Lenten Friday

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One of the better views of the Sepulchre dome available from ground level. Taken from the Via Dolorosa near the ninth station. 2005:03:04 15:43:42

A couple of weeks ago I spent a weekend in Jerusalem, mostly poking around the Old City with my roommates. I've previously posted about that trip here and here. One thing I'm especially pleased we managed to do, given the season, was to join in the Friday Via Crucis.

Each Friday afternoon the Franciscan monks process down the Via Dolorosa, visiting each of the Stations of the Cross -- the Via Crucis (See my post with a map of the Old City. The first nine Stations are marked with circled Roman numerals; the last few are inside the Holy Sepulchre). While this is generally a low-key affair drawing the odd handful of pilgrims, during Lent this swells into a major event drawing hundreds.

As it'll be Easter in a few minutes, my time, this'll be my tip of the hat to the departing Lenten season1.

The Franciscan Order has always been big on outreach, so I suppose it makes sense that for the past seven hundred years they've been the designated Custodians of the Holy Places here. Thus I don't make any attempt to obsessively photodocument the Via Crucis, because the Franciscans have already done so -- feel free to skip past the rather over-wrought narrative to the photos. (And, might I add, with surprisingly high quality web design compared to most religious outfits.)

The pilgrims gather at the first Station, on the site of the Roman fortress where Jesus is thought to have been sentenced. It's now the courtyard of an Islamic college adjoining the Temple Mount. Judging by the doodles on the bulletin board by the entrance, they've also got some elementary school programs. The above web site describes el-Omariye college as "of little architectural interest" due to its rather low age, only a couple of hundred years.

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Some buildings have engravings or a mosaic, but several of the Station shrines are marked by these metal badges instead. I somehow suspect that they're a modern innovation.

It's worth noting that, while the sites along the Via Dolorosa vary widely in age, almost nothing there is remotely contemporary to the Roman era. The whole thing's been knocked down and rebuilt umpteen times since then, as you'd expect in a functioning city. Under the Ecce Homo convent (the third station) is apparently an excavated section of Roman cobblestone roadway, which they like to claim are the actual stones Jesus would have walked on2. However, most of the markers and shrines are post-Crusader constructions located on the basis of tradition and speculation. For instance, one building wall along the route sports an engraving claiming that Jesus leaned against one of its blocks as He passed; the stone in question is worn smooth and black, with a recognizable handprint depression to boot. Judging by the rest of the stones in that wall, I'd be very suprised if it's over two or three hundred years old.

An acoustically and linguistically delightful moment results from the fact that both the Franciscans and the Imams operate on exact Jerusalem solar time. At the very moment the Franciscans begin chanting the opening prayers of the procession -- five friars, taking turns, each in a different language -- the Muslim call to Friday prayers begins. From a loudspeaker atop the minnaret of every mosque in Jerusalem, including the one immediately above our heads, a muezzin sings the Adhan, which is moving even if you don't know any Arabic. The combination is completely unintelligible, but quite beautiful.

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The mob makes its way uphill through the bazaar in the Muslim Quarter. The fifth Station is up ahead. 2005:03:04 15:30:37

The procession isn't, and shouldn't be thought of as, a parade. For one thing, there's no attempt to clear the streets for us, although at the height of Lent, the throng accomplishes that by sheer mass. In fact, on many occasions the municipal police had to prod the crowd aside to ensure that some kind of path remained open, especially when we were on the main thoroughfares of the Suk. This, incidentally, is one of the better ways to window shop in the Old City, since among such great numbers one can admire the goods openly without the risk of being summarily whisked into a shop by a merchant who has noticed your interest.

I'm pretty sure there was one or more people carrying big crosses towards the front of the procession, and of course there was the gaggle of Franciscan monks, but for the most part it was a gigantic blob of tourists, pilgrims, and locals oozing its way through the Old City. I should really do the procession again sometime when there won't be a couple thousand people crowding around me, to get a better sense for the actual sites.

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The ninth Station, in the heart of the Christian Quarter, in case you couldn't tell. The number of bald heads visible indicates that I've wound up towards the front of the procession; you can't see the robes in this picture, but they're definitely monks. 2005:03:04 15:43:21

The Via Dolorosa dead-ends at the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, as seen here. Afterwards the Via Crucis dives through several interconnected buildings before spilling out into the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre. Unlike the sites at street level, some of these subterranean passageways and chapels clearly are a thousand years old or more. One quick way to tell: the graffiti is carved into the stones, is almost as blackened as the surrounding rock, and includes the coat of arms of the carver. Sounds like Crusaders to me.

The Sepulchre itself is sometimes called the most-destroyed building in the world, since there has been some kind of church there since 335 CE. The Holy Sepulchre article in Wikipedia gives a nice overview of the place's tumultuous history. The impression I took from it is that the oldest large structures probably date from the eleventh century, although bits and pieces are older still.

1 No fair getting all pedantic and pointing out that Lent actually ended on Thursday.

2 That might even be true.

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This page contains a single entry by Milligan published on March 26, 2005 11:37 PM.

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