Our last stop for the day was Mt. Zion, the highest point in ancient Jerusalem – packed with places of historical and religious significance.
Mt. Zion is mentioned throughout the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) but it’s location has ‘moved’ several times. When Herod greatly expanded the 2nd Temple, the entire Temple Mount was considered Mt. Zion. Following the Roman destruction of the Temple/Jerusalem in 70 AD, the name Mt. Zion was transferred to its present location.
We started with a stop at the Zion Gate to the Old City. This was a scene of fierce fighting during the 6-day war in 1967 that lead to the creation of the modern State of Israel. You can still see the marks of bullets in/around the gate.
Zion Gate to Old Jerusalem; close up of gate showing bullet marks from 6-day war in 1967
Now outside the gates of the Old City, Mt. Zion was home to a first century Judaeo-Christian synagogue and a succession churches built on the site including a Byzantine basilica. Currently, Mt. Zion is now home to the Church of the Dormition (identified in Christian tradition as the place where the Virgin Mary died — or “fell asleep”), the Cenacle (which commemorates the Last Supper and where the Holy Spirit landed on the disciples at Pentecost), and the Tomb of David.
Cenacle – the Upper Room
We began with a visit to the Last Supper upper room (the Cenacle). The present Gothic-arched Cenacle is a restoration of a Crusader chapel built in the 12th century as part of the Church of Our Lady of Mount Zion. One of the columns in the room is carved with the image of two pelicans feeding on the blood from their mother’s heart – symbolizing Christ giving his blood/life for our salvation.
Close up and distance view of the pelicans feeding pillar
In the 16th century, the room was converted to a mosque, after Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims. They added stained glass windows inscribed with the Islamic credo “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet” and a decorative stone arch. There is also still a Muslim minaret above the Cenacle.
More recently, a sculpture has been added in the room commemorating Christ as the tree, with believers as the branches. The sculpture includes shafts of wheat (representing the bread of life) and grapes (cup of the covenant).
King David’s Tomb
Directly beneath the Cenacle is the Tomb of King David. According to our guide Adina, sometime around the crusader era a belief that David’s tomb was on the present Mt. Zion began to develop among Christian pilgrims, who celebrated David’s memory as an ancestor of Jesus. The crusaders actually build the present Tomb of David, with it’s large stone tomb (Adina joked that David would have had to be an extremely large man to fit in that tomb (about 9 ft. in length, separated by a screen, as in a synagogue, for viewing separately by men and women). Apparently 3 of the walls in the room date back to the first century synagogue-church.
Entrance to King David’s Tomb at Mt. Zion; visitors at the tomb (men’s side)
Even though the Bible says David was buried in the City of David (not on Mount Zion), this Mt. Zion tomb came to be accepted as David’s Tomb by Jews and is now a site revered by Jews and Muslims.
We entered the tomb via a courtyard which is part of a former Franciscan monastery (closed in 1551). The complex has three simple rooms without furniture (except for wooden benches). The entrance hall is used as a synagogue, again, accounting for the male/female separation when viewing the tomb itself.
Back in the courtyard is a large statue of King David. The nose of the statue has been broken off and Adina explained that this was likely the work of Orthodox Jews who believe such statues to be idols and therefore try to destroy/deface them.
After 8 days together (including our first day of travel to Israel), we finally got a group photo around the base of the Statue of King David on Mt. Zion. It has been wonderful to get to know all the folks on our journey – each with their own personality and perspective brought something unique to our little band of pilgrims. Thank you to everyone for helping to make this such a memorable and faith-filled experience!
We opted not (with some regrets) to tour the Church of the Dormition, and walked back to our bus for the ride back to our hotel for our final dinner together in the Holy Land. I should note that breakfasts and dinners throughout our time in Israel were included in the price of the trip at the places we were staying. These meals were always served buffet style. The best buffets (in my opinion) were at our last hotel (Prima Kings) in Jerusalem. They obviously cater to tourist groups, as their dining rooms were quite large and their buffets were extensive. Our group had a couple of designated tables, but they kept moving us around in the dining room during our stay. It became a challenge to locate our tables at each meal!
After dinner, we were back on the bus just before 8 p.m. for our ride back to Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion airport. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 1 a.m. on Nov. 15. We thought our arrival before 9 p.m. was awfully early, but apparently departures at night are very popular and the lines for check-in and security were very long. My husband and I were one of the last ones to get through (just ended up in the slowest lines) and then hit a glitch at the biometric passport check. I’d never seen such a thing (haven’t traveled out of the country by air in a very long time) and had trouble figuring out what I was supposed to do. The process involved scanning the photo in my passport while a camera checked the features of my face against my passport. I think I must not have been looking at the camera when I scanned my passport because I got a message to report to the Border Control office (a little disconcerting). When I got there, an Israeli official looked at the picture in my passport and at me, and then gave me my exit visa and wished me a safe trip home.
Once in the gate area (sometime after 11 p.m.) we settled in for the wait before boarding our flight home. It is always a bit disconcerting to be in an airport where most of the announcements are NOT given in your native language. Sometime around midnight all of sudden someone checked the flight board and the word started passing that our flight had moved to a different gate (in a different concourse). So, we all got up and began shuffling off to the correct gate. Since a few members of our group were still out wandering around the shops in the main terminal, we had a bit of concern how to get word to them that the gate had changed. Eventually, we had to rely on the hope that they would check one of the flight information boards, to see that we had moved – which they did.
The flight home left on time, but unlike the trip to Israel, the winds were against us. That meant that rather than a 9.5 hour flight, our return flight lasted nearly 12 hours (ugh) packed in like sardines in a 9-seat across El Al Dreamliner plane. Most of us opted to try and get some sleep on the plane, but it wasn’t easy. We arrived safely, but bleary-eyed at the Newark airport at 6 a.m. local time (1 p.m. Israel time). By 8 a.m. we were on our chartered bus on the way back to Pennsylvania.
With any luck, we’ll be able to get the group together sometime in January to share photos and stories of our trip.
Again, I encourage any members of our group who are reading this blog, to submit comments and/or photos to this blog to add your perspective on the places we visited.