“This tomb is 2,500 years old” the guide tells us by the natural light shining through the stone staircase that forms the entrance to the cavern. “Here are buried Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi and their followers. They are the last three prophets before Jesus.” The cave, he tells us lighting a handful of candles that will light our way once we step from the main atrium into the two concentric circles of tunnels that contain the 50 or so tombs, is man-made; chiselled from solid rock with primitive tools over a period of at least ten years in preparation for its role as the resting place of the prophets and their disciples.
The Mount of Olives has been Judaism’s principal necropolis ever since. It is the foretold starting point for the return of the messiah and the resurrection of the faithful, and nowadays a plot costs up to $100,000. There is an almost unbroken continuity of use at this site dating back to the burial of the prophets, making it the oldest continually used graveyard in the world. From Jerusalem, particularly the walls around Temple Mount, the slope is striking; a seemingly endless tumble of off-white tombs set into the sand-coloured slope. The top of the Mount itself likewise gives by far the best of many great views of Jerusalem’s old city, just across the valley. This seems fitting, because to an extent it defines the city’s many stories.
As a non-religious tourist you start finding the geography of Jerusalem’s holy sites improbable after a while. The defining events of three major religions – Abraham’s preparation for the sacrifice of his son, the construction of the Temple of Solomon, the sites of Jesus’s crucifixion and interment and that of Muhammad’s ascension – all purportedly took place within a mile or so’s radius of one another. You can walk between all of them, leisurely, in an afternoon. While it’s not the whole story, the hike up the Mount of Olives put a lot of this seeming coincidence into perspective.
We left old Jerusalem via the Lion’s Gate, following the Via Dolorosa, but you could equally head out of the Dung Gate. There’s nothing euphemistic about the name; it was literally the entrance through which the city’s waste was ejected. After a steep descent into the valley you re-emerge at the Garden of Gethsemane. This was one of Jesus’s favourite places to pray, not just because it lies in the shadow of Temple Mount (and so, in his day, the iconic temple) but also because, as a devout Jew, his ancestors spiritual and biological would have been buried above in the giant, timeless cemetery that is the Mount of Olives. ‘Gethsemane’ translates roughly as ‘olive press’ and the garden outside the Church of All Nations contains a beautiful cluster of olive trees apparently over 2,000 years old, and consequently not unlikely to be the very trees Jesus prayed at. Even for the non-religious, it’s an inspiring space.
More inspiring still is the church itself. Needless to say, we saw a lot of churches on our visit. While those of the Nativity and the Holy Sepulchre in particular have major status in the bible story, for sheer aesthetics the Church of All Nations was comfortably my favourite. The interior is deliberately gloomy to replicate the dusky light by which Jesus would have prayed, and the vaulting, domed ceilings are decorated with hypnotic depictions of stars in deep blue and gold. It contains a rock on which Jesus is said to have been praying prior to his arrest, so attracts enough devout pilgrims to engender a moving, spiritual atmosphere (aided immensely by the unique decoration), but because it’s just outside the town it was pleasantly quiet compared to the other major churches we visited.
From the Garden of Gethsemane it’s a steep hike up the mount, affording close-ups of some of the countless thousands of tombs that line the hill. We also caught glimpses of the elaborate golden domes of the Church of Mary Magdalene, but unfortunately weren’t able to visit as it’s closed most of the day. Pack plenty of water for the hike up the Mount and try to avoid doing it in the middle of the day if it’s summer, but though it’s hard work it’s completely worth committing to for the view of Jerusalem from the vantage point. Temple Mount is in plain view and the Dome of the Rock is resplendent; Jerusalem itself, sat neatly atop a steep hill and lined by robust walls, looks grand and venerable.
Another favourite among Jerusalem’s churches sits atop the Mount of Olives. The Church of the Pater Noster, part of a Carmelite monastery, is another of Jerusalem’s unique spaces whose walls are famously decorated with the Lord’s Prayer in over 100 different languages – Mayan, Doric, Zulu, Nahuatl, Mallorquin, Fijian and Cornish among them. The courtyard containing most of these plaques is charmingly tranquil, and access via a large doorway eerily reminiscent of that from the dream sequence in Gladiator.
Right at the very top of the mountain, and marked only really by a hand-written sign, is the Tomb of the Prophets. It’s five shekels (£1) per person for the guided tour, which doesn’t seem necessary at first as it’s essentially a hole in the ground, until you realise that without the candlelight included in the price the cave is beyond pitch black. The context the guide gives, while historically inaccurate (the tombs are, according to archaeologists, closer to 2,000 years old) sets the symbolic scene of the mountain and its centrality to the Abrahamic faiths nicely. You re-emerge, having learned the tradition (true or otherwise) that the last three prophets of the Old Testament were buried here precisely because they predicted the messiah’s return at that spot, look back at Jerusalem and feel you somehow have a better understanding of what you’re looking at.