It is extremely difficult to visit Jerusalem or Israel without immersing oneself in historical religious controversy. While planning our trip, we knew that most guides would have a personal religious bias, which we felt would impact our experience. We wanted a secular, historical perspective. We therefore decided on two guides with different backgrounds and opposing religious experiences. First, a young Jewish lad who had lived in Canada and had come back to Israel to get married, and second, a middle aged gentleman who had worked in the United Nations, had UN plates on his car and although Christian, was not practicing. Both choices were good, the second being an ideal choice as we were able to get into the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque through his contacts.
Wailing wall in front – part of the retaining wall around the Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock seen in the rear
Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world and considered holy to the world’s three major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Its long history includes having been destroyed twice, captured and recaptured 44 times and attacked 52 times.
Jerusalem’s four quarters
In 1538, the city walls were built which today make up the Old City. This Old part of the City is divided into four quarters, Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. The reason for the existence of a separate Armenian quarter is that unlike the majority of Christians in Jerusalem, the Armenians are neither Arab nor Palestinian. The Armenian community here is considered the largest diaspora community outside the homeland.
The part of the city called City of David was settled by nomad shepherds in the 4th millennium BCE. According to the Bible, King David conquered the city and established it as the capital of the United Kingdom of Israel. His son, King Solomon commissioned the First Temple that was later destroyed (although there is no archaeological evidence to this). These events are central to the Jewish people. In Christianity, the New Testament’s account of Jesus’s crucifixion was centered around this city. In Islamic tradition, around 610 CE, Mohammad made his Night Journey to Jerusalem where he ascended to heaven and spoke to God.
Today, both Israel and Palestine consider the city as its capital. In fact, the status of this city is part of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Temple Mount and our Private Tour
The Temple Mount is known as The Holiest of Holies, the Noble Sanctuary of Jerusalem and Mount of the House, depending on whether you are of the Jewish or Muslim faith. It is presently a flat plaza surrounded by retaining walls (the Western or Wailing Wall is part of this larger retaining wall). There are three structures, the al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, the Dome of the Chain and 4 minarets.
The dual claims of both religions makes the Temple Mount the most contested religious site in the world. The Mount is within the city of Jerusalem which has been controlled by Israel since 1967. After the 6 day war, Israel was forced to hand the administration of the site back to Waqf, the Muslim entity that governed the site, under Jordanian custodianship. The Israelis also forfeited the right to pray there, although Israeli soldiers stand outside and patrol the area.
Our guide was able to get us a private tour inside the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The Dome of the Rock is a rock lying centrally under the 20m-high dome and ringed by a protective fence. It is the rock from which it is said Muhammad began his miraj (ascension). According to the Quran, Muhammad pushed the stone down with his foot, leaving a footprint on the rock (supposedly still visible in one corner). Jewish tradition also has it that this marks the centre of the world.
The Muslims regard the Temple Mount as one of three Sacred Mosques and one of the three holiest sites in Islam. The Dome of the Rock was commissioned to commemorate Mohammad’s journey to Jerusalem and his ascension to heaven. The Dome currently sits in the middle of the Temple Mount.
According to Jewish tradition, the First Temple was built by King Solomon and destroyed by the Neo-Babylonians, the Second Temple was build by Zerubbabel in 516BCE and destroyed by the Roman Empire. The Third Temple will be built here when the Messiah comes. It is the holiest site in Judaism and the place where the Jews pray. According to rabbinical law, there is divine presence here.
The Bir el-Arwah, or the “Well of Souls” is a cavity beneath the rock that is accessible by a staircase near the south entrance of the Dome. It is said that here the voices of the dead mingle as they drop into eternity.
The structure has been refurbished many times since its initial completion. Its significance stems from religious traditions regarding the rock, known as the Foundation Stone. It consists of a domed octagon over the rock, a type of structure that was very familiar in Roman mausolea and Christian martyria. It is said that the structure was to upstage the nearby domed church of the Holy Sepulchre, also built over a rock. It is richly decorated with tile and Koranic inscriptions.
The Al Aqsa Mosque is a distinct structure on the Temple Mount and the third holiest site in Islam. It was built on the Mount several years after Muhammad’s death. The area where the mosque is built is a highly sensitive religious site as this is believed to be the site of the Second Temple, the holiest site in Judaism.
As we are not muslims, we were extremely fortunate to have received a private tour of both the Mosque and the Dome on the Temple Mount. Non Muslims are permitted to enter the Temple Mount from only one of the eleven gates (the Moors Gate) at designated times. However, non muslims are not permitted to enter the Dome of the Rock nor the Al Aqsa Mosque.
The Wailing Wall or The Wall of Soloman
The Wailing Wall, also known as the Western Wall and The Wall of Solomon, is today a place of prayer and pilgrimage for the Jewish people. It is the remains of the retaining wall surrounding the Temple Mount. When praying, Jews face the wall as it gives them a link with the holy site, the Temple that was built on the Temple Mount and later destroyed. It is also called Solomon’s Wall.
There is also a custom of writing prayers on pieces of paper and placing them inside the crevices of the wall.
Since 1948, after the Arab-Israeli war, the wall had been under Jordanian rule and was other parts of Jerusalem, and Jews were not able to pray there. In fact, Jews were expelled from the city entirely including the Jewish Quarter. However, during the 1967 6-day war, Israel recaptured the wall and reunified the city.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Although Jerusalem is fiercely contested by both Muslim and Jewish believers, Christians are equally fierce in their claims to the city. One of the holiest Christian sites is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Church is in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem and according to Christian belief, it contains the two holiest sites in Christianity: the site where Jesus was crucified and Jesus’s empty tomb. Within the Church are the stations of the cross and the Via Dolorosa, the final episodes of Jesus’s life
The Church is a fascinating complex as it is controlled by various factions of Christians as well as secular entities. The sharing arrangements are very complicated and go back 160 years and longer. The main denominations that share control of the church are the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Apostolic and the Coptic Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox. Some sections are governed by a particular group while other sections of the Church are shared. A few sections of the Church remain hotly disputed to this day.
For example, a small section of the roof where a small monastery sits, is disputed between the Copts and the Ethiopians. Every day at least one Coptic monk sits on a chair to express his claim. In the fall of 2002, it was a very hot day and he moved his chair slightly into the shade. The Ethiopians took this to mean that he was advancing his claim and a major scuffle resulted. CBS News reported that a dozen people were hurt in the incident.
Sometime in the first half of the 18th century, someone placed a ladder up against the wall of the church. No one knows which sect the ladder belonged to. To this day, no one sect is allowed to touch the ladder as it will cause a war with the other sects. The ladder is immovable.
The Jerusalem Cemetery on the Mount of Olives is the oldest in Jerusalem with 150,000 tombs and includes the tombs of famous figures in Jewish old and modern history. The Mount of Olives is also a great vantage point for a panoramic view of the city.
City of David
A highly disputed area, the City of David is an area in East Jerusalem that was annexed to Israel following the 1967 six day war. The area is also known as the Palestinian neighborhood of Wadi Hilweh, part of the village of Silwan. It is archaeologically significant as it is speculated that it is the site of the original settlement of Jerusalem during the Bronze and Iron Age.
The name ‘The City of David’ originates from the old testament where King David is described as the Israelite who conquers Jebus and names it after himself. The archaeological academic community questions the whole premise of the name vis a vis its religious and political connotations. It is one of the most excavated sites in Israel.
Mondisti Jerusalem Trip Tips:
- Jerusalem is an ancient fascinating city that appeals to both believers and non-believers.
- If you want a more historical approach, choose a few guides with different political and religious backgrounds.
- If you are going for a religious tour, a single guide with your religious persuasion will suffice.
- Jerusalem is packed with fascinating historical places, some secular but most have religious significance, it is best to keep an open mind.
- For sites that are difficult to enter because of religious reasons, it is worth searching for a guide who may be able to pull strings and get you in. It is worth the extra effort.