The Ophel Gardens and the Valley of Kidron

Two thousand years ago - during the days that Jesus visited Jerusalem - the stones at your feet were part of a busy street.

hulda gates 88 298 (photo credit: Shmulik Bar-Am)
hulda gates 88 298
(photo credit: Shmulik Bar-Am)
Begin and end: next to Dung Gate, at the Ophel Gardens Take bus: 1, 2 Park your car: on the street or in the parking lot Time frame: 3-4 hours Take note: It may help you to visualize the ancient Temple Mount if you visit the Second Temple Model in western Jerusalem before you take this walk. Two thousand years ago - during the days that Jesus visited Jerusalem - the stones at your feet were part of a busy street. Here stood the lower Jerusalem market, in which jostling crowds bargained furiously with the merchants who offered their wares. To the newcomers the air seemed charged with excitement and was full of exotic fragrances. Shops were located on both sides of the lower market road. If you were a pilgrim you could buy anything you needed right here: souvenirs, silver amulets, animals for the sacrifice, and provisions to take with you when you retired to your tent for the night. Did you bring the wrong kind of money? Not to worry: you could have found plenty of moneychangers happy to convert your currency into the coin of the land. Examine the stones that make up the retaining wall. The laborers who put these immense blocks in place utilized engineering know-how perhaps even superior to that we have today. The smallest stone weighs a couple of tons, about the average weight of an elephant. And the heaviest - which you will see when you walk through the Western Wall Tunnels - has been calculated at the mind-boggling weight of 570 tons! Considering the high quality of construction at that time, the street is awfully uneven. That's because, when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70, the arch crashed into the pavement and ruined its symmetry. Remains from the arch are piled up to your left - mute testimony of the tragedy that befell the Jewish people. Discovered at the base of the wall, one extremely large rock has been partially reconstructed. Look for it across from the wall's southwestern corner. It contains a replica of an ancient inscription, the original of which is on view at the Israel Museum. The inscription reads: "To the house of the trumpeting to procl. . . " Biblical scholars are quite certain that the sentence ended with "to proclaim the Sabbath". Picture the trumpeter standing directly above the hawkers, stridently warning them to conclude their wheeling and dealing and go home to prepare for the Sabbath. In much the same way, perhaps, ultra-orthodox Jews patrol the Mahane Yehuda market on Friday afternoons and remind contemporary merchants to close their stalls. Now make your way to the shaded plaza located to the right of the southern wall and walk through Excavation Gate at its far end. Then climb steps that lead to the Hulda Gates. Some of the stairs look just as they did 2,000 years ago while others have been reconstructed. You will be amazed at their size and irregularity. This may have forced the crowds to walk slowly, and perhaps to meditate on the sanctity of the site they were about to visit. They may have also kept people - especially children - from racing down the steps on the way out. During the Second Temple period pilgrims entered and left the Mount through two main sets of gates. With a few exceptions they walked in through the triple gate on your right, and departed the Temple complex through the double gates on your left. Perhaps while you are gazing at the gates a modern-day group of pilgrims will be ascending the ancient steps. They do so with reverence, chanting quiet hymns of praise. Does this help you imagine what the Jewish pilgrims must have felt as they climbed the stairs to the Temple Mount? Perhaps they sang a verse from Psalms 126: "A song of ascents. When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like dreamers." How they must have hushed their rowdy youngsters and gazed in awe as they walked through the gates to the Temple! Exit the Ophel Gardens, turn left when you reach the sidewalk and turn the corner. Then cross the street and turn left to reach a beautiful new promenade, built to facilitate walking tours between the Old City and the Mount of Olives as part of Jerusalem's preparations for the millennium. Soon you reach a new Observation Deck. From here you have a panoramic view of at the monuments you will be visiting in the valley below. On the other side of the valley, facing you, is the Mount of Olives. Some of the most important events in Jesus' life occurred on these slopes, which are studded with magnificent churches. From here look left to see the glistening facade on the Church of All Nations (Gethsemane) built by Catholics from all over the world. Adjacent to the church is the ancient olive grove of Gethsemane where Jesus was said to have spent the night after the Passover meal, only to be betrayed by Judas. Further up the hill and to the right stands the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene. Built by Alexander III of Russia, the Church of St. Mary Magdalene is probably the most conspicuous houses of worship in Jerusalem. It owes its prominence to the presence of seven golden, onion-shaped domes jutting out from a monumental Muscovite-style structure - which were regilded in 1999. The unique tear-shaped sanctuary across from you and even higher up the slope is the Church of Dominus Flevit. The words Dominus Flevit mean, in Latin, "the Lord wept". Christians believe that on this site Jesus was overcome by the realization of the tragic fate in store for Jerusalem. Now take the steps that lead you into the Valley of Kidron. The Kidron Valley is mentioned by name 11 times in the Old and New Testaments. It is also identified with the biblical King's Valley and sometimes called the Valley of Jehoshaphat as well. Jewish and Christian traditions intermingle in this wadi, where Israelite kings, princes, priests and prophets are believed to be buried, and where Jesus was wont to walk. Indeed, Jesus crossed the Kidron on his way to Gethsemane: "When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was an olive grove, and he and his disciples went into it". [John 18:1]. Your first stop is at Zechariah's Tomb, the only pyramid-topped structure in the valley. Carved out of the slope's hard rock, and completely detached from the mountainside, it is over 10 meters high and dates back to the end of the Second Temple period. Pillars are cut into the stone all around the sides of the cube. A great wrong was done to Zechariah, who predicted the downfall of Jerusalem and was executed by the King of Judah for his efforts. "Then the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah son of Jehoiada the priest. He stood before the people and said, "This is what God says: 'Why do you disobey the Lord's commands? You will not prosper. Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has forsaken you.'" But they plotted against him, and by order of the king they stoned him to death in the courtyard of the Lord's temple." [2 Chronicles 24: 20-21]. Jews so revered Zechariah that over the centuries they asked to be buried as close as possible to his grave. At one time the Jews of Jerusalem offered eulogies here and would come to Zechariah's tomb to mourn the destruction of the Temple on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. Right next to the tomb, stairs lead into a famous burial complex. Examine the walls to see the chisel (and perhaps hatchet) marks indicating that this is not a natural cave. When you walk inside you will find first one chamber, then within that another and yet another. Be careful when you step out onto the balcony in front of the entrance, decorated with columns, as there aren't any rails to keep you from falling! Then look up to where you can barely make out an ancient Hebrew inscription. It tells you that the six sons of the Hezir family are buried within. The Hezirs were a distinguished priestly family noted twice in the Bible, first mentioned when King David gives the priests their sacred duties and again at the end of the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE. At that time Nehemiah places the Hezirs on the list of families who sign a declaration of faith and take an oath to follow God's Law. Tradition places King Uzziah at this site as well, but during his lifetime. It is believed that he lived here in what the Bible calls a "separate house". Uzziah was a teenager of 16 when he became King in 769 BCE, and he reigned over Judah for 52 years. A great builder, he constructed towers, strengthened Jerusalem's defenses, and put together a great army. "But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He . . .entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense . . . The priests. . . confronted him and said, 'It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord. That is for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who have been consecrated to burn incense. . . Uzziah,. . .became angry. While he was raging at the priests in their presence before the incense altar in the Lord's temple, leprosy broke out on his forehead. When Azariah the chief priest and all the other priests looked at him, they saw that he had leprosy on his forehead, so they hurried him out. Indeed, he himself was eager to leave, because God had afflicted him. King Uzziah had leprosy until the day he died. He lived in a separate house --leprous, and excluded from the temple of the Lord.. ." [2 Chronicles 26: 16-21]. Christians call this the tomb of St. James, for the man who was Jesus' cousin and the first bishop of Jerusalem. Tradition holds that after Jesus was crucified, James hid from the Romans in the Hezir family tomb. Later on James was martyred here: thrown over a wall of the Jerusalem Temple, stoned by the populace, and then clubbed to death in the Valley of Kidron. Now walk over to the most magnificent structure in the Kidron Valley - Absalom's Tomb. A lofty 22 meters in height, it was hewn out of the rock and is completely separate from the slope behind it. Columns and capitals decorate the massive lower part of the monument, which is distinguished by a round top ending in a long, thin point. The shrine dates back to the first century B.C.E - nearly a millennium after Absalom rebelled against his father King David and was run through with a javelin by the King's captain. In earlier centuries passersby of all religions would throw stones at Absalom's mammoth structure. Indeed Moslems, who revere King David, almost covered it with rocks. It is said that Jewish parents would bring disobedient offspring to the almost hidden monument, point out the stones, and warn them that "this is what happens to children who behave badly to their fathers!" A tomb believed to be that of King Jehoshaphat is situated behind and to the left of Absalom's monument. Uncovered in 1924, it contains several chambers and a beautifully decorated lintel. The Bible says that ". . . Jehoshaphat rested with his fathers and was buried with them in the city of David his father. And Jehoram his son succeeded him." [1 Kings 22:50]. Discovery of the tomb helped strengthen an identification of the Kidron Valley with the Valley of Jehoshaphat. For it is written: "I will gather all nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. There I will enter into judgment against them concerning my inheritance, my people Israel, for they scattered my people among the nations and divided up my land." [Joel 3:2]. You can end your visit by continuing on to the main road beneath the Church of All Nations, and following the sidewalk back to Dung Gate. Or cross the valley again, walk up the stairs, turn left, and stroll back to your starting point. For your information: Hours: Ophel Gardens [625-4403]: Sun.-Thurs., 9:00-16:00; Fri. 9:00-14:00; closed Sat.; Entrance fee; Partially wheelchair accessible Excerpts from Jerusalem EasyWalks, written by Aviva Bar-Am Jerusalem EasyWalks is a delightful volume of circular strolls and historic sites that leads readers into every corner of the most fascinating city on earth, and can be purchased at: