Along the Via Dolorosa

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Jerusalem, Crusades, Solomon’s Temple, Wailing Wall, Jesus, General Allenby, Arabic script, virgin candles, Calvary, Roman soldiers, Bedouin headdresses, T-shirts, Mary, religious booklets, tourists & Brooklyn English

For millennia, Jerusalem’s Old City has inspired violent, possessive passions by partisans of three religions, and many factions of each, all vying for shards of the same sacred real estate. To walk up the Via Dolorosa is to reconceive the world’s endless religious struggles as metaphor of a neighborhood turf war without end. The neighborhood boasts three religious travel destinations so alluring, they aroused the Crusades.

The Wailing Wall is a remnant of Solomon’s Temple, built around 1000 BCE and destroyed four hundred years later by Babylonians—then reconstructed and destroyed again a millennium later by the Romans. A block away sits the boulder from which Mohammed leapt upward on a visit to heaven and where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac—now within the Dome of the Rock Mosque. All this lies a few earthbound steps from the Via Dolorosa, along which Jesus carried the cross up Calvary Hill.

If the Old City inflames the faithful with possessiveness, it at least astonished this faithless tourist. I came to Jerusalem in 1987, shortly before the Intifada, to visit a friend. “Take care,” he said when I mentioned the prospect of walking the Via Dolorosa. He shrugged one of those communicative “Life is like that…” and threw in one of those hand curlicues that Israelis specialize in. “Ancient feuds still play out there,” he said. “Mostly interfactional violence.”

Tourism goes on forever, as do the mundane lives of residents here—and their half-hummed prayer at the Wailing Wall, at the nearly adjacent Holy Sepulchre Church, at the Dome of the Rock Mosque. Eons of residents and tourists have bumped into one another along its carless lanes, perhaps most often while wandering through the souk—the street market that sprawls across Jesus’s path. Centuries of interreligious bargains struck there have yielded up such booty as souvenir ashtrays bearing images of the faith of choice; velvet paintings of the Last Supper, and of holy Arabic script; mother-of-pearl rosaries, and mother-of-pearl-inlaid olive-wood and cedar camels, omni-priestly sandals, inter-festive wedding dresses, woven rugs for prayer and general use and various Aladdin-ish brass oil lamps.

All along the way, the pilgrims stand out, blocking crowded corners in lost batches, far from (one guesses, overhearing) Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, France and, as a cheery old guy exclaimed, “Idaho!” They’re forever arriving, as so many have before, and tracing for themselves the Fourteen Stations of the Cross. The Stations have long been marked along the Via Dolorosa with those Roman numerals, I through XIV, that encircle the sidewalls of every Catholic and Orthodox church. Crusaders, having struggled to reach the Holy City, sometimes surveyed the path exactingly, pace by pace and angle by angle, then struggled home to their castles in Europe and replicated it in their backyards, a prayer repeated, sometimes scaled down, as though the geometric particulars of the route were themselves essentially sacred.

Compass Rose

I began the route, map in hand and edgy because that was the mood of the city. Some of the stations are a bit off the street, in surprising niches. Guides wandered up to strollers. One Abdul Jaussi said he was a high school teacher and offered to show me “everything.”

“Are you Catholic?” he asked.

“Jewish by birth,” I answered, “but not religious.”

“But you are nice!” he exclaimed.

That out of the way, we agreed on a fee and he commenced to guide: “You came into the Old City through the Lion’s Gate.” He pointed back down the street toward an arched opening in the high stone wall that ringed the city. “Crusaders came in there. General Allenby came in there when the British took over in 1917. In 1967, General Moshe Dyan came through the Lion’s Gate too. All the conquerors came through that gate.”

He led me down the street, into the yard of a Moslem elementary school, and, with his foot, pointed out the First Station of the Cross, where Jesus had been condemned by the crowd that chose to release Barabbas. A certain tan, concave cobblestone in the center of a rough basketball court marked the sacred spot. There was a half-cup of rainwater in it from a morning shower. A netless hoop dangled askew from backboard, and a tetherball pole stood a few yards from the stone, not quite on the sidelines.

A schoolboy tapped the cobblestone with his foot. “You may wash your hands here too,” he said in English. The stone had worn smooth. An artist had recently painted murals on the courtyard walls: an ostrich, a jack-in-the-pulpit and several deer on what could have been a New England mountainside. At the exit hung a big red poster of a dejected, stooping child clutching a teddy bear. Abdul translated the legend: “Be aware of troubled children.”

Electric saws snarled through the yard. On Fridays at three in the afternoon, said Abdul, Franciscans walked the route, some bearing crosses. And by prearrangement, which Abdul could handle should I so wish, groups, led by priests, could rent crosses of their own to carry along. Indeed, Abdul later took me to a woodshop in a back alley nearby, where a couple of carpenters repaired organ pipes next to a stack of rental crosses they’d constructed. Passing the schoolyard, an old man hugged bags of groceries. A guided pair of tourists stood, heads turning by degrees, taking in a sequence of distant sights across the valley as their guide named them. Two Greek Orthodox priests hurried by, heads close in talk, followed by a pair of similarly robed, similarly conversing Hassidic Jews, two Arab workers with shovels, two little girls giggling their way home from school and two teen boys gossiping in Brooklyn English.

Amidst this everydayness, the deep traditions of three major religions had formed. There must also have been shoppers and visitors and priests on other business the day of the Crucifixion and the day of Mohammed’s heavenward journey and even the day of the destruction of the Temple, just as we see shoppers and kids on bikes at the edges of newspaper photos of war scenes.

Abdul led me up the street to the Second Station, in the courtyard of a Franciscan convent built where Jesus had received the cross. Pillars and ornamental stone scrollwork from earlier buildings had been arranged about the yard, “said to have come from Pilate’s headquarters,” said Abdul. A gray all-weather model of Crusade-era Jerusalem stood in a corner.

Many visitors here had dual identities: they were tourists and worshipers. A party of ten, whispering in Italian, many with fold-down ballplayer sunglasses, shuffled through the yard, stoop-necked with fatigue. Pilate had washed his hands of Jesus here. Lurid dioramas with sad-faced figures replicated the anguished scene. A few tourists knelt and touched a tiny grid gouged in the fieldstone, “Made by bored Roman soldiers who played dice upon it,” said Abdul.

A tractor towing a wagon of rolled-up rugs roared past. Someone had stacked egg crates and garbage sacks in the street, right below the Third Station plaque, where Jesus had fallen for the first time. A man carrying perhaps a dozen loaves of bread in a clear plastic sack walked by, shoes clicking briskly. A street vendor whispered, “Please, sir-r-r,” insistently, repeatedly shoving forward a religious booklet. The proprietor of a souvenir-and-food stall shouted across to me, “New Testament! Three dollar!”

Before the Armenian Church, twenty yards farther on, we came to the Fourth Station, where Jesus had encountered his mother, Mary. Directly across from it, before another knickknack shop, T-shirts swung like flags in the morning heat: “My Grandmother Went to Israel and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt.” Under its canopy the Arab proprietor sipped tea, almost lost between high stacks of sheepskin booties, Bedouin headdresses and more smart-ass shirts: “I Climbed Masada,” and, over a picture of a jet fighter, “America, Don’t Worry—Israel Is Behind You.”

Abdul walked on up the street and put his hand into a palm-sized nook in a stone wall. This was Station Five. “Here, where Simon of Cyrene helped carry the cross, Greeks believe Simon put his hand,” Abdul said. With the proud presenting gesture of a used-car dealer, he patted the rock, polished smooth by many hands before his. The portable radio in the film-and-guidebook shop across the way played tinny heavy metal. Next door, in “Olivewood Workshop,” woodworkers lathed artifacts.

Where Via Dolorosa turned off a street called El Wad, amidst more shops, Abdul pointed down and announced, still in his guide’s voice, “Yesterday they kill one person right here. In the night. Jew? Arab? We do not know. They took it away, the body.” Another bit of chatty information, or misinformation. What did Abdul make of it? “Arab killing Arab. Gangs, not tourist.”

Beyond the spot was a fruit stall where women picked through stacks of oranges and almonds, scents mixing, and more stacks of gleaming carrots, and cabbages the size of goats’ heads. “Families live all around here,” Abdul said. “It is good. You don’t need $10,000 car, and vegetable is here. Live two, three family together.” Members of a large English delegation plodded past, their transit taking several minutes. Abdul waited a bit on the other side of the line and then moved far ahead. He seemed to know all the market men, nodding and chatting with a friend, then another farther along.

I walked past Station Six, where St. Veronica had wiped Jesus’s face, past Hubbly Bubbly Store and then past St. Veronica Gift Shop, whose window was full of graphic statuary of the sufferings of Jesus. A dog-eared sign said, in faded letters, “Sale 50%.” Jesus had fallen for the second time at Station Seven. A friend of Abdul’s ran a crucifix and rosary and Star of David stall that also sold benign “PEACE” T-shirts and also ones that read “Fighting for Peace Is Like Fucking for Virginity.” The adjacent stall sold interfaith diapers.

I chased Abdul past lamb carcasses hanging from a butcher’s stall. Out a shop window peered an Arabic teenager, veil drawn back, a wistful smile and tears on her cowled face. We passed, and declined to buy purses in piles, stacked copper pots, schools of salted fish. Coming out at the far end of the arched, packed street market, I jogged right and caught up with Abdul where Jesus had met the women of the city, at Station Eight.

We mounted ramp-like stairs at a large sign that said ZALTIMO SWEETS, clambered between children shooting marbles on the rough stone and climbed by the rear porch of a youth hostel called Tabasco, near Station Nine, where Jesus had fallen for the third time. Abdul gaped across at the European teenagers lounging shirtless on the hostel’s rear deck and muttered, “They drink beer there.”

A sign by the hostel read, “Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate.” We approached the prime real estate of Christianity—where a half-dozen sects eternally attended their faithful tasks, asprawl each other like old lovers. Their dominions intertwined, stacked and interwoven directly above the sacred ground of Calvary. An Ethiopian Orthodox Monastery lay atop the Holy Sepulchre Church. The nub of the great church dome stuck into their courtyard, a small cupola in the monastery yard. Far below, Coptic, Greek, Armenian and Roman sects had uneasily shared the cubic volume of Holy Proximity for centuries. Protestants had no place here, and their historians have asserted other locations for Christ’s tomb, a few kilometers away.

In the green and pleasant courtyard of the Ethiopians, priests smiled in the sunshine. Their round-shouldered plaster cells seemed serene, removed from the jumble of the Christian Quarter. A bony cat dragged a bag of chicken bones its own size through an archway into the adjacent Coptic courtyard.

Abdul led me down through a tiny Ethiopian chapel decorated with paintings of Solomon and Sheba, into the Coptic Sanctuary below, then curling down more stairs into the grand Holy Sepulchre Church itself. The final five stations of the cross were within this marbled maze, clustered, overlapping patches administered by contending orders.

At Station Ten, Roman soldiers had taken Jesus’s robe. Roman Catholic territory started here and included the Eleventh Station, a few feet away, where Christ had been nailed to the Cross. Just steps further along, the Greek Orthodox controlled Station Twelve, where the cross had stood, and Station Thirteen, where Christ had been taken down. The dimly lit church branched into side chambers everywhere. Fragrant, acrid pine incense wafted through everyone’s territory.

All over the dusky walls hung an overwhelming mishmash of sorrowful icons, of rose and tan and black and white marble panels, set above scrolled railings and mosaic floors, an accumulated decoration of wonderment.

“Do you want to touch the real Calvary, where it really happened?” Abdul asked.

I nodded. Abdul lifted the velvet skirt draped over a table of glimmering votive candles, lanterns, statues. In the dimness below, I made out, then touched with fingertips, a slit the width of my palm, opening through the marble floor. I squeezed my fingers down into it and felt the rough, cold stone of blessedness, Golgotha, the Place of Skulls, the quick beneath the ornament of the Church. In candlelight, I glimpsed the cold, sacred rock and recalled most of a verse from T.S. Eliot’s The Hippopotamus:

Flesh-and-blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.

This was an obscure facility. I looked up. No one in the passing crowd glanced down. A tourist stopped Abdul, who appeared especially knowing here, and asked, “Is this where the REAL THING happened?”

“Yes, yes,” Abdul answered assuringly. The woman’s eyes glowed. Overhearing this, an elderly priest, perhaps Italian, slowly placed his hand over his mouth, seemingly astonished, then embarrassed by his own strong reaction. Throughout the stone chambers, cameras flashed, collecting memories.

A nun, eyes always averted, dutifully scraped from a marble shelf the wax of a thousand candles recently bought, placed, lit and spent, a thousand pleas for merciful intervention. By her side, an Orthodox priest in flowing robe offered to sell passersby more “virgin candles.” A Greek teenager in pink pedal-pushers and red sneakers whispered excitedly and giggled and pointed, arm in arm with her lean young man. Another tourist asked Abdul, “Afterwards, they washed His body on that rock?”


“That actual rock?”

“It’s a tradition…” Abdul began to answer, then stopped and shrugged. He led me to the tomb, the Fourteenth Station, a tiny hut, an ornate, two-chambered mausoleum, free standing, far beneath the huge church dome and the Ethiopian goat pasture above. In the tiny anteroom of the hut rested the rock slab that had sealed, then come away from, the tomb where Jesus had lain. It was covered with a shield of thick plate glass.

An old couple, perhaps from the American Midwest, touched the glass, fingertips darting out then clenching back into pockets. A dark-robed Orthodox priest bent slowly down, as though savoring a beckoning lover, and kissed the glass, downright romanced it, stayed on it for one, then two whole minutes, holding up the line, his lips a snail glued to the sidewall of a fish tank. The line crowded up behind, but no one disturbed his quaint ecstasy. Two nuns placed their rosaries beside the priest’s cheeks, to capture proximate holiness.

We crouched and entered the inner chamber of the hut, the tomb itself. A deep-eyed, somber, cassocked priest attended the tiny room. He regarded Abdul—they must have encountered one another three or four times on a busy tourist day for years without end—and Abdul did his job, blending sects: “This is where our Lord is buried,” he said, “and you may light a candle…” We crouched and backed out, discreetly.

In the bright street, a choir of doleful brothers, at the end of Via Dolorosa, chanted plainsong. Their music was pure, beautiful, a modal, snaking, endless tune so like the call of the muezzin a block away announcing another prayer time from the minaret of the Dome of the Rock Mosque, and so like the muttered tuneful chants of the rabbis a block away at the Wailing Wall.

Abdul smiled and led me graciously past one final murder site and on to the Holy Sephulcre Gifte Shoppe, where he nodded to another friend and where crowns of thorns, in several hat sizes, went for two dollars apiece, then on to the Jaffa Gate, and on out through the wall to the New Jerusalem.


Mark Kramer has written for The Boston Globe, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, The Atlantic Monthly, Outside and other publications. His books include Three Farms: Making Milk, Meat and Money from the American Soil, Invasive Procedures: A Year in the World of Two Surgeons, and Travels with a Hungry Bear: A Journey to the Russian Heartland. He co-edited the anthologies Literary Journalism and Telling True Stories: a writer’s guide to narrative nonfiction from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, published by Plume/Penguin in 2007 and adopted by many writing classes. He was, from 2001–2007, writer-in-residence and Founding Director of the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism. He was writer-in-residence and professor of journalism at Boston University from 1991–2001 and taught at Smith College for a decade before that. He lives near Boston and runs an ongoing workshop for mid-career writers with longform projects. See for more.

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