If you were to choose just one place to visit while in Israel it should be the Old City of Jerusalem. Packed within the 450 year old city walls is 1km² holding some of the country’s top attractions.The Old City is an exciting, exotic, spiritual and fascinating world of narrow cobbled alleys, mosques, churches, eateries, markets and more. The Old City remains as it was thousands of years ago and people still live and work here in the ancient buildings. Among the wonders of the Old City are the most important Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious sites in the country.
Brief History of the Old City of Jerusalem
It was here in Jerusalem that the ancient Jewish temples were built and where Jesus often visited and eventually was crucified. Golgotha, the site of Jesus crucifixion is within the Old City marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. King David conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites in the 11th century BC and established his kingdom. Muslims took the city in 637AD and in 1099AD the first Christian Crusaders arrived. The city changed hands several times and saw pilgrims arriving to the various religious sites. The Old City walls we see today were built under Ottoman leader Suleiman the Magnificent in the 1500s. Up until 1860 all of Jerusalem was within the Old City walls, then the first neighborhood beyond the walls was established and the new city grew into the modern metropolis we see today. But within the Old City walls time seemed to stand still. From 1848 to 1867 the Old City was ruled by Jordan and no Jews were allowed to visit or live in the Old City until it was retaken by Israel in the Six Day War. Jews returned to the city and it was repopulated with people in all four of the Old City’s quarters. The city has remained a tourist attraction and a pilgrimage site for Muslims visiting Temple Mount, Christians visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Jews visiting the Western Wall.
Overview of the Old City
The Old City is surrounded by fortified walls and it is possible to walk along the ramparts. Visitors enter the Old City through the wall’s seven gates (there are actually eight gates but one is closed). The Old City is divided into four uneven quarters – the Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian quarters. The division is not with walls but rather the quarters flow one onto the other. In each quarter there is a distinct character; you’ll see people in traditional dress in each of the quarters – Hasidic Jews in their black coats and black hats in the Jewish Quarter, nuns, monks and friars in their habits in the Armenian and Christian Quarters and in the Muslim Quarter the traditional keffiyeh headdress and long kaftan-type jalabiyyah. In each of the quarters you can buy souvenirs, taste ethnic food and see art and architecture unique to that quarter’s culture, religion and history.
The Christian Quarter in the northwestern of the Old City has the New Gate, Jaffa Gate, Damascus Gate and the junction of David Street and Souk Khan el-Zeit at its corners. This quarter is home to approximately 40 holy sites but the star of the quarter is without question the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church is a beautifully ornate and cavernous structure with many small chapels and intricate art work. The church dates back to at least the 4th century and houses the site where Jesus was crucified at Calvary, the tomb where he was buried and resurrected and the last four Stations of the Cross. The church is shared by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Orthodox churches as well as the Syriacs, Ethiopians and Egyptian Copts to a lesser extent.
Jews have inhabited the Jewish Quarter almost continuously since the 8th century BC. Parts of the Jewish Quarter have been excavated to reveal ancient Roman remains including the Cardo, which would have been the colonnaded main street during Jesus’ lifetime. The star of this quarter is the Western Wall; the last remaining part of the 2nd Holy Jewish Temple which was destroyed in 70AD. The Western Wall (Kotel) opens up to a large plaza and Jews come from across the globe to worship here. Local Jews worship at the Western Wall as they would at a synagogue. You can place a prayer note with your personal message to God between the large stones of the Western Wall.
The largest quarter of the Old City is home to the Muslim population (and a few Jewish families). It has narrow cobbled lanes that are a bustle of activity. Within this quarter there is the Temple Mount, this is where the ancient 1st century Jewish Temple stood and today it is the site of the beautiful Dome of the Rock which covers the Foundation Stone from where Muhammad is believed to have ascended to Heaven. The Dome of the Rock has a distinctive golden dome which is a symbol of the city. Also on Temple Mount is the al-Aqsa Mosque, Muhammad’s destination in the Night Journey and the Dome of the Chain a free-standing dome and the oldest structure on Temple Mount. The Western Wall Tunnels run beneath the Muslim Quarters and the Muslim Quarter has several Roman and Crusader remains. The Muslim Quarter has a lively market or “shuk” where you can find a huge rang of goods. The Via Dolorosa runs through the Muslim Quarter and is home to the first seven Stations of the Cross.
This is the smallest quarter of the Old City. It is home to Christian Armenians who arrived in Jerusalem in the 4th century AD when Armenia adopted Christianity and Armenian pilgrims came to visit the holy sites and settled here. The Armenian Quarter centers on St. James Monastery and the 4th century Cathedral of St. James which houses the Jerusalem Patriarchate of the Armenian Apostolic Church. (Pop trivia: This is where Kanye West and Kim Kardashian held their daughter, North’s christening in 2015) The Armenians have their own distinct culture, religious traditions and language. The Jerusalem Armenians are famed for their distinctive hand painted tiles, tile murals and handmade ceramics. You can buy ceramics in several stores in the Armenian Quarter and see street signs made from the brightly painted Armenian tiles.
Must-See Old City Sites
You can safely wander the lanes of the Old City discovering hidden gems around every corner. But just so you don’t miss any of the essential attractions here are a few must-sees:
2. Church of the Holy Sepulcher – Christian Quarter.
And now for something special in the Old City….
- Dei res-Sultan Ethiopian Monastery accessed via the 9th Station of the Cross on the roof of a medieval annex in the Christian Quarter.
- Shopping in the Old City Market.
- Walking the Ramparts of the Old City walls.
- The Tower of David (Jerusalem Citadel) at Jaffa Gate, a museum, archaeological site and sound and light show.
- Mamila luxury shopping street – Northwest of Jaffa Gate.
- Follow the Via Dolorosa retracing Jesus’ route as he carried his cross towards Calvary.
Like the Old City? Join today to our wonderful 1-day tour to Jerusalem!