If you haven’t visited Jerusalem, go! I am still hitting myself for not going until 36 years of age. There is a special feeling in Jerusalem hard to describe…. and I’m not saying that because I was raised Jewish. One super interesting discovery (of many) is that Old City is one square kilometer and consists of only 36,000 residents. An astonishing 72% are Muslim (26,000), 6,000 Christians (17%), and 4,000 Jews. Of the Christians, 2,000 are Armenian. The city is divided into four quarters: 1) Muslim 2) Christian 3) Jewish 4) Armenian. We wondered why a country “Armenia” has its own quarter? The answer is that Armenia was granted its space because it’s the only country 100% of one religion, Christianity.
With so many religious types, it’s truly amazing that Jerusalem chugs along in harmony. All we hear on the news is about Israel’s struggles to keep peace with the Islamic world. Our experience in Jerusalem (and Israel) has been nothing but friendly and peaceful. Of course, religious fanatics are there and very serious. The funny thing is that they typically ignore you as a tourist because they are so focused on their religious task at hand.
The Old City dates back to about 4,500 BC. It has been destroyed (and rebuilt) a few times and the victim of countless attacks and captures. Our walking tour guide knew each instance off the top of his head! The point is that Jerusalem’s history is so long and complicated that each religious group mistakes Jerusalem as its sacred holy place. Think of the town as built in layers like a cake…… at various elevations and architectural types. In 1538, Suleiman the Magnificant built walls around the old city, which stand today.
So why is Jerusalem so important? The Jews under King David established Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 1000 BC. David’s son King Solomon built the first temple there on the “Temple Mount”. Christians worship Jerusalem for its the place of Jesus’ crucification and pilgrimage sites. Muslims used Jerusalem as its first “Qibla” or place of worship. This is where Muhammed supposedly made his night journey to heaven. The Old City is home to many sites of tremendous religious importance. These include the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Via the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque.
The Temple Mount is of much controversy between the Jews and Muslims. The Muslims have seized control and erected the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque facing Mecca. The structures are in place of the original Jewish Temples built by King Solomon and Herod the Great. The Israeli government enforces a law forbidding non-Muslims from the Temple Mount. The Jewish people regard the Western Wall (Wailing Wall) as the world’s largest and most important synogogue…. as it is the only remains of the original temple courtyard. It is outside the Temple Mount, free of conflict and holds thousands that come for pilgrimage. Men pray to the left, while women pray to the right in a very small space. We spent some time here casting our best wishes in small paper to the wall. It is hard to imagine the suffering caused by the Arab-Israeli war (1948) and subsequent ban (by Jordan) of Jews from the wall until 1967.
We followed “Via Dolorosa” where Jesus walked carrying a cross to his crucifixion. The path has nine marked stations and symbolizes the Christian pilgrimage. The walk ends at the Church of Holy Sepulchre or “Hill of Cavalry”. This is where Jesus was crucified and believed to be buried. Christians from all over the world line up to visit the shrines to commerate his life, death and resurrection. The church is shared by many Christian sects. The Anglican and Protestant Christians regard a separate site called the “Garden Tomb” as Jesus’ place of crucifixion and burial. Our guide explained that the Roman Emperor Constantine I constructed the church with a strange motiviation. His mother “Helena” was secretly a dedicated Christian while Constantine hated and forbid Christianity. He built the church instead of punishing his own mother and later became the first Christian Roman Emperor. Complicated, no?
The Armenians in Old City operate very peacefully under the radar. They are good businessmen and manage many of the souvenir shops around town. We stumbled upon a traditional Armenian restaurant, several churches and ceramic craft shops. The inclusion of Armenia in Old City still doesn’t quite make sense amidst the history.
Everywhere we climbed around the Jewish & Muslim quarters….. was the Mount of Olives in view to the east. There lies Jewish cemeteries, Christian churches and likely some olive trees. After a few days gazing and hearing about this important place of pilgrimage, we decided to go. A short bus ride dropped us off above a few Jewish cemeteries of various ages. Since bibilical times, this is where Jewish people were buried. We read that 150,000 people are buried here. The idea is to be the first in line when the Messiah comes and ressurects the dead. A group of Israeli soldiers were learning about the site because vandalism has increased in recent years. We walked the trail past a few beautiful churches including the Chruch of all Nations and Grotto of Gethsemane. Oddly, we found many churches guarded by Muslims either asking for donations or selling fake entrance tickets. It was kind of intimidating. Our journey ended near the Lion’s Gate at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary. We hiked down the old stone stairs into a dungeion-like sanctuary. There, we found a few white-bearded monks and an empty glass covered stone block that we think is suppose to be the Virgin Mary’s tomb.
The Abraham Hostel is located in West Jerusalem and a 15 minute walk down to the Jaffa Gate. This is where we entered Old City each day. We spent two nights sharing a room with two young guys and two in a private room. It was unfortunately difficult to share facilities and private moments in our mid-30’s. The location is perfect whether you want vibrant night life (Zion Square clubs and outdoor hookah joints) or to visit the unbelievable Mahane Yehuda outdoor market. We particularly enjoyed shopping at the market for halva, barekas, fresh bread, olives, cheeses and veggies. I’m hungry thinking about that market!
Jerusalem was physically and mentally tiring. It was pure sensory overload. Our feet hurt each night as we refueled for the next day’s lesson. We constantly discussed what we saw in relation to our religious upbringing, current events and the little history we understood. It is hard to explain the organized spiritual chaos that takes place in Old City. Jerusalem deserved our short effort to gain a glimpe of 4,500 years. One can easily find his meaning in Jerusalem as his connection with the spirits is of high frequency.