We arrived in the Old City around 9pm and started looking for a room.We entered through Jaffa Gate to see one of the hotels on our list on fire with a fire brigade outside. Nobody hurt, but no rooms at this inn. Our regular arrival ritual in any city involves wheeling the bags along from hotel to hotel, asking prices and viewing rooms. It’s not as much fun in Jerusalem as the city is built on a hill and the majority of streets are stepped and straight for no longer than 10 metres – so no more wheeling, but carrying – real backpacker style! We ended up lost and tired. We asked a man on the street for directions, and he offered us a room in his place. We checked it out, agreed a price and slept!
Nothing in Jerusalem is ever far from religion. The city is divided into separate quarters, generally along religious lines – the Christian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Armenian (Christian) Quarter, each with their own character. And that’s why many people come to Jerusalem – to visit the sites so fundamental to their religious belief. As we turned the corner beside the seventh Station of the Cross, we heard the hymns of the cross-bearing groups along the Via Dolorosa. The city is full of pilgrims.
The city is of religious significance to each of the three largest monotheistic faiths. According to the Old Testament, Jerusalem was founded by King David around 3,000 years ago. His son, Solomon was directed by God to build a temple on Mount Moriah, which was known as the First Temple.
This temple is said to have housed the Ark of the Covenant which contained the original stone tablets of the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses. The First Temple was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar of the Babylonians, around 600BC. Around 50 years later, with Jerusalem now under Persian control, the Jews were invited to return and rebuild their temple at the same location on Temple Mount. This Second Temple was subsequently renovated and expanded by King Herod, and stood until around 70 AD when the Romans destroyed it while quelling the Jewish Revolt. All that remains of that Second Temple today is the Western Wall, a massive retaining wall at the base of the temple. It is here that the Jews come to pray for the coming of the Messiah through the Golden Gate of Jerusalem, during whose presence on Earth the Third Temple will be built. The Wall is lined with the faithful praying and inserting their prayers in the stuffed cracks of the Wall. Above the Wall on the Temple Mount itself is the Islamic shrine of the Dome of the Rock, with its beautiful mosaic exterior, landmark golden dome, and wide open spaces surrounding. Inside the Dome is the Rock upon which Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his only son Isaac at God’s behest. Just before the fatal stroke, God sent his Angel to stay Abraham’s hand, and bid him sacrifice a lamb in his place. During the time of Mohammed the Prophet, he received a visitation from the Angel Gabriel, who instructed Mohammed to visit the Al-Aqsa (Farthest) Mosque, which is also found on the Temple Mount. From here, Mohammed embarked upon his Mi’raj journey, and ascended to the Heavens and speaks with the prophets, and finally Allah, who instructs Mohammed that his followers must pray five times a day, before he returns to Earth and to Mecca in the same night. We were unable to visit the inside of the Dome, as it has been closed to non-Muslim visitors since Ariel Sharon’s infamous visit in September 2000 which was one of the main catalysts of the Second Intifada (Uprising) by Palestinians.
From Temple Mount, you can see the three Jerusalem locations of enormous significance to Christianity – the Shrine of the Last Supper, the Gardens of Gethsemane, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Shrine of the Last Supper is located close to the Tomb of King David and is a non-denominational site.
At the Last Supper, Jesus broke bread and drank wine with his disciples in the first Eucharist, and foretold his disciples of his betrayal by one of them. From there we walked to the foot of the Mount of Olives, to the Garden of Gethsemane where the still-standing olive trees are the only living witness to Jesus’ agony on the night before he died. Inside the shrine, there are mosaics donated from nations all over the world, including Ireland, whose mosaic depicts the dramatic point where Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss before the soldiers lead him away. From there we walk back uphill to the Old City and to the starting point of the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus was condemned, where Pontius Pilate washed his hands of his fate, and where the thorn-crowned Jesus took up his cross. We follow the climbing street to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is found on the supposed site of Golgotha, where the faithful ascend to pray at the crucifixion site at its pinnacle, and bend down to touch the original rock below the church’s floor. From there they descend to the rock where Jesus was laid to be embalmed and prepared for burial, and then on to the Sepulchre itself, the cave from which Jesus was resurrected and rose into Heaven.
Jerusalem is a beautifully preserved city whose future will long continue to be shaped by its religous past. If the religous significance of the sites are not enough to tell you that, the massive and heavily armed security presence around Temple Mount certainly is.
We also took time to visit the residential area of Mea Sharim, which is home to the Orthodox Jewish community. It was amazing to see the robed, bearded and curled, in their ultra-conservative community. We had to be discreet given the signs at each entrance to the district warning tourists away, but the glimpses we had were very interesting.
We also arranged a car rental in Jerusalem, which was tricky, as we want to drive through the West Bank. No Jewish car rental companies will ensure you for entry to the West Bank, as they are legally not permitted by Israeli law to enter the West Bank (unless serving members of the military, of course). We found two companies near Damascus Gate, and settled on one, and set off on our journey to 400 metres below sea level, to the Dead Sea and Jericho and the West Bank.