The Site of the Burning of the Red Heifer


“The Mountain which is on the East Side of the City” (Ezekiel 11:23)

Eli Shiller

The Mount of Olives, which rises above Jerusalem from the east, spans from Shuafat in the north to the lower parts of the mountain bordered by Nahal Kidron in the south. It is about 3.5 km in length and its average width is about 2 km. In fact, this is not one mountain, but a mountain range that gradually slopes downward from north to south, and from which two extensions branch out: the “Mount of Anointment” in the south, and the branch of the mountain that turns south, on which lies Al Eizariya. The mountain has three prominent summits: Mount Scopus, 826 meters, Abu Tor (the ascent) 816 meters, and the “Mount of Anointment,” 746 meters. The Mount of Olives is not the highest mountain in Jerusalem, with Romema in the northwest section of the city standing at 830 meters. Nevertheless, it is the only mountain that has ever had the privilege of being called “the Mountain” by pilgrims, it being the most pronounced. No one disputes its uniqueness, and in reference to the Mount of Olives, more than one Bible passage refers to it as “the Mountain” (Nahum 8:15; Ezekiel 11). The Mount of Olives is extrusive due to the low region at the foot of the mountain, as the Mount of Olives rises above the Kidron river bed by more than 100 meters, and above the Temple Mount by about 76 meters. Because of this it has always been the vantage point of Jerusalem.

The Mount of Olives is composed of whitish color limestone on which there are also layers of flint here and there. From a geological aspect, the mountain belongs to the Senonian region, while from a vegetation aspect it belongs (mainly in its eastern section) to the desert region. The type of rock was an important factor in the singularity of the Mount of Olives as the burial site of Jerusalem and the center for growing olives. Most importantly, the majority of the Mount of Olives is covered by a thick layer of soil that enables agriculture in the area on its northern branch – Mount Scopus. There is also a certain degree of military value, since the mountain controls the main roads that lead to the city – especially the road originating from the north that is controlled by Mount Scopus and the road that ascends from the east, controlled by the Mount of Olives. However, the military, economic, and religious factors did not possess great importance in the history of the Mount of Olives. The prominent characteristics that made it unique were its location as a vantage point over Jerusalem, its proximity to the Temple, and its status as a border between the desert and the populated land. The mountain also served in almost all eras since the Iron Age as the cemetery of Jerusalem. According to other opinions, the soils on the mountain are not particularly suitable for growing trees or other agriculture.

The Geography of the Mount of Olives

There are few mountains whose shape is as difficult to define as that of the Mount of Olives. Actually, it is not a single mountain, but rather a mountain range that stands like a wall over Jerusalem. The range creates a level platform on the upper part, strewn with low hills and flat ravines. The exact boundaries of the mountain, its elevation, and its sub-divisions differ greatly from one study to another, including that of Berkley, one of the first researchers of Jerusalem, that “it is almost impossible to define the shape of the Mount of Olives and its borders,” and it has no less than twelve hills that rise from it.

The most accepted division of the Mount of Olives, which we also endorse, is Mount Scopus (826 meters), the Mount of Olives itself (816 meters), and the Mount of Anointment in the south (743 meters). But some prefer to divide the range into Mount Scopus – Augusta Victoria (814 meters), and the Mount of Olives, or Mount Scopus – Viri Galilaei (808 meters) and the Mount of Olives. Common to most of the definitions is the repeated division into three summits, based on ancient tradition, since even in the past the Mount of Olives was called the “Mount of Three Summits,” or the “Mount of Three Lights.”

On the Mount of Olives itself, a number of principal sections can be discerned (from north to south):

  1. Viri Galilaei (the “Galilee”)
  2. The Abu Sahira Valley
  3. The “Bench” (or the “sitting place” or Al Kaada in Arabic) in the south.
  4. The site of the Russian Orthodox Church in the east.


Viri Galilaei (or the “Galilee”) – Kerem Al Said

Viri Galilaei is in the northern section of the Mount of Olives, adjacent to the ancient Jericho-Jerusalem road that ascended the Mount of Olives from the east. The name “Galilee” commemorates the words of the angel to the apostles as written in the Christian scripture Acts of Apostles, “’Why are you Galileans standing here looking into the sky?” (1:11).

But it is possible that the general location is mistakenly identified as Galilee, the place where Jesus was meant to appear before the apostles (Matthew 28:10). Hence the oft-repeated error in travel journals of convening various events here related to the life of Jesus that took place in the Galilee. This fact was often twisted by tour guides in the Middle Ages, who brought enthralled pilgrims here for the exhausting journey to the Galilee. In the fifteenth century, Felix Fabri notes the unusual significance of the “Galilee.” Here, according to Fabri, pilgrims would express their deepest emotions and prayers for those same places that they could not visit because of Muslim rule: Solomon’s Temple (the Dome of the Rock), the Gate of Mercy, Pilate’s Palace, the Home of Herod, St. Anne’s Church, and various others. Fabri points out that, “All of the atonement and the absolution that we could have attained from these places for our sins has been concentrated into this place called Galilee.” The Roman military encampment may have been erected on the Mount of Olives (Book of the Wars of the Lord 5:2-3). We do not have any explicit information that this is the case, but since Josephus Flavius states that he was far from Jerusalem by about six ris (about 1000 meters), and the distance from the summit of the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem is about 750 meters, it can be assumed that the camp was in the northern section of the Mount of Olives.

The Abu Sahira Valley

Between the Viri Galilaei Church and the Church of the Ascension, there is a valley called Abu Sahira (“resurrection for all eternity”) in the Muslim tradition. Here all the resurrected will gather on the Day of Judgement, and here is the spot where a bridge will reach from the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives on the Day of Judgement. Muqaddasi (985 C.E.) writes about this valley: “The Mount of Olives looks over the great mosque east of the Valley of Hell. At its peak is the Mosque of Omar, who resided here for several days when the city surrendered. At the site there is a church from which Jesus rose to the heavens, and beyond it is a valley called Abu Sahira, which Ibn Abbas has said is where the dead will come to life. Its soil is white, and blood has never been shed on it.”

For reasons unknown, in the Middle Ages the tradition migrated to the area northwest of Herod’s Gate, above Jeremiah’s Cave, the place in which the Muslim Cemetery exists today, also called Abu Sahira (and thereafter Bab A-Zahara).

The Mount of Olives Summit – Abu Tor (The Church of Ascension and its surroundings)

This place, considered the peak of the Mount of Olives, is located directly across from the Temple Mount, and is deemed to have tremendous significance in various traditions. It seems that this is the place that Zachariah referred to when he said, “The Mount of Olives which is before Jerusalem on the east.” (Zachariah 14:4). Since it is the summit of the Mount of Olives, the Christian tradition has also attributed to it many events affiliated with the final days of Jesus – most importantly – the place of his ascension to heaven. Adjacent to it, Jesus determined his judgement of Jerusalem (i.e. when it would surrender). And not far from here he taught his apostles and expounded on the end of days. The fact that from this peak the view of Jerusalem is spectacular, that it has proximity to the road leading to Bethany, and that there is a cave at the site (in the Church of the Pater Noster), testifies to the clear legendary character of the identification (Dellman). At the peak of the Mount of Olives is the Arab village of Abu Tor, which is the name given to the Mount of Olives by the Arab population. The residents of the village believe that the origin of the mountain’s name is derived from the village, but it is a known fact that the village was established only in the 15th century. Adjacent to the location are graves of the prophets, and thus, the area west of the village is called Village of the Prophets.

The Southern Portion of the Mountain – The “Bench” (or “Al Kaada” – the Sitting Place)

According to tradition, this is the area on which the Intercontinental Hotel stands today. The “bench” was a very important center for Jewish life at the dawn of the Middle Ages. Here, the Feast of Tabernacles celebrations were held. At this time, it was customary to encircle the area seven times, as was the tradition at the Temple Mount, which Jews were forbidden to enter during that period. The head of the yeshiva dwelt in the “Bench”, spoke to the faithful, and received their donations. The choice of this site was linked to the tradition that this was the Place of the Divine Presence following the destruction of the Temple. The “Sitting Place” (Al Kaada in Arabic) is connected to the tradition, that Mary sat to rest here while she made her way to the Mount of Olives and Bethany. The site is at an elevation of 800 meters, and it is the lowest point of the Mount of Olives ridge.

The Russian Orthodox Church (812 meters)

Since this is the highest point on the eastern portion of the mountain, from which there is a field of vision eastward, it can be assumed that here the torches were lit during the Second Temple period, and not from the traditional “Mount of Anointment” (Silwan), which is lower and hidden by the Mount of Olives. There are those who believe that in ancient times this was considered Jesus’s place of ascension to the heavens, since the site was on the way to Bethany, as is evident from Luke (24:50).

The Mount of Corruption (in Arabic: Batan Al Howa – the Mount of Spirits) (734 meters)

This is the southern branch of the Mount of Olives, which is divided by the road that descends to Jericho. At its summit is a Dominican hostel, and on its western slopes sits the village of Silwan. According to tradition, this is the Mount of Corruption on which King Solomon built the altars for his non-Jewish wives. But this tradition originates at a later period and its source is the Latin translation of the Bible, which was done by Jerome in the 4th century. He is the one who called this mountain the “Mount of Abomination” and the “Mount of Affront,” a name which is generally agreed upon in most contemporary European languages. This identification is not necessarily based in fact, since the Mount of Corruption (Har HaMashchit) is simply a muddle of the name Mount of Anointment (Har HaMishcha), which is a synonym for the Mount of Olives, and the Bible explicitly states that the altars were erected by Solomon to the right of the “Mount of the Anointing” (Kings 2 23:13). In any case, the popular tradition seeks to translate abstract terms into tangible and concrete concepts, not precise details, and pilgrims described the foreign ritual on the Mount of Corruption in gloomy tones more than once.

Mount Scopus

Mount Scopus of today is part of the Mount of Olives, and indeed there may not be justification for a separate term. From Josephus Flavius (Book of the Wars of the Lord 5:2-3) we learn: “…and arrived [from Saul’s Hill] to the place called Scopus, from which the city can be viewed…”, and so it seems that the mountain should be placed farther north. One of the agreeable identifications of researchers for this site is Jabal Musharraf, between Shuafat and Jerusalem, suggested by French Orientalist and archaeologist Clermont-Ganneau. Jerusalem is first seen by those approaching from the north, and the Arabs even used to place stone markers at the site when they saw the Dome of the Rock for the first time when coming from Nablus. But the problem with this identification is that the distance from here to Jerusalem reaches about 11 stadions (1 stadia represents a distance of 185 to 192 meters), while according to Josephus Flavius, Mount Scopus is only at a distance of 7 stadions. This distance matches the “Third Wall” that Warren discovered, which is located north of the current wall, over which the city spanned during the Second Temple period.

It is said that the meeting between the High Priest, his assistants and Alexander the Great took place on Mount Scopus. Josephus states in this regard, “The meaning of the name is a vantage point from which Jerusalem and the Temple could be seen” (Kadmi 11, 8, 5). Due to the prominent status of Mount Scopus, the enemy armies that approached Jerusalem camped on the mountain and prepared for the military invasion. As a result of the exceptional view of Jerusalem from Mount Scopus, pilgrims would come here after the destruction of the Temple, gaze at the city and tear their clothes, “because the viewers deserved to mourn.”



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