A city that requires little introduction!
Which is a good thing because describing a city like this isn’t easy. It has over 4000 years of human history. It is sacred to three of the worlds largest religions. The city is mentioned in the bible 632 times and in parts of the Qur’an. It has been destroyed twice and switched hands at least 44 times. Jerusalem is a capital city to two nations and a core sticking point in one of the world’s longest running political disputes. It’s hard to know where to begin writing a blog about Jerusalem.
It’s also a city that’s rarely far from the headlines. I grew up seeing the city on the news and I knew of the city’s troubles before I learned anything about the city itself.
Jerusalem’s Eurovision Credentials
Jerusalem is no stranger to being contested, but in 1979 a very different contest arrived in town.
Jerusalem was a Eurovision host city twice (1979 and 1999) and was hotly tipped to host the contest again in 2019 when Tel Aviv pipped Jerusalem to the post.
Jerusalem is also one of the only host cities to experience a home victory alongside Lugano, Madrid, Luxembourg City, Millstreet and Dublin.
A lot has changed since Jerusalem last hosted the contest. The contest has evolved and has embraced diversity of its fans, particularly its dedicated fanbase in the gay community. Jerusalem is the more conservative of Israel’s large cities and as a consequence it doesn’t feel like a great match for Eurovision anymore. That’s not to say that Jerusalem isn’t a diverse city. Anything but! But the diversity here is an older version which is deep rooted in culture and religious identity. I can’t help but feel that this would be at odds with Eurovision today.
The Shabbat will also be an issue for subsequent episodes of the contest in Israel and was a sticking point for the Jerusalem bid to host the 2019 contest.
My Visit to Jerusalem
I got the opportunity to visit Jerusalem when I visited Tel Aviv. I naturally jumped at the opportunity of spending a day in the city. Unfortunately I didn’t have much time to spend here so I had to settle for a flying visit. However I still managed to see most of the city’s main attractions in less than 6 hours including time for lunch.
In this blog post, I’ll share how I did this, some more information on Jerusalem’s history. I’ll also share some of my photography from the trip. This is truly a city like no other. Here’s what I got up to!
What is Jerusalem like?
Jerusalem is only 50 minutes away from the countries second largest city. But in many ways, Jerusalem couldn’t be further removed from Tel Aviv.
Jerusalem’s Old City is exactly how I thought the Middle East would be. Imagine an ancient city built from sandstone, narrow streets filled by market stalls and glittering mosques dominating the skyline.
This city is filled has a rich and dynamic heritage and you can feel this everywhere in the Old City. Excluding the higher number of tourists, it’s easy to imagine that little has changed here for centuries.
I’m simplifying things massively when I say that Jerusalem is a religious city. There are three major world religions living here, side by side. These groups live in different quadrants of the old city which gives each section a distinct feel. We managed to spend time in all four quarters: Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim.
At one end of the spectrum, the Armenian quarter is quiet and unassuming, life here passes almost unnoticed. In comparison, the Muslim quarter is noisy, bustling and filled with market stalls. Make time to see each of the four quarters as the experience is different in each one.
Enter Jerusalem’s Old City through Jaffa Gate
Jaffa gate is the main entrance into Jerusalem’s old city. The gate’s name derives from the coastal town of Jaffa as the road between the two cities finishes here.
Before you pass through the Jaffa gate, there is a great view of the city walls. Although, Jerusalem has been a walled city since biblical times, the current fortifications date back to the 1500s. Jaffa gate is one of seven gates into the city walls which stretch for 4km around the city. You can walk around a large section of the wall from Jaffa gate which offers great views across the city.
One thing you will notice about Jaffa gate is that the entrance to the city is at a right angle to the wall and the city. This means visitors needs to abruptly turn right and then left when entering the city. This design ensures that any attackers will have to slow down before entering the city and gives the city guard opportunity to counter attack from above, usually with boiling oil. People in the medieval times were nothing, if not inventive.
Immediately beside the Jaffa Gate, you will notice a road entering the city directly. This is a relatively new feature and was created to allow Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany to enter the city 1898.
Jaffa gate sits on the boundary between the Old City of Jerusalem and newer parts of the city. Before entering the city, take a moment to look at New Jerusalem from the Jaffa gate.
The Citadel or Tower of David
The Citadel or Tower of David is one of Jerusalem’s most iconic sites and you will find it a short walk from the Jaffa Gate.
The original citadel building was the palace of King Herod the Great. Herod had many great building projects during his reign including Jerusalem’s second temple. However, it’s more likely that you know Herod’s name from the nativity story and his order to kill children following the birth of Jesus.
Some refer to the Citadel as the Tower of David. This name is actually a 1700 year old mistake. Marauding Byzantine troops mistook the Citadel for the Palace of the David, the ruins of which are actually a short distance away. The name however has endured.
The Citadel is a great place for panoramic views of Jerusalem’s sky line. The views include the Temple Mount, The Mount of Olives and Mt Zion plus views of the newer, East Jerusalem
From here I saw many well-known sites from the bible including the room of the last supper and the Garden of Gethsemane. Of course it is possible to visit these places separately, but it was still great to have seen them, albeit from a distance.
Temple Mount / Al Haram Ash Sharif
Contested and controversial, there are few places on earth that are as sacred as this one. This small patch of land has religious significance to Jews, Muslims and Christians and is one of the most instantly recognisable icons of Jerusalem’s skyline. You’ll struggle to find a travel blog on Jerusalem that doesn’t tell you to visit here.
This is another site with two names, this time because different religious groups called it different things.
Why is Temple Mount / Al Haram Ash Sharif so revered?
I will be honest and admit that I found some of the history around the sanctity of Jerusalem to be quite confusing before my visit. I’ve heard so much about this city, yet so little is done to explain why this place is so simultaneously revered and contested. Coming here and experiencing the city gave me a much better grasp of this.
The site was originally sacred to the Jews who call this Temple Mount. Judaism states that this is the site where God came to earth and gathered the dust with which he created Adam, the first human. The location subsequently appears many times throughout the old testament and is the setting for a number of sacred occurrences, most notably the binding of Issac.
As a consequence, the Jewish people built two temples on the site. The Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 AD. To this day, Jewish people believe that the holy spirit is present at this site and will turn to face Temple Mount when praying.
You might be wondering why the temple wasn’t rebuilt. This is because the site became occupied by other religious buildings including a temple to Zeus and a Christian church.
In the 7th Century, Jerusalem was captured by the Persians who built a mosque on the site of the temple. It is believed that Muhammad ascended to heaven from this mosque and for this reason the Dome on the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque were subsequently built here. Since then Muslims have called this area Al Haram Ash Sharif and the site has become the 3rd most sacred place for Muslims to visit.
Although this is a very simplified version of events, it explains one of the key sticking points between Jews and Muslims in Israel.
What is it like today?
The Western Wall
The Western Wall is all that remains of the Jewish Temple.
Looking at the Western Wall I’ll admit that there’s very little to see. The area is little more than a wide plaza with a white wall sat on the Eastern edge. But there’s something undeniably spiritual here.
I took some time to watch people worshipping and it’s easy to see that the Jewish people have a deep spiritual connection to the Western Wall. This devotion has been shared and passed between generations for centuries. And I think that’s what make this place so remarkable. When I touched the wall, I considered how long it had stood here and how many hands had reached out to the heavens by worshiping at this very spot.
I quickly wrote my prayer on a slip of paper and inserted it in the wall, but I felt like I didn’t belong here. These people have a connection with the wall that I’ll never be able to grasp. Although the wall is open to all worshippers, I felt like an outsider.
When I looked upwards, I saw something I hadn’t expected. Wildlife living on the wall. A small flock of sparrows had nested in the wall above me. They were watching the worshippers from above and playing noisily. I wondered what they were thinking as they watched us.
Tips when visiting
Men and women worship separately at different parts of the wall and you should cover your head before approaching. Kippahs are available at the site if you don’t have a hat. You should also refrain from using your mobile phone at the wall. Photography is permitted but not on holy days included the Shabbat.
Entering Al Haram Ash Sharif
The entrance to the Dome of the Rock complex is via a wooden walkway from Western Wall Plaza. The queues to enter the complex start very early in the morning and so arrive early to avoid disappointment.
The complex closes for religious festivals and has reduced hours during Ramadan. As we were visiting during Ramadan, the complex was closed when we arrived but we were still able to see the Dome of the Rock from the Western Wall Plaza. Non-muslims are not permitted to enter the Dome building itself so entering the complex would only have taken us closer to the outside of the building.
The Church of The Holy Sepulchre
A short walk from the Western wall, through parts of the Muslim quarter, brought me to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a sacred site for Christians. The sanctity of this site is based on the belief that Jesus Christ was crucified here and subsequently resurrected.
Most blogs on Jerusalem will advise you to walk the Via Dolorosa. This walk will take you from Jerusalem’s Lion’s gate to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the path Jesus took on his journey towards the crucifix with 14 narrative stops along this journey.
Unfortunately for me, parts of the Via Dolorosa were closed for Ramadan so I was only able to visit the final five stops of Jesus’ journey which are in and around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
What is it like?
Externally, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre fits well with the other buildings in Jerusalem. In many respects, the church’s exterior is modest and unassuming. I would say that lacks the grandeur of the other sacred buildings I have seen such as the Dome on the Rock or St Peter’s Basilica.
However, the church’s interior certainly packs a punch!
What the exterior lacks in grandeur, can be found inside. Throughout this rabbit warren of chapels and altars, you will find magnificent interiors emulating the religious significance of this building. However, you’ll be lucky to experience the quiet calm and serenity found at the Western Wall. The church is extremely busy and at times it felt like I was stuck in a shuffling conveyor belt of visitors.
This slow shuffle took me around the final 5 stages of the Via Dolorosa including the sites of crucifixion and resurrection.
What to see inside
When you enter the church, head immediately upstairs to the Chapel of Calvary. Stations 10-14 of the Via Dolorosa are in these two small rooms.
The Rock of Calvary is located in this section. This was the rock upon which the crucifix was mounted. Visitors often touch or kiss the rock here.
From here, head back down the stairs, there’s a separate staircase for travelling down.
Next you will see the Stone of Unction marks the spot where Jesus’ body was anointed before burial. You can see this when you walk through the entrance and can visit this first. To visit chronologically this should come after the Chapel of Calvary. You will see many visitors leaning down to touch the stone or to kiss where Jesus’ body once lay.
Continue past the tomb into a room with a domed roof and an oculus (a circular hole in the roof). The tomb of the Holy Sepulchre is located in the centre of this room.
The Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre is where Jesus was buried and resurrected. The tomb sits inside a small structure for which there is usually to queue to enter.
Tip for visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
I’ll admit, I found the layout of the church a little confusing and there’s little inside the church to indicate what you’re looking at. As it was so busy, I wasn’t able to pull out my guide book to understand specifically what was happening in a particular section of the church.
Take time for familarise yourself with the church layout and the final stages of the Via Dolorosa before you arrive so you know what the stages are.
Mehane Yehuda Market
Although this is technically not inside the Old City, the Mehane Yehuda market was one of my favourite parts of Jerusalem, so I was keen to include it in this blog post.
Unlike a lot of places in Jerusalem, there’s little evidence of sacred events at this market, rather it’s one of the main places where locals and tourists come to socialise and to purchase food.
The market specialises in food so expect fruit, vegetables, bread, spices nuts and sweet treats such as baklava. Tasting the goods before you purchase is normal here and I saw many people casually nibbling while they browsed the stalls.
I’d recommend visiting on a Thursday or Friday is possible. The market comes to life as locals shop for produce which will be used during the Shabbat.
A Day Trip to Jerusalem
Let’s face it, there’s a lot to see in Jerusalem. There are so many scared religious sites in this city. The city can also be busy and some of the streets are little more than narrow passageways. I didn’t want to get lost so I booked a place on a tour which included transport from Tel Aviv.
There are many tour options available and some of them also included Bethlehem and the Dead Sea. Take a look at some of the options available to you on Viator.
We decided to visit Jerusalem with Abraham Tours who run tours throughout Israel as well as hostel accommodation in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I was really happy with the tour. The group was small and our tour guide had great knowledge of the city’s history.
The tour also gave us plenty of time to explore as well as a visit to a cafe for a falafel lunch.
Jerusalem Blog – Final Thoughts
To a certain extent, Jerusalem’s turbulent history has been been a saving grave for the city’s cultural heritage. There aren’t huge numbers of tourists here and as a consequence many of the city’s sacred attractions have been protected.
However, during my visit I began to see signs to suggest that the trickle of tourism is growing and that cultural sites are in need of additional protection.
Some of the religious sites were being treated by visitors in a way that was almost gimmicky or like attractions at a theme park. I saw one visitor insisting upon washing his hands before approaching the Western Wall. There are facilities available for exactly this. However, the visitor wasn’t washing his hands because he believed that the wall is scared, but because he wanted his photograph taken as he went through the motions of his visit.
Similarly at the church of the Holy Sepulchre, there are queues of visitors to touch the sacred stones here. However there is much less of the devotion that I saw at the Western Wall from the visitors here. This was echoed in the stores in the surrounding Christian quarter which were filled with replica prints of the last supper and souvenir gifts. I felt here that was beginning to take control.
As travelers of the world. treating the places we visit city with the respect is paramount. Unfortunately I felt that respect was being lost here.
The future of Jerusalem’s cultural heritage will depend on how well the city is able to balance tourism and consumerism with cultural preservation.
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