Bethphage, “house of the unripe figs” in Aramaic, is mentioned in the synoptic Gospels as the site where Jesus, before entering Jerusalem, sends his disciples to look for a donkey and a colt upon which he enters the capital city: “As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:1-5).
The site of Bethphage is identified on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives, east of the old city of Jerusalem. The place is mentioned by pilgrims of the Byzantine period, and sources of the Crusader period describe a church at the site which was built around a rock identified and sanctified as the rock which Jesus used to step on and sit on the donkey’s back. During Crusader times a tradition developed of marching in a procession from Bethphage to Jerusalem with palm trees. People whose family name is “Palmer” are believed to be descendants of pilgrims who participated in this ceremony.
In 1876 a chance find of a decorated stone east of the Mount of Olives led the Franciscans to purchase the plot, and build a church on the site, in 1883.
During the construction, the remains of the Crusader church were revealed. The 1883 church was renovated and re-designed by the chief Franciscan architect A. Barluzzi in 1954. During the renovations the apse of the church was painted by the artist Vagarini, who also repaired and conserved the ancient decorated stone.
In 1933 the Franciscans also renewed the procession of “Palm Sunday”, and it is held to this day every year before Easter. Near the Franciscan church the Greek-Orthodox also constructed a church, elegant in design and proportions, which was completed in 1965.
Today both churches are near the security fence which was constructed in 2003 to protect Jerusalem from attacks coming from Palestinian areas. Perhaps the proximity to the security fence is the main reason only few pilgrim groups visit the site. A proper Christian visit to Jerusalem perhaps should START at that spot.