The most contested city on earth is also one of the most beautiful. The scope of its history is staggering, and its vital place in the traditions of all three monotheistic faiths has led to it being fought over continually through the centuries. This is the heart of the Holy Land; where the Jews raised the First Temple to keep the Ark of the Covenant safe, where Jesus was crucified and rose again, and where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven to receive God’s word. For believers, a visit to Jerusalem is a pilgrimage to one of the most sacred sites in the world. The number of sights here can be baffling for first time visitors, but luckily most of the top tourist attractions are secreted within the lanes of the compact Old City district.
Follow in the footsteps of centuries of pilgrims, and enter one of the holiest sanctuaries on earth. Lauded by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, this is the site where Abraham (father of all three monotheistic faiths) is said to have offered his son up as a sacrifice to God, where Solomon built the First Temple for the Ark of the Covenant, and where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven during his early years of preaching Islam. It’s a place of deep significance (and contention over ownership) for those of faith. The wide plaza, above the Old City, is centered around the glittering Dome of the Rock, which is Jerusalem’s most iconic landmark. Beneath the golden dome is the sacred stone both Jews and Muslims believe to be where Abraham offered his son to God and where Muslims also believe the Prophet Muhammad began his journey to heaven. The southern side of the mount is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, said to be one of the oldest mosques in the world.
The Wailing Wall (or Western Wall) is the surviving retaining wall of Jerusalem’s First Temple. Commonly called the Wailing Wall due to the people’s laments for the loss of the temple in AD 70, it is now the holiest site in Judaism and has been a place of pilgrimage for the Jewish people since the Ottoman era. The Jewish Quarter of the Old City runs roughly from the Zion Gate east to the Western Wall Plaza. This part of the Old City was destroyed during the Israeli-Arab fighting in 1948 and has been extensively rebuilt since 1967. A major highlight here for history fans is the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, at the southern end of the Western Wall Plaza, where archaeologists have unearthed fascinating remnants of old Jerusalem. The Western Wall Tunnels, which take you under the city, back to the level of the original city, are also not to be missed. Jewish Quarter Street (RehovHaYehudim) is the main lane of the district, and veering off this road onto the surrounding side streets, there are a cluster of interesting synagogues that can be visited.
For Christian pilgrims, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is Jerusalem’s holiest site and is said to have been built on the site where Jesus was crucified. The site for the church was picked by Empress Helena – mother to Constantine the Great during her tour of the Holy Land. She was the one to announce to the Byzantine world that this spot was the Calvary (or Golgotha) of the gospels. The original church (built in 335 AD) was destroyed by 1009, and the grand church you see now dates from the 11th century. Although often heaving with pilgrims from across the world, the church interior is an opulently beautiful piece of religious architecture. This is the ending point for the Via Dolorosa pilgrimage and the last five Stations of the Cross are within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself. The interior contains various holy relics, and the different quarters inside the church are owned by different Christian denominations who often fight among themselves.
The custody of the door and the key for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is entrusted to two Muslim families (Nuseibeh and Judeh). The Egyptian Sultan Malek-Adel – according to the historian Jacques de Vitry – had a large number of sons for whom he arranged various donations and privileges; two came to be rewarded with the paid guardianship of the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Following the Khwarezmian invasion (1244) the Sultan Ayyub wrote to Pope Innocent IV to apologize for the damages suffered by the church, assuring that he would repair it and that the keys would be entrusted to two Muslim families who would open the door for pilgrims. Since that time this right has been transmitted from one family to another. In the past it was necessary to pay an entrance fee in order to have the door opened and to be allowed to enter into the church: according to Fidentius of Padua this amounted to approximately 80 gold francs. This entrance fee was collected by the Muslim custodians beside the door, where there was a stone bench.
The entrance fee was abolished in 1831 by Ibrahim Pasha. The door is now opened every day, and one must keep in mind that in addition to the rights of the two Muslim families, there are also various rights for the three religious communities that hold services in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Latins (Franciscans), Greeks and Armenians. This explains why the opening of the door of the church brings with it numerous complications, along with a ritual that to many might appear strange and pointless. There are in fact two manners of “opening” the door: A simple opening takes place when the sexton of the religious community that plans to open the door carries out all the rituals by himself, opening only one of the door leaves. A solemn opening takes place in the same manner but with the opening of both door leaves: the sexton opens the left leaf while the Muslim doorkeeper opens the right one. Each day on which there is no special feast or occurrence, the opening take place at 4.00 in the morning and the closure according to a official time.
For the evening closure of the church, the three religious communities have arrived at an agreement, according to which between October and March the closure takes place at 7.00 pm, and at 9.00 pm between April and September. Every evening, at closing time, each of the three sextons is present and they agree among themselves as to who will perform the opening on the following day: specifically, the opening is carried out in a cyclical fashion by the three communities; the one who will have the right of opening takes the ladder and places it against the center of the closed door. For the closure, both simple and solemn, the same “ritual” is followed as for the opening, but in reverse order.
Overloaded with churches and home to the oldest continually used cemetery in the world, the Mount of Olives holds particular interest to religious pilgrim travellers to Jerusalem, but even the non-devout can appreciate the spectacular Old City panoramas from the peak. This sacred hill is believed to be the place where God will begin rising the dead on Judgement Day. For Christian believers, this is also where Jesus ascended to heaven after his crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. The Church of the Ascension on the top of the mount dates from 1910 and has the best views across Jerusalem. Walking down the slope, you come to the Church of the Pater Noster built next to the site where, according to tradition, Jesus instructed his disciples. Further down, the Church of Dominus Flevit is claimed to be built over the site where Jesus wept for Jerusalem, and further along is the onion-domed Russian Church of Mary Magdalene. The Gardens of Gethsemane (where Jesus was arrested) and the Church of All Nations are next, while the Tomb of the Virgin Mary is the last big attraction on the Mount of Olives.
To travel to Bethlehem we have to pass through the wall. The Israeli West Bank barrier is a separation barrier built by Israel in the West Bank or along the 1949 Armistice Line (“Green Line”). Upon completion, its total length will be about 700 kilometres (430 mi) and include on the western side about 9.4% of the West Bank and 23,000 Palestinians. Israel argues that it protects civilians from Palestinian terrorism such as suicide bombing attacks which increased significantly during the Second Intifada. Between 2000 and July 2003 (completion of the “first continuous segment”), 73 suicide bombings were carried out from the West Bank. However, from August 2003 to the end of 2006, only 12 attacks were carried out.
Barrier opponents claim it seeks to annex Palestinian land under the guise of security and undermines peace negotiations by unilaterally establishing new borders. Opponents object to a route that in some places substantially deviates eastward from the Green Line and severely restricts the travel of nearby Palestinians to and from work both in the West Bank and in Israel.
Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity is the town’s most famous sight. Said to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, a church has sat here continuously since Byzantine Emperor Constantine built a chapel on this spot in the 4th century AD. This was superseded by a 6th-century basilica commissioned by Emperor Justinian, which was again built over by the Crusaders in the 12th century. The central doorway shows this overlap work of many centuries with the original door surround and the relief-decorated architrave of Justinian’s church still in place. The Crusaders reduced the size of the entrance, inserting a doorway with a pointed arch and walling in the upper part of the original one. Later, the doorway was further reduced in order to prevent the Mamluks from riding into the church on horseback. It is now only 1.2 m high so that visitors must bend down on entering. Inside, the interior has essentially preserved the tranquil monumental trappings of the 6th century.
In the north transept, are the Armenian Altars of the Virgin and the Three Kings; in the south transept is the Altar of the Circumcision, which belongs to the Greeks. From the south transept, a finely-carved doorway gives access to the stairs leading down to the Grotto of the Nativity; the actual place where Jesus is said to have been born is marked by a silver star. For Christian pilgrims, this tiny grotto is a place of deep religious significance and the major highlight of a visit here.
The clerestory of the church’s nave is borne on four rows of eleven monolithic columns with Corinthian capitals. Two openings in the floor allow visitors to see mosaics on the floor of Emperor Constantine’s church of AD 325 which is 60 cm below the present floor level. Paintings from the Crusader period have been preserved on the columns and on the clerestory walls. On the south side are depicted the ancestors of Christ, while on the columns, there are pictures of figures of saints and Baldwin I’s (first King of Jerusalem in the Crusader era) helmet.