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Jerusalem is arguably the most important religious city in the world, central to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. It’s chiefly these religious attractions that draw over 3 million annual visitors to Israel; nowhere in the world is as rich in spiritual history.
It’s a harder sell for the religiously apathetic, but Jerusalem’s long and turbulent history of conflict is felt at every corner; the influence of religion is always near, but the scars of the past leave plenty to marvel at besides. This article focuses chiefly on the Old City, which is over 3000 years old, yet other parts of Jerusalem are keenly modernised. Importantly, its veneration makes the city incredibly safe for tourists.
In this final part of our Holy Land series we take you on a walking tour of Jerusalem, guiding you along one of the most common pilgrimages taken through the city.
We start outside of the Old City, on a mountain ridge that offers a famous panorama of Jerusalem, and has been a Jewish cemetery for over 3000 years. Over 150,000 graves line the slopes that used to be covered in olive groves.
From here you can decipher the different sections of the city, built in and around each other over millennia like a puzzle box. Take a look at the size of the stones that form the city walls, and imagine how they were transported across the land and heaved into place.
After a walk into the Kidron Valley toward the ancient walls, you enter the Old City. The Temple Mount is our first stop; it is the holiest site in all Judaism, marking as it does in scripture the literal spot where Heaven and Earth meet.
The Mount is also important in Islam as the place from which Mohamed was taken up to Heaven. The Dome of the Rock mosque is the true must-see of the Mount. The interior is adorned with breathtaking mosaic, faience, and marble, the exterior coloured with intricate Iznik tiles. The lambent glow of the gold dome alone justifies the ascent. Plan ahead, as it’s only accessible at specific times.
The Western Wall is all that remains of the Temple that stood on the Mount, making it the holiest site accessible by Jews, the closest place to the gates of Heaven. Men and women must approach separately. A popular tradition is to write a prayer and slip the paper into a crack of the wall for it to come true.
This is the most powerful way to experience the narrow, high-walled streets of the Old City. This route follows that which is held to have been taken by Jesus on his way to crucifixion. You pass nine Stations of the Cross, a series of churches and sights that commemorate the biblical events of the walk, such as the fifth station that marks where Simon of Cyrene shouldered the cross to relieve Jesus’ burden.
On the Hill of Calvary where Jesus was crucified, this church is primarily run by Greek Orthodox monks; the interior is bedecked with hanging lamps and extensive iconography. Monks are often seen (and heard) beating their staffs against the marble floors. Marvel at the Altar of the Crucifixion, which covers a hole said to be where Jesus’ cross was raised, and what some claim to be the True Cross, as well as countless other relics.
Note: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre can get incredibly crowded. Expect to wait up to an hour to get inside.
Walk a short distance south of the Holy Sepulchre and you’ll find the Muristan, a complex of streets and shops that is the former site of the first hospital of the Knights Hospitaller, which was established to care for Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land.
Centred round the Muristan fountain are local markets selling both traditional produce and tourist souvenirs. At the end of your pilgrimage, this is a great opportunity to unwind by trying some native cuisine and practicing your haggling skills with the traders.
Israel Museum – Israel’s national museum houses, amongst myriad other artefacts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest biblical manuscripts ever discovered. They’re housed in the Shrine of the Book, a magnificent white dome marooned in a pool of glimmering water.
Knesset – The Israeli Parliament is located in Givat Ram, central Jerusalem. Morning tours in multiple languages run every Sunday and Thursday morning, and live session-viewing takes place on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings.
Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial – This sombre and sometimes harrowing memorial is a stark reminder of the Jews that lost their lives during the Holocaust. It includes the Holocaust History Museum, the Hall of Remembrance (above), and The International School for Holocaust Studies. It is the second most visited tourist site in Israel.
At holy sites, men shouldn’t wear shorts and women shouldn’t have bare arms, legs, or shoulders. We recommend women take wrap-around skirts and scarves. In synagogues, men are provided with cardboard kippurs to cover their heads.
The best way to change money is with Arab moneychangers, rather than a bank or hotel.
Be wary of pickpockets on the more crowded streets of the Old City.
Souk traders expect you to haggle. They’ll start high, and it’s your job to beat them down.
If taking a taxi in Jerusalem, agree a price first. Don’t travel in a taxi without a meter; this is illegal.
"The greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time" - Bill Bryson