World Facts Index > Israel > Jerusalem

From the sky, Jerusalem is a mass of white stone dwellings, spread over hilltops, with the walled Old City as a centre point. Despite the city's buildings all being made from the same stone (this is according to a planning law), the diversity from area to area is huge, with each neighbourhood being its own little world.

Within a matter of kilometres you can switch from the history and intensity of the Old City, to the cosmopolitan buzz of downtown, from the hubbub of a shuk to the peacefulness of a panoramic lookout point, from hearing Arabic on Salah Al-Din Street to Hebrew in Malha Mall, from the religiosity of Mea Shearim to the dance club culture of Talpiot.

The walled Old City (which sometimes feels like the centre of the world) is the centre of Jerusalem, with Jewish West Jerusalem on its one side and Arab East Jerusalem on its other. The Old City comprises several different areas: the Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish Quarters as well as the highly contested Temple Mount. This is the spot where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son. Later the First and Second Temples were built on this site and this is also the location from where the Islamic prophet Mohammed went to heaven. The gleaming gold topped Dome of the Rock mosque, which dominates the Jerusalem skyline, stands in this compound as does Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The only remaining wall of the Temple, provides the border between the Temple Mount and Jewish Quarter. This is the Western (Wailing) Wall and Judaism's most holy site, where worshippers both pray verbally and stick written prayers into the cracks between the ancient bricks. The Jewish quarter also contains numerous religious institutions, museums and archaeological sites, such as the Cardo ' an ancient Roman thoroughfare.

Bordering the other side of the Temple Mount is the Muslim Quarter, which is rich in architecture from the Mamluk period (1250-1516) and its souks which wind through countless alleys are a treat for the senses (with the scent of Turkish coffee, the cries of the market sellers and merchandise from hair ribbons to chickens' legs to feast your eyes on). Damascus Gate is the main entrance to this quarter from outside the walled city.

Jaffa Gate is the entrance for the Armenian and Christian Quarters. On your way in, you will pass the Tower of David. The Armenian Quarter is home to some 1,000 Armenian residents and much of the life of this community goes on behind the high walls of the Armenian Compound.

Within the Christian Quarter is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was crucified. Many pilgrims follow Jesus' last footsteps to this church along the 500m-long Via Dolorosa (which is best approached from Lion's Gate). The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer and the Ethiopian Compound are also in this quarter.

The Old City is a wonderful place to get lost in by day and to marvel at its fairytale-like beauty when it is floodlit at night. A walk around the ramparts of the Old City walls is recommended to get a feel for the geography of the Old City.

One kilometre outside the walls of the ancient city (exit from Lion's Gate), more religious sites and wonderful views await on the Mount of Olives, home to the spectacular Church of St Mary Magdalene, with its golden rooftop, the Chapel of the Ascension where Jesus rose to heaven and the Tomb of the Virgin Mary.

Another must-see area is West Jerusalem's Mea Shearim which is inhabited by strictly Orthodox Jews, living a life devoted to the Torah and dressing in the same way they have been doing for hundreds of years. Visitors should walk around this area with respect ' in modest dress, without a camera and refraining from public displays of affection.

The adjacent areas of Nahlaot and Mahane Yehuda are fascinating to walk through during the day ' a bustling market and a pedestrianised residential area with the sound of song floating down alleyways and the poor and the gentrified living side by side in this old part of town.

For people watching in East Jerusalem, the Damascus Gate area and Salah Al-Din Street are a hive of activity with vendors selling produce along the roadside and service taxis coming and going from Palestinian areas all over the country. The differences in language, sights and sounds between East and West Jerusalem will make you think you have arrived in a new country.

For fun, try the Russian Compund at night (West Jerusalem's bar area) and the touristy Ben Yehuda Street, Zion Square and surrounding alleyways, which have a lively mix of cafes, restaurants and speciality stores.
To get a feel for what hip locals like to do at night, go to the German Colony's Emek Refaim Street ' a strip of eateries a couple of kilometres South of the Old City, with outdoor tables and speciality stores or the industrial zone of Talpiot (a few kilometres further south along the same road) which houses the city's few dance clubs.

History of Jerusalem

Jerusalem is a city rich in history. King David ruled it 3,000 years ago, Jesus walked in its streets 2,000 years ago and 52 years ago it became the capital of modern Israel. Jerusalem's history has been a tumultuous and bloody one. Over the centuries, the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamaluks, Ottomans and British all fought for her, ruled over her and eventually lost her.

One of the best ways to get a grip on the dizzying change of rulers in Jerusalem is to visit the Time Elevator, a simulated ride through the city's history, narrated by Fiddler on the Roof star, Chaim Topol. This is a fun introduction for children and those wanting a framework for further understanding Jerusalem's past.

But history is all around you in the layers of Jerusalem, which go deep, with ruins from different time periods lodged on top of each other. Excavations in the City of David ' the oldest part of the city, which dates back to 1,800 BCE ' have revealed 25 strata of settlement.

Of course, Jerusalem is an archaeologist's paradise. Relics discovered before 1948 are housed in the Rockerfeller Museum and those excavated post-1948 are housed in the Israel Museum's Samuel Bronfman Archaeology Wing ' which has rooms dealing with prehistory, the Canaanites, Israelites, the Second Temple period, the Romans and Byzantines.

The story of Jerusalem as a capital begins in 1,000 BCE when King David proclaimed it capital of the Kingdom of Israel and his son, Solomon, built the first Temple. In 701 BCE, when the city came under siege from the Assyrians, King Hezekiah built an underground tunnel so that the city's water supply would not be cut off. Visitors can still walk through this dark tunnel, which is knee-deep in water and runs between Gihon Spring and the Pool of Siloam.

In 586 BCE the Babylonians conquered the city, destroyed the Temple and drove its population into exile. Some 47 years later, the Persians captured the city, allowed the exiles to return and a Second Temple was built. In 322 BCE, the Greeks took the city, until a Jewish rebellion in 164 BCE put the Hasmoneans in charge. Then in 63 BCE came the Romans and the rule of King Herod. It was at this time that Jesus was born. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, marks the site of Jesus' burial and resurrection place and this is the world's most holy Christian shrine.

In the year 70, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple. Only one of its outer walls remained intact and this is the Western (or wailing) Wall, the most sacred Jewish site in the world.

The Roman period lasted until 326 when the Byzantines came. The Cardo, the main thoroughfare of Roman Jerusalem (called Aelia Capitolina), still remains today and tourists can enjoy a mock-Roman meal in the Culinarium, where all diners don togas.

The Byzantine period came to an end with an Arab takeover in 638. The Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque were built, and this complex became the third most holy Muslim site after Mecca and Medina. According to Islamic tradition, Al-Aqsa is the spot where Muhammed tied his winged horse before ascending to heaven.

In 1099, the Crusades began and a Christian kingdom was established. Jews were burnt alive and Muslims were either slaughtered or expelled. In 1187, Saladin took the city allowing the exiles to return and Christians to stay. This saw the beginning of the Old City's division into four distinct quarters.

In 1254, the Turks came and slaughtered most of the Christians, then in 1260 came the Mamaluks. Much of the architecture in today's Muslim Quarter stems back to the Mamaluk Period.

In 1517, the city was taken by the Ottomans who built the city walls in their current form. Because Jerusalem was an outpost of the Turkish Empire, it got neglected and by the mid-1800s the great powers of Europe were rediscovering the Holy Land and establishing their presence.

During this period, foreigners started to build outside the city walls, creating neighbourhoods such as the Russian Compound, the German Colony, Mea Shearim and Yemin Moshe.

When in 1917, the British captured Jerusalem they made it the capital of the British Mandate in Palestine. In May 1948, Britain pulled out and a war erupted between the Jews and the Arabs. This resulted in West Jerusalem being under siege. Jews were forced out of the Old City and lost their rights to pray there. The Jewish Quarter of the Old City was destroyed. The city became divided with Israel having sovereignty over West Jerusalem (its capital), while Jordan was in control of the Old City and East Jerusalem.

The situation changed during the Six-Day War in 1967, when in response to attacks from King Hussein of Jordan on Jewish Jerusalem, the Israelis advanced and took the Old City and East Jerusalem. The destroyed Jewish Quarter was rebuilt post-1967.

Today the debate and conflict over Jerusalem still continues. But as history has shown us, this is nothing new. The players may be different, but the theme is the same - the quest for control over this beautiful and sacred city.


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