As soon as we reached Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, we knew it carried a different vibe. Since it was both Christmas Eve and Jewish festival Hanukkah, the entire atmosphere was festive. But what caught us off guard was that we got to see as many pilgrims as Israeli soldiers.
Jerusalem is a mecca for pilgrims who come to visit the many religious attractions and monuments. It holds importance to Christians which is frequently mentioned in the Bible. For Jews, it is the most sacred place on the Earth. And for Muslims, it is the most sacred pilgrimage after Mecca and Medina. In addition, the city goes in the echelons of history for withstanding most conflicts our civilization has even experienced. All these contribute to a fascinating aura to the city.
We reached Jerusalem on Friday afternoon and dropped our bags at Abraham Hostel. The receptionist at the hostel provided information about guided tours in and around Jerusalem. She informed about upcoming Old City tour organized by the Hostel at 4 pm. Hence we hurried to Old Town entrance.
For Saturday, we booked a day-long tour which took us to important monuments and places in Jerusalem. Due to lack of time, we abandoned our plan to visit Masada and Dead Sea which are about 2 hours drive from Jerusalem. We told ourselves we would visit Israel again.
My wife made excellent choice in booking Abraham Hostel which provided with all amenities that a cozy hostel can including clean private rooms with bathrooms, WiFi, breakfast. Moreover, it provided us chance to mingle with so many tourists from all over world and it had amazingly helpful staff. Also, it was one of the only places open on Shabbat. Shabbat starts on Friday evening until Saturday evening when most of Israel is shut down, especially Jerusalem. That includes museums and many stores and restaurants.
Old City of Jerusalem
I won’t exaggerate if I say that history pours from every brick of every wall of the Old City of Jerusalem. Although it is packed within just square kilometer area, the walled city was entire of Jerusalem until 1860. Interestingly, the city is at least 3000 years old but walls were only built in the 16th century by Turkish Suleiman the Magnificent. Until 1948 and the Israeli War of Independence, Jews inhabited the Old City but were thrown out when Jordan attacked. This followed a series of conflicts and only after the Six Day War in 1967 that Jews once again started living in the Old City.
The city is itself divided into four quarters:
- Christian Quarter
- Jewish Quarter
- Armenian Quarter
- Muslim Quarter
We started our tour with the Christian Quarter after we entered the walled city through Jaffa Gate. As soon as we entered the city, we were greeted with the majestic tower of David which is officially part of the Armenian Quarter. As we headed down David Street, we walked through the bustle of main market. After paying a quick visit to the Church of St. John The Baptist, we headed to our first major monument, Holy Church of Sepulcher. It is the site where it is believed Jesus was crucified and then buried. There is a stone which is believed to be the cross Jesus was standing on and pilgrims weep at the stone. There is also a stone where it is believed Jesus was washed and then buried in a tomb (on Good Friday) and He woke three days after on Easter. The church itself is divided into different faiths of Christianity – Greek, Catholic and a few more.
Interesting fact: A Muslim family is in charge of protecting and holding the key to Christianity’s holiest sites for centuries. While another Muslim family is in charge of opening the door and allowing the faithful to enter the church. It signifies the peaceful coexistence of two religions in this walled city for centuries.
We walked through the narrow bylanes of the Old City to Jewish Quarter to huge open space. After going through security check (yes, again!), we made our way towards the Western Wall. Ha-Kotel Ha-Ma’aravi as it’s known in Hebrew is the holiest of Jewish sites. It is the only remains of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, held to be uniquely holy by the ancient Jews and destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. It is also known as the “Wailing Wall” because for centuries Jews have gathered here to mourn the loss of their temple.
I offered my prayers after covering my head with Jewish cap and touched the Wall. There are separate sections for men and women keeping in tradition with Orthodox Jews. Hence my wife offered her prayers covering her head with a scarf at women’s section.
Interesting fact: There is grass growing out of the upper cracks of the Wall. The lower cracks of the wall are crammed full with bits of paper containing written prayers by devouts Jews from all over the world.
The tour guide took us then to some sections of Jewish Quarter inhabited by residents. We saw some school kids playing in the narrow alleys under watchful eye of Israeli security.
The Muslim Quarter is quite similar to Jewish Quarter in terms of narrow alleys inhabited by residents. But there is lot more activity due to market shops and restaurants. We gorged on hummus, bread and chicken kebabs and pomegranate juice. The most important site in this Quarter is the Dome of the Rock which is sacred to Muslims, Jews, and Christians (but non-Muslims are prohibited from entering this area during Fridays and prayer times). This is where Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended into Heaven, accompanied by Gabriel. Another important site is the Monastery of the Flagellation, where it has been said that Christ was flogged by the Roman soldiers prior to His crucifixion and is the first point on the famous Via Dolorosa, the first of the 14 Stations of the Cross.
The tour guide was quick to point towards dried blood stains near this site. There are tensions in the Muslim and Jewish Quarters which occasionally erupt resulting in minor bloodshed.
The Armenian Quarter
Our tour ended with the Armenian Quarter which is the smallest of all. The most important site to see here is the amazing Citadel, known as the Tower of David. Unfortunately, since it was Friday and the tower was closed.
That brought end to one of the most enigmatic tours of our lives.
Mount of Olives Tours
On next day (Saturday), we went on a half-day tour of Mount of Olives with Abraham tours. Our tour started at around 10 am at the Jaffa gate of Old City. Our guide who was quite affable then escorted us to traveller bus. The bus took us outside city to a hill which Jews chose as a site to lament destruction of their First Temple. It is named for the olive groves that once covered its slopes.The site offers magnificent view of the Temple site and golden Dome of the Rock along with entire Old City. After satiating our eyes and camera lenses, we headed to the oldest Jewish cemetery. It has many important Jewish figures buried dating 3000 years back as also heroes of 1948 Israel War of Independence.
Mount of Olives also holds special importance for Christians as it is associated with several events in the life of Jesus. We started our Christian pilgrimage with the Chapel of Ascension. The Chapel of the Ascension was built by Crusaders in the 12th century on the traditional site of Jesus’ ascension. A few years later, when Jerusalem fell to Saladin and the church was converted to a mosque. In Islam, Jesus is revered as a prophet. The chapel is open to visitors of all faiths.
After walking for few minutes, we reached Church of Pater Noster which translates to Our Father in Latin. Besides the cave where Christ taught the Lord’s prayer, the main feature of the Church of the Pater Noster are these colorful tablets with the Lord’s Prayer written out in 140 different languages. There are in fact more than one Indian languages as well, particularly I remember reading Hindi and Malayalam.
Next, we visited the tear-shaped Dominus Flevit Church which commemorates the story in which Jesus looks out over Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives and weeps, having foreseen the destruction of the Temple and the diaspora of the Jews. Dominus Flevit literally means “the lord wept” in Latin.
Our next stop was the most picturesque site of the Mount Olives – Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene. Its seven gilden onion-shaped golden domes topped with cross makes it an striking spectacle. Then we paid our respects to Tomb of Mary. The guide mentioned that there is no mention about the Tomb in New Testament but a strong Christian tradition places her tomb in this dimly-lit church. The entire church is lit with candles and it can get quite warm inside especially in the summer season.
We ended our tour with Church of all Nations built at the foot of Mount Olives. It is built over the rock on which Jesus prayed in agony the night before he was crucified. It has fascinating architecture blending Roman facade with Eastern domes. The church and the adjacent Garden of Gethsemane, with its eight ancient olive trees, provide a meditative atmosphere.
Almost descending Mount of Olives on foot, our body and senses were both overwhelmed. We walked further to the Old City exploring delicious Jerusalem food in the narrow bylanes of the city.
There is so much to explore in and around Jerusalem. In the topical vein, visit to Jerusalem is quite like watching Utopian version of Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie with all its drama (not melodrama), intrigue, history (mostly untampered) and a visual spectacle (unadulterated). Promising ourselves we will visit again, we ended our short but rewarding trip to Jerusalem.