Via Dolorosa – Way of the Sorrow

Sometimes called the Way of the Cross or the Way of Sorrow, the Via Dolorosa represents the route that Jesus followed, according to tradition, from condemnation to crucifixion.

Lighting a candle at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Lighting a candle at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Every Friday afternoon, pilgrims to the Holy City of Jerusalem follow brown-robed Franciscan priests along the Via Dolorosa. For many devout Christians this walk in the footsteps of Jesus is the highlight of their trip to Israel.
Following quietly behind a group leader who may be bent over under the weight of a large wooden cross, they pause at each of 14 stations along the route. They listen in somber contemplation as the priests read from the Bible. Then all recite a solemn prayer.
Sometimes called the Way of the Cross or the Way of Sorrow, the Via Dolorosa represents the route that Jesus followed, according to tradition, from condemnation to crucifixion. It begins where the Antonia Fortress stood 2,000 years ago.
Today the site is occupied by the Omariya School of Islamic Studies.
Starting the Via Dolorosa at Antonia Fortress is a 13th-century modification of several more ancient routes. But although the Byzantines commenced from Gethsemane (at the foot of the Mount of Olives) and medieval pilgrims began on Mount Zion, the final section of the Via Dolorosa has remained unchanged. It is the world-famous Church of the Holy Sepulchre – almost universally accepted as the site at which Jesus was said to have been crucified, buried, and subsequently resurrected.
Nothing remains of the large fortress that King Herod named Antonia after his friend Mark Antony, for it was demolished at the time that the Second Temple was destroyed. In its heyday, the fortress was splendid and complex, with two main sections. It contained elegant lodgings for the Roman governor and big courtyards whose flagstone paving was called lithostratos.
A Roman infantry unit was garrisoned at the fort, encamped in the courtyard.
During festivals, the troops were placed on alert and told to watch for signs of Jewish rebellion – especially on the Temple Mount. In the absence of trouble, the Roman soldiers stationed at Antonia would while away their time by playing games that they carved into the flagstone pavement.
Part of the walk along the Via Dolorosa is based on traditions – legacies from the past that have become accepted by the Christian world. However, most of the stations along the route commemorate events specifically mentioned in the New Testament. Over the years, chapels and oratories were built at some of the stations, a few of which are open only during the Friday afternoon procession. Each station is marked by Roman numerals.
Limited by their Holy Land touring timetable, not all pilgrims make it to the Friday procession. Thus, groups can be seen walking the Via Dolorosa all week long from early morning until the late afternoon. Carrying their Bibles, they tread the route so similar to that which Jesus would have followed, stopping outside each of the various stations to voice an earnest prayer.
Courtyard of the Omariya School The New Testament states that the Roman governor “brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement...” (John 19:13). However, prayers at the first station of the Via Dolorosa are spoken on the site where the Palace once stood, also called the Praetorium (today the courtyard of the Omariya School). The only opportunity to enter this interesting courtyard is on Fridays before the procession begins.
The Omariya School’s courtyard (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
The Via Dolorosa continues at the Franciscan Compound nearby. The phrase “II Statio” is written on the compound’s exterior wall.
The New Testament relates that Roman governor Pontius Pilate handed Jesus over to the Roman soldiers. Two striking sanctuaries inside the Franciscan compound commemorate the events that occurred next: Jesus was laughed at, mockingly called the King of the Jews, crowned with thorns and tortured.
The Chapel of the Condemnation and Imposition of the Cross is located to your left after you walk through the entrance.
Originally a Byzantine church of great beauty, it was transformed into a mosque during a later era. In 1904 the chapel was renovated and returned to its former Byzantine splendor. Five shiny white domes top today’s lovely sanctuary, each of them resting on a stained-glass window-enveloped drum.
The Church of the Flagellation is on the other side of the courtyard. In Roman times, those prisoners who were sentenced to die were first scourged with leather whips called flagella. This horrid instrument ended in leather thongs with bone or metal slivers that would rip the skin and draw blood – an especially cruel punishment for those condemned to death.
Jesus’s crown of thorns makes up the basic motif of this powerful chapel. An extraordinary mosaic crown of thorns interwoven with light-colored flowers covers the inner dome of the sanctuary.
Several of the geometric designs on the floor also resemble the spiky laurel, and an abstract half-circular thorn design dominates the entrance.
To continue, follow Via Dolorosa Street to the bottom, passing under an arch. From the 16th to the 20th centuries the arch was believed to be the arch from which Pilate displayed Jesus to the populace with the words “Behold the man,” or “Here is the man” (Ecce Homo) (John 19:5). Evidence that it was actually built in 135 by the Emperor Hadrian has not kept pilgrims from flocking to the arch, where they can recall the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate. If you turn left onto Hagai/El-Wad Street you will find Station III on the corner.
Crowned with thorns, lugging the cross or crossbeam, Jesus attempted to walk forward. Tradition holds that this is where he collapsed under the heavy load.
Two ancient pillars are incorporated into the iron gate in front of Station 3 and a powerful bas-relief of Jesus’s fall is located over the door to the Armenian chapel established on the site.
It is believed Mary was standing nearby when Jesus collapsed, and that she broke through the crowds to reach him. They are said to have met at about this spot, today the fourth station. A poignant relief above the entrance to the oratory shows Jesus holding a cross, his head and Mary’s so close together that they could almost have been touching. To continue, turn right at the first corner (Via Dolorosa Street). The next station is immediately on the left.
Obviously, Jesus wasn’t going to be able to finish the march while carrying the cross, so the Roman soldiers accompanying him looked into the crowd for someone to take over. “A certain man from Cyrene [today’s Libya], Simon... was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross” (Mark 15:21).
Above the chapel door a Latin inscription reads “Simoni-Cyrenaeo Crux Imponitur” – Simon takes up the cross.
Simon helped Jesus bear the cross, assisting him all the way to the foot of Calvary – the site of the crucifixion.
To the right of the door you will see a depression in the wall. According to Christian tradition, Jesus rested a palm here to gain a small moment of respite.
Pilgrims invariably do so, as well.
The next station is up Via Dolorosa Street: a closed door inscribed with the words VI STATIO.
The walk probably seemed never-ending and Jesus was tired, dusty, injured and covered with blood. At this point, it is said, a woman holding a cold, wet cloth rushed to Jesus’s side and washed his face.
Looking down at the cloth, she found that an impression of Jesus’s features had remained on the fabric. Because the Greek word for true is “vera” and “icone” means image, tradition has named the woman Veronica and implies that this is where she lived.
Some people believe that long before Jesus was crucified, Veronica was very ill. According to this tradition, she was healed after touching one of Jesus’s garments and subsequently followed him everywhere he went. A legend relates that after Jesus was crucified, Emperor Tiberius summoned Veronica – and the cloth – to his palace. One look at the imprinted image and Tiberius was cured of leprosy.
At the end of the 19th century, the Greek Catholics who own this site built a small house of worship over a Byzantine monastery erected here in ancient times.
The lovely chapel is accessible from the door next to the station and the ancient monastery’s large, vaulted crypt is also open to visitors.
The seventh station is located at the intersection of Via Dolorosa Street and El Zeit/Beit Habad Street. Khan El Zeit was part of the Roman Cardo laid out by Emperor Hadrian in the year 135.
After the Last Supper, Jesus returned to Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives and spent the night in prayer. Early in the morning he was arrested and taken first to the house of Annas, then to High Priest Caiaphas and finally to the Roman governor’s palace. Now, overcome with fatigue and struggling up the steep ascent, he fell once again as he exited the city. Christian tradition holds that this was the site of the gate through which he passed, the gate on which the Romans posted death sentences for public information. Many call it the Judgment Gate.
Franciscan priests bought the site in 1875 and built adjacent chapels, one slightly above the other. They are divided by a gigantic pillar left in situ, which once adorned the Roman Cardo. To continue, ascend El Khanqa Street, next to the intersection, and climb 16 steps to the next (eighth) station.
It is here that Jesus is believed to have stopped to speak to the women of Jerusalem.
“A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:27-28).
All that is visible at Station VIII are a cross and the Greek word “NIKA” engraved in a stone. NIKA means “Jesus Christ conquers.” The wall on which they are found belongs to a large Greek Orthodox monastery that blocks the continuation of the Via Dolorosa. As a result you will have to turn around and backtrack to continue the Way of the Cross. Descend the stairs to return to Khan El Zeit/Beit Habad Street. Turn right, and at the sign leading to the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, ascend the stairs.
A pillar is encased in the wall just outside the Coptic Patriarchate and directly across from the Coptic Church of St.
Anthony. This column marks the spot at which Jesus faltered and fell one final time.
Walk through the gate to your left onto the rooftop terrace. Ethiopian Christians live in the humble dwellings you see around you. A large cupola on the terrace covers the underground Chapel of St. Helena, located within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The next stations are all located in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Duck under the low ceiling of a door at the far end of the terrace, descending into St.
Michael’s Ethiopian Chapel. Exit to find yourself in the courtyard in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
In the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Of some 300 churches erected under the Byzantines, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was the largest, the most elaborate and the most important. Destroyed during the Persian conquest in 614, rebuilt and then ravaged again by later Muslims, the church underwent repeated cycles of destruction and repair. What you see before you today is the Romanesque church constructed by the Crusaders. It is far smaller and much less ornate than the original Byzantine basilica but still most impressive to behold.
Enter the church, then immediately climb the stairs to your right. You have reached the site of Calvary (the crucifixion).
From this point on there will be no numbers on the stations. Station X is located at a window to your right.
You are standing near the site of the crucifixion.
According to the New Testament, “When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares...” (John 19:23).
The window overlooks a chapel marking the spot at which Jesus was disrobed and humiliated before being nailed to the cross.
Above the gilded altar and couched in an elaborate golden frame is a touching picture of women weeping at the crucifixion site.
To reach Station XI, pass the window and stop in front of the Latin (Catholic) chapel.
If you try to imagine the scene, you will understand the sorrow and gravity with which pilgrims pray at this site. They can almost hear the sound of women wailing, the thud of the hammer pounding in the nails, and the screams of the other men.
A striking altar designates the site at which Jesus was nailed to the cross. The altar, made in Florence, Italy, is a fine example of Renaissance art. Ringed by six panels of hammered silver, it was created in 1588 and donated by Cardinal Medici a few decades later. An intensely moving painting that hangs above the altar depicts Jesus lying prone at his mother’s feet.
Pass under an ornamental arch to reach the next station.
Built over the exact spot on which Jesus is believed to have been crucified, the Greek altar with its small marble pillars is far more elaborate than its Latin counterpart at Station XI. Beneath the stand is a large silver disk. Pilgrims invariably put their hands through the hole in the middle to touch the rock that held the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
Matthew wrote “... When Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
The earth shook and the rocks split.” (Matthew 27:50-51). You can clearly see a crack in the rock. Many believe it was formed at the moment when the earth shuddered with anguish.
Station XIII is situated between the Greek Orthodox and the Catholic altars.
According to tradition, it was here that Mary took Jesus’s body into her arms after he was removed from the cross. A statuette representing Mary is enclosed in glass and situated above an altar. Adorned with jewelry that was donated by thankful pilgrims, the figure is made of painted wood and appropriately called Our Lady of Sorrows.
It was presented to the church in 1778 by the queen of Portugal.
You will note that the figure is pierced with a sword. When Jesus was still a baby, the righteous Simeon had told Mary, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.
And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35).
Descend by the second set of stairs, to reach a reddish marble slab.
Called the Stone of the Anointing, or Unction, it marks the traditional spot on which Jesus was prepared for burial (embalmed).
“Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. He was accompanied by Nicodemus... Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs” (John 19:38-40).
Behind the slab a brilliant wall mosaic illustrates the events that followed the crucifixion: Jesus’s removal from the cross, preparation for burial and Joseph of Arimathea carrying Jesus to the burial cave.
The 14th and last station is a rotunda, containing the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb.
Jesus’s tomb, the Holy Sepulchre, is the oldest and the most important section of the church. It is located in an impressive rotunda whose magnificent cupola is supported by massive pillars. The tomb is encased in a rectangular edifice, rebuilt in 1810 after a terrible fire destroyed much of the church. Within the encasement are two halls. The atrium is called the Chapel of the Angel: “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and... said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus... he is not here; he has risen, just as he said...” (Matthew 28:1-6).
A piece of the rolling stone is on display in the Chapel of the Angel. It is locked inside a glass podium for safekeeping, for when it was exposed, pilgrims chopped off chunks of the rock to take back home.
Very few people can fit into the second chamber at one time. Inside, the tomb is covered with a marble slab and decorated with bas-reliefs.
Praying at Jesus’s tomb, the oldest and most important section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
This completes the Via Dolorosa. Devout Christians who follow this sad route, praying as they reach each station, find it an enormously emotional ordeal. Not only do they contemplate the agony of Jesus, but many a pilgrim also makes the connection between Jesus’ many sorrows – and his or her own. • Hours of those churches and chapels open, without regard to the Friday procession: Flagellation and Condemnation: Daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Chapel at Station VII: Open all day
Church of the Holy Sepulchre: 4 a.m. to 7 p.m. Note: The Friday procession leaves the Omariya School at 3 p.m. solar time, for this is the hour at which Jesus is believed to have died. Thus, when Israel is on daylight saving time, the procession is at to 4 p.m.