The holy city of Jerusalem has been a pilgrimage centre since long before the crusades of the medieval era, although tourism unconnected with spirituality only developed during the second half of the last century. A small walled city of only a kilometre squared until the early 19th century, the religious heritage of the city is immense as the birthplace of Christianity, the heart of Judaism and the third holiest Moslem city for its connection to Mohammed’s ascension to heaven and the Prophet Abraham’s order from God to sacrifice his son Isaac.
Religion being one of the main causes of conflict between humans, it’s no surprise that the City of David’s long history has involved periods of extreme violence and conquests by successive empires including the Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans, Byzantines, Persians and Ottomans as well as the Crusaders. The Old City witnessed these traumas and is steeped in the culture and history of all the empires who owned it, however briefly.
Inside the Ottoman walls of the city, constructed by Suleiman the Great in the 16th century, stand the great religious monuments of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, side by side around the ancient Temple Mount, the site of Solomon’s temple, the first of two built by the Israelites. All that remains of the second temple, built on the remains of the first, is the Western Wall, known for centuries as the Wailing Wall, the focus of the Jewish Diaspora until the establishment of the State of Israel.
The world’s most amazing Islamic mosque, the Dome of the Rock, overlooks the Western Wall, with its gleaming golden dome visible from afar. Next to the octagonal, tile-encrusted building is the al-Aqsa Mosque, equally lovely and the legendary place of the prophet Mohammed’s journey to heaven. Non-Moslems are not allowed to enter the mosques, but the combination of their stunning beauty and the view over the city makes the trip worthwhile.
The holiest site in Christendom is the medieval Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the foundations of an earlier basilica constructed ij the 4th century. A pilgrimage hub for 1600 years, this massive church is divided between three Christian sects, the Roman Catholic, Eastern and Asian orthodoxies and is set on Golgotha, the place of Christ’s crucifixion and burial. Here visitors will find many chapels and altars, all decorated in individual styles according to tradition.
Other spiritual destinations include the Chapel of the Ascension and the Crusader church covering a first-century tomb believed to be that of the Virgin Mary. Wandering the twisting alleyways of the Old City, visitors will note the four separate Jewish, Moslem, Armenian and Christian districts, all tiny and all totally unique. The Moslem quarter is the busiest and most crowded, although few tourists visit here; the Christian quarter is crammed with religious buildings of all kinds; the Armenian quarter is quiet and locked down at night and the Jewish quarter was mostly rebuilt after its destruction by Arab forces from Jordan in 1948.
Museums, mostly close to hotels in Jerusalem city centre , help visitors to understand the amazing events which took place in this tiny area and which so strongly influenced world religious and cultural history over two millennia. The Israel Museum is a good place to start, and the Dead Sea Scrolls should be the first exhibit seen. Apart from these, the world’s oldest surviving manuscripts, there are over 500,000 artefacts displayed, charting the history of this amazing city up to the present day. The Holocaust Memorial and Museum is another must-visit, with its chilling account of the millions of Jewish deaths at the hand of Nazi Germany and its celebration of the lives, often lost, of the brave men and women who did their best to rescue as many people as possible.
Lek Boonlert is an editor and content reviewer at DirectRooms and is responsible for all Jerusalem City Centre Hotels content.