Holy night in the holy city

Those celebrating Christmas in Jerusalem can take a tour through the Old City’s Christian Quarter.

A shop selling Christmas decorations in the Old City. (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
A shop selling Christmas decorations in the Old City.
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
As they often do, Hanukka and Christmas overlapped in 2003. That year, we spent December in a little Pennsylvania town where the congregants of the only synagogue in the area ranged from Orthodox to Reconstructionist.
On December 24, with America’s Christmas frenzy at its peak, the synagogue’s rabbi showed us the special glasses he was handing out to his youngest congregants. Once you put them on, all you could see in front of you were Stars of David.
He wouldn’t have needed the glasses in Jerusalem, where Christmas is barely noticeable and Hanukka is the major winter holiday. Yet for Jerusalem’s more than 14,000 Christians, Christmas is a big deal. And it doesn’t end on December 25, when Catholics and Protestants celebrate the holiday: Most Eastern sects observe Christmas on January 7, and the Armenian Orthodox celebrate on January 19.
For the rest of us, there are really only two ways to experience Christmas in Jerusalem. One can join the hundreds of curious Israelis who flock to the capital from all parts of the country to attend Midnight Mass in one of the city’s churches. Or one can try this Street Stroll through the Old City’s Christian Quarter.
The latter entails sauntering through tunneled alleyways and picturesque lanes where holiday decorations are on display, and exploring some of the Holy City’s most historic churches. This jaunt begins at the Jaffa Gate and ends with an exit through the New Gate – both accessible by light rail.
In 301 CE, Armenia became the first nation in the world to officially accept Christianity, and soon afterward a prolonged and unbroken Armenian presence began in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem’s Armenians live in a walled compound and pray in one of the most beautiful houses of worship in the city. To get there from inside the Jaffa Gate, you pass by the Tower of David and take Armenian Patriarchate Road to the Armenian Convent of St.
James the Great, son of Zebedee, was one of Jesus’s 12 disciples. Sometimes called the apostolic martyr, James was decapitated by King Herod Agrippa in 44 CE. His head is entombed under the northern wall of St. James Cathedral, which stands on the site of the martyr’s beheading.
Built in the 12th century over much earlier ruins, the cathedral was dedicated both to that St. James and to another saint who bore the same name and became Jerusalem’s first bishop. To distinguish the two, the bishop is known as James the Lesser (and sometimes James the Just). Also a martyr, this James was thrown over a wall of the Temple, stoned by the populace and clubbed to death in the Kidron Valley.
Later, his bones were interred under the raised, central altar of the church.
Above the entrance is a heavy roll of fabric. When prayers begin, it is unrolled to keep wind and noise out of the sanctuary. The wooden and iron board next to the entrance is called a nakus, and it used to call worshipers to prayer following a 14th-century Muslim edict forbidding the use of bells. As a reminder, and although today church bells ring for prayer, an Armenian monk still emerges from within and hammers on the nakus.
The cathedral’s interior boasts a vast collection of paintings, ceramic tiles and rich ornaments. With the only light coming from candles, hanging oil lamps and the building’s few windows, the scent of incense that permeates the air amplifies the cathedral’s mysterious aura.
One of the chapels, where memorial candles burn day and night, was the site of James’s decapitation. The chapel doors are of a rare beauty, decorated with mother-of-pearl. An unusual marble star on the floor indicates where James’s head is buried (his body, it is believed, was spirited to Spain).
If you leave the church and turn right, backtrack just a bit to St. James Street, turn right and then make a left on Ararat Street, you will reach St. Mark’s Church and the seat of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate.
Located on the border between the Old City’s Jewish and Armenian quarters, St.
Mark’s Church is a Crusader structure built over Byzantine ruins. It belongs to Jerusalem’s ancient Syrian Orthodox community, one of the earliest Christian sects. The Syriac language that parishioners use for prayers closely resembles the Aramaic of the Second Temple period.
The New Testament relates that when Peter followed an angel out of Herod’s prison, he fled to a house nearby.
According to the Syrian Orthodox, that house was on the very spot where St.
Mark’s Church stands today.
In fact, Peter is believed to have knocked on what is now the church’s decorative door.
Indeed, during restoration of the church in the 1940s, an important sixth-century Aramaic inscription was uncovered on the site. It reads, “This is the house of Mary, mother of John called Mark.
The church was consecrated by holy disciples... after our lord Jesus the Messiah went up to the heavens. It was rebuilt after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus the king, year 73.”
The Syrian Orthodox maintain that Jesus and the disciples would sometimes gather together at Mary’s house. And they believe that several significant biblical events occurred right here, the most momentous of them being the Last Supper.
Church fathers are proud of an ancient treasure, a portrait of Mary and her infant son.
The picture is believed to have been drawn by St. Luke, the Syrian-born evangelist who was both a physician and an artist.
After your visit, you can continue along Ararat Road to the end, then turn left (St.
Mark Street) and follow it until it descends to the right into the market. You can then cross the “street” directly onto Christian Quarter road.
Tucked away snugly behind a row of shops, the Church of St. John the Baptist at No.
113 is hardly an impressive sight. That’s why the richly decorated interior comes as such a surprise; indeed, the green and gold iconostasis inside St. John’s Church is one of the most ornate in Jerusalem – and the artwork on the walls and ceiling is absolutely stunning.
Sometime between the eighth and 11th centuries, the contemporary church was built over the ruins of a much older sanctuary. Located underground, it was recently restored and opened to visitors.
During the Crusader period, a group of knights operating a hospital within the church walls adopted St. John as its patron. They were part of a military religious order called the Knights Hospitaler, and members cared for sick and needy pilgrims of all denominations. Today St. John’s belongs to the Greek Orthodox, who had it thoroughly repaired in the 19th century.
One of the church’s most prized possessions is an icon of St. John’s head. You can find it near the iconostasis, conjoined with a gold- and jewel-rimmed relic thought to be a piece of his skull.
Several of the church’s paintings are of Greek martyrs, traditionally pictured in military dress. One large portrait from 1820 features an unfortunate pilgrim who reached Jaffa Gate. When the Muslim Turks asked if he was a Christian, he answered in the affirmative and was ruthlessly slaughtered.
Back on the street, if you turn right, then right again at the first alley, you will descend into the Muristan, which housed most of the Hospitaler Order in its heyday. Turning right at the fountain, you can walk under the arch next to Yassar T. Barakat. You can then head left on Muristan Road, pass the entrance to the late 19thcentury Lutheran Church of the Redeemer and enter the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Alexander Nevsky to your left.
In the mid-19th century, workers doing preliminary construction for a Russian consulate and pilgrims’ hostel uncovered the threshold of a Roman-period gate. Believing this was the Judgment Gate from the Gospels, the Russians changed their plans, and a few decades later built a church over the ancient ruins. Visitors to the church can view, along with the beautifully preserved threshold, a number of fourthcentury Byzantine remains.
All of the city’s most historic Christian communities come together on top of, or inside, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – one of Christianity’s most sacred sites. If you continue on to enter the market, then turn left at a large sign for Mike’s Center and climb the steps, you will eventually reach the Patriarchate of the Coptic (official Church of Egypt) community, and the adjoining early 20th-century Church of St. Helena.
Turn left to step onto the rooftop of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Ethiopian Christians live in a cluster of hovels. Once an extremely important Holy Land community and among the oldest Christian sects, they fell upon hard times in the 16th century and have remained here ever since.
Bending down, you can walk through an open door on the rooftop and descend into two dark Ethiopian chapels. When you exit onto the Holy Sepulchre plaza and head into the complex, you will find that its curious conglomeration of altars, chapels and architectural styles combines with regular religious processions to make this the most dynamic church in the country.
Five Christian sects have a foothold in the church: the Greek Orthodox, Latins (Catholics), Armenians, Copts and Syrian Orthodox. If you climb the steps just inside the entrance, you will reach one of the Latin chapels; the Greek Orthodox chapel is on the other side of the room.
Just inside the entrance, there is a reddish marble slab topped by eight white lamps and four tall sets of candelabra, called the Stone of Unction.
It marks the traditional spot on which Jesus was embalmed for burial. Behind the Stone of Unction, a brilliant wall mosaic illustrates the events that followed the Crucifixion: Jesus’s removal from the cross, his anointing, and Joseph of Arimathea carrying Jesus to the burial cave.
Facing the mosaic, you can look left to view an Armenian shrine called the Station of the Holy Women, which is surrounded by slender marble columns. Stairs lead up to the Armenian chapel.
The traditional site of Jesus’s entombment and resurrection is in an impressive rotunda, the oldest and the most important section of the church.
Immediately across from the rotunda is the Catholicon, a Greek Orthodox sanctuary. It is also called the Greek Choir, and during the Crusader period the air here resounded with hymns. The Greek Orthodox believe that the center of the world is in the Catholicon, and a large urn on the floor marks the spot.
Directly across from a tiny Coptic chapel on the back side of the rotunda, an opening leads to a Second Temple-period Jewish burial cave. Inside, you will find a Syrian Orthodox altar and several ancient niches for burial. Turning left when you exit will bring you to the Latin chapel.
You should stick around for at least one of the colorful, decorous daily processions.
You can then exit into the plaza, turn right, ascend the steps and follow Christian Quarter Road to its end. From there, you can turn left on St. Francis Road (it turns into Frères Road) to visit shops filled with Christmas items, then go right on New Gate Road to exit the Old City. If you look up to the left as you near New Gate, you will see a large Christmas tree on a rooftop, and a jolly plastic Santa Claus.
Winter opening hours (subject to sudden changes): Armenian Cathedral: Courtyard open all day; Sunday through Friday 3 to 3:40 p.m.
St. Mark: Monday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
St. John the Baptist: Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 6 p.m. The underground church opens at 2 p.m.
St. Alexander Nevsky: Daily, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Small fee Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Daily, dawn to dusk
For information on Christmas processions and worship, contact the Christian Information Center at (02) 627-2692 or browse its website, www. http://cicts.org/.