There is a place on earth with more than 3,000 years of history and 2,000 archaeological sites that is the birthplace of the three most important Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism – and in which they continue to coexist. There is a city whose stones evoke echoes of an, often dramatic, story, but always with the faint hope that one day the harmony of opposites will triumph. All this is the holy city of Jerusalem. Its streets and its territory are often in the spotlight of the media, especially when the tensions of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine flare up. A decidedly complex secular question for which there is still no solution, and it is because of the tensions between the different groups, called to arms and forced into a continuous dirty and senseless game, that makes this region one of the most divisive in the world. In this article I present 10 things to do and see in Jerusalem.
IS JERUSALEM SAFE?
In general, it is safe to visit Jerusalem. There are security measures in place throughout its territory (especially in the Old City), where people of different faiths live together, despite the area being continuously disputed: for example, the East Jerusalem region is officially regarded as Palestinian territory but is often at the centre of constant skirmishes due to the Israeli settlements present in it. As anywhere else in the world, one must be aware of any political changes and consequent demonstrations causing the inevitable closure of roads and airports. Overall, I never felt unsafe in Jerusalem and travel l ed alone from one end of Israel to the other, managing to enter the city many times. In any case, you must be prepared for any changes and be ready to adopt a different way of traveling within a particular area like this.
HOW TO GET TO JERUSALEM
There is no international airport in Jerusalem. The closest is Ben Gurion Airport located in Tel Aviv, the gateway to many travel l ers landing on Israeli soil. From the arrivals dock of Terminal 3, you can reach Jerusalem in about an hour thanks to the shuttle bus 485 which, for the price of 16 NIS, from the airport can drop you off at various stops throughout the centre of Jerusalem up to the central Bus Terminal. The vehicles operate every day except Saturday, the day on which Shabbat is celebrated. In addition, many accommodations in Jerusalem can, for an additional payment , offer shuttle bus services that organize the transfer from the airport to the respective accommodations, and this is a very convenient option!
GETTING AROUND IN JERUSALEM
Getting around Jerusalem is easy enough thanks to the city’s extensive bus network and 13.9 km of the modern Jerusalem Light Rail (also called the Red Line) tram line. Tickets for a single journey by bus cost 5.90 NIS and can be purchased directly on board, while tram tickets are available at each boarding platform at the same price as bus tickets
WHERE TO SLEEP
Throughout the territory of Israel there are about forty independent hostels of good quality with prices similar to those in Europe, and many of these are located in Jerusalem. I stayed at the Abraham Hostel, a structure ( building) that has 40 dorms and 40 private rooms, a large common room with lounge, a large guest kitchen, a bar and other services such as laundry and free Wi-Fi. Not only that, but it is a hub where people from the city come in to enjoy the events that are organized here.
THE SACRED HEART OF JERUSALEM
Of all the places to visit in Jerusalem, nothing has an aura of magic and mystery like the Old City, it ’ s walled and beating heart. This area, barely a square kilometer, is divided into four districts: the Christian, the Armenian, the Jewish and finally the Muslim one. All together they represent the “seat of world history”, as this area has been disputed and conquered by various religious groups for thousands of years and is as much admired as it is contested for being the sacred centre of all three monotheistic faiths.
# 1 WANDERING AROUND THE OLD CITY
You will certainly have understood that the best way to start your journey in Jerusalem is simply to wander around the neighbo u rhoods of the Old City! A walk inside them is never boring precisely because there is a lot to see. Despite being a surprisingly small area, it is really easy to get lost in its small alleys and local souks. Wandering through its streets it is possible to stop in one of the many cafes, restaurants or souvenir shops and from there simply observe the faces of the people who cross each other casually or with interest. There are signs for the main places of interest such as the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall, the Temple Mount and the main doors, but otherwise there is no need to trust in the signs; in this case the difference will be made by the traders in the area. Due to the large amount of things present, any walk inside the Old City will take much longer than expected. Therefore I recommend that you start your tour from the Jaffa Gate and cross the Christian Quarter which, although it is undoubtedly the most touristic area, is also an excellent starting point. If, on the other hand, you are looking for fewer crowds, then starting from the Jewish quarter in the south is the best option.
# 2 WALK ALONG THE WALLS (RAMPARTS WALK)
From the Jaffa Gate (the start of the Ramparts Walk) a path divide s into two separate paths crossing the perimeter walls of the Old City which were built by Suleiman the Magnificent between 1537 and 1542. The north side path is the longer of the two and covers a very large area that extends from the Jaffa Gate (on the west side of the Old City) of the Christian quarter to the Lion’s Gate (on the east side, near the Dome of the Rock), the main entrance to the Muslim quarter. The route on the south side, on the other hand, is shorter. Starting from the Tower of David, you will be able to see the Armenian and Jewish quarters from above before reaching the western wall (or Kotel as it is known in Hebrew), where the route ends. Walking on the city walls is a great way to get a different perspective of the confined space of the Old City; it is also a great way to explore the city without having to go through the usual crowded streets. The opening hours from Saturday to Thursday are from 9 to 16, while on Fridays the hours are from 9 to 14. The cost of the visit is 20 NIS.
# 3 RETURN THE VIA DOLOROSA OR VIA CRUCIS
The Via Dolorosa corresponds to the road along which Jesus carried his cross and which led to the hill of Golgotha, the Calvary where the crucifixion of Christ took place. The road starts from the Lion’s Gate and ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and is composed of 14 stations, each of which tells, step by step, the salient moments of the Passion, from the Chapel of the Flagellation where Jesus was sentenced to death up to the point in where he was crucified and where he died. The first nine stations along the road are marked with Roman numerals on discs, while the last 5 are located inside the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher. The route has remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years and is fairly well signposted, which means that it is possible to retrace the steps taken by Jesus before his crucifixion without having to take part in a guided tour. The walk is probably not what you would expect as it is now a path that winds through the shops of a lively Arab souk, within the Muslim quarter. In any case, the Via Dolorosa will transport you from the latter to the Christian quarter, showing you the different characters of each area and remind you of the pain suffered by Jesus during his last journey, between the harassment of the Roman soldiers and the weeping of the faithful.
# 4 VISIT THE CHURCH OF THE HOLY SEPULCHER
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is located in the northwestern quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem and as far back as the 4th century AD. it is recognized as the place where Jesus was buried and where he resurrected after three days. In fact, the Rock of Calvary, where the Crucifixion is believed to have taken place, is today screened with glass and it is possible to observe it at the sumptuous Altar of the Crucifixion. A first reconstruction of the Basilica dates back to 336 AD. thanks to the support of Emperor Constantine. Subsequently, it was burned by the Persians in 614 but was almost immediately restored by Modestus, the abbot of the monastery of Theodosius, who worked between 616 and 626 AD. Destroyed again by the caliph al-Ḥākim bi-Amr Allāh around 1009 and restored by the Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachus, in the 12th century the crusaders carried out a general reconstruction of the church. Since then, frequent repairs and renovations have been required. The current church is a structure built in 1810. Since then, this temple is also known as “the church of churches”, as six different Christian groups meet in it: the Franciscans, the Armenians, the Greek Orthodox, the Syrians, the Copts and the Ethiopians. This dark and solemn religious place is hidden in the Christian quarter and seems to miraculously appear out of nowhere! From the outside it is not as large as one would expect for a place of such significance. Don’t expect a quiet place! It is always very crowded with tourists and for this reason I recommend that you wake up at dawn to be able to better experience the spirituality of the place. The opening hours are from 5 to 21 in summer and from 4 to 19 in winter. Admission is free.
# 5 OBSERVE THE JEWS AT THE WESTERN WALL
This is the only remaining part of the retaining wall that surrounds the Temple Mount, the site of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem, believed to be the holiest place of prayer and pilgrimage for the Jewish people. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587-586 BC, while the second was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. and never rebuilt. There are two versions of the wall’s survival: one suggests that God saved this fragment for the Jewish people, while another claims that Titus left it as a painful reminder of the Roman defeat of Judea. As the wall is now part of a larger wall surrounding the Muslim Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqṣā Mosque, Jews and Arabs have often contested control of the wall and, often, the right of access to it. This conflict has become heated since the Israeli government took full control of the Old City after the Six Day War in June 1967. Jews lament the destruction of the Temple and pray for its restoration, inserting cards with prayers between the cracks in the wall. The entire area is divided into two parts: the much larger male one and the smaller female one. Before arriving at the wall you will find a large square that serves as an open-air synagogue which, on Shabbat, is very crowded with faithful. Admission is free and is open all day, but before entering it is important to dress properly.
# 6 VISIT THE TEMPLE MOUNT AND THE DOME OF THE ROCK
The Temple Mount (or Haram Ash-Sharif for Muslims) is probably the most controversial place in an already very controversial city. It is located within the Arab quarter, in an immense square in which there are two important buildings: the Al-Aqṣā mosque, one of the oldest in the world, and the Dome of the Rock. It is a place of fundamental importance for Jews, as it is the site where the first and second temples were destroyed and not rebuilt, but also for Muslims because from here, where the mosque stands, Al-Aqṣā Muhammad ascended to heaven and from that moment on, this place welcomes 5,000 Islamic faithful . Finally, it is also an important place for Christians as, according to the New Testament, the Temple played a fundamental role in the life of Jesus. The Dome of the Rock, on the other hand, is a real sanctuary very dear to Muslims because inside there is a very special relic: a hair that is believed to have belonged to the beard of Mohammed, but also for the Jews this place is of vital importance. Here, in fact, is preserved the slab on which Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac before being stopped by the voice of God. The structure, positioned in the centre of a large, raised platform, consists of an octagonal base surmounted by a dome. with a centre of gilded wood, which stands out from any other building in Jerusalem. The composition of the Dome of the Rock refers to a class of Byzantine religious buildings known as martyriates, typically circular or polygonal temples erected to mark the tombs of the saints or to commemorate events of particular religious significance. Entry to the esplanade of the mosques is free and for non-Muslim visitors and entry is only possible via the wooden bridge located near the Western Wall. Instead, only Muslims are allowed to enter the mosque and inside the Dome of the Rock. The entrance times are: from Sunday to Thursday from 7.30 to 11.00 and from 13.30 to 14.30 in the summer months while in the winter months from 7.30 to 10.30 and from 12.30 to 13.30.
# 7 DAVID’S TOWER
The tower is located not far from the Jaffa Gate originally built to strengthen the city defen c es on the remains of King David’s fortifications. It was destroyed and rebuilt several times. Today inside there is a museum containing a collage of cultures, religions and different historical periods that tell the exciting history of the city of Jerusalem through the most important events of its history. In addition, from the tower you can see a beautiful view of the city which in the evening is transformed thanks to a light and sound show, into an exciting sound film where the intertwining of rich city events come to life in a millenary architectural setting of absolute beauty.
OUTSIDE THE OLD TOWN
#8 CLIMB TO THE TOP OF MOUNT OF OLIVES
The Mount of Olives (in Arabic Jabal al-Ṭūr, in Hebrew Har ha-Zetim) is a multi-summit limestone ridge, once entirely covered by olive trees, just east of the Old City of Jerusalem and separated from it by the Kidron Valley. Frequently mentioned in the Bible, it is a sacred place to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. An iconic place both from a historical and a religious point of view, from where you can today enjoy a beautiful view of the Old City of Jerusalem and observe the comings and goings of life in its markets, in the shadow of the golden dome. In addition to the panoramic terrace, on this site there is also a large necropolis where about 150,000 Jews rest.
# 9 EAT AT THE MAHANEH YEHUDA MARKET
When I arrived in Jerusalem, a local girl I met on the bus insisted on telling me with great enthusiasm about the Maheneh Yehuda market on Agripas Street, and the locals never lie about where to find great food! During the day the atmosphere in this market is electrifying as you wander among stalls of sweets, fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh loaves, nuts, sweets, meats and much more. One has to constantly swerve to dodge trays, trolleys and the locals, whose hands are full of bags overflowing with local produce. Your head spins at the hustle and shout s from the vendors and the call s from the bars crammed with juices and fresh food, before returning to the light and calm of the residential streets that surround it. It is no wonder that this market is one of the main attractions of Jerusalem and a beautiful window to this extraordinary city mosaic.
# 10 VISIT THE YAD VASHEM, THE HOLOCAUST MUSEUM
Located on the western slope of Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, Yad Vashem is the second most visited tourist site in Israel (the Western Wall is the first). The memorial, spread over many acres of land, includes the Holocaust History Museum, the Hall of Memory, the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, the Museum of Holocaust Art, the Children’s Memorial and many other buildings. It is undoubtedly a place that seeks to educate, document and commemorate the Holocaust – the genocide that claimed over six million Jewish lives during World War II, killing two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population – whil st also hosting a synagogue, a publishing house. , a research institute, a library and an educational center. Whereas in other museums many Holocaust and WWII artifacts have documented the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism, Yad Vashem aims to bring out the personal stories behind the victims, the intimate and intricate details that make up an individual life. Wandering through the museum’s ten exhibition rooms, you are surrounded by videos, photographs, letters, and memories of both those who survived the immense tragedy and those who didn’t. Avner Shalev, curator of the museum, says that visiting this place is like“looking into the eyes of individuals. There were not six million victims, there were six million individual murders. “.”