Church of Saint Alexander Nevsky, Jerusalem
Just 70 meters from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, is an unassuming wooden door with signs in Cyrillic script telling you, you have reached the Church of Saint Alexander Nevsky. If you venture in you will discover one of the most interesting churches in the Old City. The St. Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Church is part of Alexander's Yard, also known as the Russian House. Here the Savior's cross was placed on the shoulders of Simon of Cyrene, as Christ stumbled, carrying his cross to Calvary.
Who was Alexander Nevsky?
Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky (1221-1263) was a Russian warrior-prince during the rule of the Varangian Rurik dynasty. He protected the Russian state through his military victories and negotiated with the Golden Horde (Mongolian Empire) to prevent Russians from participating in the Horde's battles. In 1547 Nevsky was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. St. Nevsky is an extremely popular hero in Russian culture. Numerous churches are named after him; he is the Patron Saint of St Petersburg and he became the Patron Saint of Tsar Alexander III. In 1725 Empress Catherine I made the Imperial Order of Saint Alexander Nevsky one of the highest chivalry honors.
History of the Church of Alexander Nevsky
In 1858 Palestine was under the Ottoman rule and Russia wanted to reinforce its presence in the Levant. They established the Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society and bought land close to the Sepulchre Church. The aim was to construct a consulate and hostel for Russian pilgrims. Construction began but was brought to a halt when ancient remains were found on the site. The hostel and consulate were eventually built outside the city walls. In 1883 excavations uncovered a stone threshold with hinges for a gate. It may have been part of the Judgement Gate where Jesus passed on his way to Calvary. Today experts consider the threshold to be from the 2nd century, many years after Christ's crucifixion. Other findings included a wide staircase believed to have been part of the Sepulchre Church at a time when the church was a lot larger. This theory corresponds to the depiction of the Holy Sepulchre in the 6th century Madaba Map.
The Russians knew that building on top of the ancient remains and so close to the Holy Sepulchre would not be supported by the Ottoman administration. So they continued construction in secret. Russian women smuggled church bells into the church and the exterior was designed to resemble a regular Russian house. The church was completed around 1896-1903 and named after Alexander Nevsky, patron saint of the recently deceased Emperor Alexander III. The church was consecrated by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1891 and again in 1896 by the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Visiting the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky
For Russian pilgrims, the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky is a must-see attraction. Enter the Baroque-style church and follow a flight of stairs up to the main chapel. See the painted iconostasis adorned with images of Russian religious icons. Space has a high ceiling, marble floor, and plain stone walls with paintings of Russian saints and Biblical scenes. On the lower level of the church stands an excavated archway that may have been built by Hadrian and reused in the 4th-century basilica. To the right is an 11th-century column and to the left 2nd-century stonework from Hadrian's Roman forum. Beyond the archway is a reconstruction of the wide stairway that once led up to the 4th century Holy Sepulcher Church. Beneath the protective glass is the Judgement Gate threshold and nearby is a large piece of the Rock of Calvary topped by a crucifix. In the adjacent museum are objects related to the church construction and excavations.