Jerusalem – the Golden City – as it is called by some, is one of the oldest cities in the world and considered holy to three major religions namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There are few places in the world that match its importance! A city with a history so rich that it is difficult to grasp – it has changed hands endlessly, has been destroyed and re-built more than once, influenced by different cultures and religions over thousands of years – no matter what your belief or whether you believe in anything at all, Jerusalem is a city of overwhelming emotions that touches everyone who sets foot in it!
Travelling on my own to Jerusalem, I hired a guide for the first day to show me the city through the perspective of a local and to get to know the area before exploring the city independently. After meeting him at my hotel, we started the day with panoramic views of Jerusalem from the top of the Mount of Olives (first picture above). The mount has served as a Jewish cemetery for more than 3,000 years and is believed to be the place where the dead will be resurrected first on the day of judgment.
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We then walked down to the nearby Garden of Gethsemane – according to the bible, the site of Jesus’s betrayal by Judas the night before his crucifixion.
The olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane are among the oldest in the world – if trees could talk …
The Church of All Nations, also known as Basilica of the Agony, is located just next to the Garden of Gethsemane. It is a Roman Catholic church re-built between 1919-1924 with donations from various countries around the world. When we entered, mass was in progress which added to the spiritual atmosphere inside the church.
Thin rose stone columns support the twelve domes of the church which are richly decorated with stunning mosaics, combining deep blue and golden elements.
Walking towards the old city through Kidron valley, we had fantastic views back toward the Mount of Olives and the Basilica of the Agony with its beautiful outside columns holding the tympanum, decorated by Giulio Bargellini in 1930 (in the picture above to the left) and the Russian Orthodox Church of St Mary Magdalena with its onion shaped golden domes (behind the Basilica a bit to the right).
At the base of Kidron valley which naturally separates Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives are three ancient tombs – the tomb of Absalom (picture above), the tomb of Benei Heir and the Tomb of Zechariah.
The old city of Jerusalem is surrounded by a thick city wall that we were about to enter. Within these walls it is divided into four quarters – the Jewish, Armenian, Muslim and Christian quarter each with its own distinct character, history and holy sites.
After going through a security check we walked towards the Western Wall – the most sacred site accessible to the Jewish people. It is the last remnant of the second temple, built by Herod the Great, which has been destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. It is believed that the divine presence never departed from the site. Non Jews are welcome to approach the wall provided that they are dressed modestly.
In accordance with Orthodox tradition women are not allowed to pray at the same place as men and are therefore given a separate small section of the wall where they are able to worship and mourn over the destruction of the temples.
Wishes and prayers written on small pieces of paper are inserted into the cracks of the Western Wall.
Going back and through another security check we went up to Temple Mount, the third holiest site in Islam, home to the Dome of the Rock and El-Aqsa Mosque. The site is also important to Christians and the holiest site for Jews who refer to it as the location of the first and second temple. The Dome of the Rocks with its majestic dome, covered with gold leafs, dominates the skyline of old Jerusalem and is a great example of the oldest works of Islamic architecture which was built between AD 688-691 by Umayyad Caliph Abd el-Malik. Non Muslims are welcome to visit Temple Mount during restricted opening hours, however, the sight is sometimes closed due to security reasons. Dressing modestly is essential to gain access to Temple Mount for both men and women.
The best views over the Western Wall with its separate prayer sections and the Temple Mount can be enjoyed from the rooftop terrace of the Aish Ha Torah building. The wooden walkway (in the picture above to the right) is the non muslim entrance to the Temple Mount.
Let me also take the opportunity here to introduce you to, Itay, my guide who explained the history of Jerusalem in a fun and informative way. I especially loved the little book he carried with him showing the different sites throughout history. Thankfully, he also took my foodie request to visit various food places very seriously – much appreciated!
Most important to many Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem is to trace the last steps of Jesus along the Via Dolorosa – the route that people believe Jesus took between his condemnation by Pilat to the site of his crucification and burial. The pilgrims stop at 14 stations each with its own significance, the Chapel of the Flagellation (picture above) is the second station where Jesus took up the cross. I have not visited all of them with my guide as there were so many things to see and do but did the next day, when I took the opportunity to discover the old town by myself – where I stumbled upon the most interesting places and people (see the next three images).
Walking the Via Dolorosa I managed to see all 14 stations (left image above) is station number VI where Jesus wiped the sweat of his face with a cloth given by Veronica, at station V Jesus was helped to carry the cross by Simon – a cavity in the stone wall (right image above) of a small Franciscan church there is believed to be the mark of Jesus hand. The route has changed over time and there is no historical evidence for the exact walk Jesus did on his last day.
Station number I of the Via Dolorosa where Jesus was condemned to death lies within a Muslim college which can only be visited with the permission of the caretaker who I met during my walk along the route and who gained me access to this important site. From one of the window of the colleague I had a very unique view of the Dome of the Rock!
I felt even more fortunate when I stumbled upon a Jerusalem ‘celebrity’ – featured on the famous blog Humans of New York! Having worked many years with children with disabilities as a volunteer it was wonderful to meet this celebrity in Jerusalem!
A big part of my tour through the old city was to taste the different foods of Jerusalem. Abu Shukri, mentioned in Yottam Ottolenghi’s book ‘Jerusalem’ is considered to be one of the best places for hummus in Jerusalem. We ordered a bowl of hummus with pickles and pitta bread on the side – I have to confirm that it was just delicious!
The muslim quarter is lined with shops that sell jewellery, wooden game boards and various souvenirs.
It is also dotted with the most impressive spice shops, seemingly selling every herb and spice under the sun!
After the best hummus in the city I tasted the most delicious falafel – when I asked my guide for the name of the shop, he said the shop does not really have a name. It is owned by the Hibni family which have perfected their recipe over generations. From experience I know how difficult it is to prepare falafel (and in all honesty I have not yet managed to succeed) therefore I have utmost respect for their skill!
Itay was so friendly to hold up one very hot falafel for me to take a picture 🙂 Afterwards he took me to a tahini stone mill where they produce sesame seed paste the traditional way. Filled with a nutty smell of sesame it was fascinating to watch the mills grind the seeds into a golden paste which is a very important ingredient of hummus. Before we embarked on satisfying our sweet tooth, we enjoyed a kebab at one of Itay’s favourite shop.
There are many places for sweets in Jerusalem – one of the first sweets I tried were these juicy balls – I think they are called loquat or loukoumades.
For more sweets we stopped at Jaffar – famous for their Kenafeh (pictures above) filled with cheese and topped with sweet orange strings. We also had some of their baklava and sweet kataef triangle.
Filled and happy we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – believed to be the site of Christ’s crucification, burial and resurrection. It was built between AD 326 – 335 by Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to adopt christianity. It was actually his mother who suggested to built the church where she believed the place of Christ’s crucifixion was, on top of the Rock of Golgotha/Calvary. Narrow steps inside the church lead up to the calvary were the rock can be seen and touched. In another part of the church is the location of Christ’s tomb (sepulchre) where Christ’s body is believed to have been laid.
Located just after the main entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the Stone of Unction, also known as the stone of Anointing, claimed to be where Christ’s body has been anointed and prepared for burial.
Our last stop of the day was the Citadel, also known as the Tower of David, that we admired from the outside. The citadel is also home to the Tower of David Museum which tells the long history of Jerusalem.
As mentioned before I have continued to discover the old town which only spans over an area of 0.9 square kilometres on my own as it takes a few days if not longer to take it all in. During one day of my stay I climbed up the northern part of the ramparts which offers amazing views of the city inside the walls as well as the outside areas and the separation wall in the far distance (picture above).
The ramparts were very quiet and away from the hustle and buzzle of the hectic and lively old city which offered a moment of reflection at a site where every stone could tell a wondrous story of a city so rich in history!
During my time in Jerusalem I have seen many more things that I would have loved to include in this post but felt that it would have gone on for too long – the only thing that I can recommend is to visit this fascinating city yourself to be touched by the diversity and richness of Jerusalem, the Golden City!