Bill Slott

The Upper Room where it happened

'I have seen grown men weep at the grave of a king who died three thousand years ago.'
The Upper Room (photo: Sonya Salkin-Slott)
The Upper Room (photo: Sonya Salkin-Slott)

Just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem to the southwest of the Zion Gate is a small two-story building that tells two separate stories with themes of redemption. It is variously called the Cenacle, the Upper Room, the Room of the Last Supper, the Tomb of David, and the Masjid Nabi Daud, and if that is confusing, note that it is perhaps the only building in the world that is a sacred place of prayer for Jews, Muslims and Christians.

On the lower floor is the purported tomb of King David, though it is almost certainly not, and on the upper floor is the site of the Last Supper of Jesus, though the building was built centuries after the events of the Gospels. In fact, the Upper Room itself has been both a church and a mosque, and the symbols of both are interspersed in the modest hall in a wonderful confusion of monotheistic passion.

It is not a coincidence that the same building houses these two sites associated with these two men. David is the harbinger of the Messiah according to the prophets, and hence, according to the Christian faith, it is appropriate that Jesus, the realization of that prophesy, should share his Passover supper with his disciples in close proximity to the tomb of David. Both men were born in Bethlehem, 1,000 years apart, and the site associated with the end of both of their lives should also be the same. Architecture as a theology lesson.

On the lower floor, in a never-ending hymn to the harp-playing king, there is always someone standing before the large tomb reading the psalms (the poems of faith that according to tradition were written by David). In the middle of the day, it might be a crowd of young yeshiva students, and in the middle of the night it might be one elderly worshiper, but there is always a presence. And in the room above are Christian pilgrims, experiencing a closeness to divine grace that they can only achieve in this magical city. One can feel the hum of prayer radiating through the stones that divide the building and create a floor for the Upper Room and a ceiling for the chamber of David’s Tomb.

The Upper Room as it appears in the gospels (Mark 14:15) has traditionally been associated with Mount Zion, and while there is evidence that some of the building is old enough to be a candidate (the lowest level of stones in the wall are claimed to be from the time of Herod by some scholars) the earliest recorded claims that this particular building was the Cenacle itself date from the Crusader period (the 12th century). In 1524 the Franciscan Monks who had been the custodians of the site were evicted by the Ottomans, who turned the Upper Room into The Mosque of the Prophet David, and added stained glass windows with verses from the Quran about David as well as a Mihrab (an indentation pointing to Mecca) and a dome and minaret atop the roof. Neither Christians nor Jews were allowed entrance to the building for 500 years. In 1948, with the establishment of the State of Israel, the site was put under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior.

From 1948 to 1967 the Old City was in the hands of the Jordanians, and Jews were not allowed into ancient Jerusalem (with no access to the Western Wall, the Temple Mount or other holy sites). The roof of the building was the only place from which Jews could actually see a piece of the Temple Mount (just a glimpse of the golden dome, but that was enough for the direction of prayer). Hence, what was traditionally a minor site of Jewish pilgrimage became for a brief period, the most central religious shrine in Jerusalem.

My reference to doubts about the historical authenticity of the actual sites should not be taken as cynicism. Far from it. This little building is inspiring. Whether the claims about it are historically accurate or not is irrelevant. It is the tears of the pilgrims that have sanctified both floors. I have seen grown men weep at the grave of a king that died three thousand years ago, and in the Cenacle upstairs I have seen communities enter into a state of religious ecstasy in the room of the Last Supper that caused healthy people to faint with joy. I imagine that if some archaeologist managed to find a spot 200 feet away that was a more convincing candidate, the souls and prayers of the devoted would stay exactly where they are.

I envy these communities of faith. I have my spiritual world, and I value it, but it is tempered by the intellect, restrained by the rational, and watered down by a soul-crushing commitment to objectivity. Reason, intellect and objectivity are wonderful and essential. I am not sorry that I was born after the Enlightenment. But sometimes I would like to abandon them for love of the Creator, and devotion to that which is greater than us. It is as though some of us are missing a sensory organ, and when we see those who have it, we just scoff as though they are engaged in some kind of performance art. But believe me, to the faithful, this experience is more real than anything in our day-to-day world. The thing that gives their life meaning happened right in this place, and at this moment they are experiencing it. And that experience is pure joy.

We all need a bit more of that joy in our lives.

David’s Tomb (photo: Bill Slott)
About the Author
Bill Slott is a licensed Israeli tour guide who has hiked and biked the length and breadth of the country. Bill is a member of Kibbutz Ketura, where he has lived since 1981 with his wife and three daughters.
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