Tomb with a view

Protestants believe archeological evidence supports their claim that Jesus was crucified and buried in a leafy plaza near Damascus Gate.

jesus damascus gate 311 (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
jesus damascus gate 311
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
As with everything in this country, there’s more than one opinion. Catholics, historians and most of the world believe Jesus was crucified and buried at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a cavernous stone building shared by Catholics, Copts and Orthodox Christians. But Protestants believe that the site of the crucifixion and the burial could be in a different spot: a leafy, enclosed plaza across from east Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station near Damascus Gate, a meditative spot called the Garden Tomb.
The Protestant volunteers at the Garden Tomb are happy to point out the archeological evidence that supports their claim, but they don’t push visitors to decide either way. “I don’t know if Jesus was crucified here,” volunteer guide Roy Haywood tells a group of US Christian pilgrims on the Insight for Living Bible tour. “I do know Jesus was crucified and buried somewhere in Jerusalem. And I know that He is alive today – isn’t that the most important thing?”
The main clue that drew Protestants to reconsider the site of the crucifixion is the location of Golgotha, which means “skull” in Aramaic. They believe that a natural Jerusalem stone wall outside Damascus Gate, a stone quarry used during Herod’s time, was the same “place of the skull” described in the New Testament. A well-known English general named Charles Gordon, famous for his military exploits in China and the Sudan, was among the first well-regarded believers to endorse this location. This Golgotha also matches the description of being on a main thoroughfare near a gate to the city. Today, the bottom part of the skull is covered by the parking lot of the bus station.
The discovery of an ancient wine press and cisterns, which are still used for irrigating the gardens, provided proof that the area belonged to a wealthy man and supported a garden, matching the New Testament’s descriptions of gardens belonging to the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea. And when the owners started looking for another cistern or tunnel on the property in 1867, they unearthed a tomb carved out of a large rock, with a space for the rolling stone to cover the door – all clues that match up with the New Testament.
The land, which belonged to a German family, was purchased in 1894 by the Garden Tomb Association. In contrast to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which has been rebuilt at least three times, the Garden Tomb site has remained almost unchanged for the past 2,000 years.
“There’s academic and archeological proof that either of them is in the right place,” says Richard Meryon, the new CEO of the Garden Tomb. “Neither of them could be right, but we present the perfect visual image that matches the story. It becomes the binding image in their mind when they go home.
“Protestant people like the concept, whereas Catholicism venerates the site itself, but the story of Jesus is more important than guaranteeing the exact site.”
For those who get overwhelmed by the heady incense and throngs of visitors in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden Tomb offers quieter nooks for reflection and spaces for tour groups to conduct Eucharist, or communion, services. “We’re in between two bus stations and five minarets, but somehow this place is still quiet,” marvels Meryon.
He started at the tomb in January, following the death last July of Peter Wells, the previous CEO. Meryon ran a Christian charity in England for 10 years and had visited the tomb in 2000. His wife Rosalind’s ties to Israel run even deeper: She grew up in Amman, where her father served in King Abdullah I’s Arab Legion, and she volunteered as a nurse on Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha in the Negev during the Yom Kippur War.
THE SITE’S busy seasons are mid-March to mid-May and mid-September to mid-November. During the busy seasons, up to 2,000 people a day pass through the tomb, most with tour groups. Before tourism numbers dropped off with Operation Cast Lead and the recession, the Garden Tomb hosted 250,000 people a year. The tomb functions almost solely from donations left by visiting tour groups, which add up to NIS 6 million a year.
The visitors used to be just American and English, explains Steve Bridge, a retired minister from England completing his sixth or seventh two-month stint as a volunteer guide. But in the past years there have been increasing numbers of tours from Africa and Asia, especially China, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Those from countries such as Estonia are also coming in larger numbers.
Bridge’s favorite times in the garden are when the area is full of tour groups hosting services after their tour. “There are 10 worship services in different languages, different singing from different cultures; it’s quite moving,” he says.
Catholic groups are coming more frequently as well. “We want Catholic groups to come here as well and not tell them the Holy Sepulchre is wrong,” says Bridge.
Five full-time volunteer guides live in an apartment complex in the garden. Most are retired ministers, and come with their wives for a two-month stint. All the volunteers are quick to proclaim their love for Israel and their respect for the Jewish tie to the land.
“For Jews, the land is hugely important and the Temple is massively important, because the Jewish religion focuses on land,” Meryon says. “Christians don’t have such an identity with the land, they don’t have the same sense of pilgrimage... Jesus is our equivalent of the Temple. He is the whole package. The land is just interesting.”
Because the story of the place mirrors the Easter story of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, Easter is one of the most popular times for the Garden Tomb. The three-day celebration will feature six different services in a variety of languages. Up to 3,000 people will attend each of the two English services, plus another 500 for the Scandinavian and French services on Easter Sunday. “Easter is the pinnacle of our year,” explains Meryon, “but we celebrate the resurrection every day of the year.”
The lush garden is overseen by the volunteers and one full-time gardener, a Dutch woman named Riki Neeb who’s worked there in different capacities since 1993. Neeb started as a receptionist, but transitioned into gardening during the second intifada, when budget cuts forced the organization to lay off almost all of the full-time workers. “I never studied gardening, but I grew up on a farm in Holland,” Neeb says. “Now I learn by doing.”
Neeb concentrates on seasonal, native plants, like lavender, Easterlilies, roses, palm trees, almond trees, olive trees and pomegranates,since the native plants are most likely the same plants that would havebeen here 2,000 years ago. “Working at the garden is the most funbecause when people come in, the gardens are their first impression,”she says.
“This is my third time in the Garden Tomb,” says Peggy Lehman, atourist from Texas on the Insight for Living Bible tour. “No one knowsfor sure if it’s the site, but it certainly makes me reflect. The mostimportant thing is that the tomb is empty.”
“I’m amazed to be in a place where I know Jesus walked and talked,” herdaughter, Michelle Nesmith, adds. “It defies words for me.”
This is exactly the reaction Bridge and the rest of the volunteers arehoping for at the Garden Tomb. “We’re not into politics,” he says. “Wewant to place the emphasis on Jesus, the facts of his life, death andresurrection. We don’t want to get dragged into defending or arguingwith other groups. Historically, Holy Sepulchre has the history. Thismay or may not be the site, but it gives people a visual aid and helpsthem imagine the story.”