Jerusalem is unlike any city that I have visited before. The combination of ancient ruins, religious churches and sites, and modern neighborhoods, make Jerusalem an eclectic and spiritual city. With so much to explore in Jerusalem, one could spend days discovering the gems of this remarkable city. During my short visit, I was able to explore the well-known highlights and a few hidden gems, but it seems that I just scratched the surface of this city. Wishing I had more time to discover the historical streets, religious sites, and the vibrant downtown district, I wanted to briefly share the highlights of this fascinating Israeli city!
With numerous religious sites throughout Jerusalem, I would recommend to dress modestly and to be respectful of every religion, even if you have differing opinions! Being mindful and respectful will allow for a more immersive and enjoyable Jerusalem experience!
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Old City Highlights:
With its labyrinth of narrow streets and hidden alleys, the Old City of Jerusalem is an explorer’s dream. The Old City holds some of the world’s most significant religious sites within its centuries’ old stone walls.
The Walls of Jerusalem, which surround the Old City, are over two miles long and almost forty feet tall, with thirty-four watchtowers and seven main gates which open for both pedestrian and vehicle traffic. The original stone wall was rebuilt during the Ottoman Empire between 1537 and 1541.
Mount Zion, although not technically within the city walls, is a brief walk outside of Jaffa Gate. Significant religious sites in Mount Zion are the Room of the Last Supper and the Tomb of David.
Room of the Last Supper:
The Room of the Last Supper is where Jesus and his disciples celebrated the ceremonial Passover meal, which later became known as the “Last Supper” (Mark 14). Seven weeks after Jesus’ death, his disciples gathered on Pentecost and were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2). At the time of the meal, archeologists believe the room was within the city walls.
Tomb of David:
King David, the “great” Israelite king of the 10th century BC, was buried within the “City of David” (the Bible’s name for Jerusalem). The Tomb of David sits within a tiny room divided by a small wall to separate men and women into two tiny prayer areas facing the tomb.
The Jewish Quarter is the oldest quarter, but newest neighborhood in Jerusalem. The maze of winding cobblestone streets charms visitors now, but after the War of Independence, this quarter was abandoned for a generation. The quarter was restored after the Six Days’ War of 1967, after restoration the Jewish families settled back into the ancient neighborhood. Everyday life of the Jewish people exist within the streets, and the quaint courtyards seem to be their living rooms shared amongst generations. I could have gotten lost in the narrow streets for hours listening to the sounds of a vibrant city echoing off the ancient walls. The Jewish Quarter highlights are the ancient streets, the Jewish people, the ambiance one feels walking within this eclectic neighborhood, and the Western Wall.
The Western Wall is the holiest and most important shrine in the Jewish faith. Visitors can view the wall from afar, pray at the wall, or place a note within the cracks of the stone. Men and women have separate areas to visit and to pray at the wall (all faiths must adhere to this rule). Blank sheets of paper are provided to write a special note to place between the cold stone walls. No matter what faith you believe in, I would suggest taking a few quiet moments to write a memorable prayer to place into the wall and to immerse yourself in the spirituality that surrounds you! My note stated, “Peace to the World. Peace to my family. Peace to myself.”
The prayers and requests held by the Western Wall are believed that “they reach their destination more quickly than the Israeli postal service.” The notes are collected several times per year, since they have God’s name written on them and are written from the heart, the notes are buried within a Jewish cemetery.
The Christian Quarter has a dozen denominational domains within the numerous churches and religious institutions of this district. With the relative high number of religious sites, this quarter has a low population rate. The highlights of the Christian Quarter include the Via Dolorosa, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Ethiopian Monastery.
The Via Dolorosa or “Way of the Cross” is the recognized route Jesus walked carrying his cross from the trial to the site of his crucifixion and burial. Christian pilgrims walk the route, stopping at each of the fourteen stations to pray and to contemplate Jesus’ burden. Walking the entire route takes about forty minutes, depending on the time visiting each landmark. Not only is the Via Dolorosa an important religious site for Christians, but this route provides a nice pathway between the Christian and Muslim Quarters (the Via Dolorosa crosses into both the Christian and Muslim Quarters).
Church of the Holy Sepulcher:
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the last stop on the Via Dolorosa, and the last five stations are within the walls of the church. The church enshrines the Golgotha, the hillside site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. The original church was built around 326 AD, but the present structure was constructed by the Crusaders in 12th century. Amazingly, the Church of Holy Sepulcher is shared by six different Christian denominations each having their own chapel and privileges within the church walls.
Within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Stone of Unction lies on the floor just inside the main entrance. This stone is believed to be the stone that Jesus’ body was cleansed and prepared for burial on. Christian devotees rub fabric or religious trinkets on the slab, believing that whatever touches the stone is “blessed by God.”
To reach the top of the Golgotha, or the “place of the skull” as described within the New Testament, steep stone steps lead Christian pilgrims to view the tomb which is encased in a pink marble edifice.
Standing in the Ethiopian Monastery’s courtyard, one can view a cross-section of the Christian religion. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Egyptian Coptic monastery, the Russian Orthodox gable, the Lutheran bell tower, Greek Orthodox crosses, Armenian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches are all within eye view! Inside the dark monastery, robed Ethiopian monks live in tiny cells, while various modern paintings depicting Bible stories are displayed on the historic monastery walls. Take a few minutes to explore this small monastery and then take a set of steep steps which will lead you to the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
The Muslim Quarter is the largest section of Jerusalem in both area and population. The Via Dolorosa begins in this quarter, winding its way into the Christian Quarter. My guide found a gem within the Muslim Quarter, the Austrian Hospice, which provides spectacular views overlooking the entire Old City.
Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque:
Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque is believed to be where Muhammad ascended to heaven. The original building was completed in 691 AD and enshrines the great rock, the summit of Mt. Moriah. The mosque is currently only opened to Muslims, so I was unable to venture inside. The interior is said to have beautiful mosaics, frescoes, the great rock shrine, and a haram. Outside the brightly colored mosaics and golden dome is like a beacon shining over the city. The spectacular gold dome was restored in 1990, with 176 pounds of 24-carat gold electroplated onto copper.
The Temple Mount, or Haram Esh-Sharif, is the vast plaza constructed by King Herod. This plaza is the size of 27 football fields! Many scholars and archeologists regard the Temple Mount as one of the greatest religious enclosures in the ancient world. With each of the world’s largest religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) identifying this area as a significant site in their religion’s history.
The wall dividing the mosque and Temple Mount area from the Jewish quarter is the Western Wall. Both religions claim this spot to be the one the holiest sites in their respective religion. Noting this, visitors can feel the tension between these two religions while visiting this area. If you want to visit the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock there is a checkpoint you have to cross, with the unfortunate acts of violence that occurred when I was there, the check point was closed and I had to view the Dome from afar.
With numerous historical and religious sites, winding alleyways, and narrow cobblestone streets, visitors could easily spend days roaming the ancient streets of the Old City.
This neighborhood is largely an Arabic population. During the years when the city was divided (from 1948-1967), Jordan controlled this area of Jerusalem. The main sites in this area are uniquely Christian-based, the Mount of Olives, Garden of Gethsemane, Garden Tomb, the Church of Mary Magdalene, and the Rockefeller Museum are found within the hills. The slope of the Mount of Olives holds a large Jewish cemetery. With the violence at the time, my guide did not feel safe to take me to East Jerusalem, so pictures are from afar.
This contemporary neighborhood consists of Jerusalem’s downtown, modern housing developments, shopping malls, boutique shops, and noteworthy world-class museums.
Yad Vashem is one of the most somber and moving public exhibitions that I have ever visited. Created in 1953 to preserve a record of the millions of Jews that were murdered by the Nazis during World War II. Inside this heart-wrenching museum, a collection of photographs, motion-pictures, Nazi paraphernalia and Concentration Camp remnants, personal items from Jewish adults and children are displayed to tell the story of innocent lives lost. Yad Vashem means “a memorial and a name” (Isaiah 56:5) at the end of the museum, the Hall of Names displays 600 photos of perished Jews, this exhibit tries to give every Jewish victim a memorial and a name.
No amount of words can describe the images and stories I witnessed at the museum. I would recommend taking tissues, you will need them. Purchase the audio guide for an impactful visit. Allow for at least two-three hours to fully explore this remarkable Jewish memorial.
The Israel Museum is one of the best museums in the world that I have visited. Unfortunately, I only had about two hours to explore the main sites of this remarkable museum, I could have spent days discovering the ancient and modern art pieces displayed here!
Although the museum houses many significant historical artifacts from ancient civilizations such as the Romans and Egyptians, the most famous artifact in the museum’s collection is the Dead Sea Scrolls. Visitors can view the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Shrine of the Book in a dramatic pavilion which holds the most famous piece of Israeli history. (Photographs are not permitted, several museum staff members are present to remind you!)
Along with the Dead Sea Scrolls, the museums houses an impressive Art Wing with modern Israeli art, design and photography, displayed alongside famous artists such as Monet, van Gogh, Renoir and many other modern and contemporary artists. If you are an art lover, give yourself plenty of time to explore this wonderful museum!
Jerusalem is a fascinating city. It seems to be two diverse cities co-habiting the same ancient land. Within the stone Walls of Jerusalem, the Old City holds some of the most significant religious sites in the world. While outside the stone walls, a modern and thriving city exists. In an odd way, the ancient and religious quarters compliments the contemporary downtown area, unlike any other city that I have visited. Jerusalem has a complicated historical and religious past, present, and future which can be felt as a visitor. But what I have learned from my visit, like anywhere else in the world you may go, having an open-heart and open-mind will allow you to experience the greatness that makes Jerusalem a one of a kind city!
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