Jerusalem is well known as a holy city with many significant sites for members of many religions. But as a licensed tour guide here, I am endlessly fascinated by the less well known places to visit. Everyone knows Jerusalem as the location of the final days of Jesus’ life, and of some of his miracles as well. But there are actually so many churches packed into the square kilometer within the walls of the Old City, that I see Jerusalem as a living museum of Christian history!
Of course, the churches of the better known denominations are on many tourist itineraries. But there are also churches that belong to lesser known sects, even to many Christians. By visiting them in a short walk, one can trace the development of Christianity in general, and the various historic splits that have taken place in particular.
St. Mark’s Church
There have been three major splits throughout Christian history, creating four main branches. The earliest split took place following the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon, in the year 451. Four Eastern churches – Armenian, Syriac, Coptic and Ethiopian – split from the main church over a dispute about the divine and human natures of Jesus. These four are thus known as Non-Chalcedonian Churches.
St. Mark’s Syriac Church, in the Armenian Quarter on Ararat Street, is one of the more interesting Non-Chalcedonian examples in Jerusalem. According to the church’s traditions, it is located in the house that belonged to St. Mark the Evangelist’s mother. They also believe that Mark was the man who the disciples followed to find a place for the Last Supper, and thus believe the church is also the “Upper Room,” as opposed to most other traditions connected with the Cenacle on Mount Zion.
The church also contains an ancient icon of Mary that they believe was painted by St. Luke himself. It is reputed to have caused miracles. When I was there recently, Yostina the local guide even told me about a miracle that she experienced a few short months ago in which she had a long conversation with a visitor though neither of them spoke the same language.
(And on the subject of languages, Syriac refers to the Syrian Aramaic language of their liturgy, not the country of their origin. Notably, all four Non-Chalcedonian churches spoke languages other than Greek or Latin.)
Church of St. Alexander Nevsky
1054 marked the year of the “Great Schism,” a famous cheap replica watches uk split between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The Greek-speaking Orthodox churches did not accept the primacy and infallibility of the Pope, which the Latin-speaking Catholics maintained. Unlike Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity is not organized under a single leadership. All Orthodox churches (Greek, Russian, Romanian, etc.) are in communion with each other.
Alexander Nevsky is located a few short steps east of the Holy Sepulchre and in addition to the iconostasis and magnificent icons that are standard in Orthodox churches, there are a few unique parts of this church. When construction began in 1883, the builders discovered significant archaeological remains that were incorporated into the church. There is an arch dating to the 2nd Century which may have been used as the original entry to the (then larger) Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They also found an older Roman gate with a small, worn opening. The church considers this the “needle’s eye” of the Judgment Gate. A piece of the rock of Calvary was purchased and placed next to it. Lastly, just right of the entrance to the church one can find a lavish room dedicated to the various Czars of Russia.
Probably the most famous split in Christendom occurred in the 16th Century – the Protestant Reformation. Although Protestantism has since grown into a vast array of distinctive churches, the Anglican church is one of the earliest. 200+ years later, they built the first Protestant Church in the Middle East.
Built in the mid-1800s, Christ Church is located just inside of Jaffa Gate, opposite David’s Citadel (a misnomer, as I may explain in another post). The first Protestant Bishop here in Jerusalem, Michael Alexander, was a converted Jew, and thus Christ Church’s design is quite surprising. There is quite a bit of Hebrew writing inside, as well as a menorah (the candelabrum that stood in the Jewish Temple) in the apse. Beyond this, however, the stark but beautiful design is fairly traditional for a mainstream Protestant church.
Christ Church still focuses on reaching out to Jews and Muslims in Israel, as well as Christian Arabs and pilgrims.
Melkite Church of the Annunciation
And what about the fourth major branch of Christianity – Catholicism? There are, of course, myriad Latin Catholic churches and monasteries throughout Jerusalem, but there are also some surprising ones. Many people are unaware that, throughout history, many members of the Eastern churches re-entered communion with the Catholic Church. The Vatican allowed them to maintain many of their individual practices, so long as they recognized the Pope’s supremacy.
The Melkite Church is another name for Greek Catholics. Most of the Arab Christians in the Holy Land are members of this stream. In brief, many of them rejected the Greek-centric focus of the Greek Orthodox Church, and rejoined with the Catholics who allowed them to maintain their Arabic culture.
The Church is located on Greek Catholic Patriarchate Street, near the Jaffa Gate. Interestingly, there is an iconostasis inside, indicating one of the Eastern traditions the church maintains. Also notable is the Arabic writing above the Greek writing throughout the artwork of the church.
An interesting thing about museums sometimes is what is not found in them. This post would not be complete without mentioning a fifth branch of Christianity, the first to split from the main church in 431. Named for Nestorius, the then Archbishop of Constantinople, the Nestorian Church or Church of the East left following the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus. Though they once had a community in Jerusalem, they no longer have any churches or followers here.
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Joel Haber is a licensed Israeli tour guide, based in Jerusalem. Originally from New Jersey, he posts regularly for Travelujah. He can be reached for all of your Israel touring needs at www.funjoelsisrael.com or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org