The Old City covers about one square kilometer. The walls date back to the ottoman empire the Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566). The wall date back to 1537 and were completed in 1541.
The Old City has 11 gates, but only seven are open (Jaffa, Zion, Dung, Lions, Herod’s, Damascus, and New).
The main entrance to the Old City today is the Jaffa Gate which built by Suleiman in 1538. The name in Arabic is Bab el-Halil or Hebron Gate which means ‘The Beloved’. This refers to Abraham the beloved of God who is buried in Hebron. Cars can enter the city here. Originally built in 1898 when Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany visited Jerusalem. The ruling Ottoman Turks opened it so the German Emperor would not have to dismount his carriage.
The Golden Gate can only be seen from outside the city it is partly below the Temple Mount. According to tradition the Messiah will enter Jerusalem through this gate. In an attempt to stop him from coming, the Muslims sealed the gate during the rule of Suleiman. Jews aren’t worried about this as they say ‘If the Messiah comes this far one would think he will find a way in.’
The original gates are angled so that you can’t enter directly into the city without making a sharp 90-degree angle turn. This was to prevent direct attack on horseback and to make it difficult to use a battering ram to break them down. Some of the gates, such as Zion Gate, outside the Armenian and Jewish quarters there is a hole through which boiling liquids could be poured on attackers.
The Four Quarters
The Old City is divided into four quarters which are named according to the ethnic makeup. The dividing lines are the street that runs from Damascus Gate to the Zion Gate. This divides the city east-west. The street that goes from Jaffa Gate to Lion’s gate separates the city north and south. When you enter through Jaffa Gate and walk to David Street the Christian Quarter on the left. On the right is the Armenian Quarter. To the left of Jews Street is the Muslim Quarter, and, to the right, is the Jewish Quarter.
Just past the Tourist Office inside Jaffa Gate on the left is a small enclosure with two graves under the trees. These are believed to be the graves of the two architects who rebuilt the city walls. They were executed because the Suliman wanted to be sure they could never build anything more impressive for anyone else or because they failed to include Mount Zion within the walls.
On the Jaffa Gate side of the city the most striking landmark is the Citadel. This is marked by David’s Tower which is a misnomer given that the cylindrical structure dates from the 16th century. The tall square tower is 2 000 years old and was built by Herod. Inside the Citadel is a courtyard and museum with exhibits on the history of the Citadel and Old City.
Down David Street from Jaffa Gate is the Arab market or souk. The atmosphere is great but don’t forget to haggle.
The road forks after the souk. One can either go toward the Christian and Muslim Quarter or right to reach the Jewish Quarter.
Head toward the Muslim Quarter or enter the Old City coming from the North from Mea She’arim or somewhere else off Suleiman Street look for Damascus Gate. This is where most Arabs enter the city and you’ll find a bustling open-air market. Below the gate is a surviving arch built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 135 as the main entrance to the city he called Aelia Capitolina.
The Jewish Quarter
The Jewish Quarter looks new but dates to around 1400. The oldest synagogues are the Elijah the Prophet and Yohanan Ben Zakkai and are about 400 years-old. These synagogues are below street level because at the time they were built Jews and Christians were prohibited from building anything higher than the Muslim structures.
The Hurva Synagogue is within the main plaza there use to be an arch the synagogue has now been rebuilt and rededicated. Originally the Great Synagogue, the Hurva was built in the 16th century, but was destroyed by the Ottomans. The synagogue was rebuilt in the 1850’s, but was damaged in the 1948 war and later destroyed after the Jordanians took control of the Old City. After Israel recaptured the Old City in 1967 debate lasted for decades on whether the rebuild the Hurva or leave it in the destroyed state to memorialize the conflict. Finally, in March of 2010 the newly rebuilt Hurva was dedicated and the synagogue is now in regular use.
The Ramban Synagogue which is near was named after Rabbi Moshe Ben-Nahman who is known as the Ramban. He who helped rejuvenate the Jewish community in Jerusalem in 1267 after it had been wiped out by the Crusaders.
The Cardo by the plaza was the city’s high street. Part of it is preserved with some of the original Roman columns. Near the columns is a new underground mall with Jewish stores and art galleries.
Today the Jewish Quarter of today is located on the remains of the Herodian city dating from the first century. The Wohl Archaeological Museum contains what are now the underground remains of a residential quarter where wealthy families belonging to the Jerusalem aristocracy and priesthood constructed homes overlooking the Temple Mount. It is believed the palace of the Hasmoneans is among these ruins.
There are two gates leading into the Jewish Quarter. The Dung Gate is just outside the Western Wall plaza and the other is Zion Gate. If you want avoid the crowds you can take the path from Yemin Moshe down the hill across Jaffa Road and up the path along the wall to Zion Gate. This was the last gate constructed in 1540. In Arabic it is known as ‘the Prophet David’s Gate’ because it faces Mount Zion where David is supposed to be buried.
The Western Wall
Only one of outer walls remained standing after Rome destroyed the Second Temple. The Romans thought it insignificant as it was not part of the Temple. Today as the last remnant of the most sacred building it is one of the most holy places for Jews. Jews from throughout the world travel go the Kotel ha-Ma’aravi, the Western Wall. The wall is also known as the Wailing Wall because of the intensity of prayers offered the wall.
The tunnel near the Kotel goes northwards into a medieval complex of subterranean vaulted spaces and a long corridor with rooms on either side. The vaulted complex ends at Wilson’s Arch, named after the explorer who discovered it in the middle of the 19th century.
A narrow tunnel was dug along the outer face of the western wall of the Temple Mount. Part of Western Wall 300 meters long was discovered exactly as constructed by Herod. At the end of the tunnel there is a 20 meters long section of a paved road and an earlier Hasmonean aqueduct leading to the Temple Mount. A short new tunnel leads outside to the Via Dolorosa in the Muslim Quarter.
The Muslim Quarter and Temple Mount
The Ophel Archeological Garden excavation shows 2 500 years of Jerusalem’s history in 25 layers of ruins from the structures of successive rulers. The ancient staircase and the Hulda Gate, through which worshippers entered the Second Temple compound, and the remnants of a complex of royal palaces of the 7th century Muslim period are among the antiquities excavated.
A path up from the Western Wall plaza leads to the Temple Mount, or Haram es-Sharif, the Noble Enclosure in Arabic. This 40 acre plateau is dominated by two shrines, the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque. The shrines were built in the seventh century.
The Dome of the Rock which was built around the rock on which Abraham bound his son Isaac to be sacrificed. According to some old maps and traditions. On old maps this is the centre of the earth. This is also the place where the Koran says Mohammed ascended to heaven. Muslim tradition also holds that the rock tried to follow the Prophet, whose footprints are said to be on the rock. For many years, pilgrims would chip off pieces of the rock to take home with them, but glass partitions now prevent visitors from taking souvenirs. A special wooden cabinet next to the rock holds strands of Mohammed’s hair.
Under the rock is a chamber known as the Well of the Souls. This is where it is said that all the souls of the dead congregate.
At the southern end of the Temple Mount is the gray-domed al-Aksa mosque. The name means “the distant one,” and refers to the fact that it was the most distant sanctuary visited by Mohammed. It is also the place where Mohammed experienced the “night journey,” which is why it is considered the third holiest Islamic shrine after Mecca and Medina. In 1951, King Abdullah of Transjordan (Jordanian King Abdullah’s great-grandfather) was assassinated in front of the mosque.
Between the mosques is a great water fountain used by Muslims to wash their feet before entering the holy places. Visitors must also remove their shoes. Both mosques are closed to tourists during the five times each day when Muslims pray. The Temple Mount also has a small museum .
A radical group of Orthodox Jews have periodically issued threats against the Muslim shrines in hopes of rebuilding the Temple there. These threats are treated seriously by the Israeli authorities and the group is kept away from the Temple Mount. More mainstream Orthodox opinion forbids Jews from walking on the Temple Mount because of the possibility of unwittingly defiling the place where sacrifices were once offered. Non-Orthodox Jews typically accept the opinion of other authorities who argue the sanctity of the Temple Mount ended when the Temple and altar were destroyed and that it is permissible for Jews to go there so long as they show respect for what was once a holy place.
Despite the name, the Muslim Quarter is also the site of many important Christian sites, including the Church of St. Anne, the Convent of the Sisters of Zion, and the Ecce Homo Church. The Via Dolorosa begins in this section of the city and most of the Way of the Cross is actually in the Muslim rather than the Christian Quarter.
Most Muslims who live inside the Old City have homes in the Muslim Quarter, but this is an area where Jews resided for decades. In recent years, some Jews have moved back to this part of the city, an act viewed by Muslims and many others as unnecessarily provocative, though the Jewish residents would argue they have every right to live anywhere in their capital.
The path along the walls can be accessed from Jaffa, Damascus, Lion’s and Zion Gates. The entrances are surprisingly difficult to find, but worth the effort.
The walls are approximately two-and-a-half miles long. It is not possible to circumnavigate the city atop the walls. The street separates the Citadel and Jaffa Gate at one end of the city. At the opposite end, the wall walk ends at St. Stephen’s (Lion’s Gate), because you cannot walk along the wall surrounding the Temple Mount. This is where the walk beginning at the Jaffa Gate ends. The walk from the Citadel ends short of the Dung Gate, opposite the Jewish Quarter.
From the Citadel, it is possible to look at what once was a moat surrounding Herod’s palace. The Citadel was built by the Crusaders in the Middle Ages as a lookout to guard the road to Jaffa. The walk actually ends atop the police station. Beyond the walls, one gets a spectacular view of the new city, Yemin Moshe, the hotels, and shopping mall outside Jaffa Gate.
At the top of the wall, you can see the 1948 border where Arabs shot at Jews living in Yemin Moshe, identifiable by its non-functioning windmill, until the border was settled with Jordan. Just to the right is the King David Hotel and behind it the tip of the YMCA tower is just visible. The Sheraton Hotel and the other few “skyscrapers,” also hotels, mark the skyline of what is otherwise a low-level city.
It is also possible to see the cemetery of Dormition Abbey just beyond the SE corner of the walls. This particular route is separated from the Jewish Quarter by a road inside the wall so that it is not possible to see much. Beyond the walls, however, it is possible to get a panoramic view of what the rest of the world calls the occupied territory. Closer to the Old City, it is possible to see the Arab village of Silwan and, if someone points it out, the City of David excavations. Toward the exit it is possible to see large depressions that are the ruins of cisterns from the 4th and 5th century Byzantine period.
The path along the ramparts in the Muslim Quarter is even more interesting. Making your way toward the Temple Mount from Damascus Gate, it is possible to look inside the courtyards of Muslim homes. Outside, across Suleiman Street, you can see the Rockefeller Museum, which houses antiquities found from archaeological excavations and other exhibits. When you reach the far corner of the City, you can get a wonderful view of Mount Scopus, the Hebrew University, Mount of Olives and various churches.
The Way of the Cross
The Via Dolorosa near the Lion’s Gate on the eastern side of the City by the Temple Mount is believed by Christians to be the Jesus carried the cross from his trial to the place of his crucifixion and burial. The 14 stations commemorate incidents along the way. The first seven stations wind through the Muslim Quarter. The last five are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The tradition of following the Via Dolorosa dates to the Byzantine period.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is revered by Christians as the site of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the 4th century, Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine came to Palestine and identified the location of the crucifixion. Her son built a magnificent church at the site. The church has been rebuilt several times over the centuries. The building standing today dates from the 12th century.
Control of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is zealously guarded by groups. The Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Armenians and Copts are among those that oversee different parts of the Church. In the 12th century, fighting among different denominations over who should keep the key to the church led the Arab conqueror Saladin to entrust the key to the Muslim Nuseibeh and Joudeh families.
Today, eight centuries later, the 10-inch metal key is still safeguarded in the house of the Joudeh family. Every morning at dawn, Wajeeh Nuseibeh, who took over the job of doorkeeper from his father 20 years ago, picks up the key and opens the massive wooden church doors. Every night at 8:00 p.m. he returns to shut and lock them.
For many years Israel tried to convince the Christian denominations to open a second exit to the Church for safety reasons. A great fire in 1840, caused a panic that led to many deaths. Israeli concerned about the danger finally reached an agreement in June 1999 to open another exit although there is an on going quarrel over who looks after the key!
The Armenian Quarter
The Armenian section is actually the smallest and comprises of one-sixth of the area of the Old City. The Armenians claim a presence in Jerusalem since the first century when an Armenian battalion fought under the Roman emperor Titus. The Armenians adopted Christianity as their official religion in 286 CE even before the Romans and, for the last 1,700 years have had a presence in Jerusalem The Armenian Quarter was established in the 14th century. Today, approximately 2 500 Armenians live in Jerusalem.
The Armenian section is almost a city within the city. The walled compound surrounds the Church of St. James, the Convent of the Olive Tree, the Armenian Patriarch residency, a monastery and a number of shops.
St. James Church, built in the mid-12th century, is named for the brother of Jesus, who was the first bishop of the Jerusalem church and for James the Apostle. It is renowned for its beauty. The domed ceiling is illuminated by gold and silver lamps. Jesus’ brother James is said to be buried in the central nave and beyond the wooden doors inlaid with mother-of-peal and tortoise shell is a shrine where the head of St. James is buried.
The St. James Monastery which takes up about two-thirds of the quarter contains gifts left by pilgrims over the last 1 000 years. It also includes a quiet residential area. The Gulbenkian Library contains more than 100 000 volumes dating back hundreds of years. The Mardigian Museum is nearby and it contains exhibits on Armenian art and culture and the genocide of 1915.