By Renée S. Gordon
“Walk around Zion, circle it: count its towers, take note of its ramparts, go through its citadels, that you may recount it to a future age.”
Jerusalem is recognized by many names but perhaps the most appropriate is the “Eternal City.” It is one of a limited number of cities in the world that has a documented history of consistent settlement over several thousand years. The first written reference to the city appears in Genesis 14 when Abraham visited Melchizedek, King of Salem. Though Joshua fought them the land remained Canaanite until around 1000 B.C. when King David defeated the Jebusites. He captured the city of Zion on the southern side of Mt. Moriah and built his Israelite capital, the City of David, atop the mount (Samuel II, 5-7).
The Old City of Jerusalem was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 because of its historical value to mankind. I doubt that there is any person in the world that fails to be moved at the first sight of the Old City of Jerusalem and the ideal place to obtain a panoramic view is from an observation place on the Mt. of Olives.
From this vantage point you can clearly see that Mt. Moriah is actually a long tract of land, on a north-south axis, nestled in the bosom of Mt. Zion, the Kidron and Hagai Valleys and the Mt. of Olives. Directly in front of you rises the Old City, deemed “golden” because the buildings are made from blocks of tawny limestone that shimmer in the sunlight. www.tour.jerusalem.muni.il
Before visiting the sites inside the walls it is best to proceed west toward the Old City and visit important locations outside of Jerusalem on route.
It is written that Jesus spent his final evening in the Grotto of the Agony and the Garden of Gethsemane, adjacent to each other, on the western side of the Mt. of Olives (John 18:2-12). Eight olive trees remain from that time.
In the 1920s, The Church of All Nations was constructed on the site to replace earlier churches dating from 379 B.C. Mosaics in the interior detail the occurrences that took place there. The grotto, where Jesus was arrested, is a cave with three altars.
If you continue west you will cross the Kidron Valley said to be the place where the last judgment will take place. For that reason, the location is sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians and is the site of cemeteries for all three. There are approximately, 150,000 graves and it is the oldest cemetery in continuous use in the world.
You have just followed a Biblical route of Jesus and in front of you are the 2.5-miles of walls constructed by Suleiman the “Magnificent” from 1536 to 1541. There are 11 gates but only 7 are in use. The “Golden Gate” leading directly to Kidron Valley, used by Jesus (Matt. 21:1-11), is sealed and is not visible from the interior. Suleiman I sealed the gate in 1541 because according to Jewish and Christian beliefs the Messiah will return to Jerusalem entering the Golden Gate.
The Old City of Jerusalem is small, less than one square mile, but there are more than 210 historic sites and it is impossible to see it all in one, or even two, trips. It is best to plan exactly what you want to see and begin early in the morning because the temperature can be daunting.
The sites and activities I am going to list are simply suggestions. In Jerusalem you must follow your heart and your interests and spend time at those locations that are most meaningful to you. The city is divided into four quarters, clockwise from the Jaffa Gate they are the Christian, Moslem, Jewish and Armenian Quarters. Each quarter has a special ambience and you must be certain to leave time to wander the narrow streets of each.
The Jaffa Gate was so named because the road leads to the port of Jaffa. The information center is located here and you can obtain maps and guides and make reservations.
A few steps from the gate is the Tower of David Museum. This museum presents a splendid, and comprehensible, overview of Jerusalem’s history beginning with a 10-minute orientation film. Each gallery features a single era interpreted through dioramas, videos, artifacts and information panels. If at all possible, you should return for the 45-minute “Night Spectacular,” a sound and light show that uses the walls of the citadel as a gigantic screen. www.towerofdavid.org.il
The Western Wall is the most sacred site in Jewish religion. It is the only remaining portion of the Temple Mount’s support wall and is about 70-ft. high and 91-ft. in length. The Temple Mount is where Abraham came to sacrifice his son and it is here that Solomon built the first Temple on the site in 961 B.C.
In 68 A.D., the Romans destroyed the existing Temple leaving only this wall. The Wall is accessible via a plaza and people often place prayers between the stones. You must dress modestly and heads must be covered.
The Western Wall Tunnel is immediately north of the Wall and tours are offered. The area is amazing and gives you an opportunity to understand the 3000-year architectural development of the city. Prayer rooms, viewing platforms and displays are inside the tunnel.
The El Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are two of the Muslim’s most sacred shrines making Jerusalem the third city in importance on a pilgrimage. Non-Muslims may not be allowed to enter but during certain hours you can walk around the exterior.
Al Aksa Mosque was erected in 701 A.D. and called “The Distant” because it stands at the greatest distance Mohammed traveled from Mecca, 1243-miles. The interior of the rectangular, 472-sq. ft. mosque is of Byzantine design with noteworthy oriental carpets and loft ceilings. Its silver and gold domes are visible from afar.
Passing beneath a Roman arch you will reach the octagonal Dome of the Rock, a vision in white, yellow, green and blue tiles with a 66-ft. gold dome. It was constructed in 691 A.D. by Abd el-Malik to enshrine the rock upon which Abraham was going to sacrifice his son (Genesis 22). It is one of the oldest Muslim shrines in the world. Muslims venerate the rock because of Abraham and because upon this rock Mohammed ascended to heaven. The rock itself is about 30-ft.-sq. and contains Mohammed’s footprints. In a wooden case next to the rock several strands of Mohammed’s beard are kept. It is said that one prayer uttered here is worth 1000 anywhere else.
The Via Dolorosa, the “Way of the Cross,” consists of 14 stations that denote significant events in the life of Jesus from the Roman Judgment in the Praetorium to the Calvary, site of the crucifixion, and is the holiest Christian site. All of the stations are clearly marked and each Friday there is an official prayer procession that follows the route.
Stations 1-9 are in the winding streets of the Old City. The Sanctuaries of the Flagellation and the Condemnation are the first station. Here Jesus was whipped and judged and the stones are original and date from the time of Christ. Stations 10-14 are located within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
The church is divided into five areas, each administered by a different group, Abyssinian Coptic, Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Syrian Orthodox. The most significant locations within the church are the Stone of Unction, where the body of Christ was anointed with oil, the site of the Crucifixion and Christ’s sepulcher.
Queen Helena, mother of Constantine, embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and found a piece of the true cross. She ordered the construction of the original church built in 330 A.D. It was destroyed and rebuilt, twice the final time being by the Crusaders in the 1100s. www.holysepulchre.com
King David’s Tomb and the Coenaculum, the Last Supper’s Upper Room, are located near Zion Gate. It is doubtful that David is buried there or that the Last Supper was eaten here but they are still worth a visit. A staircase next to the tomb accesses the Upper Room.
The Cardo Maximus is an archeological site within the Jewish Quarter that dates from the 2nd century. Once the main thoroughfare, the street is 20-ft. below the current street level. Crusader arches and fragments of the original walls are visible and a section of the Cardo is an arcade filled with shops and this is a wonderful place to purchase souvenirs.
David built his city in an area that is today outside the walls. Visitors can tour the excavation and see where it all began. Tours begins with a 15-minute 3D film and can be self-guided. www.cityofdavid.org.il
Jerusalem offers all types of accommodations but I recommend the Mount Zion Hotel for a truly unique experience. This historic, boutique hotel features spacious rooms, a spa and fitness center, pool and incomparable views of the Old City. It is within a 15-minute walk of the Old City. www.mountzion.co.il
For more than 2000 years, Israel has been an international destination. There are non-stop flights and food and accommodations are affordable. Now is the time to experience the timelessness of Israel. www.goisrael.com
I wish you smooth and peaceful travels!