Via Dolorosa

The climb up from the Kidron Valley to St Stephen's Gate (otherwise known as the Lion Gate) is fairly steep. At one time there was a knocked-out Jordanian tank half-way up as a memorial of the 1967 war, but that has been removed now.

At a certain point you leave the main road, which continues on around the corner of the city walls and past the Rockerfeller Museum, and turn left up a little-used road to the gate. This used to be a bustling thoroughfare, but since the Israelis prohibited vehicular traffic - a good idea, actually - you are likely to be the only person climbing the final pitch up to the gate.

The popular name - St Stephen's Gate - derives from the tradition that St Stephen was dragged through here and martyred just outside the walls. In one way the tradition is plausible, because it is the nearest gate to the northern entrance to the temple where, it is claimed, St Stephen's trial took place in the high priest's court. In another way it is highly unlikely because the Antonia Fortress abutted the north wall of the temple, placed there specifically to prevent the sort of tumult that would have accompanied a lynching. The Arabic name comes from the rather stylised lions carved in relief on either side of the gateway.

Once through the gate the street levels off and you walk in peaceful solitude for a hundred yards or so until you come to a wooden door on the right which leads to the church of St Anne. (We ignore the fraudulent "birthplace of Mary".) This crusader building was taken over by Saladin and used for many years as a madrasseh until it was given to the French by the Ottomans. It is a peaceful building - except when tourists arrive, because it has tremendous echoes and everyone cannot help call or clap or make some other noise to awake the echoes. I was there a couple of years ago when a choir from Britain was performing in the church and the resonance was amazing.

A little beyond the church is a somewhat ugly hole in the ground. The reason it hasn't been filled in is that it is the site of excavations which uncovered the remains of the Pool of Bethesda. Described by the Bible as having five "porches", the exact configuration of these "porches" aroused many fantasies until excavations revealed that the pool was rectangular in shape and surrounded by a colonnade - if you've visited the Roman bath in Bath you'll know what it looked like. That was four of the "porches". The fifth ran across the middle of the pool, dividing into two but also serving as a dam, so that the level of water in one side of the pool was lower than in the other.

As Jerusalem grew, the original channel which supplied water to the dam across the Beth Zeta valley was built over and, it is claimed, formed a natural siphon. At times of low water air might be sucked into this siphon, producing the bubbles that were regarded as a portent by those waiting for healing in the porticoes. I suspect there is a deal of vivid imagination in this claim, for at present you can look down into the deep pit and see nothing more than a foot or so of clear water at the bottom, a far cry from the scene when Jesus healed the lame man.

Back out on the street you carry on through a couple of tunnels, where buildings extend across the street, to the Ecce Homo convent, also known as the Dames de Sion. Just beyond the doorway is a segment of an arch that spans the road. This is the central passage of a triumphal arch erected by the emperor Hadrian around AD 130. Inside the convent the side passage of that same arch forms a backdrop to the altar in the convent chapel and is revered as the archway under which Pilate stood to declare "Ecce homo - behold the Man".

Actually, I feel quite sorry for the Dames de Sion, for as well as the arch - which wasn't built until a century after Christ - their piece de resistance was a stone pavement that was believed to be the courtyard of the Antonia Fortress. During high days and holidays, when the risk of tumult was high, the Roman procurator would take up residence in the Antonia and almost certainly this is where Jesus was brought for His "trial" on that original Good Friday.

The stones are deeply grooved with parallel lines and it was claimed that these provided a sure footing for the cavalry horses that were kept here. In several places there are figures scratched into the stones and when you visited and were shown round by one of the good sisters, her face would glow as she described how the careless soldiers used these figures in games of dice, interrupted briefly to carry out their duties and then resumed at the foot of the cross as they gambled for the prisoners' clothing.

It was actually quite moving to have one of these dear sisters tell the story of Jesus' trial and condemnation, the scourging and mockery, the howling mob of hate-filled Jews, on the very stones where it all happened. At the end of the tour you came face-to-face with a life-size wall mosaic depicting Christ bearing His cross and even the most blase of tourists came away thinking solemn thoughts.

Alas, about thirty years ago, one of those infernal archaeologists received permission to lift a few of the sacred stones - archaeologists always want to know what lies underneath - and discovered some coins from the time of Hadrian deliberately buried beneath the flagstones. Which proved that the stones must have been laid after the date of the coins.

The discovery was shattering for the sisters, and although they now have a small museum and you can still visit the pavement and the nearby Struthion Pool, the sisters no longer show you around and now give themselves to prayer and charity. There are no longer crowds of tourists and the company which runs the place struggles to make ends meet.

The archway outside the convent marks the official start of the Via Dolorosa, which from here on slopes sharply down to the head of the Tyropoean Valley. Once there you find yourself in the bustling heart of Old Jerusalem, with cafes, souvenir shops and crowds of locals and tourists passing up and down. Somehow flimsy harem trousers and gaudy belly-dance outfits seem out of place and "Fifth Station Souvenirs" always jarred - though the staff were friendly and no more rapacious than anywhere else.

Turn left and carry on down the slope for another hundred yards and then you turn right, past the carved plaque which marks the Fifth Station of the cross, and start to climb. If Jesus was going to collapse anywhere on the Via Dolorosa, it would have been here on this long, steady ascent to Calvary.

At the point where you turn left there are a couple of large, dangerously smooth stones set among the smaller stones of the modern paving. These are original Roman paving stones, believed to be from the time of Christ, discovered twenty feet below the modern surface and brought up to be admired - and trodden on - by anyone who passes. They are interesting, but I wish they were surrounded by a fence, because they have already worn badly and within a couple of decades I expect to see them reduced to fragments of gravel and swept away by the machines which regularly scour the streets.

How authentic is the Via Dolorosa? Obviously if the Roman level is twenty feet down, the actual roadway is not authentic, but what about the route? Given that twenty feet and the fact that Jerusalem has been built and rebuilt several times since the time of Christ, it is legitimate to question.

On the other hand, the site of the Antonia Fortress is pretty well accepted by everyone. As I argue in my forthcoming book Alexamenos and Alkmila (available in e-format outside of the UK - just ask) there is a high probability that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the genuine site of both crucifixion and burial (apologies to the Garden Tomb and Gordon's Calvary), so the route taken by Jesus between the two must have approximated to the Via Dolorosa. Even the left and right turns are not impossible, because there was indeed a Roman road running up the Tyropoen Valley and its junction with the road from Antonia may indeed have occasioned such a dog-leg.

From the junction with Tariq al-Wad, the Via Dolorosa is lined with shops all the way up to Suq Khan Zeit. To make life easier for the donkeys which are the principle burden bearers, even in the modern Old City, the slope is climbed in a series of steps. To make life easier for the narrow tractors introduced by the Israelis, each step has two steeply sloping "ramps", a foot wide and spaced three feet apart - the width of the tractors. Over the years these "ramps" have become highly polished and are a positive death trap for the unwary!

The Via Dolorosa crosses Khan Zeit and continues on to the north door of the Holy Sepulchre, but tourists and pilgrims must turn left down Khan Zeit and then right up Suq ad-Datareen, skirt round the Orthodox church (its name I do not know), past the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, and so come to the south door of the Holy Sepulchre.

Even on ordinary week days this latter part of the Via Dolorosa is crowded with shoppers, but on Fridays it becomes a horrible scrum, with pilgrim groups setting off from the Ecce Homo every five minutes - or so it seems. From Catholics, led by a friar or priest in black robes and looking appropriately solemn, to American Protestants in baseball caps and jeans trying to restrain their natural exuberance, every spectrum of Christianity is there, crammed so tightly together that even the charismatics have to keep their hands by their sides!

Nearly every group is carrying a cross, from massive baulks of timber that could crucify an elephant to six-inch high bits of olive wood purchased from a nearby souvenir shop. The first part of the route is relatively wide and easy and the groups process with measured pace. Feeding a hundred or so people into the already busy al-Wad street is the first traffic jam, and things only get worse as you turn right and start to climb the narrow street.

Not only does the narrowness constrict the crowd and slow it down, but the blockage at the junction with Khan Zeit frequently extends most of the way down to el-Wad. As Arab housewives carrying their weekly shopping down the street battle against the mob of disorganised pilgrims trying to go up the street, smiles slip, hymn-singing falters, heavy crosses pass from bearer to bearer with the rapidity of a pass-the-parcel at a particularly hectic party. The old and frail frequently take refuge in the relative peace of a souvenir shop whose owner is not slow to display his wares and become importunate.

The official procession starts around midday and is best avoided by all except the most masochistic of prilgrims - and as for Good Friday! Comfortable shoes, a copious supply of water, and pockets sewn up with strong thread against the ever-present pickpockets, are the bare necessities.

Yet, regrettably, such conditions are probably not too far removed from the scene on that original Good Friday when Jesus bore His cross through the streets of Jerusalem. There's nothing like a good hanging for bringing out the crowds to gawp, in addition to the frenzied mob which laid siege to Pilate in the Antonia. Despite the soldiers, who laid about them with rods and whips, Jesus' progress along the Via Dolorosa must have been frequently brought to a halt and the burden of the cross made worse as He was jostled by the throng. No wonder He fainted.

And when He could clearly no longer bear the load, the soldiers grabbed a certain Simon from Cyrene in north Africa. Simon was certainly darker hued than even the swarthy Jews and may even have been black. Very likely it was colour discrimination which led the soldiers to single him out in the mob. No doubt he bitterly resented the imposition as he carried the heavy beam in the wake of that bleeding, exhausted figure - little realising that his was an honour that millions today would give everything they possess could they but take his place in serving the Saviour of the world.

© Kendall K. Down 2020