The Russian Ascension Church is part of the Convent of the Ascension, on the highest point of the Mount of Olives. The complex covers 54,000m² and is surrounded by a 1.5-meter-long wall. Inside the complex are a pilgrims’ hostel, a chapel, a freestanding bell tower, an olive grove, and well-kept gardens. Russian Orthodox nuns from around the world run the convent.
They are known for their singing, icon painting, and embroidery. According to Orthodox tradition, this is where Jesus ascended to heaven forty days after his resurrection (Acts 1:9-11). In 1870, Archimandrite Antonine Kapustin bought land on the Mount of Olives and established the Russian compound where the church stands. This was in part an effort to expand the Russian presence in the Holy Land.
The Bible identifies the Mount of Olives as the site of Christ’s ascension. But there are several churches on the mount that are dedicated to this Biblical event. The Russian Orthodox Ascension Church stands on the southern peak of the Mount of Olives. Nearby is the Dome of the Ascension. Most Christians believe that Jesus ascended to heaven from where the 4th-century Dome of Ascension stands.
Today, the small eight-sided structure is within a walled compound that includes a mosque. On the northern peak of the Mount of Olives is the Greek Orthodox Viri Galilaei Church. It is named after the “men of Galilee” (Acts 1:11) who were addressed by two angels after Christ’s ascension. A fourth ascension church is part of the Augusta Victoria church-hospital complex where Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip receive medical care.
The standout feature of the Russian Ascension Church is its 64-meter (about 200ft) high square bell tower that symbolizes Christ’s ascension. It was built for pilgrims to see the Jordan River from the tower belfry. The freestanding tower holds an eight-ton bell brought from Russia. It was the first church bell to ring in Ottoman Jerusalem.
In the church, there are flagstones from an earlier Byzantine church that once stood here. Stains on the ancient flagstones may be the blood of nuns slaughter during the Persian invasion of 614. The beautiful church murals were painted by the convent nuns. On the outside wall of the church is a stone where according to Orthodox tradition Mary stood as she watched Christ’s ascension.
A small cemetery lies within the convent complex, and there are several interesting gravestones. The founder of the Russian complex, Antonin Kapustin is buried to the left of the church entrance. In 1909, one of the convent’s first leaders, Father Parthenius, was found stabbed to death in his room. He is buried behind the church. His murder was never solved and the murderer was never found.
According to tradition, a Christian woman named Joanna saw Herod Antipas’ wife disposing of St. John’s head. Joanna retrieved the head and secretly buried it in a clay jar on the Mount of Olives. In the 4th-century St. John appeared to two Syrian monks and told them where the head was buried.
Helena, the mother of the Christian Emperor Constantine, ordered the construction of a chapel where the head was found. Today the Chapel of St. John the Baptist stands behind the Russian church. The chapel incorporates a mosaic floor from a 5th-century Armenian chapel that once stood here. There is a hole in the mosaic floor where the head of John the Baptist is said to have been found.