“After the Lord Jesus had talked with them [apostles], he was taken up to heaven and sat at the right side of God.” (Mark 16:19)
After his resurrection, Christ appeared to his disciples many times. However, after 40 days since he was brought back to live, Jesus rose up to heaven. According to Evangelist Luke, it happened close to Jerusalem, in the area of Mount of Olives, on the way to Bethany.
When the apostles saw Jesus suddenly disappearing behind a cloud, they were disoriented and shocked. Two angels, however, made them calm down, predicting Christ’s return: “Galileans, why are you standing there looking up at the sky? This Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way that you saw him go to heaven.” (Acts 1:11)
In the early days of Christianity, still before the Emperor’s Constantine conversion in 312 AD, early believers honoured Christ’s Ascension in a concealed cave on the Mount of Olives. This kind of secret worship was quite common, as it was much safer to congregate in hidden places in the time of the Roman persecution. Egeria, who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem around 381 – 384 AD, in her writings describes her participation in a celebration of Ascension that took place on the present open site, uphill from the cave.
The spot on the Mount of Olives for building the chapel commemorating Christ’s Ascension was pointed out by Constantine’s mother Queen Helena, who was a pious Christian. She also defined the sites for erecting the Basilica of the Nativity and the Holy Sepulcher.
The first shrine was built with help of Poimenia, a member of an imperial family, in the 4th century (around 378 – 384 AD). The great rotunda open to the sky was erected and called Imbomon, which means “above the hill“.
The Byzantine structure had originally two concentric ambulatories (6 m and 2 m in perimeter) that surrounded the principal round space with the spot from which Christ is believed to ascended to heaven located in its center. The church had no proper apse, just an altar located east of the rock. The archaeological investigations of C. Schick in 1887 and Fr. Corbo between 1959 and 1964 confirmed the round design.
Furthermore, in the 5th century the Chapel of Ascension went through a phase of architectural shifts, when around 438 Melania the Younger installed a shrine in it, eukterion which means ‘a place of prayer’ for St. Stephen. The inauguration ceremony was held during the first imperial visit to the Holy Land of Empress Eudocia, wife of Theodosius II (around 438).
It is not certain if the the church was destructed during the Persian invasion in 614 as the pilgrim Arculf describes the round church open to the sky in 670. However if it was destroyed, the Imbomon might have been restored by Patriarch Modestos around 626.
While the church still existed in 870, it seems to have vanish before Crusaders’s arrival. It was probably destroyed by Fatimid caliph Hakim in 1009.
The Crusaders built on its place an octagonal church which could have been reached by taking 20 steps up. Under the altar was shown a stone from which the Lord rose to heaven, and in which the legend and strong belief sees Christ’s footprint. The chapel was surrounded by still clearly visible columns and arches. The church was encircled by a fortified Crusader monastery.
In 1187, the Church of the Ascension came under the Muslim possession and it was transformed into a mosque in 1200, which preserved much of the Crusader design but added a roof and a mihrab. Though not mentioned in Quran, Muslims believe that Jesus ascended into heaven. As the chapel was mainly used by Christians, in 1620 the mosque was relocated to a new structure of Zawiyat al-Adawiyya Mosque built just next to it.
In 1835 the Crusader structure became an enclosed room – the walls were added between the columns and a small dome was built over the roof.
The Ascension Day that commemorates the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven is observed on Thursday, on the fortieth day of Easter. It is a movable feast since Easter is as well. The Catholic and Protestant Churches will celebrate the Feast of Ascension this year on the 9th of May 2013 and the Eastern Orthodox Churches on 13th of June 2013.
In Jerusalem, the feast is annually celebrated with a solemn mass at the site of the Chapel of the Ascension.
If you go:
The Chapel of the Ascension and the Zawiyat al-Adawiyya Mosque are located in the suburb of At-Tur on the Mount of Olives. It is easy to reach it on foot from Jerusalem’s Old City. It is also possible to take bus #75 from the Bus Station next to the Damascus Gate, which will take you there. Entrance fee: 5 NIS ($ 1.50)
Visit as well:
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Beata Andonia works for the Bethlehem tourist bureau and blogs regularly about Bethlehem for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours. She is originally from Poland and moved to Bethlehem in 2010.