It not just any holy city, it is a holy city multiplied by three. Jerusalem is considered to be holy to followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is where the 1st century exists side by side with the 21st, and where quaint old neighborhoods are located among gleaming high-rises.
Jerusalem is a fascinating city where almost every structure has an interesting story to tell. Every turn you take, you will find museums, religious sites or ancient relics to keep your interest piqued. Here you will find three of the most revered institutions, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western (Wailing) wall, and the Dome of the Rock. It is here that Jesus roamed, Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven and it is here that stood the ancient capital of David and Solomon.
Jerusalem’s Hebrew name Yerushalayim is understood to mean ‘heritage of peace’, and is generally believed to be the origin of its modern name. It is also called Al-Quds in Arabic.
Apart from its religious significance, the city has much to offer in terms of beauty, architecture, and history. The dramatic view of white high-rises that gleam in the sunlight are the legacy of the first British Governor who declared all new buildings to be made from limestone that is found in abundance locally.
Nestled in the Judean mountains between the Mediterranean and the Dead seas, Jerusalem, the modern capital of Israel, lies just north of the Tropic of Cancer. It is approximately 60 km east of Tel Aviv. The city is surrounded by picturesque valleys and dry riverbeds. On the opposite side, 35 km away, is the Dead Sea, the lowest water of body on Earth. Three of the most prominent valleys in the region are the Kidron, Hinnom and Tyropoeon. The scenic views from the city also include that of Mount of Olives and Mount Scopus.
Like much of Israel, Jerusalem is characterized by the Mediterranean climate. It remains mild even during the winters and snowfall is rare. Since the city stands on a limestone ridge 780 m above sea level, it is much cooler here throughout the year as compared to the coastal plains to its west. The best time to visit here is in the early autumn months between August to November. For Christians, the best time to be here is undoubtedly during Easter and Christmas. And for Jews, Rosh Hashannah and Passover. Keep in mind however, that the city would be packed and over crowded during this time, and accommodation would be hard to come by if you haven’t booked rooms beforehand.
Even though it is a holy and revered city, its history is full of turmoil and bloodshed. Evidence of development in present day Jerusalem date as far back the 4th century BCE. According to Biblical accounts, the Jebusites lived here till the late 11th century BCE after which the Israelites, led by King David conquered the city and establishing it as the capital of their kingdom of Israel and Judah. They renamed the city Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), a name by which it is still referred to as today.
King David’s reign ended around 970 BCE when his son Solomon became the new king. He built the first of two holy temples within the city—Solomon’s temple, now known as the First Temple. It is the last known location of the Ark of the Covenant and a significant site in Jewish and Christian history. But this period was marred by the division of the monarchy at the time of Solomon’s death and the northern tribes split off to form the Kingdom of Israel. Under the successors of Solomon, Jerusalem was now capital of the southern part, the Kingdom of Judah.
Around 586 BCE, the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah ending the First Temple period. After 50 years of captivity, in 538 BCE, the Jews were allowed to return to Judah by the Persian king Cyrus the Great, and construct the Second Temple. By 19 BCE, the Temple Mount was elevated and Herod the Great ordered the expansion of the Second Temple. By 70 CE, with the first Jewish-Roman war, the Great Jewish Revolt or the Bar Kokhba’s revolt, the Second Temple was also destroyed. The Romans captured the city in 135 CE and banned Jews from entering the city of Jerusalem.
For the next five centuries, the city was under Roman and Byzantine rule. When Roman Emperor Constantine I came to power during the 4th centre, the city became a center for Christianity. In 638, with the arrival of Muslim forces, Christian and Jews living in the city were granted autonomy in return for a tax. Caliph Umar built a mosque on the site of the Jewish Holy Temple. By the end of the 7th century, the Dome of the Rock was constructed by Abd al-Malik, a subsequent caliph.
In 1099, Jerusalem was captured by the First Crusader who killed most of its Muslim and Jewish residents. This was the first of several such conquests over the next 500 years. In 1244, Jerusalem fell to Khawarizmi Turks who were later replaced by the Mamelukes. In 1517, Jerusalem passed on to the Ottoman Turks who ruled until the 20th century.
In 1917, the British Army captured the city. The League of Nations entrusted the United Kingdom to administer the Mandate of Palestine to help establish a Jewish state in the region. As the Mandate expired, after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan. In 1949, Israel designated West Jerusalem as its capital, while East Jerusalem has been claimed as the intended capital of a future Palestinian state.
The status of the city remains disputed to this day and many hope for a long-term solution, which now seems like a dream that might not be fulfilled in this lifetime!
Getting there and around
Israel’s main international airport, Ben Gurion, is 50 km west of Jerusalem near the town of Lydda. Atarot airport for domestic flights is just 10 km north of the town.
Once you reach here you can choose to commute within the city in taxis (locally called sheruts), or the public Egged buses.
What to see and do
The city is divided and each area has its own specialty and significance. The Old City is enclosed within the walls built by the Ottoman Turkish sultan, Suleiman in 1538. It is divided into the Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish Quarters with seven gates leading into it, two of which are the most popular – the Jaffa gate and the Damascus Gate. West Jerusalem is a lively city full of malls and cafes. Zion Square is a popular meeting point and a few blocks from here is Ben-Yehuda street bustling with souvenir shops where you can spend hours examining the curios the small shops have to offer.
Most visitors come to the city for its religious significance. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built by Emperor Constantine on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection, is the holiest site for Christians. The church contains the Chapel of Golgotha and three Stations of the Cross where Jesus’ was crucified, and the Sepulcher marks the place of his burial and resurrection.
The Temple Mount, or the Mount Moriah, holds importance to Muslims, Jews and Christians alike. The large rock is believed to be where Abraham offered his son Isaac for sacrifice and the place from where Muhammad ascended to heaven. The Dome of the Rock was built to commemorate this, in the 7th century. The glinting golden dome of the Dome of the Rock has become the city’s most recognizable feature. Here you will also find the Al Aqsa mosque and the Islamic museum that has a collection of Korans and Islamic relics.
For Jews, the Western or the Wailing Wall is a sacred site of prayer where thousands come every year to pray. The 584 m wall is what remains of the 30 BC Second temple of Jerusalem built by King Herod. The wall is also sacred for Muslims who believe that it is where the Prophet Mohammed tied up his winged horse before ascending to heaven.
The Via Dolorosa, literally the Road of Sorrow is also known as the way of the Cross as this was the route said to have been followed by Jesus as he carried the Cross to his crucifixion. Starting at Lion’s Gate where Jesus was convicted by Pontius Pilate and ending at his tomb, there are 14 stations along the way marking different events. Every Friday, priests lead a procession along this route and offer prayers.
For those more interested to stay out of the sun there is the Israel Museum that has an excellent collection that spans prehistoric archaeology to contemporary art. Perhaps the most famous of all its exhibits are the Dead Sea Scrolls from the 3rd century BC to 1st century AD. Its vast art collection contains the works of artisits such as Rodin, David Smaith, Henry Moore and James Turell. The Israel Museum owns three additional art institutions in the city – the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum, Ticho ouse and the Paley Center of Art. A visit to the Yad VaShem is a sobering experience. It is a memorial to the Jews who died in the Holocaust. The museum has the largest and most comprehensive collection of documents, photographs and testimonies of survivors.
He next stop on the itinerary is the Citadel of David, constructed in the 1st century BC as a fortress for King Herod and has served as a strategic defence position to the Old city. From the tallest tower, the Phasael, you can marvel at the magnificent view of the Old City. The Citadel also houses the Museum of the History of Jerusalem where you can brush up on your knowledge of the city’s glorious, yet turbulent past.
Lastly, just 10 km from Jerusalem, almost walking distance, is the town of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. It is a charming little town, with the Church of Nativity as its focal point.
What to eat
Breads, cheese, yoghurt, olives, fresh vegetables and fruit…healthy food, healthy living, that seems to be the motto here. Of course you have to try hummus and falafel the way it was meant to be had. Shops and vendors selling bagels, or ka’ak, and pitta bread stuffed with falafel or shwarma are common sites around the city. On Fridays, in West Jerusalem, you can also try halla, a bread made with egg and yeast used to celebrate Shabbat and Jewish festivals. Another popular snack here is burekas, which is a puff-pastry stuffed with cheese, spinach or potato.
Try the coffee here, the traditional Turkish qahwa. The strong aroma and taste will linger with you for long. Alcohol is available in West Jerusalem and in some of the more exclusive (read expensive) restaurants in the East.
Where to stay
There are many top scale hotels in the city, but moderate budget accommodations are harder to come by. Christian guesthouses, originally built to accommodate pilgrims, are good alternatives in such cases. Bed and breakfast accommodation in a private home is also a good option where you get to experience the lifestyle of the local residents. Hosts are often senior citizens with lovely and spacious homes.
During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Muslims don’t eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. Many restaurants remain closed during this period, and it will not be considered appropriate for you to eat or smoke in the street.
Israel is a religious society and customs are to be strictly adhered to by visitors. Offensive and indecent behavior can land you in prison or at the least you will be heavily fined. Do not take pictures of any military or police personnel or installations. Also be discreet when taking pictures in orthodox areas and of people. Carry official identification at all times.