Churches of Israel: St. James Cathedral

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Israel is home to some of the worlds most beautiful churches, chapels, and temples. From landmarks like the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to historic ruins like Megiddo, there is no shortage of skyline defining treasures and well-known tourist sites. But Israel’s historic marvels don’t end with what you have already seen in movies and documentaries, there is beauty tucked away in every corner of the country. 

One of these nooks is the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. There you’ll find one of the most ornately decorated churches in the world, the breathtaking St. James Cathedral.

The church itself is located in the larger St. James Convert, a sprawling compound home to thousands. A living, breathing, spiritual community. A city within the city where nuns, priests, children, teachers, and other people live and work and grow, all under the impressive shadow of the Cathedral, a densely packed center of spiritual pride and wonder that anchors the community. 

The cathedral is one of Israel’s only fully surviving Crusader-era churches and it shows that history. Built with impressively tall stone walls and turreted roofs, the cathedral looks like a castle. An ancient structure built to last. But as impressive as its exterior is, the true splendor of St. James Cathedral lies within.
Inside the halls of the church is an unbelievable collection of gilded altars, fine metalwork arches and decorations, and works of art. The effect is dizzying, a truly awe-inspiring sight to behold. The main ceiling is a vaulted dome containing hanging art including chandeliers, lamps, and many, many intricately painted ceramic eggs. 

The floors are covered in Kütahya handmade painted tiles. Each and every one of these delicate pieces of ceramic is itself a work of art, nestled together to create incredible murals. This is without mentioning every bronze engraving, handmade piece of pottery, and carved wood decoration that festoons every inch of the church. Flickering light plays off every polished surface. The church is not wired for electricity, meaning all this astounding work must be appreciated by sun and lamplight, creating a magical and changing effect as morning breaks, filling the church with golden light, brightens as the day develops, and as twilight falls gives way to candles and lamps. "Elaborate” does not do it justice.

This is joyous worship. An artistic devotion to God created by innumerable hands over hundreds of years. A collective work one can contemplate on and appreciate more and more as each small detail, each carved line and careful brushstroke stand out to the observer. 

But the cathedral isn’t just an artistic masterstroke, it is also a place of deeply relevant history. The church is dedicated to two martyred saints, St. James the Great and St. James the Less. Both towering figures of Christian history, one of the Jesus’ first apostles and a relative of Jesus. St. James the Great was beheaded by Harrod and the church is believed to be the site of his martyrdom. Indeed, the most important shrine in the church, the Chapel of St James the Great, is said to be the very spot he was killed. The head is buried in the Shrine, a chilling reminder of the persecution early Christians faced in the middle of a celebration of worship.

Access to the compound and the Cathedral is tightly controlled. Remember, this is not just a historic site, but a community. This is a working church, not a museum, and a working community of real people living their lives. As such, visitors to the compound must be accompanied by an Armenian guide. So, if you want to explore, you’ll need to plan ahead. Fortunately, the cathedral itself is open to the public at specific times without the need for an escort, as are a few other museums and libraries in the compound. 

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