Jerusalem and the story of St. Anne’s Church

This page contains a private letter sent to Robbie Dempsey earlier this year from Pat MacDermott. The letter is a detailed account of Pat’s investigation of the Old City of Jerusalem made during his visit there in September 2015. Pat has agreed to let me make this public for the benefit of The Pelicans who might be interested in the archaeology of Jerusalem and the story of St. Anne’s Church in particular. Parts two and three of the ‘Investigation’ will be posted here later on.

August 2016

Investigating Jerusalem (part 1 of 3). December 2015

I thought I'd sum up my findings in my Israel trip in September and what were some interesting Revelations for me, in and around Jerusalem in particular. It was the Autumn Equinox Sunrise over Bethany that attracted me to work out the Ley of the City first-hand. You'll remember I mentioned my interest in “Sun alignments” when we were on the hil1 with Jeremiah’s tomb near Oldcastle in'99 and l was taking into consideration the Sun’s precessional points. I applied the same idea with Sunrise over the ridge of Gethsemane and guess'timated the salient points over the Platonic month of Pisces (2000 years). I was trying to locate a forgotten site called the “Sacrificial altar of the Red Heifer'' along the Gethsemane ridge (don't ask !!). (Note the enclosed photo of Sunrise by Bethany tower, taken over the rooftops looking East at 06.20. 10 Sept: 15). I was luckily housed for 6 days in a second floor en suite on Mt. Zion, south of and overlooking the Sepulcher Church area,

The buildings were once part of St. John’s Hospital section of the upper City, not far from the David Castle or Citadel by the Jaffa Gate just behind my Lodging, (2500 feet above the Mediterranean sea level). One can get an idea of my location from the couple of snaps -the golden Dome on the Rock is seen out of a window if I look East.


l had read much about the topography and history of the old city, from the mythical probabilities of David taking the City from the Jebbusites (not as one lad announced| at Osterley “from the Jesuits” !) Which City, in David's day, was built entirely on the Hill of Zion, (circa 980 BC). David sent in his “Commandos” by night possibly by Moonlight (II Samuel Ch.5). They climbed the unmanned walls above a sulphurous gulley or rift that divided Mount Zion which is the Western district up to the |wall of the present ‘old City' of Jerusalem, from the present Mount Moriah, which in David's day was an Eastern Hill and quite separate from the settlement on Mount Zion. Moriah was sacred to the Jebbusite priest Arunah and he served a sanctuary there on a 'Threshing Floor' said in legend to be the place where Abaham offered up Isaac (1). Today, the eastern side of Mt. Moriah (the Temple Mount) still retains a 12th century wall, overlooked by the higher Mount of Olives (Gethsemane). Yet on Moriah, there exists an original pinnacle of rock, still exposed at 2300 feet, under the Golden roofed ‘Dome of the Rock’.


The crux of this tale is the rift gully, anciently called the “Tyropean Valley Rift” set between and separating the two hilltops of Zion over to the West and Moriah to the East. The imprint of the rift can still be seen running down from the Damascus gate on the high northern height of the city, at 2550 feet, through the sloping streets and running directly south. The Damascus Gate itself, was, for hundreds of years, and still is, the main gate into the old City, though now approached from the northern slope using flights of steps for pedestrians and unlit for vehicular traffic. The Rift slope drops away south for nearly one mile to the deepest gully of the Kidron Valley. A rift that passes on below the ‘Wailing Wall’ on the West side of Mount Moriah and leaves the Southern wall of the old City by the Magharibie gate. It drops past the Pool of Siloam and ends in the ravine directly south of the City, a drop of nearly 600 feet from the Damascus Gate.

This same North-South rift gully, in David's day, was a sharp rocky fissure, split by volcanic gas and steam from deep in the Earth and the whole feature was called in Arabic "Gehenna" (Hell's gate). It is not unreasonable to think that Solomon would have piped the heat and gas up to all open plaza for the burnt Offerings'' above the crevasse, as in other similar Sanctuaries in the Middle-East including Delphic. But the sharp fissure was filled in over the centuries and the volcanic gases choked into extinction. The trench is now hardly noticeable except from the Kidron basin in the south where it looks like a shallow dip, like the cleft on a tongue, running north to south through the city. The winter rainwater however gathers in this gulley and is still collected in 3 of 5 vast underground cisterns left and right of this slope. It is thought that before the Assyrians attacked the City, Hezekiah King of Judah (Jerusalem district), had the cisterns carved out of the rocky substrata for the defense of this strategic fortified site, a city that over 600 years later, withheld a two year siege by the Roman legions under General Titus in 69 AD.

The author Emile Bock (2) tells us that Solomon supposedly filled in the fissured ravine with the spill from flattening the hilltop of Zion, whereupon he had built the hall for the Holy of Holies. This would put the highest point of his Temple on Mount Zion and its location would have been approached by terraces. These terraces would have sloped down from the Hill of Zion toward the Rift Valley in east and Solomon supposedly bridged the rift that separated Mount Zion from the eastern hilltop of Moriah with the floor of Holocausts. All this work on the Temple of Solomon, if it ever existed outside of legend, had disappeared by the time of the “Babylonian Exile'' (c. 570 BC). Then after a convenient ‘generation’ (approx 70 years), Ezra had a much smaller Temple rebuilt on a massive platform which covered Arunah’s Sanctuary. No trace of Solomon's total City Temple enclosure has ever been found, (so far). In 1967 the Israeli government demolished a number of tightly packed shops & houses to give access to the newly exposed 24 x 6 ton blocks that support the South-West corner of the Temple Mount Platform, possibly dressed in Herod’s time. Yes, this is the now famous Piazza and its “Wailing Wall”. The platform at this point was built on the eastern bank of the rift fissure, possibly well over 100 feet below. Jerusalem holds many such secrets!

Around the City, the Kidron stream has also cut a steep ravine over the millennia and as you may know that crevasse surrounds the old City walls as a Horseshoe shaped Wadi or Valley, which encloses the old City on 3 sides, (and in a sense preserved it). The winter water has cut through the limestone plates from the North-West (Jaffa Gate) right round to the Southernmost sump where the water follow gullies to the Jordan Valley some 3500 feet below the Judaen Hills. The banks of the sump were given the infamous name "Hackle-dammah" (the field of blood). The Kidron is also fed by waters from a third gulley climbing up a steep slope beneath the Eastern wall of Mt Moriah in which wall is built the "Beautiful Gate" now all blocked up since the 13th century, to stop any further "Jewish Messianic return". Further north along this wall is the narrow "Sheep Gate". Herod rebuilt all this area, with the help of his Roman allies. The older 2nd Temple was his foundation for the erection of the enormous Platform on which he had built (over 43 years) a grand Basilica, possibly in a columned Greek-Roman style and possibly facing North-South in today's orientation, but which over 2000 year ago may have been lined up with midsummer sunrise.

I was by the Sheep Gate on Friday 5th September waiting for the Friars to start their "Via Dolorosa'' procession and I conjectured that the Main Entry to Herods Temple may well have been thereabouts using flights of steps and "Drove" lanes up the Northern bank of the Platform. This, I speculated would lead up to the Temple entry from the animal market that existed in the 1st century AD and logically, is just inside the ancient "Sheep Gate". That is why the Romans built a Forum there and the Antonine fort (Court) directly on top of the 'market', so, anyone going into the Temple would be screened by the pagan Roman soldiery. I further conjectured that this was the reason in Jesus day, that the Jewish "Exchange" would have been forced to move up onto the Temple Platform into the Atrium (place of prayer and quiet preparation). It all became clear to me as I looked up at this location south of the arched entry behind me, which happened to be the courtyard of St. Anne's Church. I further speculated that many retired Cohens such as Joachim & Anne's family, would have lived around this spot in order to select the best sheep, heifers and bullocks for the Holocaust and they would 'ransom' or auction them to the Temple visitors for the peoples "Offerings" ­(Citizens and merchants who would have no animals of their own! )

Tradition tells us that shepherds were the lowest caste of the people of Israel in the days of Herod and they were not allowed into the City beyond the Sheep gate. As for the Temple, this was never available for herdsmen of any description. Above these people, but held in better regard, were the produce farmers and the working citizens of the City. Above that level were the Merchant classes, whose wealth formed the basic economy of the State and to whom the common citizen fawned for favor, even welcoming them into their homes. Above this milieu, the more elite Scribes and Scholars, who were famed by their doting parents but framed in the arrogance of the Sadducees. Yet further up the chain of command are the self elected Pharisees, still strangely visible today, going through the Old City with their many phylacteries whose paranoia about touching anything unclean or rubbing up against any of the lower classes makes them consider it more efficacious to move about their busy lives by crossing the town on the ripple of rooftops ! On top of this and above the Laws of men, the Aristocracy itself, venerable family names and land owners who boasted their genealogy to High Princes and High Priests through History and maintained even higher opinions of themselves. Here were the seven levels of Israel at the time of Jesus, standing in antithesis to the seven pillars of Wisdom. It was no small wonder that the Messiah would be born in a shepherd’s cave and found resting in an animals crib!

On 8th of September I had a free day and I walked down again to the northeast area of the old city, which is below the north bank of the Temple Mount by the Sheep Gate. Then I realized the Baths of Beth'esda were opposite what once was the old sheep market and is now the property adjoining St Anne's Church. In Jesus’ time temple visitors would have to pay for bathing in the ‘Bath House’ (oblations) after dealing in the market and before mounting the platform steps. The outside Pool would be for the disabled and the "unclean", a people never allowed to go up to the Temple. I also remembered that the "Ecce Homo'' declaration of the Roman Governor was ironically made on this sheep market floor, where Jesus was separated from Barabas becoming the scapegoat and condemned to the cross on this spot (where Abraham found a Ram pinned in the Thorn bush"). Then, as the ‘scapegoat’, Jesus was driven out of the City away from the Temple precincts bound with our sins. Here was I, at the entry to St Anne's Church, where the Via Dolorosa starts, about to attend the Pontifical Mass in the pristine Crusaders’ church behind me, as it was the Birthday of the BVM.

The solemnity started when a "Moselman" in his bright red Fez, handlebar shining moustache, white shirt and tie in a Brown suite (as required to be worn by Ottoman Officials), accompanied by sistrum rattling boy acolytes, led a procession of Legates, of City clergy and a group of concelebrating White Fathers over the plaza from the gate. He proudly led the way, thumping the pavements with his silver topped Staff and strode along like a Major Duomo. The procession glided after him straight into the Crusader stone-capped echoing church. Inside they all headed down the steps to the double Crypt wherein lay the excavated ruins of Anne & Joachim's home and the glorious location where Mary was born. Then from the Crypt came the sound of Salve Regina, reverberating off the tight walls above. Apart from the Latin sung mass whose opening Introit declares "Salve Sancta Parens enixa puerpera Regem", all else was in French and all very impressive. After mass, there was a reception held under a large Marquee in the garden and there I chatted to Peter Smith WF, and a younger man called Kieran WF from Offaly, and lots of other City clergy, students, passing an hour in polite chit chat. I thought it a remarkable chance that the Turks gave the custody of St Anne's to the French, in gratitude for their help in the Crimean War of 1858 and that in 1878 the French Government gave the Church to the Custody of Cardinal Lavigerie who sent in the White Fathers to run the Melkite Seminary and eventually run the site by the 1st station on the Via Dolorosa, a major station on the Pilgrimage trail. The White Fathers had become, in effect, the custodians of St Anne's Church and the Pool of Bethesda. I was very moved by this location for it was by this very pool which is still fed today by springs from above the Damascus gate, that Jesus uniquely asked a paralytic "Do you want to be cured?'' and then Jesus commands "Take up your bed & walk !"

Now I ask myself, what are the chances of all this happening in the area of which the White Fathers are now Curators? This was after all the reputed home of Mary and her birthplace, the birthplace of the Immaculate ! This was reputedly, the home of the Grandparents of Christ! Did he stay there on his early trips to the City? Was John aware of all this when he alone tells us in Chapter 5 that Jesus was visiting the Pool and uniquely asks a stranger, and obviously a lonely and friendless soul, "Do you (really) want to be healed? It also shocked me that just beside this site, Jesus was scourged, " whose stripes WE are healed" ! His blood on the dedicated property! And most intriguing of all I thought, because the Angel of the Temple and its precinct was and still is Gabriel, was this the contentious location of the Annunciation? For the girl was not yet wife of Joseph and therefore would be at home in the Custody of her venerable parents. No surprise then that the White Fathers stand up to sing the Orders Anthem "Ave Maris Stella'' composed reputedly in the 15th century by a choirmaster of St John's Choir school in Cambridge! But, what an amazing grace it is, that we few comrades belonged no, still have a bond with this Missionary Society! In the same area where Pilate proclaims Ecce Homo and then, by the Authority of Rome, he declares "Jesus the Nazarene King of the Judeans''.

It was now the early afternoon and I decided to visit the “English Garden Tomb” before returning back to the Hotel where late lunch was arranged for the dozen people who opted for staying in the City on the 8th September, instead of joining the rest of the Pilgrimage party when they went off to visit an Hermitage and a kibbutz by the Dead Sea. But the Tomb is yet another story to follow soon!

(1) A mountain district called the place of Moriah is mentioned to Abraham in Genesis 22 v. 2 and renamed by Abraham in v. 14. In II Chronicles Moriah is again mentioned as "Threshing Floor" bought by David off Arunah the Jebusite priest.
(2) Page 95/6 "Kings & Prophets" by Emile Bock (translated from German for Floris Bks 1989)



Simple plan of the Old City ( thanks to ) You will find many more detailed maps on the web.

This is a link to an article at the MAFR website about St. Anne’s and its MAFR connection.

The text and photos in that article are by Frs. Joe Buholzer and Donald MacLeod M.Afr.

This is more information about the MAFR in Jerusalem.

(Robbie Dempsey. Nov-2016)




Part 2