Ten Must-Sees in Jerusalem
12 May, 2015
Realising that you are walking in one of the oldest cities on earth is awe-inspiring. Here are ten pointers to understanding and enjoying this fascinating yet complex city, bearing in mind that biblical, epic and historical landmarks are a constant in this metropolis, where religion has pulsated since time immemorial.
1. To get a feel for the size and layout of Jerusalem, we shall start our tour on the Mount of Olives, affording one of the best panoramic views of the city – the old city, the new city, the walls, tombs… thousands of years of history at a simple glance.
2. On the way down, stop off at Gethsemane and stroll through the groves of millennial olive trees. Then, visit the Church of All Nations, built on the rock where Jesus prayed before being arrested.
3. To come to grips with Jerusalem, it is essential to understand it is “thrice-holy”; that is, sacred to the three great monotheistic religions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have part of their roots in these backstreets. The Wailing Wall, the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Holy Sepulchre are three landmarks you should not fail to visit, whatever your beliefs. Let’s start with the Wailing Wall or Western Wall, the only remaining vestige of Jerusalem’s Second Temple, the holiest of Jewish places, which was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. You have to pass through several security checks on the way in. Once inside, men on one side and women on the other. Men must also cover their heads with a Jewish kippah or skullcap.
You are met by a unique, striking setting – hundreds of people facing the wall and rocking to and fro as they pray. If you look up, you see the Esplanade of the Mosques, another privileged vantage point with Jerusalem at your feet. Here, the two striking landmarks are the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the latter built on the spot where it is believed that Muhammad rose into paradise. Its crowning gold dome has become a veritable symbol. The esplanade is also a reference point for both Jews and Christians as it was here that Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, Isaac. For Christians the holiest place is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Built on Mount Golgotha (Calvary), this is the spot where Jesus died on the Cross. It is also the site of his sepulchre or burial place, where he was resurrected on the third day. Also preserved is the Stone of Anointing, where Christ’s lifeless body rested. Many landmarks and endless queues; you need to be patient.
4. But, not everything is religion. Jerusalem also features examples of the avant-garde and some upmarket shopping precincts. If you walk along Mamilla Mall, judging by the brands on display there, you could easily be in London or Paris. Access to the mall is via the Jaffa Gate – have your visa ready!
5. The Mamilla is also Jerusalem’s first designer hotel, and a sanctuary for sybarites who relish sleeping against the backdrop of the old city walls and David’s Tower. Mamilla Hotel is a blend of the eternal and the avant-garde – millennial stone walls and metal headboards and, as a plus, a miraculous spa and a gourmet restaurant with privileged views.
6. Those with classical taste will perhaps prefer the King David, the epitome of a grand hotel. Once the headquarters of the British Mandate, the hotel now excels as a luxury establishment which has seen such illustrious overnighters as King Felipe and Queen Letizia, the Prince of Wales, Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy and Margaret Thatcher and, from the world of celebrity fame, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Richard Gere and Madonna. The sober exterior of the hotel contrasts with the elegant, modern interior and the comfortable rooms. Prices are in keeping with the standing of its prestigious customers.
7. We head back to the old city to tour the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian quarters. In all these precincts the shops are well-stocked – food, a variety of souvenirs, perfumes, confectionery, religious objects, T-shirts and antiquities worth thousands of euros, including Roman coins, vessels from Christ’s time… If you can’t afford them, that shouldn’t put you off soaking up the charm of these alleyways and their people from all religions, races and cultures. Jerusalem’s old city is a melting pot thronging with Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, Arabs, Christians, Westerners, Asians… Where bells chime and muezzins call to prayer.
8. A colourful and more affordable alternative is the local Mahane Yehuda market but, be warned – don’t go there on Shabbat (the Sabbath) as it is the Jewish holy day. The city comes to a standstill at sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday, an important detail to remember when planning your trip.
9. Before leaving Jerusalem, make sure you visit at least two of its museums. Yad Vashem is the Holocaust memorial, a world centre of documentation, research, education and commemoration, while the Israel Museum is where the Dead Sea Scrolls are on display, the oldest biblical manuscript in the world, as is an amazing mock-up of historical Jerusalem, which will help you understand the city.
10. To round off your trip, make your farewell from Mount Scopus where, in addition to viewing the skyline of the old city, you will also see the waters of the Dead Sea, another of those places worth visiting at least once in a lifetime.
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Text and images by Nani Arenas
12 May, 2015