Via Dolorosa – A Walk Through History
It was about 645am and I found myself not sleeping well that night. I was in my bed in the hotel I was staying in, in French Hill, Jerusalem. I had moved to there only the week before from China. I received a text message from my friend Mark that said, “Can’t sleep, lets go out.”
So, I got up, dressed, and walked outside the hotel and down the block to meet Mark, he was staying at the Student Dorms. We were both studying at The Hebrew University. As it was still early in the morning, and we were really new to the land, we decided to take the safe route down to the Old City, which was Sderot Hayim Barlev. The road runs straight North and South, right into the old city.
We didn’t talk much on the way down, just walked, enjoyed the crisp cool air, and still realizing we were in Jerusalem!
We reached the New Gate when I turned to Mark and I could see in his face a need to explore something important to him, as though he was searching for something but wasn’t sure what. He asked if we could walk the Way of Grief – Via Dolorosa, where Jesus is said to have walked his last steps carrying the cross.
Whether you believe in anything religious or do, the walk itself is remarkable. So of course we did.
It was eerily silent at that hour – the only sound I heard was my own footsteps on the cobbled streets, and then the loud peal of church bells. We then realized we had lost our way searching for the Via Dolorosa, because we couldn’t see the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and there weren’t too many people we could ask. So, we backtracked decided to do the walk again.
By this time it was later, people were out, shops were opening, the sun higher in the sky.
The walk on the Via Dolorosa begins at the Muslim Quarter and goes past 14 stations, a number of which have chapels for meditation and silent prayer.
It ends in the Christian Quarter at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ was crucified and laid in a tomb.
Along the way, the streets were alive, unlike the previous night. As I walked past the heady aroma of spices, I heard the merchants’ calls to sell “antiques” and the playful antics of children. I wondered if it was a similar day when Christ walked on his tortured journey.
We cave to a man’s forceful hawking and stop for a cup of coffee. He is chatty, and says that every year, especially during Easter, hundreds of pilgrims descend on the Via Dolorosa, and walk ‘the walk’, praying at every station, often crying at their Savior’s agony. The 14 stations are now marked by churches, some small, some large, some ancient and some not-so-ancient. And some of them have bronze light fixtures with the number written in Roman numerals on them. Catholics pause before the stations, saying a prayer and then move on to the next one.
I ask the man if the stone footpath is actually the one that Jesus walked on, and he smiles. Some of the paving stones have an incident etched on them (I would later learn that some of the stones are from the First Temple period, dating back 3000 years ago) – from when the Roman soldiers mocked Jesus as king. Hundreds of pilgrims find peace in walking over those stones, who was I to be skeptical? But yes, I was right. The paving stones came almost a century after the crucifixion – when Roman emperor Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem.
I continued my journey over those paving stones and reached the steps to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Inside, the ancient church was lit by flickering candles, and had ornate altars and gilded iconography. The church has a number of shrines, each built to mark a time in the last hours of Christ’s life, and leading up to the sepulchre, from which you go on to the ancient, if plain, tomb.
Not every stone at the Via Dolorosa may go back 2000 years, but the atmosphere sure does.
Even in the gift shop outside where the crown of thorns comes in different hat sizes and at $2 apiece. And as w walked away, I realized how calm my friend felt and saw that he enjoyed this walk on a very deep level.
The road is astounding, unfortunately some newer buildings black the straight path Jesus took so you need to make some turns, but overall it is the same path now called Via Dolorosa. I will be writing about each of the stations and experiences of watching people walk the path, the meanings behind each station, and the ascent to The Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
I loved living in Israel and I can’t wait to tell more!