Thousands of Christian tourists are expected to join Israel’s resident Christians for events commemorating the final days in the life of Jesus. Events to mark the annual Christian celebration take place throughout Jerusalem, and are expected to bring at least 100,000 Christian tourists.
By Rivka Borochov
For the Jews of Israel, it’s a time to clean the crumbs and cobwebs from the kitchen. Passover is the holiday commemorating the time when the Israelites left Egypt as slaves, and entered Israel, the Promised Land, as free people. Every spring, Jews clean out the leaven from their homes and sit down to a Seder, a festive meal where the story is retold.
Since Jesus was a Jew, the Last Supper was his Passover meal. It’s no coincidence, then, that the Jewish Passover holiday corresponds to the Christian Easter, which commemorates the Resurrection following the Crucifixion.
Once a year, these two great monotheistic faiths align. Visitors to the Holy Land, and Jerusalem, will see both faiths in action starting April 15 and continuing through April 25, which includes Christian Holy Week, known also as Easter Week.
Events to mark the annual Christian celebration take place throughout the city, and are expected to bring at least 100,000 Christian tourists, as was the case last year. Added to the visitors are Israeli Christian residents, whose numbers are 146,000 and reportedly growing.
Easter Week in Israel includes Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter. Palm Sunday, according to the Christian Scriptures, is the day when Jesus arrived to Jerusalem waving palm fronds. Good Friday is the day when Jesus was crucified and Easter Sunday is when he was resurrected.
Where to find information
Those planning to attend Easter Week events in Jerusalem should expect crowds and tight security.
A chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (Photo: Israel Ministry of Tourism)
Traditional celebrations for Christians will be held throughout the entire Old City of Jerusalem, where Christian influence is still very strong. Expect to find a procession on Good Friday along the Via Delarosa, the same path that Jesus took holding the cross to his ultimate end. The procession ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional burial spot of Jesus. Of interest to all tourists are remnants of old tombs carved into the walls of the rock in the church, still preserved as they were 2,000 years ago.
Lydia Weitzman, a spokesperson for the Israel Ministry of Tourism, suggests the Christian Information Centre in the Old City of Jerusalem as a great resource for up-to-the-minute details during Christian Week.
Holy Fire tradition
On the Saturday before Easter (April 23 this year), according to Eastern Orthodox Christian belief, a flame appears in the tomb of Jesus at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and is caught by both a Greek patriarch and an Armenian Orthodox priest, which they share with congregants holding candles.
The Tourism Ministry arranges to broadcast this Holy Fire celebration on big screens for the many Christian visitors who won’t be able to squeeze into the dimly lit church.
Armenian priests in ceremonial dress (Photo: Israel Ministry of Tourism)
"Thousands of Christian pilgrims will cram into the church to see the fire miraculously lit, which is then brought out of the tomb," Weitzman says. This ritual attracts thousands of pilgrims to the Old City every year, says Weitzman. "We’ve created huge video screens for the faithful to watch this ceremony, although we are not involved in it directly."
Referred to as the Saturday of Light, or Sapt il-Noor, the event is observed by Eastern Orthodox sects, such as the Greek, Syrian, Armenian, Greek and Russian churches as well as the Copts. Protestants and Catholics do not participate in the ritual, which requires a special pass for entry. This can be secured from one of Jerusalem’s Orthodox churches.
After Easter, Christian tourism continues
If you miss Easter week, there is always plenty for Christians to see and do in Jerusalem: Elisa Moed, the CEO of the Travelujah Christian travel portal, says her organization is offering a special night tour of the ancient streets of the Christian Quarter and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jewish Quarter and Armenian Quarter at 7pm on April 26.
According to Weitzman, the Tourism Ministry is promoting a new kind of faith tourism – a hiking trip along the Gospel Trail, a 65-kilometer hiking trail in Israel’s Galilee region connecting important sites from the life of Jesus as well as other historical and religious sites.