Mount Zion

Mt. Zion – David’s Tomb, the Last Supper and Pentecost, Crowned by a Minaret

Mt. Zion is a wide spur of elevated land extending south of the Armenian Quarter outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.  It is a microcosm of Jerusalem’s sanctity to all three monotheistic religions.  The same small building on Mt. Zion houses David’s Tomb on the ground floor, the Cenacle, the room where the Last Supper and Pentecost took place one flight above, and has a minaret on its roof, harking back to when it was a mosque dedicated to Nebi Daoud – the Prophet David.

In ancient Jerusalem, Mt. Zion is a highly transferable place name:  It is the stronghold conquered by David in 1,000 B.C.E., the Eastern Hill or the City of David. In the 7th century B.C.E. Isaiah refers to the Temple Mount as Mt. Zion and later there are inferences by Josephus to the Western Hill, which is called Mt. Zion today.  During the Byzantine period a massive church known as Hagia Zion (Holy Zion) was built where the Dormition Abbey stands.

When Suleiman the Magnificent built Jerusalem’s current walls in the 16th century, Mt. Zion was left outside.  One legend claims that as punishment for not including Mt. Zion and David’s Tomb in the city’s walls, Suleiman executed the architects who designed the walls and buried them next to Jaffa Gate.  Two Muslim graves can still be seen today just inside of Jaffa Gate.

During Israel’s War of Independence, Mt. Zion was the scene of fierce battles between Jewish and Arab forces.  At war’s end it became the border between Israel and Jordan for the next 19 years.  In the Six Day War, the Jerusalem Brigade of the Israeli army entered the Old City through the Zion Gate.  The numerous bullet holes on the façade of Zion Gate are evidence of these battles.

Visiting Mt. Zion

Mt. Zion can be reached by car (there are two, frequently very crowded parking lots on Mt. Zion) from the road that runs around the Old City in either direction. Our recommendation is to leave the car at home and walk (from outside the Old City via the gardens – from Mamilla turn right and follow the Old City Wall.)

On foot it is most easily reached by exiting the Old City via Zion Gate.  Modest dress (no shorts or sleeveless) is required to enter some of the sites on Mt. Zion.

Start on the outside of the Zion Gate and look up at the gate to see its pock marked façade.  At the top of the gate is a protruding structure that looks like a balcony, but without a floor. This is a mashikoli, a spout intended for pouring boiling oil on invading soldiers. The gate’s “L” shape was designed to prevent a cavalry charge into the city. (Today you can entertain yourself with care watching drivers trying to navigate the gate.)

With your back to the gate, a large unfinished building protrudes above the wall in front of you. This is an Armenian Church known as Caiaphas’ House, named for the High Priest at the Crucifixion.  Follow the wall in front of you to the left until you reach a junction with signs on the corner of a church indicating right to the Dormition Abbey and left to the Cenacle.  We recommend going to the Dormition Abbey first and then doubling back to visit the Cenacle, the Last Supper Room and site of the Pentecost.

The Dormition Abbey is a Catholic church built in the early 20th century and dedicated to the place where Mary is said to have fallen into eternal sleep.  In the crypt is a life size statue of Mary lying on her back.  Beneath another section of the Abbey are archaeological remains of the Byzantine Hagia Zion church.

After visiting the Dormition Abbey, return to this junction and continue down the lane to the right.  The Cenacle is through a door on your left and up a set of stairs.  The cenacle is meant to be the “upper room” where the Last Supper was held (Mark 14:12-25) and later the site of the Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4).

The hall was constructed by the Crusaders in the 12th century, in the Gothic style, as can be seen by its vaulted ceiling.  The room later served as a mosque.  A mihrab, Moslem prayer niche, still adorns its southern wall and verses from the Koran appear on the room’s stain glass windows.  In the southwestern corner next to the exit is an Islamic style cupola, supported by a grey marble column with a capital sculpted with a pelican, a symbol of the Eucharist.  The capital is of Crusader origin and is in secondary use.  This appearance of figurative art in an Islamic structure is almost unique.

Exiting the Cenacle, it’s possible to go up to the roof next to the building’s minaret and look out at the Old City – see Mt Zion Viewpoint.  Then head down stairs to visit David’s Tomb.  Men and women must enter separately on either side of a partition in keeping with Orthodox Jewish tradition.

King David is one of the most important kings in the Bible. After defeating the giant Goliath he became a member of King Saul’s court, his son in law and close friends with his son Jonathan. The relationship with Saul was complex as Saul knew that David (and not his own son Jonathan) would succeed him, due to Saul’s misdeeds before the L-rd.

David did in fact succeed Saul (after Saul & Jonathan were killed in battle.) David reigned in Hebron for seven years and the conquered Jerusalem making it his capital city and ruling there for 33 years. He enjoyed a close relationship with the L-rd and he had many highlights, but some significant failings and challenges even from within his own family. He succeeded in generating the necessary political and religious stability that allowed his son and heir King Solomon to build the Temple.

David is revered in Jewish tradition as the definitive king and the Messiah will be one of his descendants and will restore the ancient glory.

Leaving David’s Tomb, step out into the courtyard on the left and look up to take in the multi-religious landscape:  David’s Tomb is beside you, the Cenacle immediately above it with a minaret rising from the building’s roof.

Continuing out of the courtyard through a passageway to the east, leads to the Chamber of the Holocaust, Israel’s first Holocaust museum.  This memorial site is dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust and contains plaques bearing the names of Jewish communities destroyed by the Nazis.

Following the road to the south takes us passed a small museum dedicated to the Israeli sculpture David Palombo, whose wrought iron works include the gates of the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem and one of the gates to the Knesset compound.  Continuing to the east, passed a parking lot, we turn left onto a main road.

In the Catholic cemetery across the street to the right is the grave of Oscar Schindler, a German industrialist who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

Following the road, we then turn right to descend to the Catholic church of Peter in Gallicanto, “Peter when the cock crows”, in reference to Peter’s denial of Jesus.  The church is revered by Catholics as the site of the house of the High Priest Caiaphas.  A rock cut cave below the church is identified with prison of Jesus.  In the courtyards are several small archaeological sites, including a section of the ancient road leading to the Western Hill from the Tyropean Valley below.

Alternative approach to Mount Zion

It is also possible to reach Mount Zion from Montefiore’s Windmill. Wander down through Yemin Moshe and Mishkenot Shananim, cross the Hinom Valley (via the Sultan’s Pool) along the road and then when you are below Mount Zion take the footpath and climb. Offers some great views and a sense of achievement but it is a steep (but fairly short) climb.

We recommend that you include the walk from Zion Gate to Jaffa Gate in your visit to Mt Zion.