The highlight of a tour to the old city of Jerusalem is usually the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are remembered.
However, allow me to tell you of a place not mentioned even once in all the travel itineraries I went through before my visit. The Garden Tomb located in Jerusalem, Israel. They say it is the alternative tomb of Jesus.
A 15-minute walk from Jerusalem’s Jaffa Street, I find the Garden Tomb. Also known as the Skull Hill, the location was first suggested as an alternative location to the famous Holy Sepulcher by a German scholar named Otto Thenius in 1842.
This is because the Garden Tomb fits many descriptions given in the Bible about the place of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.
Having been to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher already, known by many as the place where the actual ancient tomb is housed, I had to visit this place.
I arrived there at 3.10 pm during Shabbat. Knowing it closes at 4 pm, you can imagine my delight when the host said they close at 5 pm. Right from the entrance, I knew it was going to be a different experience.
There are many notable things about the Garden Tomb. To begin with is the garden itself, which is well designed and maintained. Welcoming you at the entrance is a green painted metal arch supporting a growing grapevine tree.
I counted over 30 different species of flowering and non-flowering plants, shrubs, and trees planted in raised gardens created using stones on either side of the pathway. The trees excited me the most because it was the first time seeing many of them. I touched and smelled them. Thanks to technology, I could identify them.
There was the Terebinth tree whose bloom in March— April fills gardens with tiny red flowers, the poplar, almond, olive trees, the carob trees which have sweet, nutritious fruits, and the aromatic frankincense tree.
There was also the fig, cedar, and the pomegranate tree, which made me feel a little homesick. Fun fact: all these trees are mentioned in the Bible.
The raised and ground gardens and pots carried pockets of yellow daisies, red geraniums, pansies, and the bougainvillea shrub among others.
The second point of interest was the cliff which you see while standing on one edge of the garden. The cliff bears resemblance to a skull and is the reason why the location is known as the ‘Skull Hill’ (Golgotha in Aramaic).
It is here where the crucifixion is said to have taken place. Although nature has eaten away at the rock, I could make out two eye sockets from where I stood.
The authenticity of the Garden is also supported by its proximity to the northern walls of the Old City and the tomb.
What was also remarkable was a displayed photo of the Skull hill taken in 1900 for us to see which shows the presence of the main road leading to Damascus.
As I continued, I came to a rainwater cistern that holds about 250,000 gallons of water and further down an ancient wine press.
It is from this winepress, down a flight of stairs that I arrived at the third point of interest: the tomb itself.
Unearthed in 1867, it is cut out from a rock that forms the wall of the garden. To my left were pots carrying herbaceous shrubs like lavender and to my right, a sitting area.
Following the Covid-19 regulations, I had to wait my turn to enter the tomb. I must admit the wait made me a bit apprehensive.
The tomb is divided into two: an open space where the body was prepared and a burial chamber where the body was finally laid down.
I touched the walls. They were cold. Outside was a channel where the large stone would have rolled over and closed the tomb shut. Talk of the finality that came with such an action. I thought: “How cold and lonely it must have been on the inside. How sombre the mood on the outside.”
I want to believe that those who visit these holy sites in Israel are seeking an encounter with Jesus Christ, the cornerstone of the Christian faith, as they walked where He walked. After all, being a Christian myself, it was the reason behind my visit.
On this tour, I visited many of these holy places but none compared to the Garden Tomb. Other places were marked with loud worship and elaborate golden relics, artefacts, and altars, almost as if they were the main objects of worship.
The Garden Tomb had none of that. It was simply beautiful and serene; the environment drew one into moments of quiet reflection.
As I looked over at the Skull Hill and spent time in the tomb, the stillness of the surroundings must have matched the surroundings 2,000 years ago.
Most likely, there was no pomp or glamour. If anything, only cries of anguish and the hopelessness that comes with losing a loved one. Those present then must have pondered in their hearts, “What next?” because death is so final.
I cried. It was the only place I cried. But the sadness was only for a moment because the tomb in which I stood was empty.
The garden is owned and maintained by a non-denominational Christian Trust based in the UK and Israel. There is no entrance fee. It is maintained through voluntary donations and proceeds from the Bookstore, which has unique souvenir gifts.
Whether or not this was the location where the death, burial, and resurrection took place, it is in this garden that I encountered Jesus. So, next time you are in Jerusalem ensure the Garden Tomb is on your itinerary.