Easter Celebrations in the Holy City of Jerusalem
An acclaimed photographer invites you into some of the sites where pilgrims walk in the footsteps of the Risen One.
Every year, tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims arrive in the Holy City of Jerusalem to celebrate Easter. They walk the city’s alleys, bearing giant crosses, retracing Jesus Christ’s final steps along the Via Dolorosa. They end up witnessing the miracle of the Holy Fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus Christ was famously crucified and resurrected.
Jerusalem, holy to the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), was established by King David of Israel some 3,000 years ago. It is located on a plateau in the Judaean Mountains, between the Mediterranean Sea and Dead Sea, and it is considered one of the most ancient cities in the world. This is the city where 12-year-old Jesus was brought by His parents for the Jewish Passover pilgrimage. After the holiday, His parents, Mary and Joseph, returned to their home in Nazareth expecting to ﬁnd their son there. However, when arriving home, they found it to be empty. Three days later, Jesus was spotted sitting in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, in the company of wise men, deep in conversation and demonstrating vast knowledge.
Around the age of 30, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. Immediately, He began a three-year journey, roaming among the Galilean settlements and preaching about the love of God, modesty and the pursuit of peace. At the end of this spiritual journey, Jesus and His Twelve Disciples arrived in Jerusalem for Passover. At the Second Temple’s courtyard, they stumbled upon the city’s residents, who were setting up a market and deﬁling the sacred temple with sheep, cattle and wares. In His anger, Jesus drove out the peddlers and money changers, accusing them of turning the temple into a den of thieves. In the evening following the Passover Seder, Roman soldiers arrested Jesus and took Him to jail. After a quick ﬁeld trial, where He was accused of blaspheming God and fomenting revolution, Jesus was sentenced to cruciﬁxion and was forced to walk along the Via Dolorosa, battered and bruised.
Via Dolorosa is a street in the Old City of Jerusalem that Jesus walked preceding His cruciﬁxion on Golgotha Hill (also known as Calvary). This street is named after the suffering He endured while walking along this path and carrying the cross on which He was killed. Via Dolorosa is therefore also known as the “Way of the Cross.” Via Dolorosa begins in the Muslim Quarter, north of the Temple Mount, and ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located on Golgotha Hill in the Christian Quarter. The street has 14 stations, each marking a spot where something happened to Jesus. Nine of these can be found along the street, and the last ﬁve are inside the church. The tenth station is the place where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands today, and it is where Jesus arrived and was stripped of His clothes. The eleventh and twelfth stations are where He was cruciﬁed, and the last two are where He was removed from the cross and eventually buried and resurrected.
Celebrated a week before Easter, Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem on a donkey. The city’s residents received Him with palm branches and fronds, chanting “Hosanna! Hosanna!” (meaning “Save us! Save us!”). In Scripture, His entry into the city is described with great ﬂourish: “The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet Him, shouting, “Hosanna! … Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written, ‘Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt’” (John 12:12-14 NIV). This holy day is celebrated by all Christians, and decorations made of palm branches are found throughout the Old City. The Kidane Mehret Church on Ethiopia Street is an Ethiopian Orthodox church visited by thousands of believers. Most of them bear palm fronds, leaning up against the pastel pink and blue walls of the round structure, awaiting the colorful parade of church ofﬁcials who wave palm leaves and bless the crowd.
Holy Saturday is one of the main and most important ceremonies of the Holy Week in Jerusalem. According to the Gospels of the New Testament, Jesus was cruciﬁed on the Friday and was said to take His last breath at around 3 p.m. He was brought for burial nearby and buried in a borrowed tomb belonging to one of His followers. However, when His followers arrived at the site the following Sunday to visit the tomb, it was empty—Jesus had been resurrected. In Christian theology, this miraculous event is believed to have occurred on Sunday morning of the Holy Week.
The Orthodox ceremony related to this event is known as the “Saturday of Light.” The essence of this ceremony involves the miracle of the Holy Fire which comes from Heaven and is distributed among the believers. This ceremony is unique to Eastern churches. On the morning of Holy Saturday, crowds of believers ﬁll the churchyard at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch enters the aedicula (Jesus’ tomb) with the Armenian Patriarch, and together they pray until a miraculous ﬁre ascends from Heaven, then arises from the tomb and lights the four candlesticks holding 33 candles (representing Jesus’ age at the time of His cruciﬁxion). Flames from these candles are then distributed across many communities.
The importance of this ceremony lies mainly in the great excitement among the thousands of followers scattered throughout the church and the tens of thousands of Christians crowding the streets of the Christian Quarter. For hours, thousands of believers stand crowded together, and occasionally, shouts of “Christos anesti!” (“Christ is risen!”) are heard. The crowd responds in synchronization—“Alithos anesti!” (“ Truly He is risen!”). The followers believe that the Holy Fire, which serves as a symbol of the religious resurrection, cannot burn their hair, faces or clothes for the ﬁrst 33 minutes after its ignition. From the moment it is ignited, the ﬂame is passed around among the believers, who travel with it to various altars at churches around the city. It is also passed on in a march to other Christian cities and even via special ﬂights to many other countries, so that the miracle of the Holy Fire may be shared with the whole world.
Dr. Gilad Fiskus is a photographer from Israel. His photos of unique human cultures have been displayed in more than 100 exhibitions around the globe. Check out his artwork at www.fiskus-photos.com.