Ascension, then and now

On the whole Mount of Olivet there seems to be no spot higher than that from which the Lord is said to have ascended into the heavens, where there stands a great round church, having in its circuit three vaulted porticoes covered over above. The interior of the church, without roof or vault, lies open to heaven under the open air, having in its eastern side an altar protected under a narrow covering. So that in this way the interior has no vault, in order that from the place where the Divine footprints are last seen, when the Lord was carried up into heaven in a cloud, the way may be always open and free to the eyes of those who pray towards heaven.

For when this basilica, of which I have now made slight mention, was building, that place of the footprints of the Lord, as we find written elsewhere, could not be enclosed under the covering with the rest of the buildings. Whatever was applied, the unaccustomed earth, refusing to receive anything human, cast back into the face of those who brought it. And, moreover, the mark of the dust that was trodden by the Lord is so lasting that the impression of the footsteps may be perceived; and although the faith;of such as gather daily at the spot snatches away some of what was trodden by the Lord, yet the area perceives no loss, and the ground still retains that same appearance of being marked by the impress of footsteps.

Further, as the sainted Arculf, who carefully visited this spot, relates, a brass hollow cylinder of large circumference, flattened on the top, has been placed here, its height being shown by measurement to reach one’s neck. In the centre of it is an opening of some size, through which the uncovered marks of the feet of the Lord are plainly and clearly seen from above, impressed in the dust. In that cylinder there is, in the western side, as it were, a door so that any entering by it can easily approach the place of the sacred dust, and through the open hole in the wheel may take up in their outstretched hands some particles of the sacred dust.

Thus the narrative of our Arculf as to the footprints of the Lord quite accords with the writings of others–to the effect that they could not be covered in any way, whether by the roof of the house or by any special lower and closer covering, so that they can always be seen by all that enter, and the marks of the feet of the Lord can be clearly seen depicted in the dust of that place. For these footprints of the Lord are lighted by the brightness of an immense lamp hanging on pulleys above that cylinder in the church, and burning day and night. Further in the western side of the round church we have mentioned above, twice four windows have been formed high up with glazed shutters, and in these windows there burn as many lamps placed opposite them, within and close to them. These lamps hang in chains, and are so placed that each lamp may hang neither higher nor lower, but may be seen, as it were, fixed to its own window, opposite and close to which it is specially seen. The brightness of these lamps is so great that, as their light is copiously poured through the glass from the summit of the Mountain of Olivet, not only is the part of the mountain nearest the round basilica to the west illuminated, but also the lofty path which rises by steps up to the city of Jerusalem from the Valley of Josaphat, is clearly illuminated in a wonderful manner, even on dark nights, while the greater part of the city that lies nearest at hand on the opposite side is similarly illuminated by the same brightness. The effect of this brilliant and admirable coruscation of the eight great lamps shining by night from the holy mountain and from the site of the Lord’s ascension, as Arculf related, is to pour into the hearts of the believing onlookers a greater eagerness of the Divine love, and to strike the mind with a certain fear along with vast inward compunction.

This also Arculf related to me about the same round church: That on the anniversary of the Lord’s Ascension, at mid-day, after the solemnities of the Mass have been celebrated in that basilica, a most violent tempest of wind comes on regularly every year, so that no one can stand or sit in that church or in the neighbouring places, but all lie prostrate in prayer with their faces in the ground until that terrible tempest has passed.

The result of this terrific blast is that that part of the house cannot be vaulted over; so that above the spot where the footsteps of the Lord are impressed and are clearly shown, within the opening in the centre of the above-named cylinder, the way always appears open to heaven. For the blast of the above-mentioned wind destroyed, in accordance with the Divine will, whatever materials had been gathered for preparing a vault above it, if any human art made the attempt.

This account of this dreadful storm was given to us by the sainted Arculf, who was himself present in that Church of Mount Olivet at the very hour of the day of the Lord’s Ascension when that fierce storm arose. A drawing of this round church is shown below, however unworthily it may have been drawn; while the form of the brass cylinder is also shown placed in the middle of the church.

This also we learned from the narrative of the sainted Arculf: That in that round church, besides the usual light of the eight lamps mentioned above as shining within the church by night, there are usually added on the night of the Lord’s Ascension almost innumerable other lamps, which by their terrible and admirable brightness, poured abundantly through the glass of the windows, not only illuminate the Mount of Olivet, but make it seem to be wholly on fire; while the whole city and the places in the neighbourhood are also lit up.

Excerpts from St Adomnán of Iona De Locis Sanctis (“On the Holy Places”) on the description of the Imbomon Church at the peak of the Mount of Olives, the traditional site of the Christ’s Ascension, related by a certain Frankish Bishop Arculf, who visited Jerusalem circa 670 AD. Arculf was shipwrecked at Iona when returning from his lengthy travels in the East. He related to Adomnán an account of the various holy sites he visited and, most importantly, drew diagrams of their layouts, all of which Adomnán compiled in De Locis Sanctis. This makes De Locis Sanctis an extremely valuable historical account of the appearance of these sites in the third quarter of seventh century, within fifty years of the Arabs taking control of the city. An old, but workable, English translation of Adomnán’s De Locis Sanctis is available here. The reconstruction plan (the second image, above) is from Jerome Murphy O’Connor, The Holy Land: And Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 124. I’ve rotated both images, so that north is to the top. The dashed octogon in the reconstruction drawing indicates the outline of the currently standing dome illustrated below.

The ancient Imbomon Church in its prime must have been quite beautiful. The original church was built circa 380. The church Arculf saw circa 670 was one that was rebuilt after the Persian destruction in 614 of all churches in the Holy Land (except for that of the Nativity in Bethlehem, because its facade’s mosaic depicted the Magi as Persians). Centuries later, the victory of Saladin over the Crusaders led to the church being transferred to the ownership of some of Saladin’s retainers, who massively altered the site, though much of this alteration likely occurred under the Crusader regime. Only the central, formerly unroofed, section was retained, the outer parts of the building being razed to their foundations. The remaining structure was covered with a dome and a mihrab was added to the south wall (visible in the interior photo), making it a mosque, which it is to this day. A rough wall making mostly a round courtyard (it’s more of a semicircle now) around the central structure indicates (in the round part) roughly the original size of the church, which was massive. The following pictures date to between 1900 and 1920, and are from the online Library of Congress collection of the Matson Photo Archives.


  1. Your diagram looks kinda like one of those not-very-labyrinth-y labyrinth paths. 🙂

    I really do like the idea of the original Ascension site being open to the air. Very cool.

  2. Thank you very much for posting Jerome Murphy’s reconstruction.
    In my Seminar I am working on a 3D reconstruction on the Church of the Ascension and any piece of information is very helpful, though, also confusing.
    There is not enough information on the outer design of the imbomon nor the inner.
    In a few books i found the imbomon being compared to St. Constanza in Rome and the Holy Sepulchre on Mount Olive.

  3. Roni, your reconstruction sounds like fun! Please let me know when it’s done; I’d love to see it.

    My guess would be that it was similar to the other octogonal churches highlighting various places: St Peter’s house in Capernaum, the Kathisma, and the Church of Mary Theotokos that the Dome of the Rock is built on the plan of, on the site of the Temple (as I described here), and a similar Church of Mary Theotokos built atop the ruins of the temple on Mount Gerizim. The only one standing to any degree is the now much-altered Dome of the Rock. But I think the arrangement of central arches and galleries in the Dome of the Rock is representative of the style (though in the outermost galleries, both the Kathisma and Gerizim versions show there were chapels). Santa Costanza is a good one for the inside, too, but the exterior was long ago stripped of decoration, so I wouldn’t rely too much on its current rather ugly brick exterior. All of it would have been faced with marble, and the brick invisible.

    I think probably the only clue to the external appearance of buildings contemporary with the original Imbomon is found in the apse mosaic in the Church of Santa Pudentiana in Rome. Here is a pretty nice closeup, and here is a full view. It’s a late fourth century depiction of the Holy Sepulchre Church and other churches, with the exterior of the rotunda depicted immediately to the left of Christ. It appears to be faced with white marble, with high exterior arches and some kind of medallion decorations or perhaps windows in the spaces between the arches, at the tops of the piers. The rounded roof is tiled, of course, and was very likely open to the sky. Interestingly, the facade in the foreground, immediately behind all the figures, shows how the interior columns of the upper tier may have looked at the time in the Holy Sepulchre Rotunda, just outside of which, in a corner of the forecourt, the rock of Golgotha was situated.

    I also recommend to you Martin Biddle’s The Tomb of Christ for more information on the likely appearance of the original Aedicula (the Holy Sepulchre itself). A good article on the subject is here. That might be useful, too.

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