Looking out over the Old City of Jerusalem from the east, the panorama from the top of the Mount of Olives is Jerusalem’s most iconic view. Across the Kidron Valley lies the Temple Mount with the Dome of the Rock in the middle, the Al Aqsa Mosque is to its south, the domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Hurva Synagogue stand out in the Old City behind them, all surrounded by Jerusalem’s high ancient walls.
A sealed gate in the Old City’s walls is called the Golden or Mercy Gate. Local legends claim that it will open at the end of days to allow the Messiah to enter the Temple Mount.
Occupying the southern end of Mt. Scopus ridge, the Mt. of Olives is sacred to Jews and Christians. Don’t forget your camera on this tour.
The story is told in the Talmud that Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues spied the destruction of the Temple from Mount Scopus. Most of them were very upset, yet Akiva choose to laugh. He explained that he realized that the prophecies describing the destruction of Jerusalem had come to pass before their eyes and so he was now sure that the other prophecies concerning the eventual restoration would also come to pass – hence his good cheer and optimism.
From the panoramic lookout point in front of the Seven Arches Hotel, it is possible to walk down the Mt. of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane and Mary’s Tomb, stopping at Dominus Flevit along the way. The walk down is much easier than the walk up, so for this reason, many people favor coming to the Mt. of Olives by taxi, thereby saving themselves the trouble of getting back to their car from the bottom. Its western and part of its southern slopes are covered with approximately 70,000 graves in the Jewish cemetery. Most of the graves visible today are from the 15th century C.E. onward, but parts of this burial ground, mostly in areas currently inaccessible because they are beneath the village of Silwan, date back to the 1st Temple Period (10TH – 6TH centuries B.C.E.).
The western and part of its southern slopes of the Mount of Olives are covered with approximately 70,000 graves in the Jewish cemetery. Jewish tradition holds that when when the Messiah comes, and the ‘revival of the dead at the end of days’ or resurrection starts the dead will have to roll to Jerusalem through underground passages in order to be resurrected. This is a painful and undignified process that it is best to avoid. Therefore, the Mount of Olives with its central position has long been the burial place of choice for the pious; and some even moved to Jerusalem late in their lives in order to be buried on the Mt. of Olives.
Most of the graves visible today are from the 15th century C.E. onward, but parts of this burial ground, mostly in areas currently inaccessible because they are beneath the village of Silwan, date back to the 1st Temple Period (10TH – 6TH centuries B.C.E.). At the entrance to one of these 1st Temple period burial caves, a Paleo-Hebrew inscription was found informing grave robbers that there is no gold or silver here and warning them not to tamper with contents of the tomb.
In the Kidron Valley below are impressive 2nd Temple Period Jewish burial monuments, among them Absalom’s Pillar, Zachariah’s Tomb and the B’nei Hezir Tombs. Absalom, King David’s oldest son was said to have erected a monumental memorial for himself, fearing that nobody else would after he died.
The Mt. of Olives is holy to Christians as the place where Jesus spent much of the last week of his life and later ascended to heaven after the crucifixion. On its peak are several churches dedicated to the Ascension, among them Viri Galilaei (Greek Orthodox), the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension and the Church of the Ascension, which today is a mosque. The latter stands on the site of the Church of the Ascension built by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century C.E. Moslem authorities allow Christian denominations to celebrate the Feast of the Ascension there.
More accessible is the Roman Catholic Pater Noster Church. Built on the ruins of Constantine’s Eleona Church, it is dedicated to the place where Jesus taught his disciples to pray and gave the world today is known as the ‘Lord’s Prayer’, hence its name Pater Noster – ‘Our Father’. The Lord’s Prayer appears on the walls of the Pater Noster compound in over 80 languages. In the middle of the Mt. of Olives is Dominus Flevit. The site is dedicated to the spot where, according to Luke 19, Jesus looked out over Jerusalem and wept for its future destruction. Dominus Flevit means ‘the Lord wept’ in Latin. The small Catholic Church on the site is designed to look like a tear drop. The church is built on the ruins of an earlier Byzantine church. Near the compound’s gate is a 2nd Temple period Jewish burial site. Some of the names and motifs found on ossuaries there raised speculation that it was the burial site of a Jewish-Christian sect.
The Russian Orthodox Church of Maria Magdalene is also located in the middle of the Mt. of Olives’ slopes. This church is visible from afar because of its gold, onion shaped domes. It is dedicated to the place where Mary Magdalene stood and watched Stephen, the first Christian martyr being stoned outside the city walls. The church also serves as a burial place for several members of 20th century European families among them, the Romanov Duchess Elizabeth Feodorova, sister of Czar Alexander III. In the 1920’s her remains were smuggled out of the Soviet Union so they could be reinterred in Jerusalem.
Near the bottom of the Mount of Olives are the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of the Agony, also called the Church of All Nations. In the garden are olive trees of massive girth, some reputed to be 2,000 years old. The modern Catholic Church was built on the ruins of earlier Byzantine and Crusader churches, that were integrated into the 20th century structure. Before entering, go down to the bottom steps in front of the church, to view its colorful façade. In the apses of the church are scenes from the Garden of Gethsemane. The altar is built above the Rock of the Agony. Sections of the original Byzantine mosaic have been integrated into the modern mosaic on the floor.
To the right of the junction below the Garden of Gethsemane is Mary’s Tomb, also called the Church of the Assumption, in reference to Mary’s assumption to heaven. Sunken below street level, the church dates back to the Crusader period and stand out for its well sculpted Romanesque façade. The church is shared by several Christian denominations. In addition to being revered as the tomb of Mary and her parents Joachim and Anne, it is the burial place of the Crusader Queen Milisendre.
Next to the street above the church is an Islamic cupola, crowned with a small crescent. This is the tomb of the medieval Muslim jurist Mujir Ed-Din. Opposite Mujir Ed-Din’d tomb and slightly up hill is the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Stephen, dedicated to where the first Christian martyr was stoned outside the city’s walls.
Across the street in front of the Church of the Agony, a path leads to the bed of the Kidron Valley, where there are several impressive Jewish burial monuments from the late 2nd Temple Period, Absalom’s Pillar, Zachariah’s Tomb and the B’nei Hezir Tombs. These monuments can also be viewed from the road above on the opposite bank of the Kidron Valley. The lookout point for viewing the Kidron Valley Monuments can be reached on foot or by car by turning left at the traffic light above. If you are on foot, another good way to continue touring Jerusalem is to walk up hill from Gethsemane, to the right and then left to enter the Old City through the Lion’s Gate, then head on to the Via Dolorosa and the Christian Quarter. If you choose this option, don’t miss St. Anne’s and the Bethesda Pools just a little way past the gate.
In The Mount of Olives Area
The Mount of Olives is a single ridge that ends with Mount Scopus – home of one the campus sites of the Hebrew University. It is quite a walk, but, if jumping into cabs it is worth remembering some of the secrets of Mount Scopus.
The Mount Scopus ridge – some phenomenal views – especially the contrast between the ancient urban development of Jerusalem and of the raw powerful desert.