Jerusalem: in the path of the pilgrims to Israel, Asia
By Karen Bowerman
Dinky Guide’s Karen Bowerman explores Jerusalem, the ancient city of Israel, and discovers some of the the sights that have drawn pilgrims and attracted visitors for years.
Israel’s ancient capital, Jerusalem, is one of the holiest cities in the world. And although it’s always said you shouldn’t talk religion, it’s impossible not to here. It’s the promised land of the Jews, the site of Mohammed’s ascension into heaven to receive the Koran and the birthplace of Christ. Yet beneath this skyline of minarets, spires and synagogues, among the reverence of pilgrims and the regularity of religious observances, there’s the bustle of everyday life.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews (around 80% of the population is Jewish) with their long, black coats, white shirts, beards and peyot (side curls) mingle with tourists in the streets, while Muslims rub shoulders with Israelis in the fashionable Nahalat Shiva mall.
I take in Jerusalem first from the Mount of Olives, to the east. The old city’s centre piece, the gold-plated Dome of the Rock, glints in the sun. Around it sprawls a mass of square, limestone buildings which look as if they would have spread forever had they not been contained within the zig-zag of the city walls. The Dome of the Rock, Built in 691 AD, sits on a massive stone platform (Temple Mount or Haram ash-Sharif) that marks the site of Solomon’s First and King Herod’s Second Temples. It’s believed to be the place where the temples’ high altars stood, making it one of Judaism’s most sacred sites. It’s equally important to Muslims since it was from here that Mohammed dreamt he would fly to heaven to join Allah.
The slopes of the Mount of Olives which run into the Kidron Valley form a huge Jewish cemetery, with every grave pointing towards Jerusalem’s Golden Gate. According to Jewish tradition, it’s here that the Messiah will enter the city when he returns. In response, the Ottoman ruler, Suleiman the Magnificent, had gate the boarded up in the 16th century. But, as one guide said, retelling the story, “If the Messiah gets this far, he’ll find a way in.”
I leave the Mount of Olives and take a winding road down to the Garden of Gethsemane. At its centre are gnarled, fat-trunked olive trees – one is said to be a thousand years old. The garden, which is small and simply-planted, is where Christians believe Jesus spent the night before he was crucified. It’s now home to the catholic church of the Franciscans, where, despite a continual flow of visitors, you still get a sense of the sacred. As tourists traipse in and out, I spot a monk, wandering contemplatively beneath the trees.
Jerusalem’s Old City is divided into Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian Quarters linked by a maze of alleyways. I enter through Jaffa Gate, cut through the Arab souk and turn right into the Jewish quarter to visit the Wailing Wall, all that remains of the wall that surrounded the Second Temple after its destruction by the Romans in 70 AD. It towers 20 metres high. Its surface is smoothe from the touch of worshippers; its cracks filled with slips of paper containing messages and prayers.
A short walk away, in the Christian quarter, is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the focal point for Christians. The basilica was built in 325 AD by the Emperor Constantine on the site of a Roman temple. It was constructed as two connecting churches after Constantine’s mother, Helena, discovered what was believed to be the tomb of Jesus during excavation work. Today, the basilica is revered by Christians as the place where Jesus was crucified and buried.
At the top of a narrow stone stairwell, the surface of each step worn into a dip by the tread of pilgrims, I stand before an altar heavy with silver and gold, its position said to mark Golgotha, the hill where Jesus was nailed to the cross.
Nearby, beneath a massive rotunda, is the Aedicule, a small building said to enclose Jesus’ tomb. It’s a tight squeeze and just a handful of people are admitted at one time, but everyone queues patiently. Candles burn slowly inside.
I spend the afternoon in the new city, at the Israel museum, home of the immaculately preserved Dead Sea Scrolls and a fascinating display about the Essenes who wrote them. There are nails, bowls, oil lamps and charred dates all found in the desert at Qumran where the sect lived.
Then on to the Mahane Yehuda Market crammed with stalls selling pastries, plaited bread, spices, falafel and halva the size of cakes. I buy a pot of vine leaves stuffed with rice and stop at a kiosk for some fresh carrot juice.
It’s Friday, just before the start of the Sabbath, and the place is heaving with shoppers. Israeli soldiers wander casually through the crowds, their shoulders hung with heavy, outdated-looking, shotguns. Youths, also armed, parade their own arsenal with the pride contemporaries might derive from the latest i-phone.
I finish the evening at one of the city’s hotspots, the trendy Colony restaurant, then head back to the Tower of David (just off Jaffa Gate) for an impressive sound and light display. Massive shadows, film and computer images are projected onto the old city walls, rippling across their rough surface as they bring the open air courtyard to life.
Jerusalem’s 4000 year old history from King David to the present day is retold to stirring music in a spectacular 45 minute show.
For further information
The country enjoys a warm Mediterranean climate for most of the year, although November to March can be rainy and cool. In July and August temperatures can reach a scorching 42 degrees celsius.
Fly me: El Al offer flights from London Luton to Tel Aviv from £360 per person or from London Heathrow to Tel Aviv from £390 per person. www.elal.uk
Stay at: David Citadel Hotel Jerusalem offers rooms from £373 per night. www.thedavidcitadel.com
The Night Spectacular, sound and light show: www.towerofdavid.org.il
Israel Museum: www.imj.org.il
Yad Vashem: www.yadvashem.org The Holocaust Museum, is definitely worth a visit. It’s a moving memorial to the six million victims of the Nazi Holocaust, with numerous rooms of exhibits and films of survivors telling their incredible stories. Entrance is free, excluding guiding services.
Colony restaurant: www.gojerusalem.com/discover/premium-item_118/Colony
Considered by some a slice of Tel Aviv in Jerusalem, it serves Mediterranean style food and regional dishes with a modern twist.