Today, let me take you to the Mount of Olives in Israel! A mythical biblical place, located in Jerusalem, overlooking the old city of Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives is dotted with churches, chapels, viewpoints, tombs (including the large Jewish cemetery)… and each of these places has a story to tell.
In this article, we will explore the Mount of Olives and I will show you the most remarkable places of interest which are there: the Chapel of the Ascension, the Church of the Pater Noster, the small church Dominus Flevit, the Jewish cemetery with its most famous tombs – those of Zechariah, Benei Hezir and Absalom, the Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of All Nations, and the Church of the Sepulchre of Saint Mary.
A beautiful visit to make in Jerusalem… or through your screen!
- Where is the Mount of Olives?
- The Mount of Olives and the Bible
- How to visit the Mount of Olives?
- The Chapel of the Ascension
- The Church of the Pater Noster
- The Tombs of the Prophets
- The Dominus Flevit Church
- The Jewish Cemetery of the Mount of Olives
- The Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene
- The Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations
- The Church of the Sepulchre of Saint Mary
- A visit to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, a must in Israel
Where is the Mount of Olives?
The Mount of Olives is part of what is sometimes called “the seven hills of Jerusalem”. The city of Jerusalem is indeed located at an altitude of about 2297 feet, in a hilly region: on one side, the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea and the Judean desert; on the other, a coastal plain that stretches towards the shores of the Mediterranean. Between the two, a succession of hills!
The hills of Jerusalem
Drawing up an exact list, which would make consensus, is more complicated ;) Indeed, this very old name, which establishes a parallel with the “seven hills of Rome”, is half geographical, half biblical.
This mix between facts and spirituality is a particularity of Jerusalem that can be quite confusing for someone who visits Israel for the first time. From one religion to another, there are different visions of things: for example, the Muslims consider that the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven during a nocturnal journey that begun on the Esplanade of the Mosques… while for the Christians, Jesus ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives, at the place where the Chapel of the Ascension was built, about which I will speak in the article.
Another example: what is called “Mount Zion” has in fact reflected several geographical realities over time. What we now call the City of David (the archaeological site where Jerusalem is said to have been founded), the Temple Mount (where the first Temple of Jerusalem was built) and the present Mount Zion, south of the Old City of Jerusalem, have all been called “Mount Zion”.
All this makes it difficult to draw up an exact list of the famous 7 hills. One generally recognizes at least:
- Mount Ophel, where the ruins of the City of David are located.
- Mount Herzl, where the Yad Vashem Museum is located today.
- Mount of Olives (“har HaZeitim” in Hebrew, sometimes also called “Mount Olivet”), with its huge Jewish cemetery, which is also said to be the place of Jesus’ Ascension to heaven.
- Mount Zion, which I just mentioned, with the tomb of King David.
- The Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism: there is both the Esplanade of the Mosques, built on the remains of the destroyed Second Temple of Jerusalem… and the Wailing Wall, which is the remnant of that Temple.
- Mount Scopus (home to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the National Botanical Garden of Israel).
But you will also hear about the “Mount Moriah” in the Bible (this is where Jewish tradition locates the site of the Rock of the Foundation, the “Holy of Holies”, i.e. the foundation stone of the most central part of the Temple of Jerusalem), about the “Mount of Corruption” (or Mountain of Perdition, which forms with the Mount of Olives and Mount Scopus a small “ridge” a few kilometers long). There is also the “Mount of Repentance” (Har Hamenuchot), another very large Jewish cemetery…
In short, instead of counting the Mounts of Jerusalem, it is better to focus on the one we will talk about today: the Mount of Olives!
You will notice, throughout the article, that I sprinkle in some biblical information. The goal: to allow everyone to understand why the places are symbolic, whether you believe in God or not, and whatever your religion if you have one. These places are in any case surrounded by a strong oral and written tradition!
So where is the Mount of Olives today?
It is located east of Jerusalem and is separated from the Old City by a valley, the Kidron Valley.
When you are on the western side of the Mount of Olives, you can see the old city of Jerusalem spread out in front of you. It is on this side that you will find the most interesting places to see: all the churches I am going to tell you about, the Garden of Gethsemane as well as the tombs of the prophets, which stretch from the heights of the mount to the Kidron Valley itself. The other sides of the Mount of Olives are mostly villages, such as Al-Eizariya (aka Bethany), a Palestinian Arab village (the one “Lazarus of Bethany” was from according to the Bible).
The altitude of the Mount of Olives remains reasonable, 2684 feet, marked at the top by the village of At-Tur.
It is an extremely ancient burial place, already used as such several centuries before our era. At the time when the Second Temple of Jerusalem was still standing, ceremonies were held there to celebrate the beginning of a new month… and after the destruction of the Temple, the Jews continued to go there, especially to lament the destruction… as it was located opposite the site of the Temple, it was a place where its absence would leave the most visible void.
The Mount of Olives and the Bible
Several biblical passages refer to the Mount of Olives.
In the Old Testament, it is mentioned when David, King of Israel, has to flee from his son Absalom. The short version is that Absalom killed David’s eldest son because he had raped his sister (yes, the Bible is not very cheerful) and insidiously started to rally “followers” to his cause. The king, fearing a massacre, preferred to flee to escape Absalom. The books of Samuel state thus: “David went up the Mount of Olives crying as he went. He covered his head and went barefoot”.
The book of Ezekiel says: “And the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city, and stood upon the mountain which is on the east side of the city”.
In the New Testament, we learn that it is to this place that Jesus returned every evening after having preached all day in the Temple of Jerusalem: “By day he taught in the temple, but at night he went outside the city and passed the night on the hill called the Olive-Orchard. And all the people used to come early in the morning to listen to him in the temple” (Gospel according to Saint Luke).
According to the Acts of the Apostles, it was also from the Mount of Olives that Jesus ascended into heaven: “And when he had said these things, while they were looking, he was taken up, and went from their view into a cloud. And while they were looking up to heaven with great attention, two men came to them, in white clothing, and said, O men of Galilee, why are you looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven, will come again, in the same way as you saw him go into heaven. Then they went back to Jerusalem from the mountain named Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away”.
As for Mary, the mother of Jesus, her fate is not mentioned at all in the Bible… but later texts affirm that after her death (outside Jerusalem), her body was miraculously brought back to the holy city and buried in the garden of Gethsemane. This explains why you will see the Church of the Sepulchre of Saint Mary on the Mount of Olives. In reality, the exact location of this garden, between biblical times and today, remains rather vague. It is therefore more of a symbolic place.
In view of these few references, you will understand better why the Mount of Olives is a very important site for Christians, whether they are Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant.
How to visit the Mount of Olives?
The Mount of Olives faces the old city of Jerusalem and, being a mountain, it promises a somewhat challenging walk if you decide to “climb” it on foot. Therefore, it is often better to go to the top with a vehicle (cab or bus) and then walk down following a route that winds between the main places of interest, in order to return to the city on foot.
Going to the Mount of Olives: cab and bus
I advise you to go to the Mount of Olives by taking a bus or a cab… because if you go with your own car, you will be obliged to go both ways, downhill and uphill to retrieve the vehicle!
As for buses, use the government website to plan your journey: if you leave from the Old City, enter Jerusalem as “Origin city” and as “Destination City”, then choose “The Old City” as your departure point and “Station of Chapel of the Ascension/Rabi’a Al-Adawiya” as your final stop. If you enter “Mount of Olives” as your arrival, the site usually suggests a bus stop at the foot of the mountain, not at the top. Line 275 is the most convenient route to the top of the Mount of Olives.
You can pay for the bus with your Israeli transport card (the Rav-Kav) if you have taken one.
The other option is to take a cab: be careful because there are some cabs that take advantage of tourists and charge abnormally high prices or ask for payment in another currency that suits them. I went to the Mount of Olives with a local, Yoni, who told me that the normal price for this trip was around 15 shekels. If you go to Jerusalem in a few years, it will probably have gone up a bit with inflation, but that gives you an order of magnitude of what is normal.
You can also be dropped off at the Ascension Chapel.
Guided tour of the Mount of Olives
If you don’t feel like visiting by yourself, you can check those guided tours. Most of them, such as this one (with an English-speaking guide) explore the key places of the Mount of Olives.
It can be a good way to get your bearings on the spot, even if you want to come back a second time to explore some places more in-depth.
Visiting on foot: an easy itinerary to follow
On this small map, you can see the different places of interest of the Mount of Olives that I mention in the article. I advise you to go from one to the other in the order in which they are numbered. You can display the legend by clicking on the icon next to the title “Visit to the Mount of Olives”.
If you have a lot of trouble walking, I have indicated on the map a place where you can enjoy the view of Jerusalem, without having to go down any steps. There is a very nice viewpoint overlooking the city.
One last piece of advice: watch out for pickpockets on the Mount of Olives. It’s a VERY touristy place and as in all big cities, it also attracts “undesirables”.
The Chapel of the Ascension
Let’s start the visit of the Mount of Olives with the very small chapel of the Ascension! If I had to describe it to you, I would tell you about this courtyard covered with gravel that crunches under your steps… surrounded by ramparts. With, in the middle, a simple turret covered with a dome. Small, so small that pilgrims crowd inside.
Everything is bare, only an area isolates the place where the Ascension of Jesus to heaven supposedly took place, and where the foot of Christ would have landed for the last time on Earth. You can feel how much this is a very strong moment for the Christians… and if you are not, you have to manage to project yourself in their spirituality because otherwise, you will only see some walls without anything exceptional ;)
A first version of the chapel was built in the 4th century. For several centuries, it was open to the sky, for symbolic purposes… in the same way that on the ground, the place where Christ’s foot landed was not paved. And then the chapel was destroyed, a victim of the successive conflicts that led to the destruction and then the reconstruction of key places in Jerusalem.
In 1152, the Crusaders decided to rebuild it… and 35 years later, Saladin (from present-day Iraq) orchestrated the siege of Jerusalem, which he succeeded in retaking from the Crusaders. As he was a Muslim… the Chapel of the Ascension was converted into a mosque: for the first time, the chapel was covered with a roof (a dome to be exact) and the attributes of a mosque were added to the building – the minaret (the large tower which allows the call to prayer to be made) and the mihrab (which indicates the direction of Mecca).
For the record, the minaret is in fact inspired by Christian churches, with their bell towers that allowed to call the faithful to prayer. The very first minaret would have been inspired by the bell tower of the Church of St. John the Baptist in Damascus, now a mosque (Great Mosque of the Umayyads).
The Chapel of the Ascension has a particularity: it is the only Christian chapel located in the middle of a mosque! Today it is managed by the Muslim authorities of Jerusalem (the Waqf, which administers Muslim places of worship)… but out of respect for the symbolism of the place, they authorize every year that the Ascension be celebrated on the spot, with the Eucharist (the moment when the priest distributes the host to the faithful, which both pays homage to Jesus and symbolizes the fact that he continues to live on through each believer).
This is the only mosque in the world where this happens!
In general, the opening hours of the Ascension Chapel are 9am-5pm, you have to pay a few shekels to enter (rates here).
The Church of the Pater Noster
This is my personal favorite of this visit to the Mount of Olives. A soothing place, bathed in light, full of flowers…
On the outside, there is no indication of how charming the place is. You can even feel disconcerted by the street vendors who call you by offering you olive branches for 5 shekels… and by the groups of tourists and pilgrims who, at regular intervals, rush to the place.
In the 4th century, a basilica commemorating the Ascension of Christ was built here. It is said that it was built over a cave where Jesus used to teach his disciples. It has suffered the hazards of successive invasions of Jerusalem:
- Destroyed after the Persian takeover of Jerusalem in 614.
- Rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 12th century.
- Re-damaged when Saladin invaded Jerusalem.
The church remained in ruins for several centuries and the remaining stones were eventually sold for use as tombstones.
At the end of the 19th century, a French woman (Aurélie de la Tour d’Auvergne) bought the land. She built a convent and a cloister, as well as a church… and decided to launch a search for the cave that had given rise to the construction of the ancient basilica.
This was found long after his death, in 1910. Since then, the convent has moved, and an attempt has been made to rebuild part of the original church, but this reconstruction could not be completed due to a lack of budget. The place therefore houses the pretty little convent church, the remains of the half-rebuilt church and the famous grotto.
Aurélie de la Tour d’Auvergne had wished to be buried in “her church” and you will be able to see her tomb at the entrance because her last wishes were respected. The land is still considered as belonging to France.
Beyond this history, the particularity of this church is to shelter more than a hundred mosaics quoting the Christian prayer “Our Father” in a host of languages and dialects (there is even Tahitian and Syrian): this is what gives it its name, “The Church of the Pater Noster” (name of the prayer in Latin).
The Church of the Pater Noster is generally open from 9am to 12pm and from 2pm to 5pm (opening hours and current price list here).
The Tombs of the Prophets
After visiting the church of the Pater Noster, you can take a staircase to begin your descent of the Mount of Olives… and eventually make a detour to the esplanade near the Seven Arches Hotel to admire the view.
Direction: the Tombs of the Prophets. It is a funerary cave with 38 niches in the basement. Tradition says that the three prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi were buried there… but according to historians, the burial chamber dates back to the 1st century BC.
It is generally open from 9am to 3pm and closed on Fridays and Saturdays.
The Dominus Flevit Church
Let’s now go to another place not to be missed on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem: the Dominus Flevit church. You can reach it by a very steep road (which means that it is better to take it downhill than uphill!). There are several good reasons to go there!
First, it is a church with a very interesting architecture. It was built on the site of a church from the Byzantine era and has a kind of esplanade that offers an exceptional view of the old city of Jerusalem. It is from there that many pictures for the postcards of the city are taken (it is from there that I took the view of the Dome of the Rock at the beginning of the article).
The church is meant to be shaped like a drop of water, a reference to a biblical episode from the Gospel according to Luke: Jesus is heading towards Jerusalem and is dazzled by the beauty of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, which he sees from the Mount of Olives. But he already knows that the Temple is going to be destroyed… so he starts to cry. “Dominus flevit”, in Latin, means “The Lord wept”… and this reference to tears also explains the architectural choice of the drop of water.
Another architectural feature: the church has a large bay window behind the altar. This allows natural light to enter the building, which is very pleasant. Like other places in Jerusalem, it has been rebuilt and destroyed several times in the course of religious history. The “current version” dates from 1954.
The Dominus Flevit Church was created by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi, who signed many other religious buildings in the Holy Land. His family already worked for the Holy See, and he also followed this path. We owe him, for example, the Church of All Nations on the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Flagellation in Jerusalem and the Basilica of Mount Tabor.
The Dominus Flevit church is generally open from 8am to 12pm and from 2pm to 6pm between April and September, and from 8am to 11:45am and from 2pm to 5pm between October and March (opening hours updated here). Admission is free.
Next to the Dominus Flevit church, you can see the remains of a small necropolis with tombs from the 1st and 2nd century AD.
The Jewish Cemetery of the Mount of Olives
The Jewish cemetery of the Mount of Olives is everywhere at once, it will accompany you on the side of the road throughout your visit to the Mount of Olives, so gigantic is it. It is estimated that there are between 100 and 150,000 graves… and I think that the most telling thing is to look at this aerial view, which shows you its extent:
Why is the Mount of Olives so popular? Simply because the Bible tells the story of the day when the Messiah will return to Earth in these words:
“The Lord will appear […]. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south […] Then the Lord, my God, will come, and all the holy ones with Him”
By tradition, many Jews are thus convinced that on the day Jesus returns to Earth, he will appear first on the Mount of Olives… and that he will therefore grant eternal life first to those who are buried there.
The Mount of Olives was already used as a Jewish cemetery more than a millennium before Jesus’ time… but since antiquity, these biblical motifs have made it extremely central.
The lower part of the cemetery, at the gateway to the Old City of Jerusalem, is the oldest. At the end of your visit to the Mount of Olives, you can go and see some famous tombs (the tomb of Benei Hezir, the cave of Jehoshaphat, the tomb of Absalom). This part of the Jewish cemetery dates from the time of the Second Temple of Jerusalem (between 516 BC and 70 AD).
This is my opportunity to tell you a bit more about two famous traditions in Jewish cemeteries.
Putting stones on the graves – You will often see large pebbles on Jewish graves. There are several explanations for this tradition: it may have come from the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, where piling stones on the gravesite was a way of alerting the priests to their presence. Jewish priests would become impure if they came too close to a tomb.
Some also believe that the stones keep demons away, or hold the soul in the grave. Other interpretations say that stones, unlike flowers, have a permanent character and allow to show one’s attachment to the deceased in a lasting way.
The second tradition concerns the priests, who are called “kohanim” (“kohen” or “cohen” in the singular). At the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, these priests were in charge of the service in the Temple and the sacrifices. Purity was a very important dimension: the priest had to immerse himself in a ritual bath before dressing and going to perform his sacred duties.
Today, kohanim still play a role in religious ceremonies. In the Orthodox tradition, they often begin the reading of the Torah (the Jewish Bible). The kohanim must also abide by rules of purity: for example, in Israel, they are not allowed to marry a convert or a divorced woman.
Why am I telling you this? Because a kohen is not allowed to be in the presence of a dead person. The only modern exception is if it is a close relative (parents, child, spouse, brother or sister provided the sister is not married). Apart from these cases, a kohen is not allowed to enter a cemetery. Therefore, in a Jewish cemetery, you will often see a special “enclave” for kohanim near the entrance, so that they are not buried in the same place as everyone else.
The Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene
Let’s continue our tour of the Mount of Olives… with a few words about the Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene, built in 1888 by Russian architect David Grimm.
It has very limited opening hours (usually Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10am to 12pm) as it is part of a convent.
It has the distinction of housing the tomb of the mother-in-law of the late Queen Elizabeth II, Alice of Battenberg, Princess of Greece and Denmark born in Windsor. She was the mother of the late Philip Mountbatten, the Queen’s husband.
For this reason, members of the English royal family can request access to this church at any time!
If you are Orthodox, you can also ask to enter outside the hours of opening to the “general public”, by ringing the convent bell.
The Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations
Another important stop on a visit to the Mount of Olives is the Garden of Gethsemane and the adjacent church, the Church of All Nations. The name “Gethsemane” comes from the ancient Greek and means “oil press”, probably because this is the activity that was practiced there.
The Garden of Gethsemane is originally a biblical place. After the Last Supper (Christ’s meal), Jesus is said to have gone to walk in Gethsemane with some disciples. Feeling that he was going to be betrayed, he would have felt great anguish here… and it is there, in this “Garden of Olives”, while the apostles were falling asleep among the olive trees, that Jesus would have seen the soldiers sent by Judas to arrest him.
In reality, the exact location of the garden is not known, but this garden of olive trees bearing this name was built in Jerusalem. It is actually a very small square planted with olive trees, which I expected to find much larger. This is where successive popes often go to meditate when they come to the Holy Land.
You can’t walk freely in it, just walk around it so it gets crowded quickly with all the pilgrims. Thanks to carbon 14 dating, experts were able to determine that some of the olive trees in the garden were nearly 1000 years old! Others could be even older, but their trunks have become hollow with age, so it has not been possible to date them.
Next to the garden is the Church of All Nations. Built between 1919 and 1924, it owes its name to the fact that several countries donated funds to finance it. You will see references to these different countries in the decoration of the church, especially in the vault.
The church of All Nations is a mixture of stone from Jerusalem and stone from Bethlehem. It is really very beautiful, we can see a piece of the rock at the foot of which Jesus would have prayed before his arrest. In reference to this biblical episode, it is also called “Basilica of the Agony”.
The access is free, in general the church is open from about 8:30 in the morning, until 4 or 5 pm depending on the season, with a short break at noon.
The Church of the Sepulchre of Saint Mary
Last stop on our way to the Mount of Olives in Israel: the Church of the Sepulchre of Saint Mary.
The Bible says nothing about the fate of Mary, the mother of Jesus… but the Christian tradition considers that she died of natural causes. Like her son, she would have been resurrected, her tomb being found empty.
A small church was built on the site of this tomb in the 5th century. Like other monuments I mentioned, it was successively destroyed and rebuilt during the invasions… but the crypt has always been preserved, because Muslims also consider that the mother of the prophet Issa (Jesus, in the Koran) is buried here.
Today, the church is co-managed by the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church… and it has a strange peculiarity! It is underground. In other words, instead of going up the steps to enter the church, you go down a long staircase of about 50 steps, which dates from the 12th century.
On the way, we pass a chapel dedicated to the parents of the Virgin Mary (Anne and Joachim) and another dedicated to Joseph the carpenter, her husband.
At the bottom, there is the chapel housing the tomb of Mary. It is a totally “multi-religious” church: there are altars for Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Syrians; there is also a mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca for Muslims. There are also religious services for the Coptic and Ethiopian communities… and of course, for the Catholics, it is also a very symbolic place!
A very surprising visit! The church is open from 6am to noon and from 2:30pm to 5pm. You can find the opening hours here. The admission is free.
A visit to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, a must in Israel
This is the end of our visit to the Mount of Olives. As you have seen, the place is very rich historically, symbolically and has the particularity of being often “shared” by different religions.
As a result, some monuments exist under what is called the “Status Quo”: it is an agreement between the religious authorities to preserve in common certain holy places. There are 9 of them at the time when I write this post. There are several churches in Bethlehem but also several sites in Jerusalem, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Rachel’s Tomb and the Wailing Wall (in the Old City), as well as the Chapel of the Ascension and the Tomb of the Virgin Mary on the Mount of Olives.
A delicate balance so that everyone, whatever their beliefs, can access these special places!
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