Jerusalem is the Middle Eastern most populous city in Israel, west of the Dead Sea – a city that has immense historical, religious and cultural value. It has been a place of pilgrimage and worship for Jews, Christians and Muslims since the biblical era. It is Israel’s spiritual, political and administrative capital and boasts of a city that has been inhabited longer than any other city in the world.
Just the thought of visiting the ‘Centre of Faiths’ in Jerusalem, was perhaps what led me to be as excited as I was; when the opportunity to visit the Old City was mentioned to me. Who would have thought that I would visit a place I had only heard of in stories? My fascination with religion and how history came together, is something I love exploring. As this year marks the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s liberation in 1967, it almost seemed like ‘God’s call’ to me.
Located in the Judaean Hills, east of the Jordan River, we took around 40 minutes to reach Jerusalem from the International Tel Aviv airport.
Jerusalem consists of three main areas – the Walled Old City, the New City to the West and the Arab district to the East.
I was staying in an expat residential area, French Hill, in the West. The drive to French Hill was smooth, the roads well kept, people showed traffic sense but didn’t hesitate to gesture, honk and pass comments at those who tried to push their way through — so typical middle-east. As an Indian, I felt totally at home !
The Old City of Jerusalem
This place is considered to be one of the most holy places in the world as it is ‘home’ to three of the most important religions. This walled area of one kilometer in the centre of Jerusalem can have a very humbling effect on a person. It immediately transports you back in history and wakens the spirituality in you.
The entrance fee to the Old City was USD $35 and you can enter from any one of the seven entry gates. Brace yourself to walk for a few hours if you really want to soak in the sites and smells of every quarter. We entered from the most busy Jaffa Gate. The Old City is divided into four quarters:
- The Muslim Quarter
- The Jewish Quarter
- The Christian Quarter
- The Armenian Quarter
The street of the Muslim Quarter was crowded and the famous Shuk (The Mahane Yehuda Market) was so tempting with the numerous stalls of fresh fruits and other products. The cobbled walkway added to the old world charm and the cafes and juice bars were deliriously inviting. The locals lived on the upper floors while the ground floor is given up for shops.
We sauntered to the end of the street to catch a glimpse of the shrine, the Dome of the Rock, which commemorates the ascension of Prophet Muhammad into heaven. This is the third most holy pilgrimage for Muslims, after Mecca and Medina. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the building but we could tour the compound. Its imposing golden dome can be seen from most parts of the city. One of its most noticeable architecture is the mathematical rhythm of its proportions.
On the way back to the centre of the Old City, we stopped to devour the delicious Shawarma at a local restaurant in the street.
Next we entered the street that led into the Jewish Quarter. The narrow alley widens at the other end to open into a compound, which has the holy Western Wall at one end. When Rome had destroyed the Temple Mount in 70 C.E., it never struck them to destroy this wall since it was just an outer wall surrounding the Temple Mount and not a part of the Temple. The Jews consider this remnant as the holiest spot and undertake a pilgrimage to this spot to thank God.
The wall got its name as the ‘Wailing Wall’ by the non-Jews when they saw the Jews grieving over their broken temple while praying near the wall.
Anybody can go up to the wall to pray. Care should be taken though, to dress modestly and respect the different areas allotted to men and women. It is mandatory that men should cover their heads. We could see helpful Jewish women offering Shawls to other women who had their shoulders exposed.
Traditional orthodox Jews live in the Jewish Quarters and we could see them moving around in their traditional clothes. The whole atmosphere had its own Old World charm to it and we were very much in awe of the setting.
Back to the centre and then we entered the Christian Quarter. This is a site for pilgrimage for the Christians as this quarter is constructed around the ‘Church of the Holy Sepulchre’. It is believed that Lord Jesus dragged his crucified body through this street, was left here to bleed and buried here. Christians live here, some do business with their shops or restaurants and these quaint little shops had mostly religious artefacts. This Quarter was not as well kept as the other Quarters.
The Armenian Quarter was the smallest and located in the southwestern corner. It was though the most intriguing. There was not much hustle bustle here and is supposed to be the most peaceful corner of the Old City. The St. Mark’s Chapel here is historically important as it is believed that it is the true site of ‘The Last Supper’.
We came out of the Old City, totally empowered with history and feeling so connected with the Almighty. The whole tour had taken us a good 4-5 hours.
Tower of David: The Sound and Light Show (Jerusalem Night Spectacular)
We had booked tickets online for the Sound and Light show at the Tower of David for the evening. The Tickets cost us 55 Shekel (Around USD $15) and was for 45 minutes. We dressed warmly as the show was in the courtyard in open air. No photography is allowed.
The Tower of David is situated near the Jaffa Gate entrance of the Old City. It is also called as the Jerusalem Citadel. In ancient times, it protected the north-west corner of the ‘Upper City’.
The show, in one word, was SPECTACULAR. It was about the history of Jerusalem – its struggle against the various invaders, its rich past, its religious significance. One literally gets transported back in those ages. The music is original and the massive life-like moving and interacting images in 3D effect on the old stones of the wall, leaves you mesmerised.
‘Time Elevator’ 4D show in Manila Mall, Jerusalem
Not having had enough of the history of the rich past of Jerusalem, we booked tickets on line (USD $30) to watch the 4D show-‘Time Elevator’, down town in Manila Mall. This is an upscale shopping mall and the only open-air mall in Jerusalem.
We were to reach 15 minutes before the show starts so as to get acquainted with the safety instructions while viewing.
The Time Elevator, takes us through a breath-taking journey of the rich 3000 year history of Jerusalem. The high light of the auditorium was their ‘motion-based’ seats. It gave the feeling of us participating in the show, rather than just viewing it. It was simply amazing and fantastic.
Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, Jerusalem
Nad Vashem is the official memorial in Jerusalem, to the victims of the Holocaust and is the second most visited place here. It not only honours the Jews who died while fighting their Nazi oppressors, but also the ‘Gentiles’ who helped the Jews in their hour of need.
Somehow I wanted to visit this place last. The entry is free and it is closed on Saturdays and all Jewish holidays. It is a huge, well kept and sombre place where almost a million people visit annually to pay their respect and feel humbled by the atrocities the innocent Jews had to undergo at the hands of ‘fellow human beings’ in the name of power, tyranny and ridiculous beliefs.
The centre has different sections dedicated to holocaust (Holocaust History Museum), memorial sites (Like Children’s Memorial), Sculptures, a Synagogue, a Library, an Educational Centre.
No words can describe the feelings the museum evokes, specially the Children’s memorial. One exits feeling shocked and sad. A tree outside the museum remembers and commemorates those non-Jews, who aided the Jews and helped them in their own little or big way and calls it -‘Righteous Among The Nations’.
I left Jerusalem feeling spiritually and historically enlightened. How quickly had the inhabitants adjusted themselves back in this cruel world! How forgiving they were! I said a small prayer of blessing for them, when the staff greeted me cheerfully at the airport.