Visiting Jerusalem with its many magnificent historical and religious sites is beyond doubt the highlight of any visit to the Holy Land. The situation in the city is complex however, and visiting it today can be an overwhelming experience. Jerusalem is probably the most politically and religiously sensitive city in the world. It inspires more passion than any other. It is the cradle of the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was, and still is, the unchallenged crown city of Palestine, and its capitol, while Israel calls it its united capitol.
The site of the first city of Jerusalem was located on the Mount of Olives (al‑Duhur), which overlooks today’s walled city from the east. Through the passage of time the site was abandoned and the city moved west, at first to Selwan, south of the old city, and then to what is now known today as the Old City.
Most authorities on Jerusalem describe it as a strong fortress, and a city of unique strategic position. This is not true, and the impression of strength is more an illusion than reality. The city is no fortress, its walls are more decoration than barriers, and their defensive value is negligible. Jerusalem rises some 750m above sea level, but this position has not endowed it with any protection. The reason behind selecting this location for the city was probably its strategic location in the heart of Palestine, and its water resources, especially its springs: Gihon, Umm al-Daraj, al-Rababa, and al-Zabi.
The long and turbulent history of Jerusalem endowed it with its different names. The Jebusites called it Jebus, the Canaanites called it Ur Salem after Salem "God of peace". Other names of the city include: Golden City, Flowered City, City of David, Aelia Capitolina, City of Peace, al‑Quds or al‑Quds al‑Sharif, and Bait al‑Makdis.
Jerusalem was first built some 5000 years ago by the Jebusites. The Canaanites came to the city around 2500 BC. Around 1000 BC, King David took it from the Canaanites by conquest. The city was destroyed more than 18 times and witnessed fierce battles and wars throughout its 5000 year-old history. As elsewhere in Palestine, its temples, churches and mosques have often been destroyed, changed hands, and function. The city was conquered and destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 B.C, and in 539 B.C it fell to the Persians, who in 332 BC handed it over to the Greeks. The Romans conquered the city in 63 BC. In AD 70, Emperor Hadrian destroyed it completely and built the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina in its place.
From AD 630 and for almost fourteen hundred years, the city remained in Arab‑Moslem hands, except for less than a hundred years between 1099 and 1187 when it was occupied by the Crusaders. It was re-conquered by Salah al‑Din in 1187. In 1517, the Ottoman Turks captured the city from the Mamluks and kept it until 1917 when Palestine fell into the hands of the Allied Forces.
In the 1948 War, Israel occupied some 65% of Jerusalem, but the Old City and most of Arab East Jerusalem remained in Jordanian hands. After the Arab‑Israeli war of 1967, the Israeli army occupied the remainder of the city, annexed it unilaterally, and in 1970 declared it as the eternal, undivided capital of Israel.
The present wall was erected by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520‑1566). It is the last of a whole series of walls which were built and torn down before. Suleiman built six gates in the wall and gave them official names, but the names in use today vary according to language and religion. For a unique perspective on the life of the city, tourists are allowed at certain times to walk around most of the Old City on top of the wall.
Damascus Gate "Bab al-Amud", is a fine example of Ottoman architecture. It is the largest and most elaborate of the Old City gates. It has retained its original L‑shaped entry, while most other gates were modified to allow for modern traffic. The road leading into Damascus Gate is the Nablus Road. The gate itself leads into the Moslem Quarter, with its fantastic markets (souqs), in particular the street of spices (Souq al-al‑‛Attarin). This gate is a beehive of activity inside and out with all kinds of shops, money‑changers, souvenir shops, and coffee houses. Within the gate, street merchants, along with older Palestinian village women selling their fresh fruits and vegetables, line up at the entrance for most of the day. Right outside the gate, buses and service taxis stand to take people to all parts of the country including the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Nablus to the north, Bethlehem and Hebron to the south, Jericho and the Allenby Bridge to the East.
Herod’s Gate "Bab al‑Zahira" (flowered gate), is on the north-eastern side of the wall. It is called Herod’s Gate because according to tradition the Mamluk house inside it was the palace of Herod Antipas. The Crusaders established their first bridgehead here in 1099 to conquer the city.
Lions’ Gate, St. Stephen’s Gate or Bab al‑Asbat, is located in the eastern part of the wall facing Mount of Olives. Images of lions are carved on both sides of the gate because, according to tradition, Suleiman the Magnificent was told in a dream that he would be killed by lions if he didn't strengthen the fortifications of the city. It was previously called Bab al‑Ghur. Its original L‑shaped entrance was destroyed by the British Mandate authorities to enable vehicles to reach the Austrian Hospice.
Bab al‑Magharbah, or Dung Gate, (Gate of the Moors), is the gate leading into the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. It was called Dung Gate because, in ancient times, the city refuse was thrown out from here into the valley bellow. The Arabs call it Bab al‑Magharbah because immigrants from Morocco and North Africa lived in this part of the city at the time the city walls were built in the 16th century.
Bab al‑Nabi Dawud, Zion's Gate, or Prophet David Gate, is located at the southeast corner of the city. Opposite this gate is Mt. Zion, the hill crowned by the Church of the Dormition and its monastery. From this gate the road drops down, crossing the Kidron Valley. The great square tower inside the door is an Ayyubid structure built in 1212.
Jaffa Gate, or Bab al‑Khalil is located on the south-western corner of the wall. Its L‑shaped entrance was torn down in 1898 to permit the German Emperor Wilhelm II to ride into the city. A local legend holds that the two graves inside the gate to the left are those of the city’s architects executed by Sultan Suliman for having left Mount Zion outside the city walls.
The New Gate (Bab al‑Jadid), leads into the Christian Quarter. It was opened in 1889 by Sultan Abd al‑Hamid to facilitate access to the city from the new suburbs north of the Old City.
The Golden, the Double and Triple Gates of Jerusalem are now sealed.
The walled city of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters. The largest and liveliest is the Moslem Quarter, covering 76 acres. The other three are: the Christian, Jewish, and Armenian Quarters.
The Moslem Quarter is located on the eastern side of the city overlooking the Kidron Valley. It is the largest and most densely populated in the Old City. It stretches down from Damascus Gate to Haram al‑Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary). It is crowded with many buildings of Islamic style, the most important of which is the golden‑domed mosque or the Dome of the Rock (Qubat al‑Sakhra) and Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Haram al‑Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary): The octagonal dome is the jewel of Jerusalem and one of the Wonders of the World. It was built by the Arab‑Umayyad Caliph Abd al‑Malik Ibn Marwan between 688 and 691, and has survived essentially intact until today. The Dome is built, according to Jewish and Moslem traditions, on the rock which Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The rock is holy to Moslems also because according to Moslem tradition prophet Mohammed is believed to have ascended to heaven on his winged steed (al-Buraq) from here. It is the third most sacred place for Moslems, and the first sanctuary built by them outside Arabia. The other distinctive Islamic building in Jerusalem is al‑Aqsa Mosque which was built between AD 705‑715. The two mosques are known to Moslems as al‑Haram al‑Sharif. The Haram is embraced from the south and east by the Buraq Wall and on the west by the Western Wall (Wailing Wall). The Haram was given its present form in the 14th‑15th centuries by the Mamluks, who were responsible for most of the buildings along the northern and western walls. The exterior walls of the Haram were built by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman in the 16th century.
The Israeli authorities have been conducting massive excavations underneath the Haram al-Sharif area since they occupied the city. Those excavations are raising deep concern in the Arab and Moslem worlds about the future of this holy site. Entrance to the Haram is free for Moslems, but tickets for tourists to visit the Dome of the Rock, al‑Aqsa Mosque and the Islamic Museum should be bought at the ticket office near Bab al‑Qatanin or Moors Gate. Visiting hours are 8:00 am‑1:30 pm, Sat‑Thu. The Haram is closed for visitors on Fridays and during prayer hours
Other Mosques in the city: Jerusalem has more than thirty other mosques within its walls, including the Mosque of Omar which is located directly opposite the main entrance of the Church of Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter. This mosque was built by Salah al‑Din’s son al‑Afdal in 1193 to commemorate Caliph Omar’s prayer at the entrance of the church in 638. The mosque of Marwan (Musala al-Marwani), is located within the Haram complex and is wrongly called Solomon’s Stables. It is rather an extension of the Haram, and Moslems now use it for prayer. It is another example of Moslem architecture from the Umayyad period.
The Islamic Museum: is a small building, just west of the Dome of the Rock, housing a collection of remarkable gifts made for the Haram, as well as some artefacts and Koranic manuscripts from different periods. The exhibits are not systematic, as one would expect them to be, but they are unique and certainly worth a visit.
The Mamluk Buildings: were erected around the Haram between 1250 and 1517 AD. They include many public buildings including different religious schools, khans, markets, baths, pilgrim hospices and sabils, which are places where free drinking water was provided by the wealthy, for the public. Buildings such as Ribat al-Mansuri, Khan Tankiz, al-Madrasa al Ashrafiya, al-Manjakiya, al-Jawaheriya, and Sabil Qa’itbay to name just a few, are all worth a visit while in Jerusalem. They are concentrated on the western and northern sides of Haram. Many of them have inscriptions which give the name of their founders, the date of construction and their function. Most of these buildings are now inhabited by Palestinian families who were displaced as a result of the Arab‑Israeli conflict, and thus are not open to the public. But one may see the ornate facades which are, in fact, the most interesting part of such buildings.
The Christian Quarter
This quarter covers an area of 45 acres in the north-western side of the Old City. The most important site here is the Church of Holy Sepulchre (Kanisat al‑Qiyamah) which is the most venerated shrine for Christians. It is the traditionally accepted site of Christ’s crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection. In the 4th century AD, Queen Helena, mother of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, built a church on this site commemorating the resurrection of Christ. The original church suffered destruction more than once. It was originally much bigger than today’s church, which did not take its present form until 1959. The marble room of the tomb of Jesus is very small, and therefore cannot hold more than four people at a time. Visiting hours are from 4:30am to 7:00 pm.
Jerusalem contains dozens of churches within its walls including the Church of St. Anne, just inside Lions’ Gate. It is one of many churches built by the Crusaders between 1099 and 1187, and is the best preserved of this period. This Romanesque style church was built over a crypt, which was venerated as the birthplace of Mary, by the wife of Baldwin, the first Crusader King of Jerusalem, in AD 1100. Next to the church is the pool of the Bethesda, sacred to Christians because it is the place where Christ healed the crippled man.
The Convent of the Sisters of Zion, at the Via Dolorosa, is built on what is said to be the site where Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death saying: ‘Behold The Man’. The trial took place in what was then Antonia's Fortress, built by Herod the Great. The convent also has within it part of a Roman arch known today as the Ecce Homo (behold the man) which is incorporated in the convent’s church. It is from here that Jesus started the way of sorrow, carrying the cross to his place of death.
Via Dolorosa, The Way Of The Cross” or The Way Of Sorrow: is the path that Jesus walked from the court which condemned him to the site of his crucifixion and burial. It is defined by faith, not history. The nine to fourteen stations along this way have changed from one period to another, but have always ended at the Holy Sepulchre.
It is located in the south eastern corner of the walled city and entered through Moors’ Gate. This quarter has been expanding rapidly at the expense of the other quarters of the city since the Israeli occupation of the city in 1967. The most interesting part of this Quarter is the Wailing Wall, the most sacred site for Jews. It is part of the exterior façade of the Haram. Jews have been coming here to pray and bewail the destruction of the temple since the Byzantine period. The lower layers of the wall are a section of the retaining and supporting of Herod’s temple extension of the first century BC. The upper layers were added by Sir Moses Montefiore in the mid 19th century. The claim that the huge lower blocks were from Solomon’s Temple has no foundation. The main colonnaded street of Hadrian’s Aelia Capitolina, the Cardo, is also located in this quarter. It includes four Sephardi synagogues which have been recently restored. The quarter also includes several museums like the Wohl Archaeological Museum and the Old Yishuv Court Museum.
It's the smallest quarter of the Old City. It occupies the south-western side of the city and is dominated by the great compound of the Armenian Monastery and the Citadel with its minaret and towers. The Armenian compound is like a city within a city. It has its own schools, library, seminary, and residential quarters; all arranged south of the citadel around the 12th century Orthodox Cathedral of St. James. Much of the quarter, and especially the area of the citadel, used to be occupied by the palace of Herod the Great. The Citadel is known today as the ‘Tower of David’, an identification that was given to the site by the Byzantines. The Citadel encapsulates the history of Jerusalem. The huge stones at the bottom of the big tower are the oldest part and are said to be part of Herod’s palace. The Roman rulers of Palestine of the first century AD who lived in Caesaria used the palace as their Jerusalem residence, and in the Crusader period the palace became the residence of the Crusader kings of Jerusalem. The fortifications of the Citadel were built by the Mamluks during the 14th century. Suleiman the Magnificent contributed the monumental entrance and the platform for cannons. The minaret was built in 1655. The Citadel now contains the city museum on the history of Jerusalem: A multi‑screen show as well as a sound and light show can be seen there. The museum can best be reached from the Jaffa Gate.