. Helena also identified the site of Jesus’ tomb and the True Cross – less than 45 metres from Calvary. Her son Constantine I then built The Church of the Holy Sepulchre around the whole site.
Station XII – Jesus dies on the cross
The second altar: the Greek Orthodox one that lies to the left of the Roman Catholic one, is where Jesus died on the Cross.
A narrow stairway leads up the Hill of Cavalry in the church to a line awaiting admittance to the Rock of Cavalry beneath the Altar of the Crucifixion. The faithful wait in line for their turn to touch the site where the cross was erected and Jesus died. For those who don’t wish to wait, you can see the rock of Calvary through the glass cases on either side of the altar.
Station XIII – Stone of Unction
According to tradition, the body of Jesus was laid on this stone after removed from the cross.
And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus. – John 19: 38 (KJV)
Just before the Sabbath was approaching, Jesus was removed from the cross and placed on the Stone of Unction or Stone of the Anointing, where his body was anointed with oils and spices in preparation for his burial. These days, pilgrims visiting the Church nowadays kneel in front of the stone and pour oil to rub it with crosses, holy cards and handkerchiefs to bring a relic back home.
And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. – John 19:39,40 (KJV)
And there’s the Armenian monument to worship the three Holy Women (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James) that came to anoint Jesus as well.
And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid. And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment. – Luke 23: 55,56 (KJV)
Station XIV – Jesus is laid in the tomb
The final Station is the site of Jesus’ empty tomb: where he was buried and then later resurrected. It is enclosed in a shrine underneath the giant dome and is called the Aedicula. There are several masses that happen outside the tomb on a daily basis, and if you want to go inside, best to get there first thing as the queues can be ridiculously long. The tomb is very small: there is only room for about 3 or 4 people at a time, so the queue moves very slowly.
Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus therefore because of the Jews’ preparation day; for the sepulchre was nigh at hand. – John 19: 41,42 (KJV)
The shrine has 2 rooms: the first chamber is called the “Chapel of the Angel” and contains the Angel’s Stone, a fragment of the stone that once sealed the Sepulchre; and the second room is another narrow door which leads to a smaller chamber – the tomb of Jesus.
Behind the tomb of Jesus is the Coptic chapel.
Should one visit this place if you are not Christian? Definitely, not so much for the symbolism and religious aspect, but for the history, the art and the culture of the place. Amazingly, this place has been left as-is since the Status Quo law as introduced. When you enter plaza, you can see a ladder that has been left there since 1800s, because no one is authorised to move it by law.
But more importantly, come to feel the calm and peace that the place can bring despite the fact that it is still technically still a war zone. Because of the risen king, Prince of Peace, everlasting.
And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. – Luke 24:36
May you continue to find peace in this time of trouble.