What image comes to your head when you think of Old City of Jerusalem? Is it by any chance an orthodox Jew storming through the maze of the streets? The Golden Dome overlooking the city? The Western Wall and the constant prayers there? Sadly that’s all I pictured about Jerusalem (or even the whole Israel) before visiting it. I hate going unprepared to some new place but my knowledge of things you need to know before traveling to Israel was close to zero. I let Jerusalem and Israel surprise and challenge me on every step.
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Old City of Jerusalem on Shabbat morning
Since I arrived to Israel on Saturday morning, during shabbat, there was no way to get to Tel Aviv hence I headed to Jerusalem. That was a fairly easy journey – right after leaving the airport there are signs pointing to sheruts (shared taxis) to Haifa (on the left) and Jerusalem (on the right are). I waited maybe 15 minutes for the car to fill in – there are 10 seats – and off we went to the capital of Israel. The journey took 30 minutes, cost 64 shekels and brought me right at the steps of Abraham Hostel. After a quick breakfast I was ready to explore the Old City of Jerusalem!
It was barely after 8am when set off. I took the (usually) busy Jaffa Street leading all the way to the Old City of Jerusalem. Since it was Saturday morning it was empty, there was not a single person around. The very first impression I got from Jerusalem was that it’s an abandoned city but I knew it can’t be right, it’s just because the timing isn’t perfect. Once I got to the Old City nothing really changed, there were hardly any people in the narrow streets, only Jewish people in the dressed in the festive manner headed in the direction of the Western Wall (just like in my image of Jerusalem!). Sellers slowly opened their shops but still there was not much life there. I should have cherished the moment more as few hours later the Old City of Jerusalem seemed like a totally different world…
The Old City of Jerusalem and its four parts and three big religions
The Old City of Jerusalem is fairly small, covers the area of around 1 square kilometer. Yet it’s divided to four quarters that couldn’t be any different from each other: Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian. This last one might be surprising to most of the people but remember that Armenia was the first country in the world that adopted Christianity – that explains its presence in the heart of Jerusalem. You can very easy distinguish the difference, especially between the Jewish and Muslim part… While Muslim is chaotic and busy Jewish is much calmer and more balanced. Yet they can exist next to each other. The Armenian quarter was the calmest of all and there were barely any people around.
Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world and it used to play a big part in the world’s history. It’s the heart of three biggest religion in the world and in the small area of the Old City you can find the most important worship places of Christianity (Church of the Holy Sepulchre), Judaism (Western Wall) and Islam (Dome of the Rock). On every step you stumble across pilgrims from all over the world, some of them wearing the traditional clothes and singing joyfully. I’m not a very religious person but the overall spiritual atmosphere of the place took over me as well. For all the time I’ve been in the Old City of Jerusalem I felt that I’m in a special place. I can’t really name it properly but there was some magic and solemn vibe and it got to me too.
Sadly I’m not very familiar with either Judaism or Islam, I know just the very basics (I need to read so much about them!). But observing these religions in their sacred place was a fascinating experience. I just couldn’t get enough of it, my eyes were everywhere, trying to observe and remember as much as possible. On top of that there was a Christianity, the religion I grew up in (but not really practicing much). Every street, every corner, every house felt special, like a wise witness of important events, bearing their legacy. Visiting all the places I know from the Bible as well as sacred location for other two religions was an overwhelming feeling that I didn’t expect to experience at all (still, it didn’t make me any more religious, to be honest).
Because of this mix Jerusalem was also a little bit confusing to me. I was standing on top of the Mount of Olives (the way up there is pretty challenging but the view is priceless and worth every effort!), looking at the golden dome of the Orthodox church, in front of me there was an enormous Jewish cemetery where the tomb with the best view can cost as much as 1 million $ and all I could hear around was a muezzin calling for a prayer. So confusing! And so incredible at the same time! It really gave me the feeling I’m in a very center of (religious) universe!
Best viewpoints of the Old City of Jerusalem
I always love looking at places from the higher point as it can give me a better perspective and image of it. So if you happen to be in Jerusalem (and you really should!) you just cannot miss Mount of Olives, Lutheran Church (the entrance to the tower is 15NIS but the view is spectacular, for me it was the best one in the whole city!) and the Austrian Hospice. The last one, located on the corner of Via Dolorosa (the street that Jesus walked towards his crucifixion) and is a hidden gem of Jerusalem. I wouldn’t have known about it if not one of the guys in the hostel. There’s no sign telling you about it, you just need to follow the people and go all the way to the roof – the view is really amazing!
When I was heading back to the hostel in the afternoon the Old City was already full with tourists and pilgrims. At some point I even had to push my way around, there were so many of them. It was also hard to find a place to sit in one of the few restaurants. Still it didn’t make me change my mind about Jerusalem – one of the most fascinating cities in the world! Actually when I returned to the Old City 2 weeks later, on my last day in Israel it was again different. It was Friday afternoon, shabbat was about to start and there were hardly any tourists around. I loved it more and more with every second spent there! I wish I could tell you what’s the best time to visit the Old City of Jerusalem, to experience it at its greatness but I’m afraid there’s no right answer to that. But whenever you go I’m sure it will bring strong emotions to you, just like it did to me!
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Jerusalem surprised me, overwhelmed me, excited me, fascinated me, challenged me… this list can go on for a while. Old Town is just a small part of it but I’ll tell you more about the rest soon!
In the meantime, for my Polish readers: jeśli chcecie dowiedzieć się więcej o Jerozolimie zerknijcie na bloga do Łukasza Kędzierskiego i jego posta Góra Oliwna – co warto zobaczyc?
Have you been to Israel? Would you like to visit the Old City of Jerusalem?
During my visit to Israel for most of the time I had my base in Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem and I can say it was the best hostel I’ve been to! It’ll be hard to beat that! Here you can book you a place to stay in Abraham Hostel. If hostels are not your thing take a look at other accommodation options in Jerusalem.
If you think of visiting Israel or just want to read more about the country take a look what else I wrote about it!
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