Things to Do in Jerusalem
Surrounded by ancient stone city walls, it is easy to get lost in the winding alleyways of Old Jerusalem — lost in another time, another place, another world. That is what is so special about the place: outside of being of utmost sacred significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims, the Old City maintains its historic feel and tangible spirituality. The Western Wall, Temple Mount, Dome of the Rock, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are all located within its walls. The Via Dolorosa, where Jesus is said to have walked to his crucifixion, can still be traced here. There is both a sense of chaos — with bustling souks and busy streets — as there is a deep sense of calm and peace.
Built by King David in 1004 B.C., the Old City of Jerusalem has one of the most fascinating histories in the world. Its walls were constructed in the 16th century by the Ottomans.
Perhaps the most significant landmark of the Jewish people and symbol of the Old City of Jerusalem, the Western Wall (or the Wailing Wall) is the last remaining remnant of the Second Temple built by Herod the Great around 19 BCE.
Jewish pilgrims from all around the world visit the site and pray to the embodied spirit of the holy presence while mourning the fall of the temple by kissing the wall and putting notes into its crevices. The plaza in front of the wall is divided into 2 sections, one for men, the other for women and is the staging for various Jewish rituals.
This particular section of the wall is merely 187 feet (57 meters) however the entire wall stretches more than 1,600 ft (488 m), most of which in accessible and hidden within residential Jerusalem.
The Via Dolorosa is the path within the Old City of Jerusalem that Jesus is said to have took carrying the cross to his crucifixion. Known in Catholicism as the Stations of the Cross, the entire path is marked on the streets and major landmarks it passes through in order for pilgrims to retrace.
Although the path has changed several times over the course of history, today the main route is taken with 14 stations along the way, as it was done by early Byzantine pilgrims.
Set within the Christian Quarter of the old walled city of Jerusalem – which it itself the larger World Heritage Site -- this church is considered by many Christians to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection. A popular stop on the pilgrimage trail since the 4th century, the church itself is now the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Commissioned between 325-6 by Emperor Constantine I, and his mother, Saint Helena, the church was built on the former site of a temple dedicated to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and war; initial excavations for this construction, according to Helena, revealed the Holy Sepulchre, or the tomb of Jesus. During a Muslim uprising in 1009, the church was razed to the ground, an act that provoked Europe to begin the Crusades. It was eventually rebuilt via collaboration between the Muslims and Byzantines, and additions were later made by Crusaders, Franciscan monks, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic elders.
In Jesus’ day, the Garden of Gethsemane at the base of the Mount of Olives was an olive grove, and according to some botanists, some of the ancient olive trees still growing in the gardens likely predate Christianity itself. While the word “gethsemane” means “oil press,” the Garden of Gethsemane is much better known for its prominence in New Testament scripture as the site where Jesus was betrayed and arrested after the Last Supper.
In the center of the garden sits the Church of All Nations, a mosaic-covered church built in 1924 by architect Antonio Barluzzi. Within the church sits the Rock of Agony, believed by some to be the place where Jesus wept and prayed for the city of Jerusalem.
The Kidron Valley is known for its stunning views, as well as its historic and religious significance. It’s a destination for travelers seeking a Biblical touchstone, thanks to its starring role in the story of David in the Books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, in Orthodox, Jewish, Protestant and Catholic traditions. The valley is also home to hundreds of ancient tombs located near the village of Silwan. It is widely recognized as the main burial ground in the city during historic times. The most significant tombs in the Kidron Valley include the Pillar of Absalom, the Tomb of Benei Hezir and the Tomb of Zechariah. Travelers who explore these tombs on a visit to the valley will gain a deeper understanding of Jerusalem’s culture, history and religious traditions while taking in some truly incredible views.
The walled Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four major quarters: the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, and the Christian Quarter. The city’s Christian Quarter contains around 40 religious sites holy to Christianity, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at its heart. The church is venerated as the site where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected and remains a place of pilgrimage for Christians from all over the world. For many it is regarded as the religion’s holiest site.
Pilgrims often follow the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus walked to his crucifixion, stopping at shrines and small sites along the way. Many churches, monasteries, schools, and museums are dotted throughout. You’ll also find residences, souvenir shops, cafes, and other pieces of daily life from those presently residing in the area. There is also an iconic, colorful market patched between the stone walls and narrow streets.
The oldest continuously operating church in the world, the Church of the Nativity was commissioned in the year 327 by Emperor Constantine I and his mother, Saint Helena, built over the site considered by most Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus. Destroyed by fire and then rebuilt in the 6th century, the church was used until 1131 as the coronation site for European Crusades-era kings, and has since been widely expanded.
The 4,000-foot complex now includes the main basilica, run by the Greek Orthodox Church; the Roman Catholic, Gothic Revival-style Church of St. Catherine; the Grotto, an underground shrine to the birth of Jesus; and a bas-relief sculpture of the Tree of Jesse, a symbol of Jesus’ genealogy, bequeathed to the church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Listed as a Heritage Site in 2012, this is first UNESCO site to be set in Palestine; its nomination sparked fierce opposition from both the United States and Israel.
This religious and spiritual destination is one of four historic quarters that make up the famed city of Jerusalem. Travelers seeking a touchstone to the past will find just what they’re after on a visit to this place that dates back to the Roman Empire.
Ancient ruins uncovered by archeologists from Hebrew University are in a handful of museums and parks in the Jewish Quarter, including a 2,200-year-old image of a Temple menorah and portions of the Israelite Tower. A stunning pool built by the Romans was discovered in 2010. Travelers will find this homage to another lifetime filled with terracotta roof tiles, mosaic floors and regal steps. In addition to archeological ruins, visitors can tour several of the other historic and religious sites that are scattered across the Jewish Quarter. The famous Western Wall, several synagogues, a handful of Yeshivas and an abandoned mosque offer insight into the culture and traditions of this diverse city.
More Things to Do in Jerusalem
The incredible fortress of Masada, located in the astonishing Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, has been symbolic to the Israeli people since the Roman era, symbolizing bravery and self-sacrifice in the face of adversity. The plateau is surrounded by rocky cliffs on all sides, and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001.
Upon arriving, you can either walk to the entrance or take a cable car lift. While the cable car is the fastest way to reach the site, you can walk up the two beautitful paths of either the "Snake Path" or the Roman Ramp.
When you have reached the top, explore Herod's palace complex with its amazing ancient bath houses and mosaics. There are also remnants of Roman encampments, synagogues, and homes. Combined with the breathtaking views of the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea, Masada is an experience not to be missed.
As both the oldest and most famous Islamic shrine in the world, the Dome of the Rock is one of the most sought pilgrimage destinations in the world. Constructed on top of the site of the Second Jewish Temple around 690 CE, its historical and religious value is unprecedented.
The exterior detail of the dome is in the shape of a Byzantine martyrium, built for the purpose of housing holy relics. It is also jacketed in over 100,000 melted Dinar gold coins, covering the entire done and making it a gem of middle Byzantine art. The Dome of the Rock’s famous wooden dome has a diameter of about 60 feet (20 meters) and is mounted on a drum consisting of 16 piers and columns circularly placed beneath. The entire shrine has a 66.27 ft (20.20 m) diameter by 67.19 ft (20.48 m) in width.
The Church of All Nations is a prominent Roman Catholic church perched on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. It is also known as the Basilica of Agony, with its walls golden mosaics depicting the suffering of the world as assumed by Jesus. Tradition has it that Jesus kneeled on a rock here in the Garden on Gethsemane prior to his arrest by the Romans. The slab of rock is now encompassed by a circle of iron thorns.
Historically the site of a Byzantine church, it was converted to a basilica in the 4th century by Crusaders. The present stone structure has domes, walls, and pillars built in Byzantine style although built from 1919 to 1924. Its construction was fueled by donations of Catholic communities from all over the world. Symbols of each nation that donated were built into the glass of the church’s ceiling.
Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter dates back to the fourth century and remains the oldest Armenian diaspora on earth. Centered around the St. James Monastery, the quarter is ripe with religious, cultural and historical monuments that make it worthy of a visit.
Travelers can explore the Cathedral of St. James and the halls of St. Toros Church—two of the oldest structures in the quarter, or wander the grounds of Alex and Marie Manoogian Seminary—a modern school for those studying holy traditions. The Helen and Edward Mardigian Museum of Armenian Art and Culture highlights the artistic contributions of Armenians and the St. Toros Manuscript Library is home to the second-largest collection of Armenian manuscripts in the world.
Just east of the Old City, separating Jerusalem from the Judean Desert, sits the Mount of Olives, one of the city’s most famous scriptural sites. The famous mountain is referenced in both the Old and New Testaments, first as the escape route David used during his son’s rebellion, and again by the prophets. The New Testament recounts Jesus addressing his pupils from the Mount of Olives.
Apart from its religious importance, the Mount of Olives is historically significant as well. On the lower slopes of the mountain, you’ll find the Jewish cemetery, believed to be the oldest cemetery in the world still in use and burial place of many prominent Jewish figures, including Zechariah and philosopher Nahmanides. The foot of the mountain is also home to the Gardens of Gethsemane, the Church of All Nations and the Russian Orthodox Church of Maria Magdalene.
The remains of Israel’s famous King David sit on the holy site of Mount Zion. Pilgrims flock to pay their respects to the Old Testament king who is credited with writing many of the Psalms. At nearly 1,000 years old, it is highly debated whether or not King David is actually buried here. Nonetheless, the place remains highly significant, particularly to Jews. Before the state of Israel was founded, Jews did not have access to the Western Wall (Wailing Wall) and would instead visit the Tomb of David to pray.
The tomb can be seen on the ground floor of what remains of the Byzantine church Hagia Zion. It is estimated that parts of the structure date back to the time of the Crusaders. Men and women must visit the stone tomb separately, though members of all faiths are welcome.
Bursting at the seams with produce, nuts, seeds, spices, wines, meats and cheeses, baked goods, fish, housewares and clothing, Mahane Yehuda Market, informally called The Shuk, teems with locals and tourists who come for a bargain or simply to take in the frenetic atmosphere. The history of the market dates back to the Ottoman Period, when locals began selling produce there in the early 20th century. It soon expanded into an organized market thanks to its convenient, centralized location. The local government attempted to add much-needed infrastructure — proper sewage, running water and garbage disposal to start — to the market during the British Mandate period, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that conditions began to improve. Hungry travelers will find plenty of street food stands in and around the Mahane Yehuda Market, including some of Jerusalem’s best burekas. The market also offers a Shuk Bites card, which includes a self-guided tour map of the market.
Sitting halfway up the Mount of Olives, Dominus Flevit is a prominent Franciscan church in Jerusalem. The name translates from Latin to “The Lord Wept,” with the structure shaped like a teardrop to symbolize the tears of Jesus. It is said to mark the spot where Jesus looked out onto Jerusalem and wept, knowing the city was bound to be destroyed.
The site went unmarked until the Crusader era, when a small chapel was built that eventually fell into ruin. The present day structure was built in 1955 by Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi, standing upon centuries of history and ruins — including the Byzantine era monastery and an ancient necropolis. Today the church has a panoramic, often-photographed view of Jerusalem. The window at the altar provides an overlook of the city focused on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
In the Gospel of John, chapter 5, Jesus is said to have miraculously healed a paralyzed man at the Bethesda Pool. This pool was discovered and excavated during the nineteenth century when the Church of St. Anne, located on the same grounds, was being restored. This public bath was likely used during the first century BC and first century AD. The Romanesque church was built in 1140 by Crusaders at the site where Hannah, mother of Mary, was born. It’s considered one of the best specimens of medieval architecture in Israel and is famous for its astounding acoustics. Stick around for a few minutes and you’ll often hear hymns being sung.
Within Old Jerusalem’s al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, lies the third holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. The Al Aqsa Mosque, which translates to “the farthest mosque,” sits beside the Dome of the Rock, and it is believed that Muhammed ascended to heaven from this spot after being transported from Sacred Mosque in Mecca.
Over the centuries the silver-domed mosque has been destroyed in several different earthquakes and subsequently rebuilt. With four minarets, the present day structure is characteristic of early Islamic architecture. The interior contains 121 stained glass windows, its massive dome painted with 14th-century designs. The dome was recovered in lead in 1985 to replace the aluminum cover with its original cover. Though Israel maintains control of the space, it is overseen by the Waqf, a Jordanian and Palestinian authority of the Muslim holy sites in Israel.
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