I’m not religious, but Jerusalem has always been a place of interest for me. My desire to visit the holy city, as it’s often called, stemmed from sheer curiosity. How is one little spot on the planet so important that it drives some of the most major conflicts our world has seen? It’s a lightning rod for clashes between Christianity, Judaism and Islam – and I always wanted to know why. What was so special about it that throughout its thousands of years of turbulent history mankind has fought one another for control of it?
The answer is nothing much. Israelis and Palestinians both claim it as their capitals, Christians consider it the birthplace of their religion, as Jesus was crucified there; Jewish people consider it of central symbolic importance because in the 1st millenium BCE King Solomon built the first temple there; and in Islam it’s considered the 3rd holiest place as it is believed that is where the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. Jerusalem has been sacred to Judaism for roughly 3000 years, to Christianity for around 2000 years, and to Islam for approximately 1400 years.
Evidence of a city on the site of Jerusalem dates as far back as the 19th century BCE, though ceramic evidence indicates occupation of the City of David, an area considered to be the initial nucleus of historical Jerusalem, as far back as the Copper Age (c. 4th millennium BCE).
When we arrived, I didn’t know what to expect. Part of me thought that it would be a sort of oasis in the Mediterranean desert, and that perhaps that’s why everyone has always wanted to claim it as their own. But in truth, it really is just another city – it just so happens to be one that has historically had deep significance to several different, often opposing, groups of people.
I know a lot of people in North America think traveling to Israel is dangerous – and perhaps foolish. That’s mainly because the USA travel advisory seems to think you shouldn’t go there. Nothing could be further from the truth. At no point did we fear for our safety – from politically or religiously motivated attacks or from petty crime. There is security everywhere in the old city, and no one is going anywhere near the main religious sites without passing through a metal detector first (and covering their skin – head to toe – no bare shoulders, legs, decollete, etc.)
We stayed outside the old town in an airBNB that was wonderfully located beside one of the main streets. We arrived on a Saturday, completely forgetting that in Israel on the sabbath (shabbat) doing pretty much anything is practically impossible. Only a few corner stores are open, buses aren’t running, and no shops are open. This meant the place was deserted when we arrived – giving it a ghostly vibe.
The following day we did what we always do when we arrive in a new city – and booked a free walking tour of the old town.
The tour was good – providing an unbiased account of the history of the city and why it’s considered important, but didn’t delve deep into the religious significance as they have a different tour for that.
We were taken to most of the main sites, and learned about each of the four quarters that the old city is divided into (Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian), and shown the old roman ruins that once made up the cardo maximus, or main artery of the city.
After the tour we made a stop at the Western Wall as it’s one of the most famous places associated with Jerusalem. The place is split between men and women, so Jordan and I had to visit different sides.
We watched as people with tears in their eyes clung to parts of the stone wall, clutching their Torah in the other hand and praying. It felt uncomfortable and even rude to be observing people having a deep religious experience, so we didn’t linger.
That evening we had booked a visit to the Kotel, or Western Wall’s, underground passages. The Western Wall (known as the Wailing Wall by Christians, though considered derogatory by Jews) is the west part of the platform that was built on which King Herod’s second temple sat. It is a common misconception that it’s the west wall of the temple. It isn’t – the temple was completely destroyed. But the west wall is the part of the platform that is closest to where the holiest part of the temple for Jewish people would have been (the “holiest of holies“), where the ark of the covenant would have been stored, had it remained.
The part of the wall that’s above ground is actually quite small compared to what remains under ground. The full western wall extends 488 meters.
Our underground tour took us through that area, and we were stopped at Warren’s Gate, the exact spot above which the holiest of holies would have been (it isn’t visible above ground), and is considered to be the closest physical proximity to the Holy of Holies, believed to be housed under the Dome of the Rock. It was just a tiny alcove in which several people were praying. We were told that where we were standing is the single holiest place for Jews on the planet. And then we kept walking.
Knowing that we wanted to visit the religious sites as well, we booked the Holy City tour with the same company the following day. It was excellent – the guide was fantastic at providing information without bias, explaining the conflicts that have arisen without favouring one side over the other. It was exactly what we wanted. The company does religious tours as pilgrimages, and our guide told us that he wouldn’t provide nearly as much information on those tours as he did for ours.
The tour took us to the Temple Mount where the Dome of the Rock is (we couldn’t actually enter it, not being Muslim, but we were able to walk around the Temple Mount and see the roman ruins in the distance).
We visited the supposed grave of Adam and the tomb of King David, the supposed room of the Last Supper (there are a couple different groups that claim this happened in different locations), the hill of Golgotha, the Via Dolorosa and finally the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
In the church of the Holy Sepulchre (where Jesus was said to be crucified) we passed through the rock on which he was said to have been crucified (Golgotha Rock, also known as Cavalry) and observed the huge line of people waiting to touch the stone and pray. We passed by the empty tomb of Jesus, where he was said to have been buried and resurrected, which had a massive line that our guide told us could take you 5 hours to move through.
We also passed by the slab of marble stone on which Jesus was meant to have been placed after he was taken down from the cross, and anointed by his followers (the “Stone of Annointing“). Many people were touching the slab and praying, and placing mementos on it (apparently if you have a family member who can’t make the pilgrimage you take something of theirs and place it on the marble for it to be holy and bring it back to them). I touched the slab – out of curiosity, wonder, and out of respect for my grandmother, who was religious and had always wanted to visit Jerusalem but never got the chance.
Outside the church we saw the immovable ladder we had read about in Atlas Obscura.
(apparently it was placed there in the night, no one knows when, but at least since 1852 and since no one knows which group placed it there, no one dares move it so as not to disrupt the status quo, as there are several religious groups that are custodians of different parts of the church, and they’re known to break out into violent fights with one another when they feel one group is encroaching on their designated ‘turf’).
We spent the rest of the days visiting the various sites, including the Jerusalem Citadel and Tower of David, the City of David and Hezekiah’s tunnel (which was an awesome under ground tunnel with water up to my waist that we had to walk through. It dates back to the late 9th century BCE, and according to the Bible, King Hezekiah built the tunnel to prepare Jerusalem for an impending siege by the Assyrians, by blocking the source of the waters of the upper Gihon, and leading them straight down on the west to the City of David.
We ate humus and even wandered through the main market as our airBNB hosts recommended it for a great place to get fresh produce. We had found that groceries in Israel were incredibly expensive, so the market was a wonderful discovery. They also had baklava – overpriced, and nowhere near as good as my grandma’s was- but tasty none the less.
Jerusalem as a city is quite an attractive one. It has a great light rail system (modern and with A/C), the streets are clean, and there’s art everywhere you look.
The ‘new city’ that envelopes the old one is beautiful and modern, and I could easily understand why it has the largest population in Israel, even if it weren’t religiously significant.
We spent 8 days there, including our little day trip to Masada and the Dead Sea. I’m sure we could have spent longer still exploring more of the historical sites and visiting the museums, though I’m glad I finally got to cross this mystical place of my bucket list after decades of wondering about it!