Jerusalem – seeing the sights in the Old City

On the first morning of our stay, Mark and I walked down to the Damascus Gate, the largest and most magnificent of all the entrances to the Old City. Map here.

We had got up early to beat the crowds we thought would be queueing to get onto the Temple Mount. It turned out that we needn’t have worried, February seems to be a relatively quiet time, and we didn’t have to wait long to get in.

The ramp up to the mount takes you up and over the Wailing Wall, otherwise known as a segment of the longer Western Wall, which was originally built by King Herod as part of the expansion of the Second Temple of King Solomon. As the Wall is all that remains of the temple, it is the holiest place where Jews are permitted to pray. Tradition requires that Jews should wail and rend their garments at the sight of the destroyed temple. In modern times the wall has been sectioned into seperate areas for male and female worshippers.

The walkway takes you up to the Temple Mount, a wide plaza with retaining walls that was built by Herod to enclose the original hill, thus creating more space for worshippers.

There are eleven gates that access the Mount, one of which is reserved for non-Muslims.

For Sunni Muslims, the Mount is the third holiest site in Islam as this is where Muhammad tethered his flying camel before ascending to heaven. The plaza contains three Muslim religious structures; the al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock and the Dome of the Chain, as well as four minarets.

The beautiful walls of the Dome of the Rock is what I and most non-religious tourists come to see in particular.

Originally built between 691–92 CE by the Umayyad dynasty, it was rebuilt in 1022–23 when the original dome collapsed in 1015, and so it is one of the oldest extant works of Islamic architecture. The rock in question is a large, ancient rock that may have once stood in the center of Solomon’s Temple and is now covered by the Dome.

The Umayyads decorated the external walls with marble and mosaics (much like the interior walls which non-believers cannot see) but these were substituted for Turkish faience tiles in the 16th century which in turn were replaced in the 1960s with exact copies made in Italy.

On the southern side of the Mount is the Ophel Archaeological Garden. Although no archaeological evidence has been found of the destruction of the first temple by the Byzantines in 586 BCE, the excavations have revealed the rubble created by the Romans when they destroyed the second temple in 70 CE. One of the fallen boulders we saw bore an inscription indicating that it was a pedestal for trumpeters at the top of the wall.

Under the rubble lies the original Herodian street from 2000 years ago with the original walls marking out the shops that were along the street. The excavations also revealed over fifty ritual baths that were used by pilgrims for purification purposes during the Second Temple era.

You can also access a section of the city walls from the garden.

From the wall you can get good views across the valley to the Mount of Olives. We were going to walk up the mount one day but decided against it due to lack of time and pure laziness.

From the Archaeological Garden we exited the Old City through the Dung Gate and walked up the outside of the walls to the Zion Gate.

Along with the Jaffa Gate, this is the entrance to the Armenian Quarter, one of the four quarters of the old town (the others being the Jewish, Christian and Muslim quarters) although the Armenians themselves consider it to be part of the Christian Quarter. The Armenians adopted Christianity in the 4th century AD and Armenian monks came to settle in Jerusalem.

The narrow streets of the Christian Quarter have lots of hidden nooks and crannies. It’s quite easy to lose your sense of direction and end up lost.

The most holy site for Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is in this quarter of the city. The first church was built by Constantine in 328AD and was enlarged by the Byzantine emperor Justinian 200 years later. It has since been destroyed and renovated many times.

The church is built on the site of the cave revered by Christians as the location of Jesus’ resurrection, so there is a never-ending queue of pilgrims filing through the sacred space.

Christians of all denominations from all around the world can be seen worshipping here. In fact the six oldest sects of Christianity (Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian Orthodox, but not the Protestants who were latecomers) control different areas of the building. Relations between these rival branches have not always been amicable.

Finally we took a walk around the Grand Bazaar (aka the Souk or Arab market), which is located in the Christian and Muslim Quarters. The labyrinth of alleys is lined with shops selling spices, bread, clothing, jewelry, hookahs and ceramics but make sure you haggle to get a fair price. My one regret is not eating at one of the hummasias here (small restaurants specialising in hummus). Lina and Abu Shukri are the two most famous ones.

Off to Mahane Yehuda Market next!

Leave a Reply