Read CHAPTER VII. of A Visit to the Holy Land, free online book, by Ida Pfeiffer, on

The red morning dawn had began to tinge the sky as we stood before the walls of Jerusalem, and with it the most beauteous morning of my life dawned upon me! I was so lost in reflection and in thankful emotion, that I saw and heard nothing of what was passing around me. And yet I should find it impossible to describe what I thought, what I felt. My emotion was deep and powerful; my expression of it would be poor and cold.

At half past four o’clock in the morning of the 29th May we arrived at the “Bethlehem Gate.” We were obliged to wait half an hour before this gate was opened; then we rode through the still silent and deserted streets of the Nuova Casa (Pilgrim-house), a building devoted by the Franciscan friars to the reception of rich and poor Roman Catholics and Protestants.

I left my baggage in the room allotted to me, and hastened into the church, to lighten the weight on my heart by fervent prayer. The entrance into the church looks like the door of a private house; the building is small, but still sufficiently large for the Roman Catholic congregation. The altar is richly furnished, and the organ is a very bad one. The male and female portions of the congregation are separated from each other, the young as well as the old, and all sit or kneel on the ground. Chairs there are none in this church. The costume of the Christians is precisely the same as that of the Syrians. The women wear boots of yellow morocco, and over these slippers, which they take off on entering the church. In the street their faces are completely, in the church only partially, muffled, and the faces of the girls not at all. Their dress consists of a white linen gown, and a large shawl of the same material, which completely envelops them. They were all cleanly and neatly dressed.

The amount of devotion manifested by these people is very small; the most trifling circumstance suffices to distract their attention. For instance, my appearance seemed to create quite a sensation among them, and they made their remarks upon me to one another so openly both by words and gestures, that I found it quite impossible to give my mind to seriousness and devotion. Some of them pushed purposely against me, and put out their hands to grasp my bonnet, etc. They conversed together a good deal, and prayed very little. The children behaved no better; these little people ate their breakfast while the service was going on, and occasionally jostled each other, probably to keep themselves awake. The good people here must fancy they are doing a meritorious work by passing two or three hours in the church; no one seems to care how this time is spent, or they would assuredly have been taught better.

I had been in the church rather more than an hour when a clergyman stepped up to me and accosted me in my native language. He was a German, and, in fact, an Austrian. He promised to visit me in the course of a few hours. I returned to the Nuova Casa, and now, for the first time, had leisure to examine my apartment. The arrangement was simple in the extreme. An iron bedstead, with a mattress, coverlet, and bolster, a very dingy table, with two chairs, a small bench, and a cupboard, all of deal, composed the whole furniture. These chattels, and also the windows, some panes of which were broken, may once, in very ancient times, have been clean. The walls were of plaster, and the floor was paved with large slabs of stone. Chimneys are no more to be found in this country. I did not see any until my return to Sicily.

I now laid myself down for a couple of hours to get a little rest; for during my journey hither from Constantinople I had scarcely slept at all.

At eleven o’clock the German priest, Father Paul, visited me, in order to explain the domestic arrangements to me. Dinner is eaten at twelve o’clock, and supper at seven. At breakfast we get coffee without sugar or milk; for dinner, mutton-broth, a piece of roast kid, pastry prepared with oil or a dish of cucumbers, and, as a concluding course, roast or spiced mutton. Twice in the week, namely on Fridays and Saturdays, we have fast-day fare; but if the feast of a particular saint falls during the week, a thing that frequently occurs, we hold three fast-days, the one of the saint’s day being kept as a time of abstinence. The fare on fast-days consists of a dish of lentils, an omelette, and two dishes of salt fish, one hot and the other cold. Bread and wine, as also these provisions, are doled out in sufficient quantities. But every thing is very indifferently cooked, and it takes a long time for a stranger to accustom himself to the ever-recurring dishes of mutton. In Syria oxen and calves are not killed during the summer season; so that from the 19th of May until my journey to Egypt in the beginning of September, I could get neither beef-soup nor beef.

In this convent no charge is made either for board or lodging, and every visitor may stay there for a whole month. At most it is customary to give a voluntary subscription towards the masses; but no one asks if a traveller has given much, little, or nothing at all, or whether he is a Roman Catholic, a Protestant, or a votary of any other religion. In this respect the Franciscan order is much to be commended. The priests are mostly Spaniards and Italians; very few of them belong to other nations.

Father Paul was kind enough to offer his services as my guide, and to-day I visited several of the holy places in company with him.

We began with the Via Dolorosa, the road which our Lord is said to have trodden when for the last time he wandered as God-man on earth, bowed down by the weight of the cross, on his way to Golgotha. The spots where Christ sank exhausted are marked by fragments of the pillars which St. Helena caused to be attached to the houses on either side of the way. Further on we reach the “Zwerchgasse,” the place whither the Virgin Mary is said to have come in haste to see her beloved Son for the last time.

Next we visited Pilate’s house, which is partly a ruin, the remaining portion serving as a barrack for Turkish soldiers. I was shewn the spot where the “holy stairs” stood, up which our Lord is said to have walked. On my return, I saw these stairs in the church of S. Giovanni di Laterani. They also pretend to show the place where the Saviour was brought out before the multitude by Pilate. A little distance off, in the midst of a dark vault, they shew the traveller the stone to which Jesus was bound when “they scourged Him.”

We ascended the highest terrace of this house, as this spot affords the best view of the magnificent mosque of Omar, standing in a large courtyard. With this exterior view the traveller is fain to be content; for the Turks are here much more fanatical than those in Constantinople and many other towns, so that an attempt to penetrate even into the courtyard would be unsuccessful; the intruder would run the risk of being assailed with a shower of stones. But in proportion as the Turks are strict in the observance of their own ceremonies and customs, so they respect those Christians who are religious and devotional.

Every Christian can go with perfect impunity to pray at all the places which are sacred in his eyes, without fear of being taunted or annoyed by the Turkish passers-by. On the contrary, the Mussulman steps respectfully aside; for even he venerates the Saviour as a great prophet, and the Virgin as his mother.

Not far from Pilate’s house stands the building designated as that of Herod; it is, however, a complete ruin. The house of the rich man, at whose gate the beggar Lazarus lay, has shared the same fate; but from the ruins one may conclude how magnificent the building must originally have been.

In the house of Saint Veronica a stone is pointed out on which they shew you a footprint of the Saviour. In another house two footprints of the Virgin Mary are exhibited. Father Paul also drew my attention to the houses which stood on the spot where Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were born. These houses are all inhabited by Turks, but any one may obtain admittance upon payment of a small fee.

The following day I visited the church of the Holy Sepulchre. The way lies through several narrow and dirty streets. In the lanes near the church are booths like those at Maria Zell in Steiermark, and many other places of pilgrimage, where they sell wreaths of roses, shells of mother-of-pearl, crucifixes, etc. The open space before the church is neat enough. Opposite lies the finest house in Jerusalem, its terraces gay with flowers.

Visitors to this church will do wisely to provide themselves with a sufficient number of para, as they may expect to be surrounded by a goodly tribe of beggars. The church is always locked; the key is in the custody of some Turks, who open the sacred edifice when asked to do so. It is customary to give them three or four piastres for their pains, with which sum they are satisfied, and remain at the entrance during the whole time the stranger is in the church, reclining on divans, drinking coffee and smoking tobacco. At the entrance of the church we noticed a long square stone on the ground; this is the “stone of anointing.”

In the centre of the nave a little chapel has been built; it is divided into two parts. In the first of these compartments is a stone slab encased in marble. This is vehemently asserted to be the identical stone on which the angel sat when he announced our Lord’s resurrection to the women who came to embalm his body. In the second compartment, which is of the same size as the first, stands the sarcophagus or tomb of the Saviour, of white marble. The approach is by such a low door that one has to stoop exceedingly in order to enter. The tomb occupies the whole length of the chapel, and answers the purpose of an altar. We could not look into the sarcophagus. The illumination of this chapel is very grand both by night and day; forty-seven lamps are kept continually burning above the grave. The portion of the chapel containing the tomb is so small, that when the priest reads mass only two or three people have room to stand and listen. The chapel is entirely built of marble, and belongs to the Roman Catholics; but the Greeks have the right of celebrating mass alternately with them.

At the farther end of the chapel the Copts have a little mean-looking altar of wood, surrounded by walls of lath. All round the chapel are niches belonging to the different religious sects.

In this church I was also shewn the subterranean niche in which Jesus is said to have been a prisoner; also the niche where the soldiers cast lots for our Saviour’s garments, and the chapel containing the grave of St. Nicodemus. Not far from this chapel is the little Roman Catholic church. A flight of twenty-seven steps leads downwards to the chapel of St. Helena, where the holy woman sat continually and prayed, while she caused search to be made for the true cross. A few steps more lead us down to the spot where the cross was found. A marble slab points out the place.

Mounting the steps once more, we come to the niche containing the pillar to which Jesus was bound when they crowned him with thorns. It is called the pillar of scorn. The pillar at which Jesus was scourged, a piece of which is preserved in Rome, is also shown.

The chapel belonging to the Greeks is very spacious, and may almost be termed a church within a church. It is beautifully decorated.

It is very difficult to find the way in this church, which resembles a labyrinth. Now we are obliged to ascend a flight of stairs, now again to descend. The architect certainly deserves great praise for having managed so cleverly to unite all these holy places under one roof; and St. Helena has performed a most meritorious action in thus rescuing from oblivion the sacred sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth.

I was told, that when the Greeks celebrate their Easter here, the ceremonies seldom conclude without much quarrelling and confusion. These irregularities are considerably increased when the Greek Easter happens to fall at the same time as that of the Roman Catholics. On these occasions, there are not only numerous broken heads, but some of the combatants are even frequently carried away dead. The Turks generally find it necessary to interfere, to restore peace and order among the Christians. What opinion can these nations, whom we call Infidels, have of us Christians, when they see with what hatred and virulence each sect of Christians pursues the other? When will this dishonourable bigotry cease?

On the third day after my arrival at Jerusalem, a small caravan of six or seven travellers, two gentlemen namely, and their attendants, applied for admittance at our convent. An arrival of this kind, particularly if the new-comers are Franks, is far too important to admit of our delaying the inquiry from what country the wanderers have arrived. How agreeably was I surprised, when Father Paul came to me with the intelligence that these gentlemen were both Austrian subjects. What a singular coincidence! So far from my native country, I was thus suddenly placed in the midst of my own people. Father Paul was a native of Vienna, and the two counts, Berchtold and Salm Reifferscheit, were Bohemian cavaliers.

As soon as I had completely recovered from the fatigues of my journey, and had collected my thoughts, I passed a whole night in the church of the Holy Sepulchre. I confessed in the afternoon, and afterwards joined the procession, which at four o’clock visits all the places rendered sacred by our Saviour’s passion; I carried a wax taper, the remains of which I afterwards took back with me into my native country, as a lasting memorial. This ceremony ended, the priests retired to their cells, and the few people who were present left the church. I alone stayed behind, as I intended to remain there all night. A solemn stillness reigned throughout the church; and now I was enabled to visit, uninterrupted and alone, all the sacred places, and to give myself wholly up to my meditations. Truly these were the most blissful hours of my life; and he who has lived to enjoy such hours has lived long enough.

A place near the organ was pointed out to me where I might enjoy a few hours of repose. An old Spanish woman, who lives like a nun, acts as guide to those who pass a night in the church.

At midnight the different services begin. The Greeks and Armenians beat and hammer upon pendent plates or rods of metal; the Roman Catholics play on the organ, and sing and pray aloud; while the priests of other religions likewise sing and shout. A great and inharmonious din is thus caused. I must confess that this midnight mass did not produce upon me the effect I had anticipated. The constant noise and multifarious ceremonies are calculated rather to disconcert than to inspire the stranger. I much preferred the peace and repose that reigned around, after the service had concluded, to all the pomp and circumstance attending it.

Accompanied by my Spanish guide, I ascended to the Roman Catholics’ choir, where prayers were said aloud from midnight until one o’clock. At four o’clock in the morning I heard several masses, and received the Eucharist. At eight o’clock the Turks opened the door at my request, and I went home.

The few Roman Catholic priests who live in the church of the Holy Sepulchre stay there for three months at a time, to perform the services. During this time they are not allowed to quit the church or the convent for a single instant. After the three months have elapsed, they are relieved by other priests.

On the 10th of June I was present at the ceremony of admission into the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. Counts Zichy, Wratislaw, and Salm Reifferscheit were, at their own request, installed as knights of the Sepulchre. The inauguration took place in the chapel.

The chief priest having taken his seat on a chair of state, the candidate for knighthood knelt before him, and took the customary oaths to defend the holy church, to protect widows and orphans, etc. During this time the priests who stood round said prayers. Now one of the spurs of Godfrey de Bouillon was fastened on the heel of the knight; the sword of this hero was put into his hands, the sheath fastened to his side, and a cross with a heavy gold chain, that had also belonged to Godfrey de Bouillon, was put round his neck. Then the kneeling man received the stroke of knighthood on his head and shoulders, the priests embraced the newly-elected knight, and the ceremony was over.

A plentiful feast, given by the new-chosen knights, concluded the solemnity.

Distant somewhat less than a mile from Jerusalem is the Mount of Olives. Emerging from St. Stephen’s Gate, we pass the Turkish burial-ground, and reach the spot where St. Stephen was stoned. Not far off we see the bed of the brook Cedron, which is at this season of the year completely dried up. A stone bridge leads across the brook; adjoining it is a stone slab where they shew traces of the footsteps of the Saviour, as He was brought across this bridge from Gethsemane, and stumbled and fell. Crossing this bridge, we arrive at the grotto where Jesus sweat blood. This grotto still retains its original form. A plain wooden altar has been erected there, a few years since, by a Bavarian prince, and the entrance is closed by an iron gate. Not far off is Gethsemane. Eight olive-trees are here to be seen that have attained a great age; nowhere else had I seen these trees with such massive trunks, though I had frequently passed through whole plantations of olives. Those who are learned in natural history assert that the olive-tree cannot live to so great an age as to render it possible that these venerable trunks existed at the time when Jesus passed his last night at Gethsemane in prayer and supplication. As this tree, however, propagates itself, these trees may be sprouts from the ancient stems. The space around the roots has been strengthened with masonry, to afford a support to these patriarchal trunks, and the eight trees are surrounded by a wall three or four feet in height. No layman may enter this spot unaccompanied by a priest, on pain of excommunication; it is also forbidden to pluck a single leaf. The Turks also hold these trees in reverence, and would not injure one of them.

Close by is the spot where the three disciples are said to have slept during the night of their Master’s agony. We were shown marks on two rocks, said to have been footsteps of these apostles! The footsteps of the third disciple we could not discover. A little to one side is the place where Judas betrayed his Master.

The little church containing the grave of the Virgin Mary stands near the “Grotto of Anguish.” We descend by a broad marble flight of fifty steps to the tomb, which is also used as an altar. About the middle of the staircase are two niches with altars; within these are deposited the bones of the Virgin Mary’s parents and of St. Joseph. This chapel belongs to the Greeks.

From the foot of the Mount of Olives to its summit is a walk of three quarters of an hour. The whole mountain is desert and sterile; nothing is found growing upon it but olives; and from the summit of this mountain our Saviour ascended into heaven. The spot was once marked by a church, which was afterwards replaced by a mosque: even this building is now in ruins. Only twelve years ago a little chapel, of very humble appearance, was erected here; it now stands in the midst of old walls; but here again a footprint of our Lord is shown and reverenced. On this stone it is asserted that He stood before He was taken up into heaven. Not far off, we are shown the place where the fig-tree grew that Jesus cursed, and the field where Judas hanged himself.

One afternoon I visited many of these sites, in company with Count Berchtold. As we were climbing about the ruins near the mosque, a sturdy goatherd, armed with a formidable bludgeon, came before us, and demanded “backsheesh” (a gift, or an alms) in a very peremptory tone. Neither of us liked to take out our purse, for, fear the insolent beggar should snatch it from our hands; so we gave him nothing. Upon this he seized the Count by the arm, and shouted out something in Arabic which we could not understand, though we could guess pretty accurately what he meant. The Count disengaged his arm, and we proceeded almost to push and wrestle our way into the open field, which was luckily only a few paces off. By good fortune, also, several people appeared near us, upon seeing whom the fellow retired. This incident convinced us of the fact that Franks should not leave the city unattended.

As the Mount of Olives is the highest point in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem, it commands the best view of the town and its environs. The city is large, and lies spread over a considerable area. The number of inhabitants is estimated at 25,000. As in the remaining cities of Syria, the houses here are built of stone, and frequently adorned with round cupolas. Jerusalem is surrounded by a very lofty and well-preserved wall, the lower portion composed of such massive blocks of stone, that one might imagine these huge fragments date from the period of the city’s capture by Titus. Of the mosques, that of Omar, with its lead-covered roof, has the best appearance; it lies in an immense courtyard, which is neatly kept. This mosque is said to occupy the site of Solomon’s temple.

From the Mount of Olives we can plainly distinguish all the convents, and the different quarters of the Catholics, Armenians, Jews, Greeks, etc. The “Mount of Offence” (so called on account of Solomon’s idolatry) rises at the side of the Mount of Olives, and is of no great elevation. Of the temple, and the buildings which Solomon caused to be erected for his wives, but few fragments of walls remain. I had also been told, that the Jordan and the Dead Sea might be seen from this mountain; but I could distinguish neither, probably on account of a mist which obscured the horizon.

At the foot of the Mount of Olives lies the valley of Jehosaphat. The length of this valley does not certainly exceed three miles; neither is it remarkable for its breadth. The brook Cedron intersects this valley; but it only contains water during the rainy season; at other times all trace of it is lost.

The town of Jerusalem is rather bustling, particularly the poor-looking bazaar and the Jews’ quarter; the latter portion of the city is very densely populated, and exhales an odour offensive beyond description; and here the plague always seizes its first victims.

The Greek convent is not only very handsome, but of great extent. Hither most of the pilgrims flock, at Easter-time to the number of five or six thousand. Then they are all herded together, and every place is crowded with occupants; even the courtyard and terraces are full. This convent is the richest of all, because every pilgrim received here has to pay an exorbitant price for the very worst accommodation. It is said that the poorest seldom escape for less than four hundred piastres.

Handsomest of all is the Armenian convent; standing in the midst of gardens, it has a most cheerful appearance. It is asserted to be built on the site where St. James was decapitated, an event commemorated by numerous pictures in the church; but most of the pictures, both here and in the remaining churches, are bad beyond conception. Like the Greeks, the Armenian priests enjoy the reputation of thoroughly understanding how to make a harvest out of their visitors, whom they are said generally to send away with empty pockets. As an amends, however, they offer them a great quantity of spiritual food.

In the valley of Jehosaphat we find many tombs of ancient and modern date. The most ancient among these tombs is that of Absolom; a little temple of pieces of rock, but without an entrance. The second is the tomb of Zacharias, also hewn out of the rock, and divided within into two compartments. The third belongs to King Jehosaphat, and is small and unimportant; one might almost call it a mere block of stone. There are many more tombs cut out of the rock. From this place we reach the Jewish burial-ground.

The little village of Sila also lies in this valley. It is so humble, and all its houses (which are constructed of stone) are so small, that wandering continually among tombs, the traveller would rather take them to be ruined resting-places of the dead than habitations of the living.

Opposite this village lies “Mary’s Well,” so called because the Virgin Mary fetched water here every day. The inhabitants of Siloam follow her example to this day. A little farther on is the pool of Siloam, where our Lord healed the man who was born blind. This pool is said to possess the remarkable property, that the water disappears and returns several times in the course of twenty-four hours.

At the extremity of the valley of Jehosaphat a small hill rises like a keystone; in this hill are several grottoes, formed either by nature or art, which also once served as sepulchres. They are called the “rock-graves.” At present the greater portion of them are converted into stables, and are in so filthy a state that it is impossible to enter them. I peeped into one or two, and saw nothing but a cavern divided into two parts. At the summit of these rock-graves lies the “Field of Blood,” bought by the priests for the thirty pieces of silver which Judas cast down in the temple.

In the neighbourhood of the Field of Blood rises the hill of Sion. Here, it is said, stood the house of Caiaphas the high-priest, whither our Lord was brought a prisoner. A little Armenian church now occupies the supposed site. The tomb of David, also situated on this hill, has been converted into a mosque, in which we are shewn the place where the Son of Man ate the last Passover with His disciples.

The burial-grounds of the Roman Catholics, Armenians, and Greeks surround this hill.

The “Hill of Bad Counsel,” so called because it is said that here the judges determined to crucify Christ, rises in the immediate vicinity of Mount Sion. A few traces of the ruins of Caiaphas’ house are yet visible.

The “Grotto of Jeremiah” lies beyond the “Gate of Damascus,” in front of which we found, near a cistern, an elaborately-sculptured sarcophagus, which is used as a water-trough. This grotto is larger than any I have yet mentioned. At the entrance stands a great stone, called Jeremiah’s bed, because the prophet is said generally to have slept upon it. Two miles farther on we come to the graves of the judges and the kings. We descend an open pit, three or four fathoms deep, forming the courtyard. This pit is a square about seventy feet long and as many wide. On one side of this open space we enter a large hall, its broad portal ornamented with beautiful sculpture, in the form of flowers, fruit, and arabesques. This hall leads to the graves, which run round it, and consist of niches hewn in the rock, just sufficiently large to contain a sarcophagus. Most of these niches were choked up with rubbish, but into some we could still see; they were all exactly alike. These long, narrow, rock-hewn graves reminded me exactly of those I had seen in a vault at Gran, in Hungary. I could almost have supposed the architect at Gran had taken the graves of the valley of Jehosaphat for his model.