In our travels around Europe, I’ve discovered that most cities consist of two versions of themselves.
The “old city” is the historical hub. It’s where you find the narrow alleyways and those sites that have helped shaped a place’s history and culture. Regardless of where we travel, the newer, more modern part of the city is pretty standard fare: locals jostling for space on the sidewalk, street lights and potholes, shops selling everyday items like laundry detergent and slippers.
Despite its storied yet violent history, Jerusalem is much the same.
We stayed right outside of Jerusalem’s Old City walls, and we did our fair share of exploring the newer parts of the city. We ate vegan food in the more progressive neighborhoods. (In news that shocks no one, the LGBTQ+ friendly neighborhoods are often the ones with the best vegan food selections). And we found a cocktail bar that overlooked the Old City.
But most people aren’t in Jerusalem to wander the city’s more modern areas. They’re there to visit the sites that define the city: the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Here are a few snapshots of our time in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Everything in Old City Jerusalem is beige except for the Dome of the Rock. This is because of the available building materials and a local law.
Jerusalem’s Old City has eight gates. This one — the Damascus Gate — was the closest gate to our hotel and the most ornate. The Mercy Gate (or Golden Gate) is the only one that is closed, and it has been for centuries. It’s said that it will be reopened when the Messiah appears.
Like a lot of “old city” walls it doesn’t lead straight into the city. Because this was a fortification wall, the gate was built so that anyone who attacked would be slowed down at the entrance.
The Old City is less than one square kilometer, and 39,000 people live within the walls. It has four distinct quarters: the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter.
Tile work, mosaics, and placards mark significant areas throughout the Old City.
In addition to all the people who live in the Old City, oodles of tourists push through the tight alleyways. That’s especially true around the Temple Mount and Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
You know me: I kept stopping to take pictures of the arches, doors, and windows. Admittedly, I was so busy doing that, I didn’t have time to stop to buy my souvenir crown of thorns. (Seriously, WWJD if he knew people were making a buck off of this?)
When people visit the Dome of the Rock (the building with the gold dome), they can’t take any spiritual texts or musical instruments with them. Security is severely heightened. And though I didn’t sense any specific tension the day we visited, I understand why this could be the case.
We saw lots of Jews near the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall or Kotel) praying. I was particularly intrigued by this library of books near the wall, which I assume are Jewish texts, most likely written in Hebrew but probably in a variety of languages. Rabbis forbid Jews from visiting the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque sit.
Everyone enters the Temple Mount area from one place. If you want to visit the Wailing Wall, you follow one line. If you want to go to the Temple Mount, you follow another line. The two areas abut each other, but they might as well be a world apart.
The Dome of the Rock is the only punch of color in all of the Old City. I know the city is ancient, but it is so drab, which makes this building even more stunning.
This building houses the Foundation Stone, which is supposedly the place where God created the world and the first human.
Beige buildings or not, I did marvel at the incredible architecture that has been standing in the Old City for centuries. And they’re still finding ruins from even earlier civilizations!
Regardless of where people stand on the spiritual scale, I have to assume most people are at least impressed by the immense history contained within these walls.
It was eye-opening to watch people traveling specifically for religious purposes. They’re found in hoards in Jerusalem, tumbling off of tour buses with their Christian-themed lanyards strung around their necks. It surprised me how many groups carry a cross through the alleys to follow the path of the crucifixion. (By the way, placards conveniently mark this walk throughout the Old City’s streets.)
After walking that path, you reach this building: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Lots of things happened here: This is where Jesus was crucified. And it’s reportedly where he was buried and resurrected.
Does this picture induce anxiety in anyone else?
This is the Aedicula — and just a fraction of the crowds and two-hour lines of people waiting to enter it. Jesus’ empty tomb is inside of this tiny building.
The Stone of Annointing is also in this area. This flat stone is apparently where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial. On the front-end of the coronavirus outbreak, I found it surprising how many people were willing to kiss the Stone of Annointing and other icons that hundreds of people had kissed or touched within that hour alone.
I actually found all of the Jesus-specific sites in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre quite crowded and overwhelming. So many people. So many lines.
I personally thought the Status Quo was the most interesting part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Yes, the official term is Status Quo. This religious understanding means that six Christian communities — the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Syriac Orthodox, Coptic Christians, and Ethiopians — manage different sections of the church.
We entered the site through the Ethiopian chapel, which is where I took this photo of the candle flame. Most people walk right through this part of the church, but I found it peaceful if a bit dark.
The only thing I knew about Jerusalem before visiting had to do with its religious significance. And my religious knowledge is next to non-existent, so visiting the city was very much a learning experience for me. I walked into Jerusalem’s Old City with my mind open. And I let it fill in with what I observed and heard.
We visited and asked our guide (a secular Jew) questions about all of the famous religious sites. We spoke to an imam who answered our questions about his holy book. And I, at least, let the experience speak for itself.
Regardless of religious leanings, I think that’s the best way to learn about, appreciate, and respect the Old City’s deep history and significance.