The Via Dolorosa was a brick paved alley through densely built Jerusalem neighborhoods where I had imagined it would be a dusty trail leading out of the nearest gate to the crucifixion hill at Calvary. The nine stations of the cross are packed with markers and merchants steadfastly fleecing the faithful who routinely walk "the way of suffering" to re-enact the last walk of Christ. I vaguely recalled that Jesus had been tortured on this walk, had performed a few last miracles and had fell under the weight of the cross at least once but wasn't up on my biblical history to remember exactly which station witnessed any of these events. No need - all was conveniently marked for both profit and posterity at each one. There was even a chance to carry a make-shift cross for a photo op, including the crown of thorns. Lovely.
We made our way to one of the most famous hills in the world only to discover it was surrounded by apartment blocks and crowned by a massive basilica, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And straight through the main door we discovered the hill had been well and duly razed for the sake of the chambers inside where five more stations were marked highlighting the stages of crucifixion.
Just inside the main door was a flat slab of rock, the "Stone of Anointing" where Jesus' body was laid after his death, washed and wrapped in linens prior to interment in the tomb at the base of the hill. Up a set of stairs to the right were a series of rooms, the first highly gilded and vested of which is where Christ was nailed to the cross while the one immediately to the left and equally ornate and thick with incense is where the cross was stood erect for the slow, agonizing death of Jesus.
Back down the stairs we joined the back of a good-sized line to see the alleged Tomb of Christ. There was barely room for one visitor at a time as much of the space was taken up by all manner of candles, statues of Mary, crucifixes and hanging orbs billowing still more fragrant smoke from every shade of holy oils. If you weren't claustrophobic the heat and smoke made it impossible to breathe in there for very long. Was that also part of the plan to keep the faithful moving?
The benefit in having the basilica was in not having the site swallowed up by urban housing and having some tour guide point to a kitchen window on the 2nd floor as the place where the great sacrifice occurred. Still, I found it hard to invest in the long held mystique and tragic wonder of the events that took place here. None of them occurred under the heavy stone of a building! Where was the desolate hill outside the city limits that good society avoided, leaving it to the military and the mourning brood?
I saw yet another set of stairs that led in to the lower reaches of the building. It had no barriers restricting entry or any hordes of pilgrims stacked up to get downstairs. It seemed cool from the heat of "the" tomb and peaceful from the multitudes above so I went on my own to see if there was something there.
There was. For me the mystery was solved, permanently, peacefully and privately.