Old City Jerusalem - Place Of Wonder In The Middle East Holy Land

The Al-Aqsa Mosque within the Old City of Jerusalem.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque within the Old City of Jerusalem.

10. Jerusalem Through History -

The earliest evidence of a permanent settlement in what is now the Old City of Jerusalem is dated back to the early Bronze Age, circa 3000-2800 BC. In the later Bronze period, Jerusalem was the capital of a modest city-state and a part of the Egyptian Empire. The city expanded under the pharaohs Seti I and Ramses II. The capital was captured by King David around 1004 BC and became a holy city. His son Solomon first built the temple named after himself

In the Sixth Century BC, Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar plundered the city and exiled its inhabitants to Babylon. It was only after several decades that Emperor Xerxes of Persia permitted the Jews to return to Jerusalem, after which the rebuilt the city and the Temple of Solomon. Jerusalem remained autonomous, first under the Persians, then the Greeks and later the Romans. After the Roman Empire accepted Christianity, Jerusalem became associated with the life of Jesus. Many churches were built and the city became a religious center of Christianity.

Following the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, many Jews returned to the city. During the 11th and 12th Centuries AD, Jerusalem frequently changed hands between the Muslims and the Crusaders. Jerusalem again fell to the Muslims, first under Saladin, then the Mamluk dynasty of Egypt. The city came under the Ottoman Turks, who ruled over it till the end of the First World War. However, from the latter half of the 19th Century, the Jews had already started building the New City. More Jews began migrating to Jerusalem, becoming a majority population in 1873. When Israel came into existence in 1948, it became the national capital.

9. Far-Reaching Religious and Cultural Significance -

For Jews, their culture and religion originated in the land of Israel and was centered in Jerusalem. In the Roman-Byzantine period, the city came to be identified and revered as the land of Christ. Jerusalem lay in Islamic hands for more than a millennium and is still home to many Muslims along with their religious and cultural symbols. Hence Jerusalem is the only city in the world, which is pilgrimage destination for three major religions. The city is famous for its historical architecture and relics of all three major Abrahamic faiths, namely Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. It is often called the city of ‘living history’, where one can walk in the footsteps of saints, worship in buildings originally constructed by decrees of emperors and caliphs and stay overnight in inns and hospices that once hosted the Crusaders.

8. Dome of the Rock -

Called Qubbat al-Sakhrah in Arabic, the shrine was built by the Umayyad caliph Abd-al Malik in the late 7th Century AD. It is one of the oldest and most important Islamic monuments in the world after the Ka’aba in Mecca. The location of the shrine is sacred to Jews and Muslims. It is here that Abraham has been said to have been prepared for sacrificing Isaac. According to the Muslims, this is the site from where the Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven. The Dome and Al-Aqsa Mosque are both located on the Temple Mount, itself believed to be the ancient site of Solomon’s Temple. There is a natural cave beneath the rock, which is accessed by a stairway leading down from the shrine. The structure of the Dome and its interiors bear the influence of Byzantine architecture but its construction represents the earliest stage in the emergence of a distinct Islamic architectural style.

7. Al-Aqsa Mosque -

Also located on the Temple Mount, or the Haram esh-Sharif, stands the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest Islamic site after Mecca and Medina. Built in the beginning of the 8th Century, its name means ‘Distant Sanctuary’ and it is the main mosque of Jerusalem. Today, nothing of the original mosque survives. It has been devastated by many earthquakes over the centuries and has been rebuilt 5 times. Al-Aqsa has served as a royal palace for the kings of the Crusades, and was also the headquarters of the crusading Knights Templar. Saladin had all the Templar constructions torn except one building, which now serves as the Islamic Museum and Women’s Mosque. In 1951, Jordanian King Abdullah was assassinated within the mosque and the bullets holes are still visible. There is a small memorial, made of bullets and canisters of tear gas to commemorate the shooting and riots that followed. In 1969, a crazed Australian tourist started a fire in the mosque to make way for the Second Coming.

6. Church of the Holy Sepulcher -

Known as the Church of the Ressurection to Greek Orthodox Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the holiest site for Christians of many denominations. The site is believed to be where Jesus was crucified and buried. The early Christians seem to have held liturgical sessions at Christ’s tomb till the Romans captured Jerusalem in 66 AD. After the Constantine the Great converted to Christianity, he commissioned churches to be constructed throughout the Holy Land, including the Church of the Sepulcher in 326 AD. The architects built the church around the rock-cut tomb of Christ. The rock of Golgotha and the True Cross are said to have been unearthed in the course of the building excavations. The Tomb of Christ was completed in 384 AD. When the Persians attacked Jerusalem in 614 AD, the church was almost destroyed by fire.

After the Muslims captured the city, it remained a Christian place of worship under the caliph Omar, and remained so until the so-called "Mad Caliph" Hakim of the Fatimid Dynasty systematically wrecked the church. In 1408, the Byzantium Emperor Constantine agreed to sponsor the reconstruction of the church but the funds were inadequate for its completion. This was the church where the knights of the First Crusade sang the Te Deum after capturing the capital in 1099. The crusaders divided the church between Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic custodians. In the 19th Century custodians from other Christian faiths acquired minor responsibilities. An agreement regulates the places and times of worship for each Church. Today, the church is a mixture of Byzantine, Crusader, medieval and modern influences.

5. Wailing Wall (Kotel) -

When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD, they left one wall standing that surrounded the Temple Mount. For the Jews, this was the only surviving part of their holiest shrine. Called Kotel ha-Ma’aravi in Hebrew or the Western Wall, it became a pilgrimage site for Jews throughout the world. The prayers offered at the wall were so fervent that it soon acquired the nickname ‘the Wailing Wall’, though the Jews never refer to it by that moniker. Under Muslim rule, the Arabs used the wall as a garbage dump to humiliate the Jews. From 1948 until 1967, the Wall was under the control of the Jordanians, who did not allow Jewish pilgrims from Israel access to it. Israel Defense Minister Moshe Dayan helped revive a Jewish custom of inserting written petitions to God between the cracks in the wall. This custom became so popular that Jewish Americans started offering services to insert such prayers on behalf of people who could not make the pilgrimage. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have opposed, often violently, women praying at the Wailing Wall, but the fight for collective worship is being won gradually.

4. Armenian Quarter -

The Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem is located in the southwest of the Old City. It is the smallest of the city’s four quarters both by population and area. It is reached through the Zion Gate and is home to various churches, schools and historical landmarks, the most notable of which is St. James Cathedral. The Armenians were traditional inhabitants of modern Turkey, Iran and the Caucasus. Neither Arab nor Jewish, Armenians were one of the first ethic groups to convert to Christianity. Armenians started settling in Jerusalem after 300 AD, and subsequently built churches and monasteries in their Quarter as well as in other parts of the Holy Land. They managed to hold on to their properties as the city changed hands throughout the centuries. Armenians are renowned for the beauty of their tiles and ceramics and many retail outlets sell these materials in the Quarter.

3. Walls and Gates of Old Jerusalem -

The existing walls of Old Jerusalem were built by the Ottoman Suleiman the Magnificent in the early 16th Century. The walls are interspersed with eight gates from various periods.

  • Zion Gate: It is also called the Gate of the Prophet David, and lies on the adjacent Mount Zion. The gate leads to the Armenian and Jewish Quarters of the city.
  • Dung Gate: A great deal of refuse and other garbage used to be dumped at this gate in antiquity, hence its unusual name. The gate takes visitors directly to the Western Wall and the Southern Hall Archaeological Park.
  • Gate of Mercy: Also called the Golden Gate and Eastern Gate, this is the best known of all the gates in Jerusalem. It has been closed for centuries and awaits a miraculous re-opening when the Messiah arrives and resurrects the dead.
  • Lion’s Gate: This gate is named after a pair of ferocious looking animals (which are actually tigers) that are carved on either side of it. It is also called St. Stephen’s Gate after one of the first Christian martyrs, who tradition holds was stoned to death nearby. The gate also became famous during the Six Day War.
  • Herod’s Gate: Despite the name, the gate has nothing to do with the Judean king. It faces north to the city’s markets and is called the Flowers Gate both in Arabic and Hebrew.
  • Damascus Gate: This is the most imposing gate in Jerusalem, and is named after the city where Jerusalem’s first foreign rulers came from. Part of an entryway built by Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd Century is still visible below the gate.
  • New Gate: This is the youngest of the Old City’s entryways, and was made in the declining years of the Ottoman Empire to allow Christian pilgrims easier access to their holy sites.
  • Jaffa Gate: Jewish and Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem often came ashore at the port of Jaffa, and hence the name. It leads to the Jewish and Christian Quarters and the Tower of David Museum.

2. Other Unique Sights and Sounds in the Old City -

Today, the Holy Land of the Bible is a modern, developed, and vibrant region, with Jerusalem remaining at its spiritual core. Thousands of tourists throng the Old City each year and navigate the historic cobblestone streets accompanies by the buzz of talking people and the sounds of birds chirping. One can see several bar mitzvahs being performed simultaneously at the Western Wall and celebrated to the sounds of drums and trumpets. The urban soundtrack also consists of church bells, the muezzin’s call for namaz, and the ram’s horn which is called the shofar. The smell of coffee served by served at various cafes can make you order a cup as well. The smell of za’atar, a popular Middle Eastern spice, wafts tantalizingly from Jerusalem bagels. Other delicacies include souvganiot, which are nothing but jelly donuts and fresh pitas. You may also smell the ancient dust from the numerous archaeological digs in the city.

1. Territorial Disputes and Ethno-Religious Tensions -

Both Jews and Muslims consider Abraham as their patriarch, and had generally lived in relative peace from the end of the Crusades era until the 19th Century. In the late 1800s, a group of people known as Zionists decided to migrate to Palestine, the Holy Land. As more and more Jews settled in Palestine, there grew a desire to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The indigenous population resisted and fighting broke out, which lasted well after the creation of Israel. The 1967 War left Israel in control of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which are territories with large Palestinian Muslim populations. Though still occupied by Israel, the West Bank is nominally under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Gaza is controlled by the Islamist fundamentalist Hamas and is blockaded by Israel. The Jewish state places many restrictions on the movements of Palestinians due to security reasons. The two-state solution remains elusive.


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