Holy Land, Days 7 & 8: Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, Temple, and Garden Tomb

February 26, 2011

On Wednesday morning we visited the Mount of Olives, Bethphage, and the Garden of Gethsemane. All three places are east of Jerusalem. Bethany, which we visited on Tuesday, is in the West Bank, east of the Mount of Olives, just down the hill. Unfortunately, Bethany is on the other side of the new Jerusalem wall, so we can no longer walk directly from Bethany to Jerusalem, as Jesus often did. Rest assured, these places are very close to one another.

My first camel ride

On the Mount of Olives, we rode a camel and visited churches dedicated to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (which began at Bethphage), the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Ascension. I don’t understand that ancient Christian impulse to put a church on top of every significant site. I want to experience these places in a more unmediated way—more like the way Jesus’ disciples experienced them.

From there we walked around the temple area and visited the Wailing Wall, the western wall of Herod’s temple that was closest to the Holy of Holies. Jewish men and women—and plenty of other people—visit the wall at all hours to pray. I was there on Monday night at 10:00 p.m., and the place was still busy.

This is me at the Wailing Wall. Notice how intensely the man next to me is praying. His face is pressed against the wall.

On Thursday morning we visited the other side of the Wailing Wall—the Temple Mount. This is Mount Moriah in Genesis 22, the place where Abraham bound his son Isaac. According to Jewish religious law, it’s illegal for Jews to visit the Temple Mount for fear that they may accidentally tread on the Holy of Holies. Since no one is certain where the Holy of Holies was (there are several theories), it’s better for Jews to stay away entirely.

Model of Temple Mount during Herodian era

Actual Temple Mount today

Of course, many non-Orthodox Jews do go there—including the many members of the Israeli army who were carrying around M-16s. We had to go through a couple of security checkpoints to get there.

The Temple Mount is also where the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest shrines in Islam, resides. Non-Muslims are no longer permitted inside the shrine itself. Out of respect for Islam, the Israeli soldiers enforce a ban on Bible-reading and public prayer on the Temple Mount. If you bring a Bible there, it will be confiscated—and you will not get it back!

On Thursday, we also toured the Garden Tomb, a proposed alternative site for Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, discovered by a British army officer in the 19th century.

If you know me, you can probably appreciate how much I enjoyed the Englishman who was our Garden Tomb guide. (See the video.) He was refreshingly Protestant and evangelical.

He made a case for the Garden Tomb’s being the place, but he didn’t push it too hard. “Is this the place where Jesus was buried? We don’t know, but does it really matter? After all, Jesus only spent two nights there, and that was 2,000 years ago! What’s important is that Jesus left the tomb, and he’s with us today.”

A proposed alternative site for Golgotha, "The Skull"

He emphasized that, regardless whether it’s Jesus’ tomb, the Garden Tomb nicely illustrates what Jesus’ tomb must have looked like. It even had a groove in front of the entrance that held a rolling stone. Since the Church of the Holy Sepulchre covered up its Golgotha and tomb, the experience of the Garden Tomb was far more satisfying. We received Holy Communion in the garden.

Can you sense from the video that we were a bit more tired than when the week began? The last couple of days seemed less eventful than the previous six days, but that might have been because we were on tourist overload—that we had exceeded our brain’s capacity for taking in new information.

We did a few more things. We visited the Dead Sea Scrolls museum, which has parchments of the actual scrolls, as well as an amazing scale model replica of Jerusalem under Herod. (If I could only have a smaller version of this model for teaching purposes!) We visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. This is the place where Oskar Schindler’s remains are buried.

On Wednesday night, a group of us took in the night life of contemporary Jerusalem. We visited a restaurant called Mike’s Place. When I opened the door, I was greeted with Bob Dylan’s “Changing of the Guard” on the stereo. “Mike,” or whoever he was, has great taste in music. Throughout the evening we heard other selections from Dylan, as well as Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, and Jethro Tull.

It felt like home! And having been away from home and family for a week at that point, home was a good feeling!

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