A Pilgrim’s Diary

FATHER ANDREW PEARCE Rector at St Theilo’s Church, Bishopston

A Pilgrim’s Diary: 2. The Way of the Cross

Last month, I began my Pilgrim’s Diary by sharing some of my thoughts and impressions on our first full day in the Holy Land, as we perambulated through the Old City of Jerusalem. Although the Old City is very compact – just 0.35 square miles! – there is so much to see in this ancient and historic city: and in last month’s BAY, I only got as far as recalling our travels within the Armenian and Jewish Quarters. So, this month, I’m going to continue our journey through the two remaining districts – the Muslim and Christian Quarters.


Despite the somewhat misleading name ‘quarter’, one mustn’t assume that the four districts are equal in size: and the Muslim Quarter, in the north-east of the Old City, is the largest both geographically and demographically. As the name suggests, the vast majority of the inhabitants of this quarter, adjacent to the Temple Mount itself, are Muslim.

For Christian pilgrims, the Muslim Quarter has a special significance because it is from here that they will begin their journey retracing the final steps of Jesus on his way to Calvary. The Via Dolorosa (a Latin phrase which can be translated into English as the ‘Way of Sorrows’ or ‘Way of Suffering’) is a street that traditionally is held to mark the path that Christ walked carrying His Cross. It follows a 2,000 feet-long, winding path from the site of the Antonia Fortress (a military barracks in Roman Jerusalem) to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the most revered church in the Christian world, marking for the faithful the traditional site of both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus.

The practice of walking in these final footsteps of Jesus before His Crucifixion is a well-established act of devotion for Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem: and the liturgical custom of following the ‘Stations of the Cross’ is well-established across Western Christianity, and is common not just within Roman Catholicism, but also within the Anglican tradition. It is a devotion that is particularly associated with Holy Week, and Roman Catholic churches (and some Anglican churches) customarily have fixed stations as focal points for prayer around the interior walls of their buildings. 

However, the current route is not that old, having been established only since the 18th century. The practice of observing fourteen ‘stations’ (stopping places for prayer) along the Way of Sorrows is, again, not all that ancient – going back only to the late 15th century. On our Pilgrimage, as we continued along the Via Dolorosa, we passed from the Muslim Quarter to the Christian Quarter. Only nine of the fourteen stations are actually found along the Via Dolorosa (most of them marked by a Roman numeral on a wall or doorway along the way). The remaining five are found within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself. 

The actual content of the fourteen stations has some-times been questioned – especially by Protestants – as many of them are not based on scriptural events from Jesus’ final hours, but are informed rather by tradition. In answer to these criticisms, Pope John Paul II intro-duceed a ‘Scriptural Way of the Cross’ in 1991 as an alternative to the traditional devotion, using fourteen stations that were all clearly based on the Gospel texts – but it’s the traditional form that continues to pre-dominate today.


Is the route of the Way of Sorrows actually the path that was really taken by Jesus? Probably not. Firstly, there is considerable doubt that the final condemnation of Jesus before Pontius Pilate actually took place at the Antonia fortress – it’s more likely than when visiting Rome, Pilate was headquartered in Herod’s Palace, in a quite separate part of the Old City, and that the judge-ment before the prefect took place here. Secondly, it is by no means universally agreed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre does mark the authentic site of the Crucifi-xion and Resurrection, and there is an alternative site in Jerusalem that some Christians favour (about which more next month). Personally, I think the Church of the Holy Sepulchre marks the correct spot – but we can’t be certain. So, if the starting point and, for some at least, the end point, of the Way of Sorrows is in doubt, what likelihood is there that the Via Dolorosa really does mark the actual path of Jesus’ last journey?

This, of course, is a question that we would encounter again and again on our Pilgrimage. Given the turbulent

history of Jerusalem, its changing topography, the limitations within our historical records, and the many (and sometimes) conflicting traditions, how could we be sure we were really following in the footsteps of Christ?

The answer, obviously, is that we couldn’t. In some cases, the evidence is stronger than for others – and our guide was very helpful at differentiating between ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ sites.

Category ‘A’, he explained, were those sites where the consensus was that we were definitely in the right geographical locality. So, for most (though not all) Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is Category ‘A’ – i.e. it does mark the site of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

A Category ‘B’ site is one which is in approximately the right place – sometimes, only very approximately. So, the Via Dolorosa might be argued to be Category ‘B’ – i.e. in walking it, we’re almost certainly not following in Jesus’ actual footsteps, merely an approximation of the path he would have taken through Jerusalem on his way to the Cross.

A Category ‘C’ site is one for which we have no evidence at all – only very vague, and often very suspect, traditions. There are, for example, four different places in Jerusalem which claim to be the place where Christ was imprisoned the night before his death. Some of these are clearly Category ‘C’!

So, how do we know that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a Category ‘A’ site? Well, according to the early Church historian Eusebius, the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century built a Roman temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Venus over the site where Jesus was buried. There has been a common practice throughout human history of sacred sites being appropriated by other faiths according to the prevailing political and religious fortunes of the day. The first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great, ordered in about 325 AD that Hadrian’s temple be replaced by a church. And during the excavations made for construc-tion of this church, the Empress Helena, Constantine’s mother, is said to have found the True Cross of Christ, and a tomb which was believed to be the one where the body of Christ once lay.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre as built under Constantine’s direction was actually a ‘double’ church with two great domes, one each for the two different holy sites – i.e. the traditional site of Golgotha, and the remains of the burial site identified by Helena. The building has suffered considerable damage as a result of fire, earthquake and deliberate destruction down through the centuries, culminating in its almost complete destruction in 1009 AD under the orders of the Fatimid caliphate, with little of the original building surviving: but it has always been rebuilt following the pattern of the original building, and so in its outline and much of its detail, what we see today is how the church would have appeared from its early days.


Notwithstanding the actions of some Muslim rulers (as during the Fatimid period), the majority viewpoint of Muslims towards the Christian holy places – and particularly the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – has been tolerant and respectful. One story says that the Caliph Umar, on visiting the church shortly after the Islamic conquest of Palestine, was invited to pray there, but refrained from doing so, in order that future generations should not misinterpret such an action and attempt to turn the church into a mosque.

Since the twelfth century, the responsibility for keeping the keys, and opening and closing the main doors of the Church, has resided with two Muslim families. Meanwhile, jurisdiction over the interior of the building has been divided between various different Christian denominations: the main custodians are the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic churches, but lesser responsibilities and territorial jurisdictions are held by the Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian Orthodox churches. In 1853, what has become known as the ‘Status Quo’ was established between these various denominations, and the jurisdictions, and use of common areas, is very tightly regulated. Even so, disputes do break out from time to time. One such incident took place in 2002, when on a hot summer’s day a Coptic monk moved his chair into the shade from its agreed spot, and the Ethiopians objected violently – quite literally – resulting in eleven being hospitalised! A fistfight broke out in 2004 because the Catholic Franciscans left a door to their chapel open during the Orthodox celebration of Holy Cross Day – interpreted by the Greeks as a deliberate insult. On Palm Sunday 2008, a Greek monk was ejected by a rival group, again leading to a brawl; and later that year, there was another clash between Greek and Armenian monks, again during a service. Meanwhile, because the ‘Status Quo’ stipulates that no changes can be made within the areas designated as common territory without the consent of all denominations, some parts of the fabric of the building are badly in need of repair as a result of a failure to agree a common plan of action. The so-called ‘Immovable Ladder’ is the most farcical symbol of such factionalism: a wooden ladder that has been located on the same ledge over the church’s main entrance for more than one hundred and fifty years because no-one can agree on who should move it! 

These sad divisions can so easily obscure the beauty and awe of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. On the plus side, the differing styles of worship and even the different languages in which the liturgies were spoken and sung, were reminders of the richness and beauty of our various church traditions. If only we could be a bit less disagreeable about them…

There were so many places inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that I found particularly moving: so much so, that it was impossible to take it all in on that first visit, and I was glad that I had the opportunity (with many of my fellow pilgrims) to return twice the follow-ing Sunday: once in the early hours of the morning, when the church was very quiet, with little of the hustle and bustle of our first visit; and again in the evening, when we joined in the beautiful Franciscan Service of Benediction, processing around the various chapels and shrines of this hallowed space at the heart of Christendom.

Here, then (in no particular order) were some of the places we visited within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

The Stone of Anointing, which tradition teaches to mark the spot where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea. The present stone has only been there for around two centuries, and the tradition that this was the place of anointing only goes back to the Crusader period. Nevertheless, there is something very powerful in kneeling and kiss-ing this richly-perfumed stone, as many pilgrims do.

A stairway leads to Golgotha (or Calvary), the traditional site of the Crucifixion. The main altar belongs to the Greek Orthodox. It contains the 12th Station of the Cross – the Rock of Calvary – which can be viewed through glass, and marks the actual spot where the Cross of Christ was raised. It is the most visited site within the church complex.

Directly beneath Golgotha is the Chapel of Adam. According to tradition, Jesus was crucified over the place where Adam’s skull was buried. Thus, in icons of the Crucifixion, it’s common to depict a skull at the foot of the Cross. Pictorially, and symbolically, this ties together the Pauline ideas of the ‘Old Adam’ and Christ as the ‘New Adam’.

The Chapel of the Invention of the Holy Cross – believed to be the place where Helena found the True Cross. A set of 22 stairs leads down to this chapel, and the walls of both sides of the stairs are completed covered by hundreds, perhaps thousands of crosses, incised in the stone by successive generations of faithful pilgrims.

The Aedicule, the chapel which contains the Holy Sepulchre – the Tomb of Christ – itself. Under the ‘Status Quo’, the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Armenian Churches all have rights to the interior of the Holy Sepulchre, and celebrate daily services there – all meticulously timetabled! To the rear of the Aedicule is the altar used by the Coptic Church: and at one point during our visit, the Coptic priests were celebrating a service at the same time as the Catholics around the other side – being almost drowned out by the loud booming organ installed by the Catholics as recently as 1982 (only the Catholics use the organ, and it felt really out of place to hear it in this particular setting).

But, for me, the most affecting symbol of all was the Omphalos near the central altar of church. What is an ‘omphalos’? It’s a Greek word meaning ‘navel.’ In Greek mythology, Zeus sent his two most majestic eagles flying from either end of the world to meet at its centre – the ‘navel’ of the world. An omphalos stone marked this centre point, and for many centuries the ancient Greeks believed this to be Delphi, site of the famous Oracle. However, the medieval Christian tradition placed the centre of the world at Jerusalem – as depicted in medieval maps such as Hereford Cathedral’s Mappa Mundi. So the omphalos was transferred from Delphi to Jerusalem: and, more than just Jerusalem, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself. This, for Christians, is our Ground Zero and our Prime Meridian: not Eden (wherever that may be), not Delphi, and certainly not Greenwich! Here is the ‘navel’ of the world, the cosmological centre of creation – the place where Christians believe the history of the world was changed forever through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And just like a pirate map, a cross, quite literally, marked the spot for a treasure beyond our wildest imaginings…

Unless, of course, Golgotha and the Tomb are both located somewhere else…about which more next month!   

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