Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world and has been destroyed, rebuilt, captured, recaptured, invaded, besieged, and attacked 32 times. It’s probably the most fought-over place on the planet and this is because of its extreme significance to three of the world’s major religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
For Christians, there are numerous places throughout the city that carry religious significance, but the most important is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which marks the place where Jesus was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead.
For Jews, Jerusalem is most the most holy place in the world because of Temple Mount (a small hill on the edge of the Old City). Temple Mount is thought to be the site of the First and Second Jewish Temples (both of which were destroyed throughout history) and what remains of the Second Temple is a piece of its western wall (hence the name Western Wall), not actually the wall of the temple itself but it’s barrier wall. It is the most holy place in the world for Jews to pray.
Temple Mount is also significant to Muslims, because it is the location of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. It is the third most holy place in Islam (Mecca and Medina win first and second). Al-Aqsa Mosque houses a stone that is believed to be the place from which Muhammad ascended to heaven. Nearby, the sparkling Dome of the Rock has dominated Jerusalem’s skyline for hundreds of years and is one of the oldest Islamic structures in the world.
An International City in Four Quarters
Even if you aren’t part of one of the major religions in Jerusalem, you will still feel the city’s intense energy. It can feel stressful and crowded, and can be overwhelming to take in all the cultures and languages and beliefs that you see everywhere you look. But there’s nowhere else in the world where you can observe so many people of different religions living so closely together. I recommend doing a free walking tour of the city with Sandemans. It starts at Jaffa Gate everyday at 11am.
The Old City of Jerusalem is very small – only about a kilometre across, but it’s packed with significant sites and a lot of history- it is surrounded by ancient stone walls. Access through the walls is provided by eight gates that have very interesting histories themselves. Within the walls, the Old City is divided into four Quarters: Muslim, Jewish, Armenian, and Christian.
The Muslim Quarter
Is the largest and most densely populated, having a larger population than all three of the quarters combined. As you might imagine, it has a distinctly Islamic feel, emanating from the chaotic bustle of the markets and the call to prayer resounding through the air five times a day. Women glide by in long, flowing dresses and colourful headscarves and the most heavenly smells waft from traditional Arab bakeries.
The Jewish Quarter
Is located in the southeast corner of the old city and, like the Muslim Quarter, it borders on Temple Mount. None of the quarters contains Temple Mount, but the Muslim Quarter borders on the side where Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock are located, while the Jewish Quarter borders on the Western Wall. The Jewish Quarter is also home to the beautifully-restored Hurva Synagogue, which was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times over the years (the name “hurva” even means “ruin”). The square outside the synagogue is a lively centre of activity, with numerous cafes, jewellry shops, and Judaica boutiques.
The Armenian Quarter
Is the smallest and quietest of the quarters. Armenia adopted Christianity as the national religion in the 4th century and as a result, many residents of the Armenian Quarter consider it to be part of the Christian Quarter. However, it still has it’s own vibe and is a lovely place to walk around and escape the crowds for a while. It’s most notable structure is St. James Cathedral, which is dedicated to two saints named James: James the Greater (a disciple of Jesus) and James the Just (Jesus’s brother).
The Christian Quarter
Is home to a staggering number of churches pertaining to six Christian denominations: Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Oriental Orthodoxy, and the Assyrian Church of the East. Notable sights in the Christian Quarter are the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and half of the Via Dolorosa (the path Jesus walked carrying his cross to the crucifixion). It’s interesting to just walk around and see people dressed in traditional religious robes going to and coming from the churches.
Things to See and Do in the Old City
Believe me when I say there is something in Jerusalem for everyone. Here are a few things that might interest you in the Old City (and then I’ll let you know a few things to do outside the Old City as well).
Western Wall and Tunnels
The Western Wall is divided into two sections – one for men and one for women. Worshippers at the Wall read from prayer books, sing, dance, cry, and kiss the wall. They also write prayers on scraps of paper and wedge them into cracks between the stones of the wall. There are tunnels underneath the wall, in which visitors can see the Western Stone – one of the heaviest objects ever moved by humans without powered machinery. There’s even a part where a glass floor reveals stones hurled by the Romans during destruction of the Second Temple.
Al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock
Non-Muslims cannot enter Al-Aqsa or the Dome of the Rock, but can walk around them on Temple Mount, which is open to tourists at certain times. It’s worth it to experience the peaceful quiet (very different from the intensity of the streets nearby) and to see up-close the beauty of the mosque and the Dome of the Rock. In 1993, the gleaming dome was refurbished after King Hussein of Jordan sold one of his London homes and donated US$8.2 million to purchase the 80 kg of gold needed to coat the tiles.
The name is Latin for “Way of Grief” or “Way of Suffering”. It is a path through the Old City that Jesus is believed to have walked to his crucifixion. Along the route are marked nine Stations of the Cross, which signify places where Jesus either had a notable interaction with people (for example, passing his mother) or fell down carrying the cross. Many Christians come from all over the world to walk the Via Dolorosa as a pilgrimage. The route actually begins in the Muslim Quarter, which contains the first seven stations, and ends in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which contains the final four stations.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Notable sights within this ancient church are the stone where Jesus’ body was laid for embalming after his death and hundreds of little crosses etched into the stone walls of a staircase (graffiti left by the Crusaders nearly 1,000 years ago). A special oddity is a tiny, wooden ladder that is propped up on a ledge under a window on the facade of the church. This ladder was first mentioned in historic texts in 1757 and has remained in its place since then. No cleric of any of the six Christian denominations is allowed to alter the appearance or structure of the church in any way without approval of the other five and they can’t agree on what to do with the ladder, so it stays and has become known as (wait for it… wait for it…) the Immovable Ladder.
Old City Rooftop Walk
For a different view of the Old City, climb up the narrow, metal staircase on Rehov Chabad, right where it meets St. Mark’s Street, and take a walk on the rooftops. You can gaze down through small glass windows at the busy markets below, and vents from the street carry the scent of spices to your nose. You will get a unique view of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock, and it’s a wonderful place to watch the sun set over the city.
If you want to see the sunrise over the rooftops of Jerusalem I recommend doing the Jerusalem sunrise biking tour with Abraham Tours. It’s a fantastic opportunity to get your morning exercise in and watch this ancient city slowly wake up.
Things to See and Do Outside the Old City
Did you know that Jerusalem has a vibrant and exciting nightlife scene? I didn’t either. Until I went there. It actually has lots of really great bars and pubs (perhaps perfect for getting your mind off all the intense history and religion). There’s a pub crawl every Wednesday from Abraham hostel, which involves free shots and VIP entrance to several of Jerusalem’s best bars.
Mahane Yehuda Market
Also known as “The Shuk” (Hebrew for “market”), Mahane Yehuda is the main market in Jerusalem. It’s rows of stall offer falafel, shawarma, baklava, kanafe, kibbeh, halva, produce, and fresh-pressed juice. In the evenings, the stalls close and cozy bars and pubs spill out into the market lanes. If you want some help exploring the different smells and tastes of the market I would recommend doing a market tasting tour with Abraham Tours.
You know those photos you always see on Instagram, of people strolling down a cobblestone street, gazing up at a canopy of umbrellas? Jerusalem has one of those streets. It’s Yoel Moshe Solomon Street and it’s a really nice pedestrian street with lots of jewellry shops, art boutiques, and cafes.
The world holocaust remembrance centre. I would give yourself a full day to see this. It will take at least half a day to get through, and you may want to give yourself a half a day to experience the emotions that come with visiting a place that remembers so much pain and suffering. I wont spend time in this post describing the museum or the pain and emotions you experience walking through it. I think that this is a place that everyone needs to come and experience for themselves. We must never forget the cruelty of these events and we must work hard to ensure that history never repeats itself.
The museum has over 1 million visitors a year. Entrance is free but not permitted to children under 10. The museum is open Sunday to Wednesday from 9am to 5pm, Thursday from 9am to 8pm and Fridays and holiday eves from 9am to 2pm. It’s closed on shabbat (Saturday) and all other Jewish holidays. Make sure you check the website for the week you are planning to go. There are often interesting seminars and events that you may want to plan for.
Oskar Schindler was an Austrian man who saved more than 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factory in Poland. When he originally opened the factory, he hired Jews simply because they were cheaper labour than Poles. But as time went on, his sense of human decency and compassion increased and he took great measures to protect his employees from deportation to the concentration camps. In 1993, the Israeli government named him “Righteous Among Nations”, an honour bestowed on non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis. Oskar Schindler was buried in the Christian cemetery on Mount Zion. His grave is easy to find because it has small stones piled on top of it (a Jewish custom, signifying respect).
Jerusalem is a busy, vibrant, living city. While it is steeped in history and inseparable from politics and religion, it is not at all the lifeless ghost town one might imagine an ancient city to be. It’s a place where people live with passion and principle and is certainly worth visiting. For more information I suggest visiting the iTravelJerualem website to help with planning your trip, they are a great resource for tours, information and all things Jerusalem.