Easter, commemorating the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, is the pinnacle of the Christian year for believers, says Israeli tour guide Jacob Firsel, author of Go to Galilee: A Travel Guide for Christian Pilgrims.
Firsel helped ISRAEL21c compose a list of top 10 Christian sites with special significance for Catholics and Protestants celebrating Easter in the Holy Land. Jerusalem and the Galilee are the key areas of interest.
Easter Sunday falls on March 27 this year, while the Orthodox Easter is May 1. (Every four years, the dates coincide.)
Be sure to check out our list of top 10 Christian sites in the Galilee, too.
Revered by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox and Armenian Catholics as the site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection, this landmark in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem encompasses the last six of the 14 Stations of the Cross (Via Dolorosa).
Holy Sepulchre is open daily with separate chapels for each of the denominations’ services. Click here for information.
The ancient church is jam-packed on Orthodox Easter Sunday and especially on Saturday at midnight for the centuries-old Ceremony of the Holy Fire, when Orthodox patriarchs enter the church’s tomb and come out with candles believed to be lit miraculously. The flame is passed along to candles held by the crowd.
Check with the Christian Information Center at the Jaffa Gate before visiting on Easter weekend, because sometimes the huge volume of pilgrims necessitates the closure of the Christian Quarter for safety reasons.
The Garden Tomb, north of Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, is believed by many Protestants to be the garden and sepulchre of Joseph of Arimathea, and therefore a possible site of the resurrection of Jesus. The Garden Tomb is owned and administered by a Christian non-denominational charitable trust based in the United Kingdom.
The Garden is open for tours and worship services every Monday to Saturday from 8:30 to 5:30; it’s best to book in advance. See the website for the special Easter weekend schedule.
- Mount of Olives
The view from the Mount of Olives includes the Hinnom and Kidron valleys, the Golden Gate to Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount, Mount Zion and City of David. On the eastern slope is Bethany, where a church marks the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, and where visitors can descend and emerge from the traditional tomb of Lazarus.
On Palm Sunday at the beginning of Holy Week, a procession on Palm Sunday Road leads from the Mount of Olives lookout point down to the Garden of Gethsemane at its foot and on to the Lion’s Gate (St. Stephen’s Gate) of the Old City, following the traditional path Jesus took in his triumphal entry to the Holy City as recorded in the Gospel of John.
- Garden of Gethsemane
According to the Gospels, Jesus prayed with his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane until authorities arrested him early on Friday morning before the crucifixion, commemorated on Good Friday.
Gethsemane means “olive press” in Greek, and in Jesus’ time this was indeed an olive grove. Some very old olive trees are still alive in the garden.
Floor-to ceiling mosaics in the 1920s Church of All Nations illustrate the events in Jesus’ life that took place at this site.
- Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu on Mount Zion
Christian tradition holds that this is where Jesus was held before being taken to trial prior to the crucifixion. A new church is built over a complex of ancient cisterns and storage rooms carved into the bedrock, and it is believed that this is where the house of Caiaphas the High Priest was located. Visitors can walk through these underground chambers.
- Lions Gate (St. Stephen’s Gate)-St. Anne’s Church-Stations of the Cross
As you walk through Lions Gate –where the first Christian martyr, Stephen, is believed to have been martyred — on your right you’ll soon see the Crusader-built St. Anne’s Church, beautifully preserved from the 12th century. Via Dolorosa begins 200 yards past the church. Follow the clearly marked stations, which culminate at Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Though Nazareth in the Galilee is best known for the Basilica of the Annunciation, Firsel highly recommends visiting this recreation of the village where Jesus grew up. Opened by a Christian nonprofit in 2000, it has a working olive press and a recreated synagogue, and the remains of an ancient vineyard, watchtowers, terraces, spring-fed irrigation system and stone quarries. The village is just a 10-minute walk from Nazareth city center and has become a favored site for TV and movie production.
Historians believe that Jesus taught in the first-century CE synagogue whose remains were discovered only in 2009 during excavations for a proposed Christian retreat in Magdala, the Galilee hometown of Mary Magdalene.
Ongoing excavations here are supervised by archeologists from Mexico in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority. The most significant find so far is the Magdala Stone, the earliest known artistic depiction of the Second Temple.
The site was inaugurated in May 2014 and is open daily from 8am to 6pm. The Duc In Altum was built to provide a worship space for Christian pilgrims.
- Sea of Galilee
The Gospels record many miracles that Jesus performed at the Sea of Galilee, and there’s nothing like an early-morning boat ride to get acquainted with this beautiful and still vital body of water known as “Lake Kinneret” to Israelis.
At the end of the Gospel of John, the risen Jesus appears here at Tabgha (also spelled “Tabha”) on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee and performs the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes before commissioning Peter to lead the church.
“For Catholic groups, this is a very significant spot because Peter is considered the first pope,” says Firsel.
The Church of the Primacy of Peter (open daily open 8am-5pm) is a Franciscan chapel built in 1933 incorporating part of a fourth-century church and a large portion of the stone “table of Christ” where Jesus is believed to have served his disciples a fish breakfast after they landed on shore. Six heart-shaped blocks known as the Twelve Thrones commemorate the Twelve Apostles, and an adjacent garden for group worship overlooks a modern statue of Jesus symbolically commissioning Peter with his shepherd’s crook.
The Israel Tourism Ministry built the Tabha-Capernaum promenade connecting this church with the nearby Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, which houses Byzantine-era mosaics depicting the events in Christian Scriptures that happened here.