Jerusalem is one of the world’s oldest cities, whose ancient center contains the most sacred site in Judaism (the Western Wall), one of the holiest in Christianity (the Church of the Sepulchre) and the third most important in Islam (the Dome of the Rock)—no other place in the world hosts such significance for the world’s three major religions. The city’s compelling history is also long and complex, for it has been conquered and re-conquered many times during its 4,000-year existence. Some locations have grown more than 20 meters in height as a result of the layers upon layers of development over the millennia.
We only had time for a day-trip in February, and our guide, Shani Kotev, was great. He has incredible knowledge about his subject of Jerusalem and its history, including all the other cultures and religions that bind the city. It seemed quite crowded on the day we were there, but Shani told us it was a light day. Sometimes it’s so crowded that “it’s like you’re in a snake and just getting pushed along.” I’m glad we didn’t have that experience!
Though we didn’t have the chance to visit Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock (non-Muslims are not permitted), or to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane (due to limited time), we received a great history lesson of this city nonetheless.
We entered through Jaffa Gate, one of seven gates along the ancient city walls that define old Jerusalem, which has traditionally been divided into four quarters: Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. We wandered along many narrow, sloping market streets, whose paved stones shine from use over the millennia and were slippery from rain that morning. Small stalls/shops sell all kinds of goods, from shoes, to pomegranates, to small thorn crosses.
We went first to the Western Wall and Western Wall Plaza, the holiest site for Jews and the most visited place in Israel. The Western Wall is one of four large retaining walls that Herod had built around the Temple Mount, in order to create a level platform on top of it. The Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, and over time much of the wall became blocked by villages that had been built up against it. However, this wall was the most sacred place for Jews, as it was the closest to where the Temple and its Holy of Holies had been. At that time, they had to wind their way through narrow alleys to reach the wall to pray.
Then in 1967 the Plaza was cleared, and this space became a symbol of national unity and an open synagogue. Men and women are separated, everyone wears a form of head covering, and many people write prayers or wishes on slips of paper to place into small holes in the wall.
Though what you see above ground is just a fraction of the whole wall. An underground system contains a series of tunnels, bath houses for ritual cleaning, a huge cistern, part of Herod’s wall with massive stones (one of which is believed to be the biggest ever moved by humans without machinery) and part of the market street, which used to run along the wall and where Jesus may have even walked.
After exiting the tunnels, we walked along a portion of the Via Dolorosa (Path of Suffering) and saw many of the Stations of the Cross, which are marked on a large, metal board with Roman numerals. There are 14 Stations, starting with the point where Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death and ending where He was crucified and buried—today in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Although in the heart of old Jerusalem today, the location of the Church was outside the city walls in Jesus’ time.
The first courtyard we reached is actually the roof of the Church, which has a small Ethiopian village and two Ethiopian Chapels on a slightly lower level. Upon passing through these, we arrived at the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre, whose external façade mainly dates from the Crusader period of the 12th century.
This is the holiest place for most Christians around the world, as it houses two very important sites: Golgotha (or Calvary) where Jesus was crucified and his grave.
The Church is also special because it doesn’t belong to any one Christian denomination. Most of it rests in the hands of the Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Armenians. The remainder is split between Syrian Orthodox, Copts, and Ethiopians. The Protestants only came to Jerusalem about 130 years ago, and most still don’t accept that this Church is the death and burial place of Jesus; therefore, they prefer to pray at the Garden Tomb outside Damascus Gate.
The Church receives millions of tourists annually. So, it’s necessary to be calm and patient, as the history and the atmosphere are well worth it. Upon arriving, first climb the steep stairs to Golgotha, with its four Stations of the Cross: the Tenth Station where Roman soldiers stripped Jesus of his clothes; the Eleventh Station where Jesus was nailed to the cross; the Twelfth Station where Jesus died, and the Thirteenth Station where Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross.
The Stone of Anointing is located on the ground floor, and it is believed that this is where Jesus’ body was anointed with oil after being removed from the cross and prepared for burial. It’s usual to see people kneeling and kissing this sacred stone.
Finally, under the dome of the church is the Fourteenth Station, which contains the grave of Jesus. He was buried in a cave, but the construction of this Church destroyed it. A rotunda was built instead with the grave at the center.
Albeit for a day, we had an amazing experience exploring this ancient city, learning about its rich history and theological impact it has on the world. Although as our guide told us at the end of the tour: “Well, you’ve done Jerusalem 101; now you need 201, a Master’s and maybe a PhD.”