As we come up to Easter week, the Old City of Jerusalem becomes more and more crowded. Many of the Catholic Christian pilgrims remember Jesus’s Passion through walking the Via Dolorosa (the Way of the Suffering) and by stopping to recite a devotion at each of the 14 Stations of the Cross along the way. Although the path and the stops are standardized today, this was not always the case and the experience has undergone many changes throughout the years.
In the 4th century, on the Thursday before Easter Sunday, a procession set out from the Eleona Church on the Mount of Olives and the Byzantine Ascension Church (today known as the Pater Noster and the Chapel of the Ascension, respectfully). From there, the path descended to Gethsemane at the base of the Mount of Olives and then passed over the Kidron valley and continued climbing to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This route was described by Egeria, who wrote an account of her pilgrimage to the Holy Land around 380 C.E. Remembering the Passion was more central than the exact route.
By the 8th century, the path was emphasized. The journey started on the Mount of Olives at Gethsemane, as the place where Jesus was captured by the Romans. It continued to the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount and ascended to Mt. Zion and the house of Caiaphas. After stopping at the impressive Byzantine Church of Hagia Zion, the path continued to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
A huge change came in the 11th century. The Byzantines were weak and the Moslems were flexing their muscles in the region. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher had been destroyed in 1009 by the Moslem ruler al-Malik. Several decades later, a smaller version of the Byzantine Church of the Holy Sepulcher was rebuilt, but the Christians were still licking their wounds. The entire path of the passion was conducted within the church due to edicts of the Moslems in Jerusalem.
By the end of the 11th century, the Crusaders had arrived in Jerusalem and “Freed the Holy Places from the Infidels”. They also “freed” the Holy Places from the Eastern Church after the Great Schism of 1054. The German monk Theodoric who visited the Holy land in the 12th century, tells about the break between the Catholics and the Orthodox which manifested itself in a heated confrontation outside of the Church of Mary on Mt. Zion. This event alludes to the “authentic” tradition of celebrating the Passion on Mt. Zion. Theodoric also describes the meeting with Mary and Jesus’ falling to be in the area of today’s Muristan in the Old City. Strangely enough, he also notes the house of Pilate to be near the pools of Bethesda north of the Temple Mount. He is perhaps bowing to the dominant orders of the city – the Knights Templar and the Augustinian canons – as they pushed for the eastern path. The Patriarchy did not give its stamp of approval to either path and another, more commonly used path was through the Temple Mount itself.
In the 13th century with the restoration of power to the Moslems, the path shifted. In an effort to maintain some semblance of unity, traditions moved east and were relocated in the streets around the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives, abandoning the prior traditions through Mt. Zion.
By the 14th century, the current route of the Via Dolorosa was established. Pilgrims who came to reenact the Passion started at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and went out to the East. Because this order was backwards, going from the crucifixion and burial out toward the place of Jesus’ arrest and trial, in the 15th century the path was turned around in order to create suspense and to add to the feeling that pilgrims were walking in the steps of Jesus.
All along the path throughout time, liturgical, personal reflections were associated with each stop. In the year 1530, a Franciscan monk, Antonio Arnada, changed the Via Dolorosa from a liturgical experience to a personal, emotional experience and outlined three stops between the Antonio Fortress and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – Jesus’ meeting with his mother Mary, Simon of Cyrene’s offer to carry the cross for a bit, and Veronica wiping Jesus’ face with her handkerchief. The experiential element became even more important as the Ottomans outlawed large groups and the incumbent recitation of prayers. The passion became a personal event, celebrated in small groups with private prayers. Because of Moslem pressure and difficulty of arriving in Jerusalem, the Passion was celebrated in churches all over the world. The stations for devotion were located within churches and adherents could follow the Way of the Cross by passing from station to station and offering prayers.
The number of stations varied from church to church. In “Explanations of the Land of Israel” written in 1639 by Franciscan monk Franchesco Carasimo, he lays out 8 stations: Pontius Pilate’s palace, Jesus’ scorning, Herod’s palace, the ecce homo site, Jesus falling down, Simon of Cyrene offering to carry the cross, the house of Veronica, and the gate of the city. In Leuven, Brussels where the practice of following the stations of the cross was widely observed, there were 14 stations of the cross. Pilgrims wanted to mark all 14 stations when they came to Jerusalem and so when the Franciscan monk Eliezer Horn came to Jerusalem between the years 1724-1744, he marked the 14 stations of the Via Dolorosa that we know today.