Jerusalem is by far the most intense place I have ever visited. An incredible experience, but as the cross roads of religion, Jerusalem hosts some the holiest sites in the world for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The buzz and energy around the city is truly like nothing I’ve ever experienced, but as a religious core, this comes hand in hand with the capacity for high tensions and conflict between different sects. Jerusalem has been conquered far too many times and so it isn’t only religion that’s of interest to tourists – the rich history of the city is really quite something. Getting to grips with this also really helps you to understand the foundations of the modern day, and how and why we have come to live as we do.
Divided in two, Jerusalem’s new city has a completely different feel to the old city. I’ll introduce you to what’s on offer in the new city first, before delving into the rich history of the old. The new city is very modern and vibrant, with a tram system and wide streets adorned with little shops and cafes. There are many bars and clubs to be found – one night we found ourselves in an ancient, original-bricked underground techno club, which was totally unexpected!
Jerusalem’s new city
Bunting Clover Leaf Map – I became totally fascinated with this abstract map of the world where Jerusalem is depicted as the centre of the Earth
At kosher restaurants (like this McDonalds) you won’t be able to mix meat and dairy in the same meal, as this doesn’t conform to Jewish kosher dietary requirements
The interior of an Orthodox Russian Church we stumbled across
Outside of the bustling city centre, I recommend taking a trip to Yad Vashem, the world holocaust museum. It is a huge and detailed site and really helps to put everything into perspective. Admissions are free but to get a taxi from the city centre will set you back around 65 Israeli New Shekels (about £15), it also gives you the chance to see the beautiful scenery surrounding Jerusalem city centre.
Yad Vashem’s hall of names
Green views from Yad Vashem on a very rainy day!
Moving on to the anticipated old city of Jerusalem, I have definitely saved the best till last. I highly recommend taking a guided tour around the old city, there’s so much to see and unfortunately you won’t find any signs to help you understand what you’re looking at! We took a guided with Ryan as organised by The Post Hostel, it was a very long tour (about 8 hours) but extremely thorough as Ryan took us to every site and spent all necessary time explaining the details of the city. We really appreciated this and certainly learnt a lot! We entered the old city though Jaffa gate, where the city is then divided into four main of quarters; the Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian.
Walking along the outskirts of the Old City
Jaffa gate entrance
We stayed in the awesome Citadel Youth Hostel in the Old City with original 700 year old stone – rooftop views are not to be missed!!
The largest of the quarters is the Muslim quarter, home to Damascus gate where you can take buses to various destinations such as Bethlehem and Nablus. Walking the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City really reminded me of Morocco’s city of Fes, where merchants sell gifts and ornaments alike in a narrow maze of streets that you’re guaranteed to get lost in! You’ll also get access to the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine and the site where Muhammad is believed to have ascended into heaven, and Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Muslims used to pray in the direction of this mosque before it was changed to Mecca! However, unfortunately, unless you are Muslim, you won’t be granted access to view inside.
Narrow streets of the Old City
I highly recommend grabbing an authentic, cheap and delicious shawarma from this little restaurant just outside of Damascus Gate!!
Dome of the rock, one of the oldest extant forms of Islamic architecture
As you walk around, you’ll find street signs in Hebrew (top), Arabic (middle) and finally English.
The area in which Muslims, Christians and Jews alike agree on its holiness is temple mount. This is a hill in the old city of Jerusalem, and also the direction in which Jews pray. Temple mount hosts the Dome of the Rock, Al Aqsa Mosque (as previously mentioned) and the Western Wall as part of the Jewish quarter – also known as the wailing wall.
According to Jewish scripture, it is believed that the First Temple was built here in 957 BCE by King Solomon, son of King David. King David (as in, David from David and Goliath), born around 1000 BCE, developed Israel from 12 tribally disparate regions in Judaea and Israel to create one united kingdom. He was a central figure in building an empire by conquering Jerusalem and making this Israel’s political and religious centre. However, it should be noted, that under Rehoboam (Solomon’s son), around 930 BCE, the kingdom was split in two; Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south (containing Jerusalem).
Solomon’s Temple was destroyed in 587 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar II, a Neo-Babylonian Empire king. The Second Temple was then constructed under Zerubbabel in 516 BCE. The Second Temple was later expanded by Herod the Great (Roman-appointed king of Judea (Roman adaptation of name Judah), 37-4 BCE), resulting in the natural formation of temple mount. This temple was later destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the remains of which, we see today. Named the Western Wall, it is considered to be the closest to the former temple, making it one of the holiest sites in the Jewish tradition.
At the Western Wall you’ll find a separate entrance for women and men and a host of bar mitzvahs, a Jewish ritual for the coming of age of boys. You’ll see lots of tiny pieces of paper left in the cracks of wall – these are written prayers to God. You can also book a guided tour through the Western Wall Tunnel under the streets of the Old City!
The Western Wall, where the top of the Dome of the rock can be seen in the background!
Views nearby the Western Wall
Considered the oldest diaspora community outside of the Armenian homeland, the Armenian quarter is home to numerous churches including the beautiful Cathedral of Saint James. Inhabitants here do not consider themselves as politically separate to the Christian quarter, though the Armenians are religiously separate from Greek Orthodox and Latin (Catholic) Christian faiths. It’s also home to the Church of Saint Mark, a Syriac Orthodox church. This is believed to be the location where the Last Supper was hosted. It is also believed the place of post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples, including where he unveiled his wounds to doubting Thomas. However, most Christians believe that the Last Supper was held at the Cenacle on Mount Zion.
The room of the last supper, Saint Mark’s church – the stones you see propped up in the corner are original!
The Christian quarter is home to a large number of holy sites, one of which is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (also called the Church of the Resurrection) – a major pilgrimage site and the holiest church in the Christian faith. It contains both the site where Jesus was crucified and his tomb, where he was buried and later resurrected. It also contains the final four of the stations of the Via Dolorosa, we had the option to walk these stations over Easter but the streets were so overcrowded it would have been a very difficult task! The church is beautiful inside and there are many wonderful things to see. However, I would strongly recommend that you hire a tour guide, there are no signs explaining what’s what so it can get pretty confusing!
Outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
One of the many paintings inside The Church of Holy Sepulchre
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Jerusalem and whilst the new city provides a breath of fresh air from the intensity of the old city, the draw and charm of the old city cannot be ignored. I’d strongly recommend anyone to travel there at least once in their lives as such a central and important place. This isn’t only in a religious or historical sense, but because a lot of what has happened inside the walls of the city has come to dictate how we live our lives today – whether we are conscious of this influence or not. In fact, spending time here made me realise just how little I really know about the Abrahamic religions and inspired me to go back and study them each individually, something I haven’t done since my GCSEs!
I wouldn’t, however, (unless for religious purposes) recommend going over Easter and Passover because the intensity of this religious (and for many, once in a lifetime) experience can make people pretty frantic and act in a manner that they perhaps wouldn’t otherwise. For example, shouting, pushing and shoving people out of the way to get to the front of a queue… Not a pleasant experience. Flying outside of these dates will also be much cheaper and make finding accommodation much easier as it gets booked up far in advance. You don’t want to be left outside with no room at the inn!
As always, any questions, please feel free to contact me!