There’s a reason why Jerusalem’s Old City may not be considered the ideal travel destination in early July. Summer crowds aside, the ancient city is nestled up against the Judean desert, where daily temperatures regularly creep into the low hundreds and any sort of cloud cover is virtually non-existent. Jerusalem doesn’t get that hot, but it gets close.
But’s a dry heat, right? Yeah, right.
Some scorching temperatures weren’t going to get in the way of my first day in the city, however. What could be more authentic than following in the footsteps of Christ feeling like it was summertime in Judea circa the first century AD? With motorized transport not an option in much of the Old City you’re pretty much on your own when trying to get around the place. Air conditioning has begun to creep into some of the newer establishments but you still have to get there.
I was staying about a mile from the Jaffa gate on the west side of the Old City. Named after the main sea port used by pilgrims when visiting the Holy Land, the gate dates back to 1538, and is one of the most important entry ways into the ancient Jerusalem. The Old City in its current manifestation is primarily a creation of the Ottomans, who ruled the city from 1517-1917 and fortified the city with an imposing wall accessible only through seven gates strategically located around the city.
Walking down to the walled old city, and with the sun blazing, I began thinking that Christ was truly blessed to have had his ministry in Galilee, where you could always take a dip when things heated up (the Sea of Galilee is a fresh water lake). In my overheated delirium, I imagined a side benefit of total immersion baptism for early Christians might have been that it provided a brief reprieve from the brutal heat, particularly in the arid lower reaches of the Jordan River.
Jerusalem is a story of conquest and occupation, its Old City having been completely destroyed twice and captured and recaptured more than 40 times. The Jerusalem of Sunday school and sermons is largely buried under millennia of conquering empires and religious rivalries. Israel, the current steward of the ancient walled city, has overseen the UNESCO Heritage site since the 1967 Arab-Israeli (Six Day) war, when it gained control of the ancient city, east Jerusalem and other territories previously held by Jordan, Egypt, and Syria (East Jerusalem, West Bank, Gaza, etc.).
Israel’s continued occupation of some of these areas is controversial and complicated, and it doesn’t take much for locals to let their feelings known. “This area has been under foreign control since the time of the Greeks,” an Israeli guide pointed out when asked about the Israeli control of east Jerusalem and Arab lands, “why are we only now calling it an occupation?” Maybe not the strongest justification for current Israeli policy but a generally accurate statement about how the battered inhabitants of this relatively inhospitable outpost have suffered a disproportionate degree of outside interference.
My plan upon entering the city was to bee-line it to the Western Wall and Temple Mount, one of the most important and conflicted confluences of major religions anywhere in the world.
Things did not go as planned.
Lost in the Armenian Quarter
The walled city is divided into quarters – Jewish, Christian, Armenian (Christian), and Muslim – representing the religions that have left a lasting mark on the holy city and consider it sacred. Quarters however do not mean symmetry or anything representing an easy-to-navigate grid. Tiny roads and alleys branch off in myriad directions, leading the unsuspecting sojourner in to a fascinating if unnavigable maze of small, interconnected passageways.
I followed my gut and veered right, probably because it was a relatively large road, ending up deep in the Armenian Quarter. Armenians earned a right to their own slice of the Jerusalem pie by being among the earliest Christian inhabitants of the city and acquiring substantial adjoining parcels of land in its southwest corner. Apparently the Armenians also took steps not to upset the city’s various conquerors, largely sparing themselves the fate of others who chose to pick a fight with stronger adversaries, ending up either dead or evicted.
My wrong turn meant I would be taking the long road to the Western Wall but also that I would see a bit of the Armenian Quarter, among the less visited sections of the Old City. The quarter is notable for the ornately decorated, 12th century St. James Cathedral, the principal church of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem; and the Armenian museum, which includes information about the introduction of Christianity into Armenia as well as displays of the Armenian genocide in Turkey during World War I.
Jewish Quarter and Western Wall
Roads through the Armenian sector led me eventually to the Jewish Quarter, a square kilometer area in the southeast corner of the city. Although Jews have lived in this part of Jerusalem for millennia, the current Jewish Quarter is relatively new, buildings in the area having been almost completely destroyed, and the community killed or evacuated during the 1948 Arab- Israeli war. Jews returned to the area after Israel regained control of the city in 1967 and have since rebuilt and re-inhabited much of the old site. This has included the establishment of a large number of educational institutions and the rebuilding of the Hurva Synagogue, which dates back to the 18th century.
Despite the age of many of the buildings the area has maintained the traditional standards of the Old City — meaning structures are built closely together and, thankfully, there’s plenty of shade.
The Jewish Quarter sits adjacent to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount compound (for Muslims al-Haram a-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary), sites highly venerated by both religions. The Western Wall once formed part of the Second Jewish Temple and is the most important site in the Jewish religion; the Noble Sanctuary/ Temple Mount compound was once the site of the Second Temple and is now home to the iconic Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque. It ranks as the third holiest site – after Mecca and Medina – in Islam. The elevated approach to the site is striking with the iconic dome sitting as an imposing backdrop to the ancient temple wall.
I wandered aimlessly toward the Western Wall, which appeared to be accessible to anyone willing to go through the security check. My first attempt at this backfired as I entered what turned out to the be the women’s prayer area. After a mild scolding by one of the attendants, I made a course correction I entered the men’s section.
The Western Wall is active 24/7, serving as a site for prayer, bar mitzvahs, and various state and military ceremonies. The Wall is filled with small pieces of paper where visitors have placed written prayers; for those who can’t be there in person it’s possible to fax or e-mail your request to organizations that will place your prayer request for you.
The Western Wall seemed devout and strangely festive all at once. The crowd was diverse, with conservative Hassidic and Sephardi Jews mixing with Carlebachers, a cheerier group wearing bright clothing and singing enthusiastically. Orthodox Jews read silently from religious texts, seemingly embracing the ancient stone edifice.
The Wall site is well-maintained and includes, I might add, an immaculate toilet that looks like it was carved out of the wreckage left behind two thousand years when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple. I left feeling I had actually peed on the Western Wall, a response that was neither accurate nor appropriate.
Across the Muslim Quarter
I had next planned to visit the al-Haram a-Sharif (Temple Mount compound), which is accessible to non-Muslims through the Mughrabi Gate adjacent to the Western Wall. Unfortunately, Al-Haram a-Sharif limits entrance to the compound to specific periods of the day and I miss-timed my arrival. So I rescheduled my Temple Mount visit and headed north into the maze of shops and eateries that make up the Muslim Quarter. Islamic armies conquered Jerusalem in 638 CE and there has been a large Muslim community in the city for most of the centuries that have followed. One of the most populous sections of the Old City, the Quarter resembles many of the souks around the Arab world – a heady mix of clothing shops, carpet sellers, and purveyors of religions artifacts, with plenty of spice and sweets mixed in there for good measure. Running on fumes at this point, I sat down and indulged myself in some of these treats, taking in a few liters of water before moving on.
Christian Quarter and Via Dolorosa
I have to admit I did not know about Via Dolorosa before visiting Jerusalem. The route follows the path that Jesus is believed to have walked in his final hours and has been a pilgrimage site since the Byzantine era. Largely a Roman Catholic inspiration, you pretty much have to take the church’s word for it as Via Dolorosa looks more medieval than anything that might have existed around the time of Christ. That much said, over the centuries the Roman Catholic church has formalized the location of the tortured events that are believed to have taken place on the day of the crucifixion and established 14 stations to mark these events.
Several hours into my Jerusalem walkabout and with the mid-day heat reaching its apex I was beginning to feel like I would have my own cross to bear if I felt compelled to make it through all 14 stations.
I mustered up the energy and sauntered forth. Helping the process was a useful and free audio walking tour app Jerusalem tourist authorities have created to help visitors navigate Via Dolorosa and other parts of the city. I had downloaded the app prior to entering the city and fired it up when I got to King’s Gate, the start of the Via Dolorosa. This worked for about the first few stations (sentencing, flagellation, first fall, meeting with mother) at which point — somewhere between Simon the Cyrenian helping Jesus carry the cross and Veronica wiping his face — I think I missed a turn and ended up hopelessly lost. Fortunately the tour winds up at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (10th to 14th stations), which is the most important Christian site in the Old City and not hard to find.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is believed to be on the site where Christ was crucified, buried, and resurrected (In the Bible the site of the crucifixion is referred to as Calvary or Golgotha (Place of the Skull). There isn’t a consensus on the exact location, but with little hard evidence to work off of from that period, the site is probably as good as any. That much said, church designers haven’t done much to recreate the world as it might have existed in 33 CE. The interior of the church, lavishly decorated with colorful hanging lamps, altars, and paintings depicting the crucifixion and burial, is a far cry from the harsh, brutal conditions that Christ likely endured in his final hours. The church is shared by several, primarily early Christian denominations (Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian etc.) who, throughout their reportedly tumultuous history at the site, have divided up the church and presented Jesus’ story according to the traditions of each denomination.
I followed the crowds entering the church, taking what looked like a well worn path to the rock of Golgotha, the Stone of Atoning (where he was believed to have been cleaned for burial), then finally to the Rotunda and Edicule, which houses what is believed to be Jesus’ tomb. It’s all very well staged — and the sun streaming through the Rotunda window is particularly evocative — but it left me feeling like I was in a museum rather than one of the most important sites in Christendom. After the perfunctory pass by the Christ tomb I was anxious to get lost again in the hard-baked streets of Old Jerusalem where nobody was spoon feeding me their notion of religious pilgrimage.
With the sun fading and the day cooling I looped back through the Christian Quarter to the Jaffa gate, following a maze a roads that more than a few times had me retracing my steps. I eventually made it back to my hotel, having logged what amounted to about 12 miles on foot. With so much to do and see I would rise again the next day, stare down the unrelenting sun, and tackle another part of this fascinating corner of the world.