The Church of Saint Mark
Is this Really the Upper Room?
Location – The Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem
Map Coordinates - 31.775913, 35.230419
The picture above is the crypt of the Syrian Church of Saint Mark, believed by the Syrians to be the actual Upper Room.
The Church of Saint Mark is home to the Syriac Orthodox Church, one of Jerusalem’s smallest and oldest Christian communities, and this church lays claim to being the location of both the Upper Room of the Last Supper (based on a sixth-century inscription found on the site). There is also an icon of the Madonna and Child, allegedly painted by the Gospel writer, Luke. Another Syriac Orthodox tradition holds that the Church of Saint Mark is the place where Mary, Jesus’ mother, was baptized, and a baptismal font purportedly used for this purpose can be seen inside the church.
The Syriac church also worships in the language of Syriac, which is a dialect of the Aramaic language spoken in the first century. Hence, they believe that they are derived from the original church of the Apostles.
The present building was constructed in the 12th century over the ruins of a 4th-century church. The sanctuary at the front of the church is richly embellished, with a curtain that is used to hide the altar, reminiscent of the ancient veil that hid the Temple sanctuary.
What is the Syriac Orthodox Church?
Often called “Jacobites” (after an early bishop), the Syriac Orthodox separated from the mainstream of Christianity, both Catholics and Greek Orthodox, in the 5th century over a disagreement about the nature of Christ. The Syriac Orthodox fellowship also worships on Sundays at the Syrian Chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Their worship is believed to be the oldest living Christian liturgy in existence.
Who was Saint Mark?
Saint Mark (also known as John Mark), became a traveling companion and interpreter for Saint Peter, and used Peter’s sermons when he composed the Gospel that bears his name. His mother, called Mary of Jerusalem, had a home with an upper dining room where all the early church members met.
This church is named after Mark because the so-called “Upper Room” in the crypt is believed to be part of Mark’s home.
The inscription in the Church of Saint Mark.
Just inside the entrance, set into a pillar, is an inscribed stone discovered during a restoration effort in 1940. The inscription, believed to be from the 6th century, is written in ancient Syriac, and it says
“This is the house of Mary, mother of John, called Mark. Proclaimed a church by the holy apostles under the name of Virgin Mary, mother of God, after the ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ into heaven. Renewed after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in the year AD 73.”
The Syriac Orthodox community believes that the crypt in this church is the actual location of the Upper Room.
Why do we go downstairs to get the upper room? Since the level of the current city is about 20 feet higher than it was in the first century, one has to go downstairs to enter any second-floor room from the first century.
By associating the Church of Saint Mark with the Upper Room, the Syriac Orthodox believe it was also the location of the following events:
The Last Supper (Mark 14:12-25);
The election of Matthias as an Apostle to replace Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:21-26);
The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples, including the one in which He showed Thomas the wounds in His hands and side (John 20:24-28);
The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4);
Where Peter went when he was released from prison by an angel (Acts 12:12-17).
When I entered this crypt I found that the room perfectly matched the size description of all second-floor rooms in the first century (unlike the popular Upper Room or Cenacle on Mount Zion, which is much too large to have been a second-floor room). There were two doors on opposite sides of this room, so if this was the actual Upper Room, then it’s possible that the resurrected Christ walked through one of these two doors while it was locked.
The Icon “Painted by Luke”.
The church displays a painting on leather (called velum) of Mary and the Baby Jesus. It is said to have been painted by Saint Luke, but experts date it to the early Byzantine period.
The icon believed to have been painted by Luke.
Christian tradition, starting from the 8th century, states that Luke (the one who wrote the Gospel) was also the first Christian artist. Today there are about four paintings of the Madonna and Child in existence that are claimed to have been painted by Luke. Plus, there are many later classic paintings depicting Luke as an artist. While there is no other evidence of this, writings started to appear in the 8th century referring to Luke’s icons of Mary and Jesus.
Saint Luke depicted as an artist.
I suspect that In the Medieval church proponents of the use of icons propagated this legend to defend the use of images at churches. Most people in the Middle Ages were illiterate, and the Church used images as teaching instruments. If a saint, such as Luke, was responsible for the creation of his own icons, it further legitimized the use of icons. Moreover, a 15th-century account by Gregory of Kykkos claimed that Mary herself commissioned these portraits, further validating the authenticity of these icons.
The Church of Saint Mark had never given anyone permission to take photographs or videos of this icon – that is until we came along. When I told Justine, one of the administrators of the church, about our work in the Holy Land, she was so impressed that she allowed me one minute only to take the world’s first videos of this painting.
Here I am taking a 360° video of the icon. GoPro cameras were typically used in 2014 to capture 360° footage, and that’s what I’m using here.