Israel’s capital, a source of human fascination and a magnet for spirituality, ever since (and before) human beings started recording history.
It’s surprisingly large, and hilly, so great for fitness if you’re into walking. When you get tired, there’s always the light rail, buses, and taxis.
Old City העיר העתיקה
The heart of the heart of the heart of the matter. Inaccessible to Jews and rife with snipers whilst under Jordanian control following the end of the 1948 War of Independence, until Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. The history of this tiny area alone can fill endless books. The abundance of tourists doesn’t affect the unique mystical atmosphere (or is that simply the tension in the air)? Market traders do thrive on tourists, try to avoid eye contact unless you actually want to buy something, and if you do, haggle like you’re in the Middle East.
Divided into four quarters (Jewish / Christian / Muslim / Armenian), the Old City could easily take several days’ to explore. I wouldn’t recommend displaying anything of religious or national significance, unless you know exactly what you’re doing. This is a complex, emotionally-charged place, where you’ll find T-shirts for sale with slogans like “Free Palestine” (image of entire Israel in blood-red, no suggestion of two states living in peace, side by side), or “America Don’t Worry, Israel is Behind You”.
Some of my highlights:
- Temple Mount הר הבית: The holiest site in Judaism, and the location of the Second Temple from 516 BCE to 70 CE, when the Romans nearly wiped the Jews out. When the Muslims conquered Jerusalem in the 7th century, they built the Dome of the Rock mosque on the site. Since 1967, the site has been administered by the (Jordanian) Islamic Waqf. Non-Muslims may only enter through 1 of the 11 gates, at specific hours and days, and even to those non-Muslims who do enter, access to mosques is forbidden. At the time of writing (July 2017), totally closed to non-Muslims in the wake of controversy following a terrorist attack, in which Arabs killed Druze Border Police, and subsequent installation of metal detectors.
- Western Wall הכותל המערבי: An Israeli and Jewish icon. Named due to being one of the retaining walls, and all that remains of the Second Temple. A new, unmissable development, is tours of the recently-excavated tunnels. Annoyingly, these do require booking in advance. Technically a synagogue, so modest clothing recommended.
- Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Without doubt one of the most impressive Christian holy sites on the planet. I don’t have words to describe its enchanting, peaceful aura. Religion is never far from controversy, here affairs are dictated by a status quo going back to 1853, with the equally thought-provoking and prepostrous Immovable Ladder, stuck in its current position since the 18th century, except for being removed and replaced in a 1997 prank or conflict, depending on who you believe.
- Ramparts Walk: A chance to walk around the Old City from the top of its walls. Not easy, especially on a hot day, although a great overview.
- Jewish Quarter: The newest parts of the Old City are here, following rebuilding due to the widespread destruction under Jordanian rule from 1948-1967, during which 34 out of 35 synagogues were destroyed.
- Mount of Olives: Not in the Old City as such, but “around the back” if coming from the usual routes. Boasts an amazing view of all of Jerusalem. Probably the most famous Jewish cemetery in the world, heavily vandalized under Jordanian rule. According to some tradition, when the End of Days arrives, the Resurrection of the Dead will start here when the Messiah arrives and makes his / her / its way to the Temple Mount. (I didn’t make that up, I’m just the messenger.)
Other things to do
- Yad Vashem: The world-famous Holocaust museum, located on Mount Herzl. Following refurbishment in 2005, it’s an unparalleled assault on the senses. The subject matter is unarguably bleak, yet the presentation is admirable, and the ending, which I won’t spoil, is… Anyway, budget at least a couple of hours, and more if you’re keen not to rush. I’d recommend getting the sadness out of the way at the start of the day.
- Mount Herzl: The location of Yad Vashem, and the most famous cemetery in Israel, where legendary political and military leaders, and Zionist visionaries, including Theodor Herzl himself, are laid to rest.
- Jerusalem Light Rail: Perhaps the leading symbol of Jerusalem moving into the modern world, and often cited as a symbol of bringing people together, given its passing-through Arab neighbourhoods. The best way to get to Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl from the town centre.
- Machane Yehuda: The most famous market in Israel, recently renovated but losing none of its unique charm and atmosphere. In recent years, has become a happening nightspot, full of cool bars and restaurants.
- Yemin Moshe ימין משה: A beautiful, tranquil, arty neighbourhood, across from the Old City.
- Israel Museum: A seriously impressive collection, including architecture, fine and Jewish art, and the incredible artefacts of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
- The Knesset: The site of the Israeli parliament, offers guided tours for those who wish to see where the big debates are fought, and decisions are made. Israel has never had a non-coalition government, so it’s debatable which of the two is more common.
Food and drink
(Header image: Ben Yehuda Street, Jerusalem. Soldiers dancing to a busker as others look on. My falafel in the foreground.)