One of the must-sees for any pilgrimage to Jerusalem is the Via Dolorosa. Before arriving here, I had a vague idea of what that would mean, what it would be like, how it would impact me. Like most everything else in Israel, my preconceived notions and reality have very seldom lined up. Not that that’s a bad thing.
Just getting there is slightly intimidating. A short walk from where we are staying, there is a free shuttle that will drop you off at the Dung Gate. (((See below))) To enter the Old City here, you must pass through security – a metal detector and bag check. This puts you in the plaza just left of the Western Wall. The Jewish, Muslim, Armenian, and Christian sections of the Old City converge near this point, so there is all manner of people, attire, and languages to be observed. A tunnel leads to the Muslim section, where a beautiful cacophony of sights, sounds, and aromas mingle. Even during the off-season, the streets and alleyways are full of people: shop owners eager to show you their exotic wares, families with small children, the occasional beggar, religious people, tourists on holiday, large tour groups wearing matching t-shirts and headphones to hear a guide in their own language, couples strolling hand-in-hand; demeanors are relaxed and frantic and all points in between. It is both an assault and a feast for the senses.
One of the things I noticed right away is that the British, who laid out my beloved home city of Savannah in perfect squares, left no such mark on the ancient streets of Jerusalem. For each major thoroughfare in the Old City, there are a number of crooked alleys leading from it. Every path seems to lead to another. I seriously wonder if anyone could know all of the possible passageways branching off from just one of the main streets. Traveling along El-Wad, the primary road in this section, will eventually land you at the Damascus Gate; about halfway, however, a right turn on the street Via Dolorosa carries you at the Lion’s Gate.
My travel buddy, Karen, and I joined a couple hundred of our closest friends from many nations to walk the Via Dolorosa. Since the 13th century, Franciscan monks have been the Custodians of the Holy Places. Each Friday at 3:00 pm they lead a procession beginning near the Lion’s Gate and ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, tracing the route of important events as Jesus was condemned then crucified. These are also called the Stations of the Cross.
As we reached each point, the Franciscans would give a brief description of the station (in three languages), often accompanied by a liturgical recitation or song. Since I am not Catholic, much of this was lost on me. Still, I found it a hauntingly beautiful backdrop for our journey through the city. The crowd was large and the streets were narrow. After being nudged out several times by incredibly devout Chinese Catholics (honestly, still trying to wrap my head around that), I found a more comfortable spot farther back in the crowd. Here, I heard less of what was being said, but was still able to actively participate in the processional.
Walking the Via Dolorosa was certainly a powerful experience, but not in the way I expected. This was not a calm, reflective stroll where I could quietly ponder the implications of each stop along the way as Jesus carried a heavy, shameful instrument of death out of His great love for me and His total obedience to the Father. Instead, it was a semi-chaotic up then down then up again, winding path through a bustling market area crowded with people who had no time or interest in this processional. They had wares to sell or buy, places to be, things yet to be done.
I can’t help but wonder if things were remarkably similar on another Friday 2000 years ago.
Please be aware that this is personal reflection, not an academic presentation. However, since some might be interested in a bit of historical backdrop, I have included below an appendix of sorts, with a short description of the Gates mentioned above.
Information taken from The Jerusalem Post, “Sites And Insights: Gates Of Jerusalem,” by Wayne Stiles at jpost.com.
The Dung Gate
The unusual name stems from a gate that stood along the city’s south wall in the time of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2:13). The Targum identifies the Dung Gate as the “Potsherd Gate” of Jeremiah 19:2. In antiquity, the city dump lay in the nearby Hinnom Valley, and the Potsherd Gate served as the exit by which the citizens took out the garbage.
The Damascus Gate
A fine example of Ottoman architecture, this is the most beautiful of the gates of Jerusalem. Excavations below the gate reveal a triple-arched gateway that Hadrian built—the northern extent of the Cardo street from the second century. Outside the gate, an Arab market offers fresh fruit and vegetables. The Jews call it the “Shechem Gate,” and the Arabs refer to it as the “Gate of the Column.”
The Lion’s Gate
Christians have identified this gate with Stephen’s name in honor of his martyrdom outside the city (Acts 7:58-60). However, Byzantines placed his death outside a northern gate. Another name, “Lion’s Gate,” comes from the stone reliefs of two lions (or panthers or jaguars) that flank the gate.
Map of the Old City: