No trip to Israel would be complete without visiting Jerusalem’s Old City, one of the oldest and holiest places in the world. This city full of beauty, history, and yes, tension, seems to leave a different impression upon everyone who visits. And although I felt safe and comfortable during my visit, it is important to remember that not everyone will feel the same. Just from talking to another American who visited in 2008, a Christian Palestinian, and a Jewish Israeli, I’ve come to realize that personal experiences will vary based on the current political climate, which quarter of the city you visit, and unfortunately, your skin color, where you are from, and the language you speak. It is an incredibly beautiful, yet complex city.
With all that being said though, if you are the slightest bit religious or a history enthusiast, there is no reason to miss visiting Old City during peaceful times. The city is divided into four quadrants: the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter. We parked outside of the Jaffa Gate, and as we entered the city, we immediately lost ourselves in the sprawling central market, filled with aromas from different foods, shopkeepers shouting discounts at you (in Russian normally), and people from all over the world. The market streets are a labyrinth. We would enter from one quadrant and end up in a completely different part of the city, or somehow walk in a circle and exit where we started, without even realizing it. During our visit, we visited famous churches and religious monuments, spotted signs pointing to where Jesus once walked, and sampled an array of local foods.
We easily spent the majority of our day exploring the Old City, but didn’t come prepared to appreciate the cultural and historical significance of everything we saw. So for this post, I am playing catchup to the sights I visited and photographed. In a future visit, I would definitely want to take some sort of walking tour to get acquainted with the city before venturing out on my own.
Our first stop was the Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter, the holiest site at which Jews are allowed to pray. The holiest site of the Jewish faith, Temple Mount, lies just beyond the Western Wall, which was built by Herod the Great in 19 BCE. It is considered the location where God’s divine presence is manifested more than any other site, and the site where Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. To Muslims, the site is known as Haram esh-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary. Atop Haram esh-Sharif sits the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site of Sunni Islam, and the Dome of the Rock, the site where Muhammad is said to have ascended into heaven. And due to its extensive influence in Judaism, the site is a focal point for Christianity as well.
Although the site is on Israeli territory, only Muslims are allowed to pray when visiting Temple Mount. Christians and Jews can visit the site at regulated times, but they are not allowed to make any public displays of faith. Still, many Jews will not go further than the Western Wall, for fear of accidentally traipsing on the Holy of Holies site, where God’s divine presence may still reside.
In the preceding paragraphs, I attempted to summarize what likely amounts to thousands of writings. And due to the inherently dynamic state of this territory, new history is being written every single day. My words regarding current visits to Temple Mount could be obsolete within the next year.
As a special note, make sure to dress appropriately when visiting Old City Jerusalem. The Western Wall gave out loaner scarves to cover your legs or shoulders, but other places, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, had nothing of the sort.
After finishing in the Jewish Quarter, we sampled some street food and began to explore the Christian Quarter, along with bits and pieces of the Muslim and Armenian Quarters. In the Christian Quarter we went into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which houses the two holiest sites of the Christian Faith: the site where Jesus was crucified and the empty tomb from his resurrection. The church was absolutely gorgeous on the inside, albeit very crowded.
While the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was probably the most interesting site to me due to my Catholic schooling, we discovered a (possibly) hidden gem just a few streets over – the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. There may not be as much history here (it was built as recently as the late 1800s!), but it was much less crowded and they allowed guests to climb the church tower for a small fee. The tower gave fantastic views over the city in all four directions.
Our final hidden gem as the day was ending was the Austrian Hospice (not “hospice” in the sense we use it in English, but a dual hotel and church) in the Muslim Quarter. The doors will be closed and locked, but you can get in by either buzzing or waiting for someone to exit. Once inside you can grab drinks and head to the rooftop for more great views overlooking the city. It makes an especially great sunset spot.
After our cocktail hour at the Austrian Hospice, we meandered our way back through the city streets to find the car and head home. Although we only spent our day in Old City, I noticed on the way out that the rest of Jerusalem was a thriving and bustling city. One day was clearly not enough, but hopefully I will have reason to return some day soon.
Farewell for now, and keep watching for future Israel blog postings!