Jerusalem/Old City

The Old City of Jerusalem is that part of Jerusalem surrounded by the impressive 16th century Ottoman city walls and representing the heart of the city both historically and spiritually. In a city already divided, the Old City is further divided culturally and historically into four Quarters: (clockwise from the southeast) the Jewish Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Christian Quarter and the Muslim Quarter. The whole Old City is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Districts

Jerusalem/Old City regions - Color-coded map
The Jewish Quarter
Located at the southern part of the Old City and has been inhabited by Jews since the modern era (in the early Middle Ages until the Crusades conquest of Jerusalem the Jewish neighborhoods of the Old City were located in the northern part of the Old City). The Jewish Quarter was destroyed during the 1948 war but rebuilt by the Israeli government after the Six Day War.
Christian Quarter
Located in the northwest part of the Old City. The quarter contains the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of Christianity's holiest places.
Muslim Quarter
Located in the northeast part of the Old City, this quarter is the largest and most populated one, with mainly Muslim residents.
Armenian Quarter
Located in the southwest part of the Old City. It is the smallest of the four quarters and has the smallest number of residents. Most of the quarter consists of a closed-off private area owned by the Armenian monastery and surrounded by walls.
Temple Mount (also known by its biblical name Mount Moriah)
The holiest site in Judaism and the third-holiest site in Islam. Located east of the Old City. In the site of the Temple Mount the first and second Jewish Temples existed for a period of over one thousand years. During the 7th century AD the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque were established on the site of the Jewish temple. Since the Six Day War the control on the Temple Mount has been transferred to the Muslim Waqf and the Kingdom of Jordan.

Understand

The core of Jerusalem, Old City, has a history that stretches back more than 3,000 years. The present street plan dates largely from Byzantine times, with the walls and ramparts dating back to the 16th century. The crossroad of three continents, Jerusalem has been one of the most fought over cities in human history. Within the walls, the Old City is divided into four vaguely defined quarters: Christian, Armenian, Jewish and Muslim.

You do not need to be Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, or even be overly concerned with religion, to be overwhelmed. Anyone with a sense of history, spirituality or the human species should be absorbed by the tremendous weight of human civilization that cloaks nearly every part of the city. It is an inhabited, living city - not a deserted museum or monument. Humanity's passion play has been constant revival at this location for most of the length of recorded history.

Orientation

As small as the Old City is, it has four distinct districts with different cultures and attitudes.

Get in

The Old City surrounded by a wall built in the first half of the 16th century by the Ottoman Turk, Suleyman the Magnificent. The 4 km (2.5 mile) circuit is accessed by eight gates, of which seven remain in current use. The gates are, in clockwise order:

  1.   Jaffa Gate. on the western side of the city (access from West Jerusalem), next to the Citadel. The busiest of the seven Old City gates, Jaffa Gate has a large taxi rank for easy access in and out of the Old City. The Jaffa Gate has access staircases for the Ramparts Walk (see below)
  2.   New Gate. on the northwestern edge of the Old City, the closest gate to West Jerusalem and convenient for entry to the Christian Quarter. It was the last gate cut into the city wall, in 1889. The New Gate has access to a hospital and some parking just outside the walls.
  3.   Damascus Gate. on the northern side of the city (access from East Jerusalem), it is the most monumental of all the gates. The Damascus Gate has access staircases for the Ramparts Walk (see below) via the Roman Square Excavations. A taxi rank and some parking are available just outside the walls. A bus station is located 2 blocks northeast of the gate
  4.   Herod's Gate. on the northern side of the city, faces Arab East Jerusalem. Its name originates from the 1500s when Christian pilgrims wrongly thought that the house inside the gate was the palace of Herod the Great's son
  5.   St Stephen's Gate (also known as Sheep Gate, or in Hebrew, Lions' Gate). on the eastern side of the city, it faces the Mount of Olives and is the start of the Via Dolorosa. Its name was adopted in the Middle Ages by Christians who believed that the first Christian martyr, St Stephen, was executed here. Prior to that, however, it had been generally accepted that St Stephen had been stoned to death outside Damascus Gate
  6.   Golden Gate. on the east wall of the Temple Mount, was long ago sealed shut by the Muslims in the 7th century. According to tradition the Messiah will arrive in the Temple via this gate
  7.   Dung Gate. on the southern side of the city, it provides direct access to the Jewish quarter and the Western Wall. This is the terminal of buses 1 and 2. Parking is available outside of the city walls near the City of David
  8.   Zion Gate. on the southern side of the city, it provides direct access to the Armenian quarter from Mount Zion. The outside of the gate is pockmarked by bullet-holes due to fierce fighting here in 1948 between the Israelis and the Jordanians. The Arabic name of the gate is Bab el-Nabi Daud (Gate of the Prophet David), because of its proximity to the traditional location of King David's Tomb. Parking is available just outside the gate

By bus

By car

If you arrive by car, be aware of the limited parking space. The streets outside the Old City walls are usually reserved for buses and taxicabs, parking of private cars is prohibited. The simplest option is the recently constructed multi-level parking of Mamilla district near the Jaffa gate (entrance to the parking from Yitshak Kariv street).

Another option is parking in the "First Station" parking lot (16.80 ILS for the whole day), and commuting to/from the old city using a shuttle bus service that is available free-of-charge: SUN-THU, 08:00-20:00 (on Mondays and Thursdays from 07:00).

With a private guide

There's no doubt that Jerusalem is overwhelming not to mention scattered. If you only have a day or two to see the city and you'd like to visit many places in a short time, hiring a local private guide that has his own van might be the right thing for you instead of dealing with a rented car & parking for those days. (Note that there is virtually no vehicular access to the Old City, which is most conveniently accessed on foot and is within walking distance of many hotels in the New City.) However, when choosing a guide, try to ask the right questions and advise him/her with a plan that will fit your interest. You'll know the person is a good private tour guide if he will tailor a tour according to your needs.

Get around

The Old City is fairly diminutive in size compared to modern-day Jerusalem. Despite its small size, or perhaps because of it, the Old City is amazing.Much of the Old City is accessible only by walking because of very narrow streets and steps in the road. This is not a great inconvenience because the Old City is only about 1 kilometer across. The Old City is a maze of twisty alleyways and it's difficult to keep your bearings even with a map. Then again, getting lost is half the funyou can't get too lost due to its size. Thought should be given to footwear, as the roads and paths are uneven stone and thin-soled shoes or spike heels could become uncomfortable.

Note: The Old City contains many small alleys and tiny streets that often do not appear in guidebooks and street maps. Major roads are almost always marked, so do not simply rely on the map and take the next left/right as it may not the road you are looking for.

See

Christian Quarter

Christian Quarter Map
Entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Christian Quarter, the result of rapid expansion under Byzantine rule, is in the northwest corner of the city and is home to a bewildering array of churches, patriarchates and hospices of the city's many Christian denominations. The quarter is served by the Jaffa Gate and the New Gate.

Parts of the Holy Sepulchre are controlled by several different branches of the Christian Church, who have historically been somewhat at odds with each other. It is important to note that the "church" is not one church in the sense of a building with an altar and podium near the front, but rather a "warehouse" of churches even for each denomination present: each has several altars and chapels. The Orthodox Church makes up the largest of the churches there and is situated in the center directly to the east and in front of the Sepulcher as well as at Golgatha. The Armenians have several smaller altars and chapels throughout the edifice as well as a fairly large church called "Saint Helen's" but often referred to as "Saint Gregory (the Illuminator of Armenia)." The Roman Catholics have two chapels, the Ethiopians have one in addition to a monastery on the roof, the Copts have a small altar behind the Sepulchre itself, and there is a small yet beautiful Syriac chapel up some stairs near the Coptic altar, though it is usually closed. There are even what are known as "ecumenical altars" set up on the sides in various areas which are apparently almost purely decoration and are rarely if ever used. There are many pathways and exploring here makes for a few hours of fun for those who love religious art and architecture. The best time to come is early in the morning and make your way out by 11AM. Even after sundown it is incredibly crowded. Be warned though, if you are wearing shorts, you might be barred access to the building itself but if not, then certainly to individual churches and without a doubt to the sepulchre. Women should have their shoulders covered, no cleavage, and dresses should go below the knee. Do not wear anything which might be considered even the slightest bit risqué. If you do not oblige, they will turn you back.

Upon entering the church immediately in front of you is a stone slab set in the floor with a pillar at each corner. This is the Stone of Unction on which, it is claimed, Jesus' body was laid and prepared for burial. Turn right and ascend a steep, narrow flight of stairs to what is claimed to be Golgotha. There are altars here marking the location of the crosses on which Jesus and the two thieves were crucified. It is possible to crawl under the left-hand altar and feel a hole in the rock which is said to be the hole in which the cross was placed. Return down the stairs and go underneath Golgotha. A glass panel in the wall shows fractured rock, claimed to have been broken in the earthquake that followed Jesus' death.

When you come out of this room turn right and follow around the passage. A long flight of stairs leads down to the underground Chapel of the Invention of the Cross (a slightly unfortunate name!) which is the cistern in which St Helena, mother of Constantine, found the True Cross. Note the thousands of small crosses carved into the walls flanking the staircase by Crusader period pilgrims.

Come back up the stairs and continue round the passage past various chapels that mark the Stations of the Cross. This brings you to the Rotunda, beneath which is the Holy Sepulchre itself. There is usually a queue here as people line up to visit the tomb. The first small room is where the angels sat who announced the resurrection to the women who came to the tomb on Sunday morning. The second, which is a squeeze for three and impossible for four, contains a marble shelf supposed to be the spot where Jesus' body was laid. Photography - even flash photography - is allowed, but one should be discreet and respectful, as others in the room will regard this as the most holy of all sites and their visit to it as the emotional highlight of their pilgrimage.

Unfortunately the tomb is almost certainly spurious, as 1st century AD tombs had a particular form exemplified by the Tombs of the Prophets on the Mount of Olives (see below). When you come out of the Sepulchre turn left and go round behind it. A low doorway leads into the often dusty and neglected Chapel of St Nicodemus and a further doorway takes you to a small room in the wall of which are genuine 1st century AD kokhim - coffin-shaped tunnels cut into the wall. If the tomb of Christ is anywhere in this building, these are more likely to be it than the official Sepulchre outside.

Muslim Quarter

The Muslim Quarter is the largest and most densely populated quarter of the Old City. The quarter has changed hands many times from the 12th through 15th centuries, resulting in decay since the 16th century. It is one of the most fascinating and least explored parts of Jerusalem.

NOTE: Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount Area

Non-Muslims are strictly prohibited permanently from entering the al-Aqsa Mosque and currently from entering the Dome of the Rock. Documentation will be checked upon entry and anyone not showing proof of being Muslim will be denied entry. The site, which is known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and also commonly known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount, on which the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are situated, is extremely contentious. Security is tight and access is strictly regulated.

Rules and Regulations at the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount Area

Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the Noble Sanctuary on Fridays or during Muslim prayer hours, and may well be shut off entirely depending on the political situation of the day. The entry to the Noble Sanctuary itself is not prohibited to non-Muslims outside these periods and is free of charge.

Visitors are subject to a strict security screening, and items such as non-Muslim prayerbooks and instruments are strictly prohibited. Visitors must be appropriately dressed (i.e. no shorts, no miniskirts, no sleeveless shirts/tops, no bare body parts, no non-Muslim religious attire such as kippahs, no clothes with religious or political slogans; headscarves are not compulsory for female visitors), and must be prepared for what is sometimes a long queue at the security checking point. Non-Muslims are strictly banned from praying on the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount, and any non-Muslims who are caught praying on the site will be immediately expelled from the site by the police. Any prayer by non-Muslims or the chanting of religious and political slogans on the Noble Sanctuary will be regarded by Muslims as extremely provocative and can result in a backlash of violence and in physical danger to the person involved .

Visiting hours are Saturday to Thursday from 7:30AM to 11AM, and from 1:30PM to 2:30PM during, between Muslim prayer hours. Visiting hours during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan are from 7:30AM to 11AM only. (Notice that these prayer hours can be changed as they are based on Muslim prayer times which is based on the Muslim lunar calendar which moves backwards about ten days each year as compared to the solar calendars, and the dates of Ramadan move backwards as well, as it is a moving month and holiday depending on the moon.)

Entering the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount is through an elevated wooden walkway through a gate called Mughrabi Gate (Moor's Gate), which lies next to the Jewish Western Wall area in the Jewish Quarter.

Muslim Quarter Map
  •   Dome of the Rock. Known in Hebrew as Kipat Ha-Sela (כיפת הסלע) and in Arabic as Qubbat as-Sakhrah (قبة الصخرة), the Dome of the Rock is one of the first and most familiar achievements of Islamic architecture. The Dome of the Rock marks the spot from where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. This association has made the building (together with the neighbouring al-Aqsa Mosque) the third-holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina. The Dome was built between 687-691 by the ninth Omayyad caliph, Abd al-Malik. It was constructed directly on top of the ruins of the Jewish Second Temple. The Dome is probably the most spectacular building in the Old City thanks to a recent renovation in which dazzling gold donated by the King of Jordan in 1993 was layered over the bronze. Despite common conceptions, the Dome is not a mosque, but a shrine which protects beneath its high ceiling a large piece of rock sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians. The rock is variously believed to be where Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac (or Ishmael, Isma'il, according to Islamic lore), where Mohammad left the Earth on his Night Journey (a small indentation was reportedly left by his foot), or the site of Herod's Temple.
  •   al-Aqsa Mosque. Construction of the mosque began less than 20 years after the completion of the Dome of the Rock. Al-Aqsa has undergone many changes since its original construction. When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in the 11th century, al-Aqsa became the headquarters of the Templars. The mosque's design pales in comparison to the Dome of the Rock and is permamantly off-limits to non-Muslim visitors.
  •   Museum of Islamic Art. Housed in the Crusader-era refectory of the Knights Templar, this filled museum contains wonderful Islamic architectural remnants. An admission is required, but it is recommended that guests interested in Islamic art visit the LA Mayer Museum in the new city.

Jewish Quarter

The Jewish Quarter feels distinctly different from the rest of the Old City. Razed by the Jordanians after the partition of the former British Mandate of Palestine in 1948, most buildings in it have been rebuilt from scratch since Israel assumed control of the Old City in 1967. Despite strict laws mandating the use of Jerusalem sandstone in all façades in order to maintain uniformity, the buildings look and feel new.

Armenian Quarter

Armenian Quarter Map

The Armenian Quarter is the smallest and quietest of the four. The quarter runs itself as a city within a city (within a city...), shutting all gates when night falls.

See also: Armenian Patriarchate Website -

Outside the Walls

Church of the Dormition
The second thing is the Warren’s Shaft, the underground water system named after Charles Warren, its 19th-century discoverer. The system was originally built by the Jebusites to ensure a water supply during sieges. In the 10th century BC a tunnel (presently known as a Canaanite tunnel) was dug to take water from the Gihon Spring to the fields of the kidron valley. King Hezekiah had a new tunnel built to bring the spring water right into the city. Hezekiah's Tunnel ran 533 m (1,750 ft) from the spring to the Pool of Shiloah in the southern end of the city. Now, the visitors have two options. You can either walk through the Hezekiah's (wet) tunnel or take the shorter Canaanite (dry) tunnel. In the wet tunnel, you will have to wade in thigh-deep water (flashlight and proper shoes are required). It takes about half an hour to pass through, and the ceiling is high in most places. The dry tunnel is really dry and quite narrow (in fact, it is a crack in the rock). Admission is 25 NIS.

In front of the ticket office is a metal staircase leading down underneath the metal mesh floor. This takes you down to the "Large Stone Structure", which is claimed to be part of the building work undertaken by either David or Solomon. This claim, which is not without controversy, means that the site is popular with earnest young Zionists. A building above this site houses a free film outlining Jewish history in the area. From the terrace behind the building an excellent view of Silwan and the ancient rock-cut tombs can be obtained.

Mount of Olives / Garden of Gethsemane

It is recommended that one explore the Mount of Olives from the top down, as the uphill climb is fairly steep. The best ways to travel to the top of the Mount of Olives are by sherut (shared taxi), which will cost 20 shekels, or by bus (275 from the bus station in front of Herod's gate), both of which are easily accessible from the Damascus Gate.

If you decide to walk, the best route is to go up the lane beside the Garden of Gethsemane (Church of All Nations) and turn right, then follow the tarmac road up past the Dominus Flevit church and the Tombs of Zachariah and Malachi to the short flight of stairs which brings you out at the viewing point overlooking the Old City. Be aware that pickpockets are a real menace at this spot and make sure that your valuables are safely stowed away and that you are aware of anyone coming close to you. Photographs and engravings dating back to the late 1700s show three paths leading up over the Mount of Olives which correspond to the two paths and one road in existence today. As the right-hand path is the shortest route to Bethany, it is possible that Jesus really did follow this path on Palm Sunday, as tradition claims.

Steimatzky’s bookstore in West Jerusalem carries a very good pamphlet called "The Mount of Olives" that includes an account of the history of each church, in addition to readings from the Gospels and notes from pilgrims to the area. It also covers Bethphage and the Church of St. Lazarus in Bethany.

The following points of interest are listed from the top of the Mount to the bottom. Once you have finished on the Mount of Olives, it is a short climb to the Old City's Lion's Gate.

Church of Mary Magdalene

Do

Via Dolorosa

Buy

In terms of buying snacks, water and other drinks as you wander the old city the prices are much more inflated in the Jewish Quarter and near the Jaffa gate and the Muristan. As you move closer to the Damasus gate it is possible to find 1.5 liter bottles of water for 5 Shekels while a .5 liter bottle may cost you as much as 9 Shekels in the more touristy areas. Souk Khan al-Zeit and El-Wad streets are the main arteries of the Muslim quarter. Souk Khan al-Zeit begins just east of the Muristan while El-Wad begins at the outlet of the tunnel to the Western Wall Plaza with both leading north towards the Damascus gate. While these streets contain numerous souvenir shops and cafes catering to tourists, the majority of shops serve the local population. Butchers, Western clothing stores, hardware shops, and groceries can be found throughout the area.

The Suq El Attaria is the primary shopping area in the Arab quarters of the Old City. You will find shops ranging from souvenirs to greengrocers to traditional clothing.

The lanes and alleys in and near the Christian quarter abound in shops displaying icons and other churchy items. The quality ranges from kitsch to alright - and prices are mostly grossly inflated. Credit card scams are not unknown. Shop proprietors are seasoned masters at gentle but effective commercial manipulation - inviting bypassing tourists into their shops, involving them in innocuous conversation and directing them into 'you must buy this' situations.

The Old City of Jerusalem is also known for its Armenian ceramics. With white and a rich blue as the base colors, and bright paintings on them, they are a distinct souvenir. The street signs throughout the old quarter are made of Armenian ceramics, and a few shops will produce custom nameplates and tile signs with a short turnaround time. Ceramics from Hebron are also popular with tourists.

The Cardo is the most prestigious shopping precinct in the Jewish Quarter. Built on the excavated remains of late Roman era Jerusalem (many of which can still be seen), the shops here specialise in arts and crafts, jewelry, Judaica, Dead Sea beauty products, quality souvenirs and T-shirts, amongst other things. Although, be advised that similar products tend to be significantly more pricey than elsewhere in the Old City.

Eat

The Old City tempts the taste buds with Arabic, Jewish, Mediterranean and International fare. Visitors on the go can grab food from street vendors, while those desiring a more formal meal can find numerous restaurants scattered throughout each quarter.

Common appetizers and quick treats may include Kibbe, an oval-shaped croquette of cracked wheat filled with meat and onions; Hummos, a chickpea paste with olive oil; Tabuleh, finely-chopped parsley with tomato and cucumber; and Tahini, a sesame seed paste with parsley, oil and garlic.

Main dishes usually consist of lamb or chicken meat with occasional beef, but never pork. Meats can be cooked in a variety of ways, but is most often cooked on a spit. Take-away restaurants offer favorites like falafel (deep-fried balls of mashed chickpeas) and shwarma (lamb grilled on a spit and eaten in flat bread).

Dessert options range from exotic or citrus fruits to sticky, sweet Middle Eastern confections. Baklava is a layered pastry filled with powdered pistachio and covered in honey or syrup. Kanafeh, a recipe that differs throughout the Middle East, is served in Jerusalem as pistachios in a crisp coating of pastry threads.

An issue that may be confusing to many travelers is the issue of Jewish dietary laws, or Kashrut. These laws state that certain meat is considered impure (anything that does not chew the cud and have a split hoof, including pork and rabbit), as well as certain types of seafood (anything without scales or fins). Animals that are permitted for consumption have been slaughtered according to Jewish religious practices and cleansed of all traces of blood before cooking, allowing the food to be declared kosher. Other complications revolve around the fact that meat and dairy products can never be eaten together in the same meal. In Jerusalem you will find that all types of restaurants can be kosher, not just Jewish ones.

Jewish Quarter

Ask if there is a discount or ask for the 'harova' discount. This is for people who are living or staying inside the Old City, but merchants don't know where you are staying or how long you have been here. If you are feeling cautious, say you are staying at the Heritage House. You can ask for the discount in English as there are many Anglophone guests and residents.

Be careful where you sit. There are dairy and meat only eating areas.

Christian Quarter

Armenian Quarter

Muslim Quarter

Some of the best and cheapest falafel and shwarma joints can found on Saladin Street, just outside Damascus Gate. In addition to the restaurant listed below, there are numerous of pushcarts and stands right outside the gate serving fresh off the grill (and into a pita) food for around NIS 6 a serving (usually not kosher).

There are plenty of small Arab restaurants in the Old City but in January many closed at nightfall. (They are of course Halal.)

Drink

Coffee and tea are the two most common drinks among Jews and Arabs, although each has a preferred way of making it. In Jewish areas, coffee and tea are drunk in European or American-style cafés. Espresso is offered, but is weak compared to katzar, a stronger coffee. In Arab areas, coffee (qahweh) is served thick and strong and is meant to be consumed in small sips. If Western-style coffee is preferred, ask for Nescafé or filtered coffee. Tea (shay) is stronger than Western-style tea and is drunk with lots of sugar. If Western-style tea is preferred, ask for shay Libton (Lipton tea).

Bottled water is inexpensive (usually, be careful where you buy) and readily available throughout the Old City. Carrying an extra bottle of water is recommended due to the dry, dusty climate.

Some restaurants serve alcohol. The main beers are Israeli Maccabee/Goldstar and Arab Taybeh beer. Spirits are less widely available but are commonly sold in hotel bars.

Sleep

Accommodation within the Old City itself is distinctly downmarket.

Budget

For those on a tight budget, youth hostels are ideal (although occasionally somewhat dodgy), and often the cheapest places to stay in Jerusalem. Religiously-based hospices and guest houses, located mainly near the holy sites, is a popular and inexpensive alternative to hotels. Hospices and guest houses tend to maintain stricter rules than hostels.

Mid-range

Splurge

The facilities in the Old City are recommended for those on a tight or mid-range travel budget. For those looking to splurge on accommodations, there are quite a few recommended locations in Modern Jerusalem.

Connect

A plethora of internet cafes has opened throughout the Old City, especially in the Christian and Muslim Quarters - you will have no difficulty locating one as you wander through the narrow streets and souqs. Prices vary, so shop about. Around Israel, the most common price for internetcafes is NIS 15 per hour.

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