The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem


In Bethlehem, somewhat off the path beaten by most tourists, lies the Church of the Nativity, so called for the tradition that it was here in the manger-cave below that Jesus was born. The tradition is quite old and led the emperor Constantine to erect a basilica here in the early 4th century. Crusaders rebuilt and restored the church in the 12th century. Remains from both these eras are clearly visible in the lower levels of the structure.


As for the interior of the main church, it is, unfortunately, undergoing extensive restorative work and is mostly shrouded in tarpaulins and cannot be seen. Nevertheless, the cave in which Jesus was supposedly born remains somewhat accessible beneath this ornate shrine. (One may peer through the hole on the floor of the shrine to see the cave.)


Very beautiful to look at and peaceful to walk through is the courtyard outside the church. Statues of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and of St. Jerome, the Christian cleric and scholar who supposedly lived in the nativity cave in the fourth century, decorate the enclosed retreat.


Sacred Structures along the Kidron Valley and on the Mount of Olives


There are many sacred structures along the east side of Jerusalem, some dating back to before the time of King Herod (37-4 BCE). The oldest is the Tomb of the Bene-Hezir, a priestly family, from the 2nd century BCE. It can be seen to the left in the picture above. To its right is the monolithic Tomb of Zechariah, possibly built a century or two later. It is not the actual tomb of the Biblical prophet but may be associated with the Bene-Hezir tomb. Dating from the 1st century CE, the Tomb of Absalom sits to the left of both of these structures and can be seen beneath the trees in the photo below. Absalom was the son of King David who lived a thousand years earlier.


A number of other sacred structures, these Christian in nature, sit on the western slope of the Mount of Olives. Three can be seen in the photograph below.


On the bottom left is the Church of All Nations in Gethsemane. It supposedly marks the spot where Jesus prayed before being arrested. This 20th century church stands above the remains of Byzantine and Crusader-era churches. In the center, with the golden onion domes, is the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene. It was built in the 19th century. The mid-20th century church to the extreme upper right (blue dome) is the Dominus Flevit, meaning “the Lord wept.” It commemorates the spot where Jesus wept and prayed before his arrest. The remains of an earlier Crusader church lie nearby. Directly underneath the Dominus Flevit lie ancient tombs dating from the second-temple (pre-70 CE) to Byzantine periods.

Mount Zion, Jerusalem

Cenacle Aerial Shot 1

This photograph of the Cenacle, or Upper Room of the Last Supper, was taken from the rotunda of the Church of the Dormition. With the kind permission of Father Elias and the assistance of Lukas, a young volunteer worker from Cologne, I was able to access the top of the dome from which I could photograph much of Mount Zion.(The rotunda of the Dormition Church can be seen in the photo below to the right looming over the Cenacle like a protective parent.)


From the birds-eye view photo at the top, you can easily identify the Cenacle. It is delimited by Islamic structures on its roof built after the Ottoman takeover of the building in the 16th century. The minaret on the west end and the dome on the east mark the boundaries of the building. Note how other Ottoman-era buildings gradually sprang up to surround the Cenacle.

It was on the Cenacle’s north side, the foreground in the top photo, where the Byzantine and Crusader churches once stood. We are here in Jerusalem to research modern archaeological excavations that took place in this area. Quite a number of small digs were conducted in  and around the Cenacle. Once we assemble the results of those investigations we will be closer to understanding where the Cenacle fit architecturally among those larger structures.

The Judgment Seat of Pilate

One of the most fascinating recent discoveries in Jerusalem is the gate that once led to King Herod’s palace but was later used by the Roman prefects of Judea as their judgment seat called Gabbatha or Lithostrotos. The Gospel of John 19:13 says that Jesus stood before Pilate here as his death sentence was pronounced.

Dr. Shimon Gibson has pioneered the recognition of this area on the western wall of the Old City of Jerusalem as the very place of Gabbatha.

Pilates Praetorium Sign

The National Park diagram roughly reconstructs the wall’s features parts of which can be identified in the accompanying photographs.

Pilates Praetorium Steps to

The grassy main thoroughfare covers the ancient steps that led up to the gate in an outer wall that is no longer present.

Pilates Praetorium 4

Steps that lead up to what was once a gate in the inner wall still partially exist (the gate has long since been blocked up).

Pilates Praetorium

Note also the remains of perpendicular steps leading from the platform to the place of judgment.

It is remarkable to think that one can stand in the very place where Jesus’s trial before Pilate took place and where the judgment for crucifixion was handed down almost two thousand years ago.

The Ancient Upper Room and Tomb of David

DSCN6300While in Jerusalem, I cannot help but to repeatedly visit the structure about which I have extensively written. The above photograph displays with amazing clarity the long history of the building we today identify as the Upper Room of the Last Supper and the Tomb of King David. That history is physically present in the form of the building’s construction components.

The wall you see is the east wall, the only wall completely visible today. Notice the variety of stones that have been used over the centuries to keep the wall intact. Together, they represent the building from its earliest incarnation up to the sixteenth century. At the bottom right, you can see the large square blocks (called ashlars) reaching upward like a triangle. These are the building’s oldest structural elements. The question of course is how old.

But determining the age of the stones is not the end of the story. The time at which these ashlars were quarried is not necessarily the same as the time they were fashioned into this building. Primarily due to their irregular sizes, scholars have determined that these ashlars were not cut specifically for this building but for another, earlier structure. Later, possibly because the original building lay in ruins, the ashlars were re-used to make the building we now call the Upper Room and Tomb of David.

Other, later, elements in this wall likely date from the Byzantine, Crusader, and Ottoman periods successively. As historians, our task is to bring together all of the evidence for the origin of this building and attempt to reveal its complex history. But more work needs to be done. All that is required is funding and the necessary permission to further examine the building’s structural components and the surrounding grounds. With each successive step, the mystery is further unraveled.

Jerusalem: Walking Where Jesus Walked?

DSCN6377Many pilgrims come to Jerusalem with the desire to tread in the footsteps of the prophets or the principal characters appearing in the New Testament. While the location on the map may be the same as that where Jesus trod, this is certainly not true for the existing topography. The photograph above shows just how far below the present surface the Jerusalem of Jesus lies. An on-going archaeological excavation sponsored by the Israel Antiquities Authority has uncovered a series of city walls that demonstrates the chronological stratigraphy of the land on southern Mount Zion. At the bottom of the photo, where the students are sitting, is an ancient quarry where blocks of stone were cut for the construction of the walls, the first of which dates to pre-Herodian or Herodian times (days of King Herod the Great). This wall, the one Jesus would have seen, is shown at the level above the quarry just behind the tarpaulin cover. This is actually the corner of a wall tower. The walls built at this time were mostly destroyed by the Roman legions in A.D. 70. Over the centuries this wall became covered over by debris. In the Byzantine period, about five centuries later, Queen Eudocia, a resident of Jerusalem, rebuilt the walls surrounding Mount Zion on the then-current ground level. Part of this wall is shown above the Herodian level (do not confuse this with the modern retaining wall alongside the dig zone). This wall, too, was eventually destroyed and became buried . It has only recently been excavated. All of this excavation shows that the ground level of Jerusalem today is much higher than it was 1,500 years ago. Strictly speaking, therefore, one cannot simply walk in the footsteps of Jesus, at least not in Jerusalem. (A caveat to this, and there always is one, is to be found in the Western Wall tunnel that lies below the Haram al-Sharif – the former Jewish Temple Mount – and is open to tourists. The ground level difference is amply demonstrated there as well.)

Jerusalem, Days 3 and 4


Yesterday, I enjoyed a wonderful Shabbat dinner in a home located in Ein Karem, the traditional birthplace of John the Baptist. Ein Karem, in southwest Jerusalem, is situated in the Judean hills where supposedly John’s mother hid him from Herod the Great, who had already murdered his father and was planning to murder the infant John as well.

This morning I was privileged to add my book, The Upper Room and Tomb of David, to the holdings of the National Library of Israel, part of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The wonderful staff then took me on a tour of their amazing collection of original maps of the Holy Land dating back to before the Crusader period. The example above is by Frans Hogenburg ca. 1575. Much of their collection has been digitally scanned and can be seen online at

Later, I met the good people at the Israel Exploration Society and poured over their extensive publications. They may agree to review my book in their prestigious Israel Exploration Journal. Naturally, I could not leave without acquiring a couple of new books for my own library.

Finally, I found some time to walk through the pedestrian marketplace (midrachov) on Ben Yehuda Street in downtown Jerusalem. The streets in this area are closed to vehicular traffic making for a pleasant shopping experience. There were many dining options as well including a kosher McDonalds.

Jerusalem 2016, Day 2

What any tourist should know about visiting the Old City of Jerusalem is that by rising early, one can walk the streets unimpeded by other tourists! Staging photographs is easy when no one is on the streets to get in the way of a pristine shot. Such was the case this morning at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Normally, this landmark is packed with pilgrims. Many wait to enter the aedicule in the center of the church to inspect and reverence the supposed tomb of Christ. This morning, there was no line at all and I was able to capture this wonderful photograph.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre aediculaBecause of the lack of crowds, I actually entered the aedicule myself for the first time in three visits!

The real coup for me, however, was having the entire Upper Room on Mount Zion all to myself. I fully documented this structure with numerous photographs, rephotographing some parts that were marred in earlier compositions by the presence of visitors.Entrance to Cenacle complex 2

Tomorrow, we will be visiting Mount Zion again and I hope to capture the east wall of the Cenacle structure that stands adjacent a Muslim graveyard. Special permission is required to enter the grounds. If I am fortunate, I will also try to photograph the building from atop the bell tower of the Dormition Abbey next door.

I spent some time also with Mr. Emil Abu-Sa’da, manager of the Dormition Abbey gift shop attempting to interest him in stocking my book on the Upper Room which is only next door to the Abbey. I gave a copy to Emil and he seemed very pleased and eager to read it.

The rest of the day was spent walking the Muristan in the Christian Quarter. I visited and photographed a number of attractions including the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer and the Alexander Nevsky Church. In the latter is an arch from the time of the Roman emperor Hadrian (early 2nd century C.E.) which was unearthed beneath the church.

Tonight will be spent in the company of a resident family enjoying a Sabbath dinner. Sabbath starts at sundown on Friday. I am in charge of bringing the wine!

The Upper Room and Tomb of David: Now part of the library at SBF

Church of the CondemnationI had the great privilege of meeting the Secretary and Rector for the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, a group of Catholic scholars from Rome’s Pontifica Universitas Antonianum working in Jerusalem. Their school is on the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows which tradition holds Christ took on his way to crucifixion. Located between the Church of the Flagellation and the Church of the Condemnation (see photo), the SBF has a wonderful museum and an extraordinary library of over 50,000 volumes in multiple languages in the area of Biblical studies. Today my book, The Upper Room and Tomb of David: The History, Art and Archaeology of the Cenacle on Mount Zion became one of them.

It was my pleasure and privilege to hand carry the book and present it in person per the request of the SBF in recognition for the copyright privilege extended to me to use certain illustrations of SBF publications in my own work. The SBF greeted me warmly and took me on an extensive tour of their facilities.

The book also generated buzz at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem where I attended a lecture on the history of the Islamic structures on the Temple Mount. Many renowned archaeologists and historians were in attendance and a great time was had by all.

Back to Jerusalem, 2016

f0179681In less than a week, I will be back in Jerusalem to conduct further research on the western hill of the city now known as Mount Zion. The area surrounding the Cenacle, the so-called Upper Room of the Last Supper sitting atop the presumed Tomb of David, is my primary area of interest. Together with Dr. Shimon Gibson, acclaimed archaeologist and expert on ancient Israel, we will comb through a variety of archives containing unpublished data from a number of excavations that were conducted on the southern part of the hill. It is our hope to collect enough data to publish a valuable resource that other experts can draw upon when conducting their own research.

While in the city, I have plans to meet with a number of folks who were so helpful to me during the research phase for my book, The Upper Room and Tomb of David: The History, Art and Archaeology of the Cenacle on Mount Zion. I will visit the National Library of Israel, the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, the Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition, the Israel Antiquities Authority, and other organizations and individuals who, in one way or another, have connections with Mount Zion and its history.

Hopefully, while I’m there, I will have time to post several blog entries with new photographs for all of you to enjoy. Stay tuned…