When looking at churches and cathedrals of the world, Israel is a great place to start. The Biblical history of Israel is unparalleled. In June of 2018, we were fortunate to be able to spend a week and a half exploring the amazing sights this country can offer. Even if we would have spent a month in Israel, there still would have been way too much to see, so we decided to focus on the major Christian sites.
This led us to many thought-provoking churches, built on the suspected location of significant events in the Bible. It is really fascinating to think about actual places where Jesus walked, healed people, died, and was risen. Many of the places mentioned in the Bible now have a church built over them. When there was doubt over the exact location, sometimes two churches or chapels would be erected.
Jerusalem has a wealth of churches and chapels. Simply walk the Via Dolorosa, or the Way of Sorrow, and you will find chapels at many of the stations of the cross. Then when you consider that the Israelite Temple was originally located here, that Jesus spent much of his ministry time here, and that he died, was resurrected, and was carried off to heaven here, and you can imagine finding some sort of religious site almost every block or so.
No visit to Jerusalem would be complete without a visit to the Western Wall (formerly known as the Wailing Wall). The Temple Mount is where the ancient, Biblical-era Temple of Jerusalem was located, and this retaining Western Wall is all that remains of that temple.
This area ends up being a holy site not just for the Jewish people, but also for Christians and Muslims. On the top of the Temple Mount are currently two mosques, while the Wall itself is primarily a Jewish prayer site.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is considered the most likely spot where Jesus was both crucified and buried. The sites of the crosses and the tomb are literally in the same building, and not even on opposite sides of the building.
Upon entering, we climbed the steps that took us to the top of Golgotha. Looking at it now, it is hard to imagine what it looked like when Jesus was hanging on the cross. The decor was quite elaborate and beautiful, but the horror behind the location is difficult to fathom.
After he died, he was placed on a burial stone. They believe that this is it:
The church itself is divided into six separate sections, each of which is owned by a different denomination. The styles of each section reflect the denomination, but the central part is quite plain and decorated in a style that is supposed to satisfy everyone. This section can only be changed if all six denominations agree how it should be modified – which doesn’t seem to be that often.
And in case you were wondering what crusader teenagers did when they wanted to cause trouble in a church, here is some crusader graffiti:
Chapel at the 4th Station of the Cross: Jesus Meets His Mother
While we did walk the entire Via Dolorosa, which is the path that Jesus took when he was crucified, we only photographed two of the chapels. The fourth station of the cross is where Jesus met his mother, Mary.
Chapel at the 9th Station of the Cross: Jesus Falls for the Third Time
One interesting thing about walking the Via Dolorosa was the realization that the artwork in many cathedrals and churches is based on the fourteen stations. Next time you are in a cathedral, walk along the edges and see if you can find them. They are usually in order and have captions that will help you see the station the artwork is depicting.
Garden of Gethsemane
Just before Jesus was captured, he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. This picture was before the full impact of where we were at had set in:
After walking the garden, we went into the chapel. The ceiling had a gigantic crown of thorns circling the dome. The stained glass windows showed images of his suffering. The paintings on the walls were of individual people important in Christian history. It was a good place to really think of his anguish. We sat in the chapel for quite a while, reflecting on what Jesus must have been thinking and feeling the night he prayed there while his best friends slept.
Chapel of the Ascension
On a happier note, if you continue up the Mount of Olives, you will reach the Chapel of the Ascension. This is where Jesus told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, blesses them, then was carried up to heaven.
Tomb of the Virgin
At the bottom of the Mount of Olives, you can find the Tomb of the Virgin. Most people think that Mary went with John to Ephesus, but that she returned to Jerusalem in her old age. The people in this camp think that this is the site of her tomb, which was inside a cave. The church was in the orthodox style, with lots of hanging lanterns, icons, and big open spaces. Next door to the church was a little chapel that was either dedicated to Mary or Mary’s parents, I’m not sure which.
Church of St. Anne: Pool of Bethesda
Going back in Jesus ministry, being at a place where he worked some of his miracles was really cool, particularly for the boys.
When Jesus visited this pool, there was crippled man who he healed. Now, the remains of this pool are part of the Church of St. Anne.
Though Bethlehem is in the West Bank, administered by the Palestinian Authority, it’s only a few miles from Jerusalem, so I’m going to include it in this post.
The Church of the Nativity
The name, “The Church of the Nativity,” says it all. This is the site of the birthplace of Jesus. Today it is a far cry from the stable it was when he was born. Elaborate decor highlight that this is an important site.
Unfortunately, most of it is roped off and inaccessible to most visitors, but we were able to get a few photos at odd angles while we stood in line to see the stable area.
Upon reaching the stable area, there was a circus of people weeping, wailing, kissing the ground, etc. Add in a guard that was trying to hustle people along, and the atmosphere really wasn’t conducive to worship, prayer, or reflection. But it was still interesting to see.
Church of Saint Catherine
Next door was the Church of Saint Catherine. Even though it wasn’t as elaborate or as significant, it was much more peaceful, so we did our reflecting there.
Sea of Galilee
The Sea of Galilee offers a host of churches and chapels that are built on places where Jesus may have visited early in his ministry.
Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes
While no one is sure exactly where the feeding of the 5,000 happened, there is a church built in one possible place.
Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter
When Jesus came back to life, he tested Peter three times in order to give him three chances to redeem himself after denying Jesus three times. Peter passes the test and Jesus gives him leadership of the church. The Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter commemorates this event.
Church of the Beatitudes
The Church of the Beatitudes sits near the likely place of the Sermon on the Mount. If you want some great views of the Sea of Galilee, this is a good place to come. Next door is an Italian monastery, built by Mussolini, no less.
St. Peter’s Church
Continuing down the coast to Capernaum, you will come to the super modern St. Peter’s Church, which is built over the ruins of Peter’s house, and even has a glass floor that allows you to get a better look at it. Just outside, you can view the ruins of an old synagogue.
There are also lots of churches in Jesus’ hometown, Nazareth. It is interesting to reflect that what the city looks like now is quite grand in comparison to what it was in Jesus’ time.
The Basilica of the Annunciation
The biggest church in Nazareth is the Basilica of the Annunciation. This is one place that it is believed that Gabriel visited Mary. The church is quite nice.
While we were there, there was a round the world art display where each country could submit a piece. Most were quite impressive, although the United States’ contribution was a bit lacking. Way too modern for the setting.
Church of St. Joseph
The Church of St. Joseph was small, but as it was built into a rock cavern, it was very unique.
Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation
Going to another church celebrating the annunciation, we visited the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. Beautiful, but you would never guess what is inside from the exterior. The interior is the complete opposite: elaborate wood carvings on screens holding the beautiful gold and silver icons, walls and ceilings with beautiful paintings, more silver and gold.
The Church of the Transfiguration
Mount Tabor is thought to be the place where Jesus was transfigured, so you guess it, there is a church built on top. We arrived during the lunch closing, waited around an extra 10 minutes after it was supposed to open again, but after waiting a half hour in 105ºF weather, we were sick of wandering the gardens, fearing heat stroke, and decided that an exterior view was good enough.