What Is The Via Dolorosa?
The Via Dolorosa meaning ‘Sorrowful Way’ or ‘Way of Suffering,’ is a processional route for Christian pilgrims in the Old City of Jerusalem. It is said to be the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. Visiting each station of the cross along the Via Dolorosa should be part of any visit to Jerusalem or holy land pilgrimage.
We decided to make our own self-guided walking tour of the Via Dolorosa and I think that worked great for us. That way we could go at our own pace, take pictures, take some detours and not be subject to the indoctrination of specific tour guides.
The route of the Via Dolorosa starts close to Lions Gate at the former Antonia Fortress to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The distance is not that far, only around 600 metres.
How Many Stations Of The Cross Are There?
Along the Via Dolorosa, aka The Way of The Cross, there are fourteen stations based on events that ‘happened’ on the way to the site of the crucifixion. Eight stations are along the old city road, and the last six are in or close to Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Originally the number of stations observed in Jerusalem was considerably fewer than what is recognized today with the number 14 settled upon sometime during the 16th Century. Some sects hold that there are only 7 stations of the cross while others believe there should be at least 15 stations. We randomly chose to believe there are fourteen.
If you’re interested in walking the Via Dolorosa, it’s best to enter the old city of Jerusalem from Lions Gate.
If you’re coming from the Mount of Olives, turn right onto the main road by the traffic lights then first left into Lions Gate Rd.
Lions Gate gets its name from the pair of stone lions on the gate’s façade. Legend has it that in the 16th century, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, had a dream about lions about to devour him because he had not adequately protected the Holy City of Jerusalem.
The sultan took this as a sign from heaven and ordered walls to be built around the Old City. He also demanded that images of the lions he had seen in his dream were to be placed in the facade of the Eastern Gate.
In Christian tradition, the gate is called St. Stephen’s Gate after St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who was stoned to death.
In Arabic, the gate is known as Bab Sitt Maryam, still named after the Virgin Mary.
St Anne’s Church And Pools Of Bethesda
As you make your way from Lion’s Gate to the First Station, you’ll see St Anne’s Church on your right-hand side.
St Anne’s Church is the best-preserved Crusader church in Jerusalem.
The church allegedly stands on the site of Jesus’ maternal grandparents’ home, Anne and Joachim, and is the birthplace of the Virgin Mary.
Not all Christians recognise this as the birthplace of the Virgin Mary. Some say, Nazareth, others say Sepphoris.
Inside the church, you must be silent, although you are allowed to sing. When we visited, there was a very joyful hymn-singing group of Christian pilgrims.
By the church are the Pools of Bethesda. We had passed by a few times when it wasn’t open, but if you get the chance to go in, do because the archaeological ruins are quite fascinating.
The Pools of Bethesda is supposedly the setting for one of Jesus’ miracles. A paralysed man had waited for 38 years for someone to help him into the pool, and Jesus told the man, “Stand up, take your mat and walk,” and immediately he was made well (John 5:2-18).
Opening Hours For St Anne’s Church & The Pools of Bethesda
Open daily except Sundays, from 8:00 to 12:00 and 14:00 to 17:00.
There is an entrance fee of 10NIS to enter, but there was no one to pay, and nobody stopped us walking in.
First Station Of The Cross – Jesus is Condemned To Death
The First Station is the former Antonia Fortress. This site is where Jesus was tried and sentenced by Pontius Pilate.
It was actually a bit confusing finding the First Station. Because today it houses Al-Omariya School, so you can only enter when the school is not in session. To be honest, when you do get in, unsurprisingly, it just looks like a school because that’s what it is. It does, however, have a great view of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
But the minaret that you see marks the site of the Roman Fortress where Jesus was condemned to death.
The best time to visit here is on Fridays at 15:00. This is where the start of the procession with the Franciscan Monks along the Via Dolorosa takes place.
Opening Hours For The First Station Of The Cross
Open Monday to Thursday and Saturday from 14:30 – 17:00 and
on Fridays from 14:30-16:00, but you can enter only with the school caretaker’s permission.
There is no fee to enter.
Second Station Of The Cross – Jesus Takes Up The Cross
The Second Station, which is opposite the First Station, is numbered number one, not number two. See how we got confused?
Here in the Franciscan compound, you’ll see two chapels: the Chapel of the Condemnation and the Chapel of the Flagellation of Christ.
The first time we entered the grounds, we couldn’t enter either of the chapels because they had both been reserved for mass for various religious tour groups. That happened a lot on the Mount of Olives too. So, if you want to peek inside the chapels and churches on the Via Dolorosa, patience will definitely be a virtue!
The Chapel of Flagellation apparently stands on the spot where Roman soldiers flogged Jesus. I say apparently because there are various other places around the old city that make the same claim.
The Chapel of Condemnation is supposed to mark the spot where Jesus took up his cross after being sentenced to death by crucifixion.
Inside the grounds, there is the Terra Santa Museum, which is the first museum in the world on ‘the roots of Christianity.’ We didn’t visit the museum, but we did watch the multimedia show, which was quite interesting.
Opening Hours For The Chapels of Condemnation and Flagellation
Open daily from 09:00 to 13:00 and 16:00 to 18:00.
There is no fee to enter.
Ecce Homo Arch
The Ecce Homo Arch is an arch made of stone, built above the Via Dolorosa Street.
Ecce Homo means “This is the man” in Latin. According to the New Testament (John 19-15), the Roman governor Pontius Pilate spoke these words when he presented Jesus to the crowd before sentencing Jesus to death.
In the past, many Christians believed that this arch was where Jesus was sentenced and crowned with thorns. Crowns with thorns are even available for purchase at this point!
But in fact, the Ecce Homo Arch was built after the time of Jesus.
The arch was built during the 2nd century AD under Emperor Hadrian. It was part of a Roman victory gate, which was the entrance gate to the “Forum,” a public courtyard.
Next to the Ecce Homo Arch is the Ecce Homo Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Zion. The convent entrance is located near the corner of the Via Dolorosa, and a narrow alley called The Nuns Ascent.
Underneath the convent, there are stone pavings which were once claimed to be the Lithostrotos (Stone Pavement), where Pontius Pilate had his judgment seat (John 19:13).
You’ll also see markings in the paving stones, which indicate a dice game known as the King’s Game. For a while, many believed this was where Jesus was tormented by the soldiers (John 19:2-3).
Judging by the mass hysteria and sobbing by many of the Christian pilgrims when we were there, many Christians still do.
However, this stone pavement is part of the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s plaza, which was built after the time of Jesus – more than 100 years later. The square extends under the Church of the Condemnation and the Church of the Flagellation.
Walk down several steps beneath the plaza, and you’ll see a large cistern cut out of the rock. The cistern is about 54 metres long,14 metres wide, and around five metres deep.
Opening Hours For The Lithostrotos
Open daily from 08:30 to 17:00. On Good Friday, only open for prayer.
The Prison of Christ
Very close by is a Greek Orthodox Church, which alleges that Jesus was held prisoner here in their Monastery of the Praetorium.
When researching a little more about the Prison of Christ, it turns out that there are a number of alleged prison sites within the Old City of Jerusalem.
The Armenians say there’s a recess in the Monastery of the Flagellation, at the Second Station, that was the Prison of Christ.
Meanwhile, the Franciscans say that the Prison of Christ is at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Others say, the Prison of Christ is in a cistern among the ruins near the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, that’s on Mount Zion just outside the Old City of Jerusalem.
Regardless of whether or not this is the Prison of Christ, it’s worth popping inside have a look. It’s free to enter.
Ready For A Coffee Or Toilet Break?
Now I know you haven’t walked very far so far, but there’s been a lot to see on the Via Dolorosa, and with all the crowds, you may be ready for a quick break.
Before you get to the Third Station of the Cross, there are two really nice coffee shops that you are going to walk by.
The first is Bassem’s Gallery and Cafe, located at Via Dolorosa 40. Quirky, relaxing, excellent coffee, and a lovely owner. Highly recommend!
Or, in keeping with the Christian theme, head to the Austrian Hospice at Via Dolorosa 37. It’s the oldest Christian guesthouse in the Old City of Jerusalem and serves up a mean apple strudel. It offers lovely views over the old city and has clean toilets!
Third Station Of The Cross – Jesus Falls Under The Cross For The First Time
The Third Station is on the corner of via Dolorosa and El Wad (Hagai) street. The Armenian Catholic Church built this small chapel in the 15th century.
The relief at the entrance to the chapel depicts Jesus falling for the first time as he walked along the Via Dolorosa.
Fourth Station Of The Cross – Jesus Meets His Mother
The Fourth Station is right next door to the Third Station. This is the Armenian Church of Our Lady of the Spasm, aka Church of Our Lady of Sorrows.
According to tradition, this is where Jesus met his mother, Mary. Downstairs in the church, there’s a statue of Jesus and Mary and a mosaic pavement with a picture of sandals to represent the spot where they met.
Freshly squeezed orange juice is available here.
Fifth Station Of The Cross: Simon The Cyrene Helps Jesus Carry His Cross
The Fifth Station is located at the corner of Via Dolorosa and Al Wad Road.
It’s a small Franciscan church dedicated to Simon the Cyrenian (aka Shimon from Libya) who helped Jesus with his cross.
The story of Simon, the Cyrenian comes from Luke 23, 26: “And as they led him away, they laid hold upon one Simon, a Cyrenian, coming out of the country, and on him, they laid the cross, that he might bear it after Jesus.”
At this corner, the road turns to the right and then starts climbing up a series of stairs.
Sixth Station Of The Cross: Veronica Wipes The Face Of Jesus
The Sixth Station is at a small chapel of the Little Sisters of Jesus. This place is believed to be the traditional site of Veronica’s house. Would it be wrong for us to say we had never heard of this Veronica before!
Apparently, Saint Veronica is the name given to the woman who wiped the blood and sweat off Jesus’ face with a veil. According to tradition, the veil was impressed with the image of the Holy Face of the Messiah.
The name Veronica comes from the Latin Vera icona meaning the “true image.”
The door to the chapel was always closed when we passed.
Seventh Station Of The Cross: Jesus Falls the Second Time
According to tradition, the seventh station marks the spot where Jesus passed through the Judgment Gate and fell for the second time.
It is believed that Jesus’ death sentence was posted at this site.
Eighth Station Of The Cross: Jesus Consoles The Women Of Jerusalem
The Eighth Station takes you temporarily off the Via Dolorosa and about 20 metres up a narrow street. It’s conveniently located opposite the Station VIII Souvenir Bazaar.
On the wall of a Greek Orthodox monastery, just beneath the number eight marker, is a carved stone of a Latin cross with the Greek letters IC XC NI KA (meaning “Jesus Christ conquers”).
Ninth Station Of The Cross: Jesus Falls For The Third Time
Now you’ll have to retrace your steps back towards the Seventh Station and turn right along Souq Khan al-Zeit. The next 100 metres or so gets quite crowded with Christian pilgrims and many tourists shopping for souvenirs in the market.
It’s not a particularly noticeable turning, but turn right at your first opportunity and walk up the flight of wide stone steps.
At the top, follow the winding lane for about 80 metres. This takes you to a Roman pillar, which marks the site of Jesus’ third fall.
Close by is the Coptic Chapel of St Helen.
Just to the left of the pillar, you’ll walk onto a terrace, which is the roof of the Chapel of St Helena in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Here lives a small community of Ethiopian Orthodox monks.
The remaining five Stations Of The Cross are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Unlike the other stations, these are not numbered.
Tenth Station Of The Cross: Jesus Is Stripped Of His garments
From the roof terrace, there’s a door that leads into the Ethiopians’ upper chapel. From here, take the stairs to the lower chapel, and that will bring you into the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
This short cut was always open when we visited, but if for some reason it’s closed, you will have to retrace your steps to the Souq. Once you’ve walked back down the stone steps, turn right and then after around
80 metres turn right through a small archway with the words “Holy Sepulchre,” and that will lead you into the church courtyard.
The tenth station is located at the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the room called the Chapel of the Franks.
Apparently, it was here that Jesus was stripped off his clothes, as in Mark 15,24: “And when they had crucified him, they parted his garments, casting lots upon them, what every man should take.”
Eleventh Station Of The Cross: Jesus Is Nailed To The Cross
As you enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, turn right and walk up the flight of stairs.
This part of the church belongs to the Catholic Church and is known as the Latin Cavalry. Beautifully decorated with mosaics, this is where Jesus was supposedly nailed to the cross.
If you look up to the ceiling, there is a 12th-century mosaic of the Ascension of Jesus. This is the only surviving Crusader mosaic in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Twelfth Station Of The Cross: Jesus Dies On The Cross
Just to the left of the Latin Cavalry (the 11th station) is the Greek Orthodox Calvary. This part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church and contains the 12th Station of The Cross – the Chapel of the Crucifixion.
The ornate Greek altar stands over the place where Jesus’ Cross was erected. A silver disc beneath the altar apparently marks the spot the cross of Christ stood.
Not all Christians believe this is where Jesus was crucified. Just outside the Old City, overlooking the small Arab Bus Station is the Garden Tomb.
The Garden Tomb is a rock-cut tomb that was unearthed in 1867. It is also considered by some Christians to be the site of the burial and resurrection of Jesus. Whether it is or not, the Garden Tomb is quite a lovely, peaceful place to visit, but I digress.
Thirteenth Station Of The Cross: Jesus Is Taken Down From The Cross
Walk downstairs, and you’ll arrive at the 13th station.
This is the Stone of Unction. This slab of rock is where the body of Jesus was laid out and anointed with oil and spices in preparation for his burial.
We recommend you come early or visit late as sometimes it’s hard to see the Stone of Unction due to the vast number of Pilgrims who visit to kiss the stone.
Fourteenth Station Of The Cross: Jesus Is Laid In The Tomb
Follow the crowds from the Stone of Unction until you reach the rotunda. Under this large dome is a black chamber that holds the tomb of Christ and is the site of the 14th and final station.
The queue to enter the tomb can be quite long (possibly the understatement of the year!), with several pilgrim groups elbowing and jostling each other aggressively in their zealous enthusiasm to see the tomb.
Inside the dome, there are two rooms. The first room contains a stone fragment that is believed to have sealed Jesus’ tomb, and the second is the tomb itself.
To be honest, we didn’t enter the tomb: the queues were too long, moved exceptionally slowly, and some of the members of the Christian tour groups were rather pushy and aggressive. It was far more interesting for us just observing the goings-on of all the pilgrims.
We do recommend not visiting on a Sunday as this was particularly busy. And it’s probably best to arrive early or after 18:00.
Opening Hours For The Church Of The Holy Sepulchre
Opens daily at 05:00.
From April to September, the church closes at 20:00.
From October to March, at 19:00
The Via Dolorosa Friday Procession
The Via Dolorosa Friday Procession takes place every Friday. It is led by the Franciscans, who, since the 13th century, have been the Catholic custodians of Jerusalem’s holy sites.
You don’t have to be Catholic, Franciscan, or Christian to join – all are welcome!
What Time Does The Via Dolorosa Friday Procession Start?
The procession starts at 15:00 from the First Station opposite the Church of the Flagellation close to the Lions Gate. The march follows the Way of the Cross, stopping at each of the 14 Stations before finishing at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
They don’t stop for long at each station, just long enough to read in different languages (including English) why that station is of importance.
We noticed that some websites and guidebooks say the procession starts at 16:00 in the summer months and at 15:00 only from late October till late March. We were there in November, so it was definitely 15:00 for us.
Also, many websites said that the procession started from the Chapel of Flagellation at the Second Station. Maybe it does some days, but we checked with one of the Franciscan monks at the Chapel of Flagellation on the day, and he sent us across the road to the First Station.
If you are interested in following the Friday procession, we suggest heading to the Chapel of Flagellation at the Second Station before 15:00 to clarify the starting time and place.
How Long Does The Via Dolorosa Friday Procession Take?
It takes around an hour, and it gets very crowded. If you are not keen on crowds, we suggest avoiding walking this part of the Old City at this time.
Fridays In The Old City Of Jerusalem
If you don’t mind crowds, and are interested in different religions, visiting Jerusalem on a Friday is fascinating.
Friday is the Islamic Holy Day. Arrive in the Muslim Quarter of the Jerusalem Old City around lunch and observe the large crowds of Muslims pouring out of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.
Then at 15:00, join the Franciscan monks along the Via Dolorosa.
Time for a quick snack, then head to the Wailing Wall for the start of Jewish Shabbat.
Regardless of whatever faith or not you believe in, the Old City of Jerusalem is certainly a fascinating place to explore and especially on Fridays.
While Jonathan and I were sitting on the steps outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we started talking to a biblical archaeologist and tour guide. He looked exhausted, leading large tour groups is not easy.
Once he established that neither Jonathan nor I were religious but simply fascinated by religion from an anthropologist’s point of view, we got chatting.
He was very interesting to talk to. He said he’s been studying biblical archaeology for years, and there’s absolutely no hard evidence at all for 99%+ of the stories from the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran. But that’s not what people want to hear!
Top Tips For Walking The Via Dolorosa
- Wear comfy shoes. Much of the Via Dolorosa route is cobblestones and uneven steps.
- Also, remember to wear appropriate and respectable clothing when you enter a place of worship. You may be turned away if your shoulders and knees are not covered.
- Whatever your faith or views on religion, respect others’ choices.
- Start early, although admittedly we are not good at this!
- Avoid Sundays.
How long does it take to walk the Via Dolorosa on your Own?
If you follow the procession, you will be finished in an hour or so, but we lingered. The Via Dolorosa is only about 600 meters long, but there is so much history, and so many scrumptious coffee shops, you may want to linger. Not counting our lunch stop. We took about an hour and a half.
Is It Safe To Walk In The Old City Of Jerusalem?
We felt perfectly safe, walking around the Old City of Jerusalem. We have heard about pickpockets, but that applies to many city centres. In fact, this was one of the few cities where we actually walked around the town with our day packs on our back – we don’t do that everywhere.
There are a lot of armed Israeli soldiers around – to be honest, seeing young male and female soldiers carrying machine guns does not make me feel safer. Quite the opposite, in fact!
Just as in any city, be aware of your surroundings.
Relax and enjoy.
Have you ever walked the Via Dolorosa or any other pilgrim route? Tell us about it in the comments below.