By Arun Ganapathy
Via dolorosa, the way of sorrow, is one of the holiest of christian pilgrimmages and traces the path jesus followed to his crucifixion and beyond
It should be somewhere here,” I thought, looking up for a signboard. I was right, but I had started my walk along the Via Dolorosa in the middle, at the fifth station. The Via Dolorosa is the route that Jesus took as he bore the cross through the old city of Jerusalem, on the way to his crucifixion.
The story of the route starts with Christ’s trial and condemnation, near the city’s walls and ends in the Holy Sepulchre, the place where he was finally buried. Along the way are fourteen ‘Stations of the Cross’, each marking a place where Jesus fell or halted.
The Gospels say Jesus was first brought by the mob to the house of the high priest Caiaphas, and questioned by him about being the Son of God. When he remained silent, he was bound and delivered to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. Pilate condemned him, and reluctantly handed him over to be crucified. The place of his condemnation called the Antonia Tower marks the first station. It is located inside the Omariyeh College, where I was now standing. There is a large courtyard and to one corner, the tower itself. There is no one here today as the college is now a madrasa and today is Friday, a holiday in the Muslim world.
|The fifth station of the cross representing the help Simon of Cyrene gave Jesus. An old stone, located on the right side, has a cavity which is said to be the imprint of Jesus’s hand|
Below, I can hear the singing of the Friday procession led by the Franciscans, as they take up the cross at the site of the second station, across the street. The second station is where Jesus was flogged, crowned with thorns and took up the cross. The Gospels say that it was here, in a place called the Praetorium, Pilate tried Jesus. When he did not fully understand Jesus’ replies, he set him before the mob along with a notorious criminal of the day called Barrabas.
“Which of the two do you want released?” asked Pilate. “Barrabas,” the mob answered. “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked. “Crucify him,” shouted the mob. Pilate asked, “Why, what crime has he committed?” “Crucify him,” shouted the mob again, this time louder than before. Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere and that the crowd was now baying for Jesus’ blood, so he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying he was innocent of Christ’s blood. Then he had Barrabas released, and handed Jesus over to his soldiers. The soldiers crowned Jesus with thorns, and took him away to the spot currently marked by the Chapel of the Flagellation, where they beat him up. After they had struck, spat, and mocked him enough, they stripped him of his robe and led him away to crucify him. A large stone pavement called the lithostratos inside the station marks the place of Jesus’ trial. It is an ideal place to sit down for a while, imagine the stories in the Gospel, and identify the buildings connected with Christ’s last moments. In front of me is the Chapel of Condemnation, where he was sentenced to crucifixion and to the left is the Chapel of Flagellation where the Roman soldiers beat him. Stained-glass windows above the altar depict the mob witnessing the event.
Spanning the street just outside the entrance is the Ecce Homo arch, where Pontius Pilate identified Jesus to the crowd saying, “Ecce homo (behold your man).” The route of the Via Dolorosa has remained unchanged since the first Byzantine pilgrims walked this way in the eighth century on their journey from Gethsemane to Calvary. The sanctity of this route, the historians say, is based purely on faith and not on any fact. They argue that Jesus was condemned to death on the other side of the city near Herod’s palace, next to Jaffa Gate, where Pilate stayed when he came from Caesarea.However, these arguments seem to matter little to the present-day pilgrims in front of me. They stop ever so often to kneel and pray or just crowd the route. At the corner of El Wad road, they jostle for space with Arab boys carrying freshly baked bread on their heads, carts carrying dates and oranges, and Palestinian women doing their daily shopping. It is a busy scene.
How did Jesus manage bearing the cross? He did not. He fell for the first time at this corner. A small Polish chapel marks the spot of the third station of the cross. Inside the chapel, a high relief shows Jesus falling under the cross. Next door, in the courtyard of a church, a mosaic of a pair of sandals said to be Mary’s footprints, marks the place where Mary stood in the crowd and watched her son go by. The Via Dolorosa turns sharply to the right here. Where it turns is the fifth station of the cross. The New Testament says that a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, was enlisted by the Roman soldiers, to help Jesus with the cross. A handprint on the wall of the house on the left is attributed to Jesus as he leant against it.
From the fifth station, the Via Dolorosa becomes narrow and winds up steeply to Calvary. To the right are shops selling souvenirs. To the left is a long wall punctuated by doors. One of them is St Veronica’s house, where the holy woman, Veronica, wiped the sweat from Jesus’s face as he passed by. Out of thanks for her kindness, Jesus worked a miracle and left a painting-like imprint of his face on the veil. The veil apparently had healing powers and Veronica took it to Rome where she cured the Roman emperor, Tiberius, of his illness.
Jesus walked on from here, and left the old city through a gate close to this spot. As he was leaving he fell for the second time. A great Roman column housed in a Franciscan chapel here marks the second fall and the site of the seventh station. Tradition tells us that his death notice was posted here and hence the Christian name for the site: Judgement Gate. Plaques mark all the stations, but they can often be difficult to spot. The busy streets are lined with snack bars and shops whose owners constantly try to lure you away so that your journey is more an obstacle race than a devotional quest. “You Hindustani? Shah Rukh Khan?” asked a shop-owner, as I slowed near his shop. “Yes, where is the eighth …” “Also Amitabh Bachchan kaisa hai? Have an orange juice.” It was only after I had satisfied his curiosity about Indian film stars that he pointed to a cross and an inscription in Greek saying NIKA, across the street, indicating the place where Jesus consoled the lamenting women of Jerusalem.
The paved way of the Via Dolorosa ends here. A broad passageway leads to the Coptic Patriarchate, at the end. On the way, high up on the wall, is a Roman pillar embedded in the wall, and a group of pilgrims are kneeling and praying at the spot. It is the place where Jesus fell for the third time, the 9th station. From here, Jesus literally walked and stumbled along to the site of his crucifixion and burial inside the Holy Sepulchre. In a corner, is a flight of steps leading to the tenth station where Jesus was stripped of his garments. Next to it is the 11th station where he was nailed to the cross. “They have pierced my hands and my feet, they have numbered all my bones,” cried out Jesus, while his mother, Mary, stood at the feet of the cross and watched him being nailed. Next to this spot is a glittery Greek altar marking the exact spot where Jesus died. It stands over the rock of Calvary, and a silver inlaid hole where the cross of Jesus once stood. There are two more holes close by representing the spots where the crosses of the two thieves, who were crucified with Jesus, were erected. On the day of his crucifixion, the mob supposedly passed by and derided him, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, if you are the Son of God. Come on down from the cross and we will believe you.” Today’s pilgrims, however, are not so demanding. They walk single file up to the altar, and offer candles. Then they bend at the spot, wiggle themselves into the tiny space under the altar and kiss the spot. They pause a moment and pray at the Stabat Mater – the 13th station, where Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross and given to his mother. Then they head down to join a long line of pilgrims who are waiting to enter the Holy Sepulchre. (The 14th station). The Holy Sepulchre is the tomb where Christ’s body was buried. It is the holiest shrine in Christendom. The Roman emperor Constantine built it in 348 AD, following the discovery, by Queen Helena his mother, of the cross in an underground cave here. For such a venerated place, the church is quite a disappointment. The entrance is hidden and the church itself is largely obscured from view by the surrounding buildings and shops. Inside, it is no better. It is dark and gloomy. The noise and din of tourists and pilgrims, and cacophony of the chants of the various religious denominations that share it, fill its vast halls.
Tradition holds that when Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea, his disciple, came to Jerusalem and asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. When Pilate gave him the body, he wrapped it in linen and laid it in a new tomb. This was ravaged by a fire, and later reconstructed by the Greek Orthodox in its present form as a small gaudily coloured granite structure directly below the great rotunda built by Constantine. “Only five at a time, please, and only one minute inside,” shouts the Greek priest, urging us to move.
I duck through the low doorway, into a tiny marble chamber, the size of a bed. A raised slab of marble marks the spot below which Jesus was buried. Around it are more candles lit by pilgrims. There are four of us, squeezed in the small space between the Sepulchre and the wall. It is claustrophobic and I move out quickly.
My last image, as I look back, is of the woman in our group, resting her head on the raised altar, and weeping, uncontrollably. In the Christian tradition, said my guidebook, “The Via Dolorosa, means the way of sorrow… a way since followed by millions of pilgrims.”
Arun Ganapathy is a Delhi-based English trainer and freelance writer. His interest in sacred sites (and work) has taken him from Mexico to Bhutan.
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