Convent of the Sisters of Zion in Jerusalem


This is a good story of good people. A man, Ratisbonne, a French Jew and former atheist who converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit, took it upon himself to build an orphanage for girls and an convent for Sisters and from that moment his work helped thousands over the years.

Span of Ecce Homo arch outside Sisters of Zion Convent in Jerusalem
Span of Ecce Homo arch outside Sisters of Zion Convent in Jerusalem

The Convent of the Sisters of Zion is a convent of the Congregation of Notre-Dame de Sion, located near to the eastern end of the Via Dolorosa, in Jerusalem. The convent was built in 1857, by Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne, but the site also contains ancient archaeological remains of significant value.

Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne
Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne

In 1857, on the land later taken by the convent lay ruins. Ratisbonne, a French Jew and former atheist who converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit, decided to purchase the site. Between 1858 and 1862, he built a basilica (the Church of Ecce Homo), an orphanage for girls, and standard convent buildings. As the convent was quite confined in size, the nuns bought a few of the surrounding Arab homes, incorporated them into the convent; they soon opened a medical dispensary on the site. Due to the introduction of state support for orphans, by the Ottoman government and later (1948) by the Israeli government, the orphanage buildings have been used for other religious purposes since 1967. The Convent now maintains a guesthouse and library.

Church of the Condemnation
Church of the Condemnation

Immediately beneath the convent is an extensive area of Roman flagstones; as these continue, to a lesser extent, under the Church of the Condemnation and Imposition of the Cross, they have been known about for several centuries. These flagstones were once thought to be the pavement which the Bible describes as the location where Pontius Pilate adjudged Jesus’ trial, but archaeological investigation now indicates that it is the paving of the eastern of two 2nd century Forums, built by Hadrian as part of the construction of Aelia Capitolina.

Struthion Pool

Struthion Pool
Struthion Pool

Beneath the paving is a large cuboid cistern, which gathered the rainwater from guttering on the Forum buildings. Prior to Hadrian, this cistern had been an open-air pool, but Hadrian added arch vaulting to enable the pavement to be placed over it. The existence of the pool in the first century is attested by Josephus, who reports that it was called Struthius (literally meaning sparrow). This Struthion Poolwas originally built as part of an open-air water conduit by the Hasmoneans, which has since been enclosed; the source of the water for this conduit is currently unidentified.

The pool had remained in use down to modern times, but was identified as the Struthion by British engineer Sir Charles Warren during his exploration of Jerusalem between 1867 and 1870. His discovery of a tunnel running along the Western Wall to the vicinity of the pool prompted the Convent of the Sisters of Zion to seal off a part of the pool. An east-west wall now divides the Struthion pool into two parts, preventing access between them; one side is visible from the western wall tunnels, the other area is accessible from the Convent.

As a result of 1971 extensions to the original Western Wall Tunnel, the Hasmonean water system became linked to the end of the Western Wall Tunnel. Running under Arab housing, the two were later opened as a tourist attraction. The attraction has a linear route, starting at the Western Wall Plaza, passing through the modern tunnels, then the ancient water system, and ending at the Struthion Pool. As the Sisters of Zion were not willing to allow tourists to exit into the Convent via the pool, tourists had to return through the narrow tunnels to their starting point, creating minor logistical issues. Digging an alternative exit from the tunnel was proposed, but initially rejected on the grounds that any exit would be seen as an attempt by the Jewish authorities to stake a claim to ownership of the nearby land – part of the Muslim Quarter of the city.

In 1996 Benjamin Netanyahu authorized the opening of an exit into the Via Dolorosa, underneath the Ummariya madrasah. Over the subsequent few weeks, 80 people were killed as a result of riots against the creation of the exit.

Ecce Homo arch

Ecce Homo arch
Ecce Homo arch

The convent also includes the Ecce Homo Church, which contains part of the Ecce Homo arch, which extends to the outside street. Although the arch was traditionally believed to be spot corresponding to the Biblical account of Pilate giving the Ecce Homo speech, it is now known to have been a triple-arched gateway built by Hadrian, as an entrance to the aforementioned Roman Forum.

Ecce Homo Church
Ecce Homo Church

Ecce Homo Church is a Roman Catholic church on Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, along the path that according to tradition Jesus walked, carrying his cross, on the way to his crucifixion. The church is now part of the Convent of the Sisters of Zion.

The Latin words Ecce Homo (i.e. Behold the Man) are attributed to

Pontius Pilate
Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilate in the Gospel of John 19:5, when he presented a scourged Jesus Christ, bound and crowned with thorns, to a hostile crowd. The New Testament also says that Jesus was dressed in fake royal attire, to mock the claim that he was “King of the Jews.”

The church contains one arch of a Roman gateway, which has a further arch crossing the Via Dolorosa outside. There was originally a third arch to the gateway, on the other side of the street; in the sixteenth century, it was incorporated into a monastery for Uzbek dervishes in the Order of the Golden Chain, but this was later demolished, taking the arch with it.

Antonia Fortress
Antonia Fortress

Traditionally, the arch was said to have been part of the gate of Herod’s Antonia Fortress, which itself was alleged to be the location of Jesus’ trial by Pontius Pilate; the traditional conclusion was that the arch was the location of Pontius Pilate’s Ecce Homo speech, reported by the Bible. However, due to archaeological investigation, it is now known that the arch is a triple-arched gateway, built by Hadrian, as an entrance to the eastern Forum of Aelia Capitolina; the site of the forum was previously a large open-air pool of water (theStrouthion Pool).

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