4 days in Jerusalem - Part I: the four quarters of the Old City

A holy city for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, no other city in the world means so much to so many people. With over 4000 years of history, Jerusalem has not only witnessed some of the main events that have shaped the course of humankind, but it also keeps some of the most sacred sites on earth for all the 3 main monotheistic religions.

During my first day in the Golden City, I explored the narrow twisted streets of its Old Town to discover all four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian. During my visit, I would visit the Western Wall, a sacred site for the Jews; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where it is believed that Jesus was crucified, anointed and buried; as well as the souks and covered markets of the Muslim quarter. But is Jerusalem really as special as they say?


Understanding the importance of Jerusalem

 

The significance of Jerusalem comes from the times of King David, who made Jerusalem the capital of his kingdom and the main religious centre of the Jews back in 1003 BC.

It was in Jerusalem where the Solomon's Temple once stood, the most sacred site of the Jewish religion that was believed to house the Ark of the Covenant: a gold-covered chest containing the tables of the Ten Commandments

Since then, the city has seen endless invasions: from the Babylonians who destroyed the First Temple in 586 BC, rebuilt 50 years later once the Jews were allowed to return to the city; to the Romans who destroyed the Second Temple in 70 AD. This event marked a turning point for the Jewish people, who since then have longed for the return to Jerusalem and the reconstruction of their beloved Temple, of which only the Western Wall still stands today.

It was also during the Roman control of Jerusalem that Jesus was condemned to death and crucified in the Golgotha, a site just outside the old walls of Jerusalem where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands today.

According to Islam, it was from the Temple Mount that Prophet Muhammad ascended to the heavens in 621 AC, making Jerusalem the 3rd most sacred city of Islam. The city was later conquered by the Muslims in 637, and reconquered by the Crusaders in 1099 during their quest to return the Holy Land to the Christians. 

Administered by the British authorities until 1948, East Jerusalem (where the Old City and main religious sites are located) was originally handed to the Palestinian State that was to be created after the partition of British Palestine.

However, after the 1968 Six-day War, the eastern part of the city was annexed by Israel, who still administers both the west and east sides of what is today the capital of the Israeli State. Jerusalem is, in fact, the main focus of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, as both of them believe that it should be the capital of their own state. 

 

Day 1: the Old City

 

After almost one week visiting the west coast and the Arab cities of the north, the time had come to explore the city that I had been dreaming of since I first landed in Israel: the Holy City of Jerusalem. 

To make the most out of my visit, I decided to join a free tour of Jerusalem with Sandemans. My guide, Ryan, was incredibly fun and knowledgeable, making even more interesting the complex history of such a special city.

During the tour, I visited most of the sites from the exterior, but I had plenty of time to come back later and get inside with a much better understanding of their history and meaning. 

The visit started right next to Jaffa Gate, the westernmost of the gates in the walls of Jerusalem. It was so named as the starting point of the road to Jaffa port. Its Arabic name, meaning Hebron Gate, indicates that the road to Hebron, the ancient city of the Patriarchs, also started here.  

 

Jaffa Gate

 

After crossing the walls and getting inside the Old Town, my first visit was the Christian Quarter. Containing approximately 40 Christian holy places, the quarter was built around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most sacred place in the Christian religion and located right at the heart of the quarter.

The church, first built in 335 AD, is located in the biblical place considered by Christians to be the Calvary or the Golgotha, the site where Christ was crucified, buried and resurrected. 

The church was commanded by Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, when she visited the city of Jerusalem about 300 after the Crucifixion and found what she identified as the Holy Sepulchre. The current building has been heavily reconstructed during the centuries, mainly during the Byzantine Empire and the Crusader period.

 

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

 

As you enter, the first sight is the Stone of Unction, the place that commemorates where Jesus was anointed before his burial.

The stone is always surrounded by pilgrims from all over the world, who kneel in front of the stone and pour oil to rub it with crosses, holy cards and kerchiefs in order to bless them. 

Even though I'm not a religious person myself, I have to admit that I found this experience incredibly impressive and memorable. 

 

Stone of Unction

Lamps lightning the Stone of Unction

Pilgrims praying at the Stone of Unction

 

On the right-hand side of the Stone of Unction and climbing up the stairs to the second floor, I reached the Chapel of Calvary

The chapel is divided into two sections: the first one is where it is believed that Jesus was stripped of his clothes and nailed to the cross. In the second section, you can find the Rock of Calvary, the site of Jesus' crucifixion. 

In the lower level of the church, you can reach the Chapel of St. Helena, an Armenian church built in honour of the mother of Emperor Constantine to commemorate the discovery of the Holy Sepulchre when she was looking for the True Cross in the Holy Land. 

 

Chapel of Calvary

Rock of Calvary

Chapel of St. Helena

 

The church is filled with multiple chapels, many of them owned by different Catholic denominations. But the main nave houses the Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre, also known as Aedicule.

The Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre is believed to be the burial place of Jesus. Located right under the biggest dome of the church, the Aedicule has two different rooms: the first one contains the Angel's Stone, a fragment of the stone that once sealed the tomb, and the second is the actual tomb.

The structure was fully restored in 2017 to protect it from the damage suffered during the centuries and bring it back to its full splendour. It is possible to access the Aedicule and see the tomb from the inside, however, you can expect very long queues that can take a few hours. 

 

Cupola of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Aedicule

Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre

Katholikon of the church

Candles at the Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre

 

Leaving the Christian Quarter behind, I got into the Muslim Quarter, the biggest and most populated of the four quarters. 

Some of its main highlights include the Temple Mount with Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, as well as the Via Dolorosa, which starts in this quarter.

However, I left these sites for the following days that I would spend exploring Jerusalem. During my first day in the Old Town, I decided to focus on the souqs and markets of the Muslim Quarter, where you can find one of the best collection of souvenirs in the city, as well great and very cheap options for lunch. 

 

Souq in the Muslim Quarter

 

I continued my visit with the Jewish Quarter in the southeastern part of the Old City. Here are located most of the synagogues and yeshivas (places of study of the Jewish texts) within the walls.

As you enter the Jewish Quarter, one of the first sites of interest is the cardo. Many Roman cities had a cardo: a grand main thoroughfare flanked by two rows of columns, bisecting the city from north to south. The cardo was the main commercial avenue of Jerusalem for almost 500 years.

The northern section remnants date to the Roman period (2nd-3rd centuries AD). The southern section remnants date to the Byzantine period (6th century AD). 

 

The cardo

 

But the number one attraction of the Jewish Quarter is the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall. During the last 2000 years, the Western Wall has become the centre of the memory and longing of the Jewish people. The structure is the only remnant of the Second Temple that survived the destruction by the Romans, making it the most sacred construction for the Jewish people.

The wall that we see today was built to contain the western side of the Temple Mount, where the Holy Temple once stood. Jewish tradition teaches that the Temple Mount is the focal point of creation, and in the centre of the mountain lies the Foundation Stone of the world, where Adam came into being. It is in this same place that God commanded Abraham to kill his son Isaac and where the Ark of the Covenant was once kept. 

Our guide brought us to a viewing point from where you can appreciate the entire Western Wall, as well as Temple Mount with the golden Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. 

 

Western Wall & Temple Mount

 

According to the Jewish tradition, the Divine Presence never left the Western Wall after the destruction of the Second Temple, which is the reason why Jews still pray daily facing the wall, and Synagogues from all over the world always face the city of Jerusalem. 

My visit took place on a Friday, just a few hours before the celebration of the Shabbat. The atmosphere at the East Wall was just incredible: Orthodox Jews praying with their best clothes, groups of kids singing together in joy... I've never felt something so special in my life, it's something that you need to experience yourself in order to understand! 

As the tradition says, I placed a note with my wishes in the cracks of the Western Wall with the hopes that they will be granted by God. This is a very common custom not only among Jews but among all visitors in Jerusalem, no matter whether you're a believer or not. 

 

Orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall

Getting ready for the Shabbat

The Western Wall

 

Compared to the rest of the Old City, the Jewish Quarter is surprisingly calm and much more residential. One of the liveliest areas is the little square surrounding the Hurva Synagogue, another big highlight of the Jewish Quarter.

The synagogue was first founded at the beginning of the 18th century and destroyed by the Muslims just a few years later. It remained destroyed for more than 140 years, and it became known as hurva, meaning 'the ruin'.

In the middle of the 19th century, the synagogue was rebuilt as the main Ashkenazi synagogue in Jerusalem, getting destroyed again by the Arab Legion after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The building that we see today belongs to the reconstruction finished only in 2010. In addition to the beautiful interior, inside you can also appreciate the world's tallest Holy Ark (containing the Torah scrolls).

 

Hurva Synagogue

 

The last of the four quarters that I visited was the Armenian Quarter. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as the official religion back in the fourth century, and ever since then, their monks have settled in Jerusalem. 

Today, the Armenian community in Jerusalem is in decay, mainly due to the restrictions imposed by Israel (Armenians living in Jerusalem are considered Palestinians both by Israel and the United Nations). 

The main point of interest of the Armenian Quarter is the Cathedral of St. James, an Armenian church from the 12th century and house of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem

You can't miss either the Monastery of St. Mark, a Syriac Orthodox church from the 6th century built on the ancient site of the house of Mary, the mother of St. Mark the Evangelist. Some Christian denominations believe that this is the place The Last Supper took place, although most place this event at the Cenacle in Mt. Zion

 

Monastery of St. Mark

 

Visiting the four quarters of the Old City was an experience like nothing I've felt before. Being surrounded by some of the most sacred places for all the main religious on Earth was an awe-inspiring feeling that I've never experienced in my many years of travelling. It is definitely true when they say that Jerusalem has something special! 

During the rest of my stay, I would come again to the Old City to explore many of its hidden gems, but I would also go outside of the walls to visit the many historical and biblical sites that Jerusalem has to offer. Next day, it was time to visit the Tower of David, Mt. Zion and walk the Via Dolorosa

 

Where to sleep in Jerusalem

Abraham Hostel Jerusalem

Abraham Hostel Jerusalem

For my stay in Jerusalem I also chose Abraham Hostels, and once again it was a great decision.

The hostel was very similar to the one in Tel Aviv: a huge, very modern building located right in the heart of West Jerusalem and just a few minutes walking from the Old Town. The hostel offers both dorms and private rooms, all including en-suite bathrooms and a lovely breakfast.

The Abraham Hostel Jerusalem includes a bar that opens seven days a week where you can get a few drinks or order some food at very good prices after exploring Jerusalem. You can also chill out at the open rooftop; the atmosphere there was incredible and I had so much fun in the evening meeting and chatting with some other fellow travellers!

In the lobby you can find the traveller centre, where you can book day and multi day trips around Israel, the Palestinian Territories and even Jordan. It took many of these visits and all of them were well worth it!

Just like with my stay at Abraham Hostel in Tel Aviv and Nazareth, my experience in Israel wouldn't have been the same if I hadn't stayed at the Abraham Hostel Jerusalem. No matter if you're travelling solo or with a group, I can confidently say that Abraham Hostel is by far one of the best hostels that I've ever stayed in!

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All opinions are my own.


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