The Via Dolorosa, the “way of sorrow,” is the stone street in the Old City of Jerusalem along which Jesus carried the cross to his own crucifixion, according to the New Testament.
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The 14 Stations of the Cross mark the events that took place as Jesus walked from the place where the Roman Pontius Pilate condemned him to death, to Calvary, where he was crucified and buried. These stations recorded in the New Testament and in legend are marked along the walls of Catholic churches worldwide. Thus, for Catholics, the chance to pray at these actual sites themselves is an incomparable spiritual zenith.
Archaeologists note that today, nobody knows precisely the route Jesus took with the cross. But the Via Dolorosa is the road pilgrims have been taking for at least the last 1,000 years in the Holy City.
When in Jerusalem, Catholic pilgrimage groups make a stop at each and every station, reciting the traditional prayers composed for each.
In modern Jerusalem the stations are marked by churches – some large, some small, some ancient, some more modern. A few years ago the Jerusalem municipality put up bronze light fixtures with the number of the station in Roman numerals at some points. You can also notice the station by the design of the semicircular pavement the city installed right in front of them.
Groups of pilgrims belonging to Protestant denominations usually do not stop at every station – their spiritual quotient is often most nourished by outdoor sites that recall the scenery of Jesus’ life. For example, the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre (in which the last three Stations of the Cross are located, administered by six denominations, each with their own way of adorning and adoring the sacred site in their purview), may speak to them less than the Garden Tomb, with its ancient but plain tomb and garden they feel fits the description in the New Testament.
Ancient paving stones
The Stations of the Cross that are must-sees for most Protestants are the ones where the story is illustrated with paving stones that are very ancient indeed. Such stones are to be found in the Chapel of the Flagellation and next-door beneath the Sisters of Zion Convent.
When the convent was first built, the ancient paving stones and part of an arch over the road were believed to date right back to Jesus’ time. It was said that Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death and Jesus took up the cross right beneath the arch, on the pavement.
Etchings on the stones recall an incident described in the New Testament, of the Roman soldiers mocking Jesus as a king. As time went on, additional excavation beneath the paving stones further revealed a vast ancient water cistern – visitors to the Western Wall Tunnel see more of this huge cistern right at the end of their tour.
It was eventually realized that the paving stones and the arch were the work of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who rebuilt Jerusalem about a century after Jesus’ crucifixion.
Visitors can now go right into the water cistern, which existed in Jesus’ day, and sense that they are in a place with strong historic ties to Jesus’ last hours.
And while not every stone along the Via Dolorosa goes back 2,000 years, the atmosphere along the street certainly does – merchants calling out their wares, the aromas of spices, exotic fruits and vegetables, people from all over the world and even a certain amount of political and cultural tension. Some things never change.