Tourist Tip #196 / The Mount of Olives

Today, Palm Sunday, thousands of pilgrims re-enact Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem via the Mount of Olives. Here are some of the lesser known churches on that path.

The eyes of the world are always on Jerusalem but especially this week – Holy Week, during which Christians from all over the world will descend on the city.

A major liturgical event takes place on Sunday, known as Palm Sunday, when thousands of pilgrims re-enact Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem via the Mount of Olives, holding palm fronds aloft. The walk down the Mount of Olives, from the magnificent view of the city at the summit, down to the Church of All Nations and the Garden of Gethsemane is a magnet for pilgrims. To see the most famous churches, just follow the crowd. In this article, you can find some information about lesser known churches on the Mount of Olives.

A word on transport: parking is not easy to find and traffic jams are frequent during Easter season so it’s best to take a taxi to the mount so you can savor your walk, ancient-pilgrim style.

The ascension of Jesus to heaven 40 days after Easter is marked at three sites on the Mount of Olives: the Greek Orthodox church Viri Galilei, nestled in a quiet olive grove just north of the Mount of Olives village of A-Tur; the Russian Orthodox Tower of the Ascension near the center of A-Tur, and the Dome of the Ascension, just around the corner from there. The Russian Orthodox site has two small chapels, one of which has beautifully restored centuries-old paintings. The six-story tower is open only on Ascension Day.

Christians have venerated the site of the Dome of the Ascension since the fourth century. Today you’ll find a millennia-old octagonal building in the center of a walled courtyard. It stands over a rough limestone slab where for centuries pilgrims have flocked to see the footprint of Jesus in the rock. The twists and turns of Holy City history long ago brought this spot under Muslim ownership. However, the Eastern churches still mark the ascension here, hanging colorful clothes from the dome to the surrounding walls.

In a break from the Easter story, near the Dome of the Ascension to the south, behind a nondescript iron door, you’ll find the traditional tomb of Hulda. Though she is often mentioned as a “minor biblical figure,” Hulda is garnering more attention these days as a Scriptural role model of an educated woman, based on ancient legend that she was a teacher. The tomb’s caretaker, who lives next door to the Dome of the Ascension, will probably unlock and open it for you for a small fee (around NIS 5 or NIS 10 per person should do it). You’ll descend a mysterious stone staircase through what appears to have been an old water cistern to the tomb, covered with a green cloth.

Jerusalem’s rich and conflicting traditions are amply in evidence here: To Christians, this is the tomb of St. Pelagia, an actress from Byzantine Antioch who converted to Christianity; Muslims ascribe it to a ninth-century Muslim holy woman from Basra, Iraq.

Continuing south along the main road, don’t miss the Pater Noster Church, built, like most of the other Mount of Olives churches, over Crusader and Byzantine ruins. Pater Noster means “Our Father” and is famed for the tiled display of the Our Father prayer on its walls in dozens of languages.

Now you’re back on the Palm Sunday walk. A few minutes' walk east of the Pater Noster Church brings you to the ancient village of Bethphage, where the original Palm Sunday procession started. At its Franciscan chapel you’ll see rare medieval frescoes depicting Jesus entering Jerusalem and the resurrection of Lazarus in nearby Bethany. Leave some time to visit the Greek Orthodox church just up the hill, with its view of the wilderness and contemplative environment. 

Returning to the main road, you’ll likely be drawn south with the crowds toward the “official” Mount of Olives lookout. Or go with the flow down a broad stone staircase that will take you down to the main Mount of Olives holy sites, the Dominus Flevit chapel, the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene and, finally, the Garden of Gethsemane in the Kidron Valley. After taking in the ancient olive trees and time in the Church of All Nations, your Palm Sunday walk ends. You can catch a taxi nearby, or walk across the Kidron Valley, and southwest up to the City of David, the Dung Gate, the Jewish Quarter or northwest to the Damascus Gate.

Visiting hours and days of churches vary. Many close from noon until 2 P.M. For specific sites and hours: Christian Information Center 02-6272692; www.cicts.org.

AP