The Church of Mary Magdalene is arguably one of the best-known Christian monuments in Jerusalem – at least on the outside, with its seven gleaming, golden onion-top domes rising gracefully from the slope of the Mount of Olives – and the centerpiece of pictures of Jerusalem the world over. But the much-abbreviated visiting hours at the church mean that most visitors are left admiring it from afar. So take note: Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 A.M. to noon are your chance to visit this typically Russian Orthodox house of worship.
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You’ll be glad you did, not only because of its evocative paintings and icons inside and the tranquil garden outside, but because of the unique story it tells. The church, consecrated in 1888, was built by Czar Alexander III in memory of his mother, Empress Maria Alexandrovna, and named for her patron saint, Mary Magdalene.
The tranquil gardens frame a magnificent view of the Eastern Gate, or Golden Gate of Jerusalem’s 16th-century walls, brimming with legends meaningful both to Christians and Jews. Just inside the church entrance are two rock-cut steps, possibly part of an ancient stairway or stepped street leading from the Garden of Gethsemane below to another shrine, Dominus Flevit, above, and first mentioned in the 9th century C.E.
Nothing is simple in Jerusalem. And so, perhaps the most fascinating fact about the Church of Mary Magdalene is how the final resting place of Queen Elizabeth II’s mother-in-law, recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile, is in this church.
She is none other than Princess Alice of Greece, the mother of Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh. Princess Alice, who visited the church in 1930, was moved by the story of another Russian royal, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, who, like Alice, was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Ten years before Alice’s visit, the body of Grand Duchess Elizabeth, who had been murdered by revolutionaries, was spirited to Jerusalem and interred in the church.
The ironies of Jerusalem are myriad, and this is one of them. Grand Duchess Elizabeth, known for her piety and charitable works, was the wife of none other than Alexander III’s brother Sergei, during whose term as governor of Moscow in 1891, over 25,000 Jews were expelled from Moscow.
Princess Alice, who had been deaf since childhood, married Prince Andrew of Greece in 1903. Prince Philip was one of the couple’s five children and their only son. During World War II, Princess Alice lived in Athens and worked with the Swedish and Swiss Red Cross. Two years into the German occupation of the city, its Jewish community began to be rounded up and deported. Princess Alice opened her home to Rachel Cohen, as well as her daughter and one of her sons.
Cohen was the widow of a Greek-Jewish member of Parliament with whom the Greek royal family was acquainted. The Cohens remained in hiding under Alice’s wing until Athens was liberated. It is said that the princess was questioned by the Gestapo, who suspected her of hiding Jews. However, although she was a fluent lip-reader, she pretended not to understand their questions and they finally gave up.
The princess died in 1969, and in 1988 her remains, in accordance with her wishes, were brought to Jerusalem and interred in the Church of Mary Magdalene near those of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth. In 1994, a year after Yad Vashem awarded Alice the title of Righteous Gentile, her son Prince Philip, together with his sister Princess George of Hanover (the former Princess Sophie of Greece and Denmark), planted the tree in her memory at Yad Vashem.