221. Caiaphas’ House: Gallicantu and Dungeon


57 Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. 58 But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end. 59 Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, 60 but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward 61 and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’” 62 The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” 63 But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” 64 Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” 

65 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. 66 What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death.” 67 Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, 68 saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?” [Matthew 26:57-75, NRSV]


 [1] Engraved art work on door of Church of St Peter in Gallicantu; [2] shaft through which prisoner was lowered to dungeon (Wikimedia Commons); [3] our group gathered in the dungeon at the house of Caiaphas [Photo credit: Dr. LL Chan].

A visit to the site of Caiphas’s house always includes two very different and yet closely related parts.

One is the church of St. Peter in Gallicantu (gallicantu is Latin for cock’s-crow), constructed on top of the site of the house of Caiphas the high priest. The church commemorates St. Peter’s triple denial of Jesus, his immediate repentance and his reconciliation with Christ after the Resurrection. It is one of the most striking churches in Jerusalem, on the eastern side of Mount Zion. On its roof a golden rooster stands atop a black cross which recalls Christ’s prophesy that Peter would deny him three times “before the cock crows”. The scene of Peter’s disgrace was the courtyard of the house of the high priest Caiaphas to which Jesus was directly brought after his arrest at the Garden of Gethsemane. St Peter in Gallicantu was bullt by the Assumptionist congregation.

The other is the dungeon beneath the house of Caiphas, now the lower level of the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu. This dungeon and a guardroom next to it were both hewn out of a bedrock. A small window from the guardroom served as a peephole for a guard standing on a stone block. The only access to the dungeon was through a shaft from above, so the prisoner would have been lowered and raised by means of a rope harness. A mosaic depicting Jesus in such a harness is outside on the south wall of the church. In this dungeon Jesus was held for the night after enduring the mock trial before the Sanhedrin headed by the high priest, and before being led in chains to Pilate the next day. Today, the church is located above this dug-out, dark and gloomy place where Jesus spent the night before he was crucified. This sobering place has become known as “Christ’s Prison”.


It was on his way to this dungeon that Jesus turned and looked at Peter after the cock crow (Luke 22:61). Imagine the Master looking at Peter with love and forgiveness and how that must have pierced Peter’s heart. Severely troubled by his weakness, and with his thrice repeated “I do not know the man” still fresh in his mind, Peter went out and wept bitterly (Matthew 26:69-72).

The three pictures above show from left, the copper door to the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu; the shaft through which the prisoner was lowered to the dungeon below; and our group in the tiny space of the dungeon where a member read from a lectern with Psalm 88 on display.

It took quite a while for us to get to the dungeon, as tour groups took turns to access the place of limited space down a narrow staircase, not originally there but recently built for pilgrims.

The experience at the dungeon left not a single dry eye amongst members of our group.

1. We heard the American pilgrims singing “Were You There”.

The way down to the dungeon and the dungeon itself were both very tight in space. The queue was long and the turn for our group took quite a while. Even as we waited our turn, it was already a losing battle fighting back our tears while the American group ahead of us sang the heart-wrenching American spiritual “Were You There?” The talented male and female voices synchronizing in perfection, it was a sheer gift from the Lord at the right place and at the right time. We just “knew” it; the Lord has staged a “professional” choir for this audience, us.

  1. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? (Were you there?)
    Were you there when they crucified my Lord? 
    O, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. 
    Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
  2. Were you there when they nail’d him to the cross? (Were you there?)
    Were you there when they nail’d him to the cross?
    O sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!
    Were you there when they nail’d him to the cross?
  3. Were you there when they pierced him in the side? (Were you there?)
    Were you there when they pierced him in the side?
    O sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!
    Were you there when they pierced him in the side?
  4. Were you there when the sun refused to shine? (Were you there?)
    Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
    O sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!
    Were you there when the sun refused to shine? ….

2. We read from Psalm 88

In the dungeon, where all 32 of us just managed to locate ourselves with standing room only, a group member read from Psalm 88 at the lectern. It is titled “Prayer for Help in Despondency”. There was total silence. It was as if the psalm was a divine design to quietly pierce every heart that day.

1O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.

For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
    I am like those who have no help,
like those forsaken among the dead,
    like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
    for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
    in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah

You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
    my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you? Selah
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

13 But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.[a]
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.
18 You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
my companions are in darkness.

3. We were overcome by what we saw

Greatly adding to our imagination was the guide’s explanation as to how Jesus was tied by ropes and lowered from the ground floor, through the shaft, to the subterranean dungeon. It was not a proper prison cell, but a deep hole through the ground and so a dungeon, and a seriously polluted place..

The dungeon would have been pitch black at the time of Jesus who had to be hung on ropes throughout the night so he could be hoisted up the next morning. Just as the Psalmist had written: You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. It was easy for us to appreciate how horrid Jesus’ incarceration was from the vision revealed to holy Mystics. This is how Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich describes this polluted subterranean dungeon in her revelations in The Dolorous Passion:

  • “Already past midnight, the whole council resolved to lock Jesus in the subterranean dungeon below Caiaphas’s house. Scarcely any light penetrated into this prison to dispel its darkness. It was filled with such uncleanness and stench, that it would have infected the whole house, if it had not been so remote and so well enclosed. You see it hadn’t been cleaned for many years, both because it was so deep down and only criminals were confined in it, for none thought it worthwhile making it more habitable, and so this place became unworthy of all human kindness.”

The only access and exit to what we today call “the sacred pit” at the time was by the hole through the floor. Today, a staircase, a doorway cut through the stone wall, and lighting are provided for convenience of the pilgrims.

All that a mother in our group could do was sob uncontrollably as she sensed the pain of Mother Mary “seeing her son beaten up, tied with ropes and lowered into the dungeon like that!” A few huddled together and sobbed as softly as they could, even outside the Church, for there were many people around.

With all this as background, the irony of Peter denying the Lord three times at the courtyard of Caiphas’ house was not lost on us. The church of St. Peter in Gallicantu stands today not just as a fitting monument of human frailty, the cock-symbol marking our shame in being all-too-quick to boast of our undying faith but will deny the Lord in a flash (compare Matthew 26:31-35 and 26:69-75).Even more importantly, a glorious place for worship, it stands as a robust reminder of the power of divine grace over human frailty and sin; for upon hearing the cock-crow, Peter “went out and wept bitterly” (Matthew 26:75). With the loving look of Jesus, the place of Peter’s disgrace would turn out to be the place where divine grace flowed. Light, it seems, started to dawn at precisely that terrible moment when Peter heard the second cock-crow. He remembered, repented, broke down and wept, and eventually did the Lord proud. Peter’s personal salvation history gloriously testifies to that.

  Cock symbol as road sign to church.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, April 2019. All rights reserved.

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