Temple Mount, with the imposing Al-Aqsa Mosque and the striking Dome of the Rock, is one of the most sacred and disputed areas of Jerusalem. During my fourth day in the Holy City, I queued up during its limited opening hours to ensure that I could access this unique place.
Its location was perfect to combine my visit with the nearby biblical sites of the Garden of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives, where some of the most important events of the New Testament took place; as well as the City of David, the archaeological site where the city of Jerusalem originated over 3000 years ago!
Visiting Temple Mount as a non-Muslim tourist can be tricky. The complex only opens Sunday through Thursday from 7:30 am to 11:00 am, and from 1:30 pm to 2:30 pm. During the winter months, the closing time is 10:00 in the morning, and it reopens from 12:30 pm to 1:30pm in the afternoon.
As you can imagine, due to the limited opening hours, the queues can be long and people tend to line up well in advance to make sure that they can get in before the closing time.
This was the only day that I could visit Temple Mount, so I had to make it on time no matter what. I didn't want to wait under the sun, so I headed to the main access in the morning around 8 am, a bit later than planned. The entrance is located on the right-hand side of the Western Wall Plaza.
I didn't really know what to expect, but luckily the queue wasn't that long and it only took me about half an hour to get in. Security checks were quite extensive and some people before me were asked to show their documentation, so it's always recommended to bring your passport with you or you may be denied access.
Temple Mount is one of the most sacred places in Judaism, as it was here where the Second Temple once stood and the spot where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac.
Known as al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) in Arabic, it is also considered the third holiest site in Islam and the location where Muhammad ascended to heavens.
As such, especially after the occupation of the Old City in 1967, this small hill of East Jerusalem is one of the most disputed plots of land in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Open clashes between the Israeli police and local Palestinians are not uncommon.
Even though East Jerusalem is currently controlled by Israel, Temple Mount is managed by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf.
As I climbed up the steps and accessed the esplanade, the first sight was the imposing Al-Aqsa Mosque with its silver dome.
Originally built at the beginning of the 8th century, Al-Aqsa Mosque has been reconstructed and expanded along the centuries after being destroyed or damaged by earthquakes on several occasions. Nothing from the original mosque remains today.
Unfortunately, non-Muslim visitors are not allowed to visit the inside, so I had to conform myself to enjoy the Romanesque facade.
However, without any doubt, the jewel of Temple Mount is the Dome of the Rock.
Located right in the centre of Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock was constructed at the end of the 7th century under the orders of Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik. The shrine was constructed on the site of a Roman temple that in turn had replaced the Second Temple.
The religious significance for Islam is inestimable. The rock marks the exact spot where Muhammad ascended to Heaven with the angel Gabriel.
The building is decorated with marble and beautiful mosaics that represent Arabic inscriptions and natural patterns. It is crowned with a golden dome that has become one of the most recognisable symbols of Jerusalem.
The interior can't be accessed by non-Muslims, but still, the Dome of the Rock was one of the most exquisite buildings that I've seen in the Middle East. The visit is totally worth it.
Temple Mount is located within walking distance from the Gethsemane Gardens and the Mount of Olives, so it's very easy to combine both visits in one day.
It's possible to take a bus at Damascus Gate that will bring you to the very top of the Mount of Olives from where you can descend to the Gethsemane Gardens. However, I decided to go by foot and pay a visit to the rock-cut tombs of Benei Hezir and Zechariah.
Located at the foot of the Mount of Olives and just behind of Temple Mount, they are the oldest monumental tombs in Jerusalem, dating from the Second Temple.
The Tomb of Benei Hezir is a complex of burial caves built for the Benei Hezir family based on the architecture of ancient Greece. The tomb is already mentioned in the Bible.
Right next to it is the Tomb of Zechariah, a monolith built for the remains of Zechariah Ben Jehoiada, a priest that is mentioned in the Book of Chronicles of the Bible.
After only 10 minutes walking, I reached Gethsemane, the garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives where Jesus prayed the night before he was crucified. Meaning ‘Olive Oil Press’ (from the Hebrew 'gat shemanim'), this garden enclosed by a fence contains eight olive trees held by tradition to be the silent witnesses of Jesus’ prayer and suffering the evening before his crucifixion.
Right next to the garden you can find the Basilica of the Agony. It is also called the Church of All Nations because of the contributions offered by different nations for the mosaics of the apses and cupolas.
Built to recall how Jesus agonised to the point of sweating blood (Luke 22:44), the original building was constructed in 380 AD over the ‘Rock of the Agony, the rock where it is believed that Jesus prayed before being arrested.
The original structure was destroyed in 614 AD, and it was reconstructed by the Crusaders in the 12th century. The current Basilica was built in 1919 after the design of the Byzantine Basilica. The natural light filtered by alabaster windows creates a climate of prayer before the Rock of Agony, which has been conserved directly in front of the altar.
Only a few meters from the garden, you can also visit a natural grotto known as the Church of the Sepulchre of Saint Mary. Here it is believed that Mary was buried after she “fell asleep’ and ascended to heaven.
The inside is quite peculiar, full of lamps hanging from the ceiling, barely lighting up the gloomy interior. At the end of the cave is the stone where it is believed that Mary was put to rest.
Right next to it there's an additional grotto with great relevance for the Christian tradition. It is believed that it was here where Jesus used to come with his apostles when they were in Jerusalem (Luke 22:39) and it may also be here that there was the famous encounter with Nicodemus as recounted in the Gospel of St. John.
Also here Jesus came with his disciples after the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, when he left eight of the apostles to spend some time in prayer and where he received the traitor’s kiss from Judas. In this grotto, Jesus performed his last miracle when he healed the ear of Malchus, which had been severed by Peter right before he was arrested.
Mount of Olives
Continuing uphill, you'll reach the Mount of Olives, location of some of the most important biblical events. The most well-known events correspond to Jesus' triumphal arrival to Jerusalem when he went down the mount on Palm Sunday. It was also here that Jesus and his apostles prayed the night before he was arrested, and from where he ascended to heaven.
Mount of Olives offers some of the best views of Jerusalem's skyline. The Dome of the Rock and the Golden Gate are located right across the Mount of Olives.
The Golden Gate is one of the multiple entries to the city of Jerusalem through its walls. According to Jewish tradition, it will be thorugh this door that the next Messiah will return to Jerusalem. Back in the 12th century, the gate was sealed by the Muslims in order to prevent this from happening.
On the left-hand-side of the Mount of Olives is Jerusalem's main cemetery, with over 150,000 graves. The notes that are left between the cracks of the Western Wall with wishes on them are buried here every time they are collected.
City of David
After enjoying the views from the Mount of Olives, I headed back to the old city for a late lunch. The Muslim Quarter is one of the best areas of Jerusalem to find cheap and tasty food. Don't miss the falafels from one of the little restaurants in the labyrinthine streets!
Not far from The Western Wall Plaza and Temple Mount you can find the archeaological complex known as the City of David.
Tickets start at 28 shekels (approx. €6.8) per adult. It is also possible to get tickets that include a guided tour for a price of 60 shekels (approx. €14.5).
It was here were 3000 years ago King David established what would be the capital of the tribes of Israel, a few years before the construction of the First Temple. Today, it is still possible to visit some very well preserved archaeological remains of what used to be the origins of Jerusalem.
The city of David is also well known for its underground water tunnels. There are two options to visit the tunnels: you can either go through the wet tunnel, where the water can go up to your knees; or go through the dry tunnel, where it's possible to walk without getting wet.
I didn't have the right shoes or trousers with me, so I decided to go through the dry tunnel.
If I'm totally honest, I hated every single second of the visit to the tunnels. While the actual ruins were very interesting, I couldn't wait to leave the suffocating tunnels and see the sunlight again.
The air was quite heavy inside the tunnels, and together with the heat and muddy terrain, I got quite overwhelmed. I've heard that the wet tunnel is way funnier, especially if you're visiting with kids, so if you decide to visit the City of David, it's probably worth bringing the right clothing and go for that option instead.
You will exit the tunnels just behind Al-Aqsa Mosque. There, you can find the remains of Jerusalem’s main street, running the length of the Western Wall along about one kilometre, in the late Second Temple Period.
The street was paved with flagstones and edged with curbstones. It had two large drainage channels running beneath it, and shops opened onto the street on both sides.
Western Wall Tunnels
The visit to the City of David took most of my afternoon, so I headed back to my hotel for some rest. For that night, I booked a tour of the Western Wall Tunnels. I know, you'd think that I had enough with my previous visit to the tunnels of the City of David, but these ones were much more enjoyable.
All visits to the Kotel are guided and have a cost of 35 shekels (approx. €8.50) per adult. Tickets are limited and have to be booked in advance. You can book the tickets online.
This guided visit offers a visit to some sections of the Western Wall that are not accessible or visible from the Western Wall Plaza, where you can only see about 70 meters of the wall.
Going down to the tunnels will give you a view of the wall from the very foundations. It was incredible to look up and realise that what you see outside is only part of the wall, but there is actually much more right below!
During this visit, I got to access the subterranean spaces of what used to be the Second Temple, including a water pit and even an aqueduct. Our guide was incredibly informative and covered the history of the Western Wall and the second Temple, aided by mockups and 3D reproductions that give you a better idea of what the complex used to look like - totally recommended!
My fourth day in Jerusalem was quite packed with ancient history and Biblical sites, but luckily I had enough time to visit everything that I wanted.
Although my time in Jerusalem was coming to an end, I would still have many more days in the city to explore the surrounding area, including Masada and the Dead Sea, as well as the fascinating West Bank and the divided city of Hebron!
All opinions are my own.