The strains of celebratory music reached us before we caught sight of the procession. Men, dressed in white, beat drums, played the trumpet, blew the shofar (a ram’s horn) and sang ‘Oh Yerushalem’ while the procession around them clapped their hands in accompaniment. Blue and white helium balloons bobbed in the air. Walking under a star of David emblazoned chuppah, a canopy supported by men holding up the four ends with poles, was a young boy. They were on their way to the Kotel or Western Wall to celebrate his bar mitzvah – a rite of passage when a boy becomes accountable for keeping Jewish law.
The atmosphere was carnival like and confusing. Processions of Jewish families and tourists streamed towards the Western Wall. Right next to them, a long queue snaked its way through the courtyard as people waited impatiently to enter the Dome of the Rock controlled by the Islamic Waqf Board.
The husband and I were visiting Israel and this was our first day in the Old City of Jerusalem. This 0.35 square miles of land with a population of 35,000 is at the heart of the 3 largest Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam,and has seen a long and turbulent history. With a fortified wall built during the Ottoman period, the city is divided into 4 quarters for the Christians, Muslims, Jews and Armenians. Each quarter is crisscrossed by narrow, cobble stoned roads, with decades old buildings on either side, some rife with bullet holes. Beneath this city, lies centuries of history.
In 1947, the United Nations approved the British mandate to split Palestine into 2 states – one Jewish and one Arab. As the Brits left Palestine in 1948, war broke out between the newly formed state of Israel and its Arab neighbours. At the centre of the conflict was Jerusalem.
At the end of the war, Jerusalem was split into two. East Jerusalem was controlled by Jordan and West Jerusalem by Israel. East Jerusalem contained the most holy sites – the Al Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, The Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This status quo continued until 1967.
In 1967, tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors reached a crescendo with Egypt revoking access to a shipping channel and mobilizing its army along the border.In the 6 days of war that followed, Israel seized the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank , including East Jerusalem, from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. After centuries, Jews now had access to all of the holy sites including the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock.
In an act of reconciliation and to prevent the ignition of a religious war, Israel returned the governance of the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque to the Islamic Waqf board, a body affiliated with Jordan. Today, this board decides who prays at the site and effectively bars non-Muslim worship, while security at the gates is controlled by Israeli forces.
The Temple Mount
The husband and I were up early to explore the Temple Mount – the complex that houses the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque. Apart from being sacred to Muslims, this site is also sacred to the Jews. The First and Second Temples stood on these grounds. The First Temple, built by King Solomon was built around 1000 BC and was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. A few decades later, the Second Temple was completed by 516 BC and lasted until 70 CE when it was destroyed by the Romans. Almost 600 years later, the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque was constructed on this site by the Islamic Umayyad Dynasty.
A wooden walkway bridge over the Western Wall leads into the Temple Mount through the Moroccan Gate or Mugrabi Gate. As we walked in, we were met by guardians of the Temple Mount – who’ve taken into upon themselves to ensure decorum in this holy site. At times they take this to ridiculous extremes and are more of a nuisance – insisting that the husband of a burkha clad woman recite a prayer to confirm his religious identity before admitting him into the Al Aqsa mosque, chiding half the women tourists and insisting that they wrap long pieces of cloth around their waist or shoulders to ensure modesty ( when the religious beings at the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre accepted them without complaints), and scolding an elderly Muslim man when he placed his arm around his wife to take a picture.
We quickly moved away from their jarring presence and were greeted by the sight of the Dome of the Rock – an octagonal shaped structure capped by a golden dome – built in the 7th century AD by the Umayyad caliph. This is the site where Abraham is said to have prepared to sacrifice his son Issac. This is also the site from which Prophet Muhammad is said to have traveled into heaven accompanied by the Angel Gabriel. The architecture is visually stunning – marble slabs, intricate blue mosaics with Arabic calligraphy, and the golden dome that is the signature of Jerusalem’s skyline.
To the south of the Dome of the Rock, is a long rectangular structure with a silver dome – the Al Aqsa Mosque. This is a functioning mosque that can house about 5000 worshipers and was built in the 7th century AD. This is the 3rd holiest site for Muslims, after the mosques in Mecca and Medina.
With multiple claims by the Muslims and Jews to the Temple Mount , tensions run high and the scene can quickly turn into chaos. Every entrance and exit is tightly controlled with CCTV surveillance and manned by armed guards. The site is often closed at the first whiff of trouble.
Surveillance and CCTV cameras are an integral part of Jerusalem today. Every alley way has omnipresent cameras scrutinizing every move. This large network of surveillance technology, named Mabat 2000, is manned 24 hours a day and provides intelligence support to the hundreds of police officers who patrol the labyrinth of Jerusalem’s streets.
The Western Wall
Later that evening, we made our way back to the Western Wall. The air was electric even at night! Scores of ultra-orthodox Jewish men in black garbs and black hats constantly streamed towards the wall. The wall is sectioned into 2 – a smaller southern section for women, and a larger northern section for men. The Western Wall supports the outer section of the Temple Mount, the area on which the First and Second Temples were built. Jews purposely avoid entering the Temple Mount as they consider this holy ground. Instead, they choose to pray at this wall, which was the closest to the Temple’s inner sanctum.
The wall has varying styles of stonework from different eras. At the bottom are large slabs of stone from the Second Temple period. At the top are smaller, rectangular shaped blocks dating from the construction of the Al Aqsa mosque. The husband scribbled down a prayer request and tucked it into a crevice, among the hundred of hopeful prayers hiding in the walls.
We had signed up to tour the excavated Western Wall tunnels, which throw light into the 2000 year old history of Jerusalem. Bathsheba, our guide, explained the layout of the tunnels in relation to the inner sanctum of the Temple and how priests walked these steps to travel between the city and the Second Temple.
We walked through narrow passageways lit by dim, incandescent yellow lights with water dripping through spots and collecting in pools, many of which functioned as reservoirs for the residents of Jerusalem. As we turned a corner, a dramatic sight greeted us – a modern, subterranean synagogue lit up by bright lighting, framed by an arched stone ceiling and surrounded by the ancient stones of the Temple Mount. It had taken the Kotel Foundation 18 years to build the synagogue.
Via Dolorosa and The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The next day, we set out to explore the Christian religious sites in the city. We followed the ‘Via Dolorosa’ – the path that Jesus was led through after being condemned to die by Pontius Pilate, the then governor of Judea. Via Dolorosa, Latin for ‘The Way of the Suffering’, is a winding 500 meter long pathway which culminates at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The path has the 14 stations of the cross marked out – each station depicting an event that took place during the final hours of Jesus’ life. What is interesting is that the Bible makes no mention of many of these stations – Jesus falling three times, meeting his mother, Veronica wiping Jesus’ face. According to historical sources, the route has also changed multiple times. Competing factions of the church had a different path – each proclaiming theirs to be the true one. It was in the 14th century that the Pope ensured some consistency by authorizing the Franciscan Friars custody of the pilgrimage sites. Today, faithful pilgrims pay no heed to these historical disputes as they follow the current path.
Crowds of pilgrims thronged the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built at the site of Jesus’ Crucifixion. The chaos and cacophony made it difficult to find a quiet, contemplative corner.
The Church was first built in 348 AD by Emperor Constantine at the urging of his mother Queen Helena. It was later destroyed by the Persians and then reconstructed during the Byzantine and Crusader period. The structure today is an amalgamation of different architectural styles.
The church is controlled by 6 competing denominations of Christianity – the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholics, the Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Copts and Ethiopians. Under the status quo, each denomination controls different sections of the building. Prayers in different languages occur simultaneously, and contribute to the general din. There have even been reports of priests hitching up their cassocks and laying into each other, which we regrettably did not witness. Since no sect trusts the other, for centuries the custodian of the Church has been a local Muslim family who opens the church doors every morning and locks it up every evening.
As soon as we entered the church, we were shown the ‘Stone of Unction’, that marks the spot were Jesus’ body was laid after being removed from the cross. Worshipers prostrated themselves and genuflected in front of the slab.
To reach the site of crucifixion – Calvary or Golgotha – we climbed a steep, narrow flight of stairs, with a mob pressing around us. The Greek Orthodox chapel is on the rock of Calvary. Pilgrims line up to touch the rock through a hole in the altar.
We made our way to the Edicula, under the rotunda of the church. This structure, made with red marble, houses the tomb of Jesus. Over the entrance hangs candles and lanterns throwing flickering shadows over the worshipers waiting to get in.
Our last tour of the evening was to the Mount of Olives, a hill to the east of Jerusalem, and which offers a panoramic view of the city with all of its domes, walls and centuries old architecture. We elbowed our way to the look out point and snapped a few pictures of the skyline with the golden Dome of the Rock shimmering in the backdrop. Beneath us lay an ancient, Jewish cemetery with thousands of graves in a checkered pattern offering a stark contrast to the vibrant city opposite it.
We walked downhill, enjoying the stunning views and the architecture of a cornucopia of churches, and finally reached the Garden of Gethsemane. It was here that Jesus was betrayed by his disciple, Judas, and arrested by the Romans. A 20th century basilica, funded by Nations from across the world and fittingly called The Church of All Nations, now stands here. The basilica is in the middle of a garden of ancient olive trees – with gnarled, snaky branches that has witnessed centuries of turmoil.
Our head spinning with history and timelines, we decided to grab dinner and a drink at Mahane Yehuda – the most popular Shuk in Jerusalem. By day, this is a bustling market place with pyramids of fresh fruit and vegetables, spices and baked goods. By night, it transforms into a trendy night club of sorts – with catchy beats, incandescent red lights, hookah bars, the whiff of marijuana and Jerusalem’s young crowd out to have a good time. The novelty of seeing this youthful vibe in an ancient, religious city never wore off of us and we kept returning every night after long days of sifting through history.
We grabbed a table and joined the crowd. We couldn’t find a better way to end the day than with a slice of sticky Kunafah downed with some Shapiro beer and ruminating over the day’s events with the smoke from our hookah curling up and disappearing into the night.
How To Get There?
There are 2 ways to get to Jerusalem from the airport:
- Rent a private taxi from the airport to Jerusalem for about 300 NIS
- The more fun and local option to travel is by the inter- city shared buses/ cabs called Sherut. Tickets per person to Jerusalem are 69 NIS
Within Jerusalem, we either took the tram or walked to our destinations. The roads are narrow, traffic is crazy and renting a car would have been a nightmare.
( We did rent a car from Jerusalem to drive to the Dead Sea and then dropped it back in Tel Aviv for no extra charge. )
Where to Stay?
We stayed at the Abraham Hostel and would stay here again if we came back to this city. The Hostel offers private rooms and welcomes people from all age groups and different parts of the world. In the evenings, it is a fun place to hangout and meet people from different countries while lounging in the bar or singing karaoke or attending a workshop. The vibe is infectious.
The Hostel is a 5 minute walk away from Mahane Yehuda and all the popular eateries in Jerusalem. The tram station is right opposite and is a ten minute ride to the Old City of Jerusalem
Where to Eat?
All 3 of our favourite eateries were in and around Mahane Yehuda.
Azura – A Turkish- Kurdish restaurant in the middle of Mahane Yehuda that is only open for lunch. Service is brisk and attentive. The food tastes authentic – slow braised meat, meatballs simmered in a tomato and zucchini broth, bowls of hummus with soft pita and the Yemenite shug. This was our best lunch in Jerusalem. Hurry to get your spot!
Ishtabach – The signature sdish here is the shamburak – ground meat and vegetables stuffed into a crisy, flaky pastry. Fresh shamburaks are delivered piping hot from the revolving oven by the side of the bar.
Dwiny’s Pita Bar: Great place to hang out by the bar, start a conversation and make friends. The bartender here enthralled us with her story of how she had spent a couple of years in Rishikesh and Mumbai to avoid Israel’s mandatory military service