For what should be an insignificant piece of land sitting at a crossroads going from someplace to someplace else, this spot has historically been the center of a lot of attention. In planning for this trip we did a deep dive into the history of this city and for a five thousand year history of Jerusalem see our write up HERE.
When we first arrived our impression was one of stark landscapes. The whole time we were there the sky was bright blue with almost no clouds. Everything was the color of Sun-bleached sand from the land to the buildings and the walls which are everywhere. It’s also hard to find flat places anywhere in Jerusalem – this is a city of hills.
The focus of any first visit is the old city enclosed within high walls and there will be plenty of visitors. Jerusalem is claimed to be the birthplace of two great religions, Judaism and Christianity and a significant site in the history of Islam. Over 56% of the worlds believers claim a connection to this Holy place and pilgrimages have attracted people to this city for a couple of thousand years. The right for pilgrims to visit was the focus of the Crusades.
The main Jewish pilgrimage site in Jerusalem is the Western Wall. Known as the Kotel it is part of the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, where the First and Second Temples which is located on the very site where Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac.
Jerusalem is the most significant site in the Christian faith where Jesus taught, was crucified and where he was resurrected.
The three holiest sites in Islam are the Masjid al-Haram, or Grand Mosque, (in Mecca) ; the Al-Masjid al-Nabawi, or Prophet’s Mosque, (in Medina) and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
Shortly into our visit we realized that this is actually dozens of cities built one upon another. Over five thousand years this city’s inhabitants have built fortified walls on numerous occasions only to have them torn down and later replaced. The Israelites tore down the Canaanite’s walls, the Roman’s tore down the Israelites walls, the Muslims tore down the Crusader’s walls and all through these periods the city got buried, excavated and buried again.
After the Second Jewish-Roman War in 135 AD the Romans literally destroyed the city and left it in rubble. In 313 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian and appointed his mother Helena as Augusta Imperatrix, and gave her unlimited access to the imperial treasury in order to locate the relics of the Christian tradition. She traveled to Jerusalem and is responsible for a number of excavations and the building of new Christian shrines. The city became reborn again.
In 637 the Muslims conquered the city and declared the Temple Mount a holy site and erected the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the site. In the eleventh century the Crusades began to secure the rights of Christians visiting the Holy Land. These religious wars between Christians and Muslims went on for three hundred years to gain control of holy sites considered sacred by both religious groups.
While there are a number of controversies surrounding the religious sites in Jerusalem and their accuracy, but dwelling on that completely misses the point of a visit to this Holy City. Even if you miss a step or two you are still walking in their footsteps. Highlights of a visit to Jerusalem should take in:
The Mount of Olives – Several key events in the life of Jesus, as related in the Gospels, took place on the Mount of Olives, and in the Acts of the Apostles it is described as the place from which Jesus ascended to heaven. Because of its association with both Jesus and Mary, the mount has been a site of Christian worship since ancient times and is today a major site of pilgrimage.
The Gardens of Gethsemane – Gardens across the Kidron Valley on the Mount of Olives, a mile-long ridge paralleling the eastern part of Jerusalem, where Jesus is said to have prayed on the night of his arrest before his Crucifixion.
- The Western Wall – The Wailing Wall, or Kotel, is an ancient limestone wall in the
Old City of Jerusalem near the Golden Gate. It is the only remaining section of the Jewish Temple. It is a relatively small segment of the “Western Wall”.
- The Church of the Holy Sepulchre – The
shrine is a church in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The church contains, according to traditions dating back to at least the fourth century, the two holiest sites in Christianity: the site where Jesus was crucified, at a place known as Calvary or Golgotha, and Jesus’s empty tomb, where he is said to have been buried and resurrected.
The Way of the Cross – The Way of Sorrows or the Via Crucis, refer to a series of markers depicting Jesus Christ on the day of his crucifixion. The stations attempt to follow the ancient Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem which is believed to be the actual path Jesus walked to Mount Calvary. There are a couple of versions of the Via Crucis with one marked on maps with markers that pass though the Muslim and Christian Quarters of Jerusalem and ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre .
- The Last Supper Room – A second-story room in Jerusalem that commemorates the “upper room” where Jesus shared the Last Supper with the disciples. It is located directly above the Tomb of David and near the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion.
Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock – The Temple Mount is a holy site within the Old City for Jewish, Christian and Muslim people. All visitors are allowed to tour the compound and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, with the exception of the Dome of the Rock. It is recommended that non-Muslims visit with a guided tour though.