One of the great things about sightseeing in Old Jerusalem is that nearly all the sights and shrines are close to each other. Cheek by jowl you could say. The other thing is that despite the millions of people who visit every year, you don’t get that squashed, crowded, hemmed in feeling. Oh yes. The streets are narrow too.
King David laid the foundation stones of Jerusalem City in 1004 BCE (Before Common Era) making it one of the world’s oldest cities. It has been built and rebuilt since. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Arabs, Europeans and a whole host of others came and went destroying and building in turn. Jerusalem has been destroyed twice and captured and recaptured 44 times.
The Old City is demarcated by the walls that Suleiman the Magnificent built in 1538. They make it convenient for the visitor when navigating through the maze of streets. Since 1981 the Old City is a World Heritage Site and is also on the World Heritage in Danger list.
Old Jerusalem is literally divided into four quarters – Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. The Old City of Jerusalem is only 0.9 square kilometres in size! What is amazing though is that so much of the world’s human history, culture, religion and conflicts have their roots in this tiny area.
The Jewish Quarter includes the Wailing Wall (or The Western Wall and the Kotel), which was a part of the Temple of Solomon. Also here you will find the Burnt House. This residential remnant from 2000 years ago was destroyed by the Romans.
Then there is a remarkable street – The Cardo – built by the Romans in the 6th century. Several columns, arches, shops and sections of floor still remain. This area was the Roman Aelia Capitolina and the business district then. You can almost expect to see people from that age going about their business with mule-drawn carts and legionnaires passing by.
The Christian Quarter has numerous churches, chapels and road side memorials dedicated to or recalling the deeds and life of Christ. You can attend a service at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was buried after being crucified. You can retrace his final journey along the Via Dolorosa and recall the Stations of the Cross. The route starts at what was the courthouse but is now Lions’ Gate – or St. Stephen’s Gate – and winds through the Arab souk and Moslem Quarter before ending at the hill of Calvary or Golgotha.
A non-religious attraction of the Christian section is the thriving and very colourful Bazaar. It is a great place to pick up souvenirs and religious and ornamental items. Bargaining is an accepted and expected part of shopping here. Another lovely feature is the numerous little food stalls – the appetising aromas will ensure you taste something before moving on.
The largest and most populous is the Moslem Quarter. Take the Cardo through the Arab souk and into the Moslem Quarter. There are several churches and mosques here. More importantly it is the location of two of Islam’s holiest sites. One is the Dome of the Rock. Another is Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine. Both sit on the Temple Mount.
The last and tiniest is the Armenian Quarter. Most of the Armenians live around the St. James Cathedral. Through two thousand years of Jerusalem’s turbulent history they have retained their ethnic, cultural and religious identity.
Taken in totality the Temple Mount has huge meaning and importance for Judaism, Christianity and Islam making it the most contentious and disputed piece of land.
A tour of the Old City of Jerusalem should take you a little over half a day. Incredible, how so much history can be packed into a matter of hours! You will go away very touched and thoughtful.