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The Dome of the Rock is the oldest Islamic monument that stands today and certainly one of the most beautiful. It also boasts the oldest surviving ‘mihrab’ (prayer niche indicating the direction of Mecca) in the world

Jerusalem: a city of many faiths

Peter Holthusen once again visits a city that has known war and peace, love and hate, riches and poverty, destruction and renewal, happiness and pain
The Altar of the Nativity in Bethlehem, beneath which is the star marking the spot where tradition says the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus

"Today, Jerusalem is a city of overwhelming emotions, a city that promises a religious and spiritual experience, excitement and pleasure"

There is something about Jerusalem that seizes the imagination when you first see the city looming on the horizon

I have been travelling there for over four decades, ever since I was a student, and I never fail to be surprised by my first glimpse of the place, the way it suddenly appears without fanfare as you drive southeast from Ben Gurion International Airport, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, into the Judean Hills.

From the road you see the arid landscape begin to curve and stretch and grow more lush as the car, still in the valley, begins to climb. Eventually, the view is all-embracing, with miles of green hills, red-tiled roofs, and open skies off into the distance.

It is a city of singularly spartan beauty, built entirely out of different shades of native stone – yellow, pink, and grey – and pocked with scrubby growth as well as sudden, random bursts of bougainvillea, forsythia, and honeysuckle


It is a city of singularly spartan beauty, built entirely out of different shades of native stone – yellow, pink, and grey – and pocked with scrubby growth as well as sudden, random bursts of bougainvillea, forsythia, and honeysuckle. For such an ancient city, Jerusalem is enamored of the new: luxury apartment buildings under construction loom at odd intersections, with an eye to American and European Jews who look to buy second homes here.

Olive trees, pines, firs, and small maples dot the land, speaking to the city’s hardy survivalist ethos, and everywhere you look is sky, which appears to hang lower here than it does in the West. I have never arrived in Jerusalem without feeling an intensification of ordinary emotions, as though the light, shimmering over the hills, carried with it a weight all its own. Call it the weight of history: that would be the obvious connection for a walled city that is close to 4,000 years old and whose existence has been documented – and contested – ever since biblical times.

Small wonder Jerusalem was described as the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ in Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic motion picture.
If you are wondering how Jerusalem became such a centre of religions and spirituality and a pilgrimage site for millions of tourists from around the world, the answer begins thousands of years ago. Jerusalem’s history is one of wars and struggles. Its strategic location attracted many nations that wanted to capture the city, and some of them did rule over it for various periods. This city has known war and peace, love and hate, riches and poverty, destruction and renewal, happiness and pain.

According to Jewish tradition, the creation of the world began 5,766 years ago with the foundation stone on Mount Moriah (under the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount). This is where an important royal Can’anite city was built about 4,000 years ago, and which was conquered from the Jebusites by King David in 1004 BC and became the capital of his Kingdom and a ‘holy city’. David’s son Solomon built the First Temple and his descendants (Hezekiah, Zedekiah and the Judean Kings) continued to enlarge and fortify the city’s boundaries, and to build a water supply system (Hezekiah’s tunnel). These efforts paid off, and when King Sennacherib of Assyria besieged Jerusalem he could not subdue the city and withdrew. Only in 586 BC did Nebuchadnezzar conquer the Jewish capital. The city was destroyed and most of its inhabitants exiled to Babylon (located in what is now present day Iraq).

In 538 BC Xerxes, the King of Persia, who has conquered Babylon, permitted the exiled Jews to return to Judea and Jerusalem, where they rebuilt the city and built the Second Temple. For 370 years Judea was an autonomous district, first under the Persians and then under the Greeks. After the Hasmonean Revolt in 168 BC, Jerusalem again became the capital of a Kingdom, that later came under the rule of the Roman Empire. King Herod the Great further expanded the Temple in the years 73-4 BC.

At the end of the Second Temple period Jerusalem was a city of great social and religious tension. It was during this period that Jesus was preaching in Nazareth. In 66 AD the Jews rebelled against the Roman Empire and took over Jerusalem. The suppression of this bitter revolt ended in 70 AD, and the Romans, led by Titus, conquered the capital, destroyed the Temple completely and exiled the city’s inhabitants. For the next 60 years Jerusalem was desolate, until the Bar Kokhba Revolt, when the Jews returned for a short while. In 135 AD, the Romans rebuilt and renamed the city Aelia Capitolina and barred the Jews from living there.

After the Roman Empire accepted Christianity in 324 (and later became the Byzantine Empire), Jerusalem again became a very important city. The sites connected with Jesus’ life and death were located and declared holy, and many magnificent churches were built, including the basilica of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (also called the Church of the Resurrection), identified as the site of both the crucifixion, resurrection and the tomb of Jesus, and the “Mother of all Churches”, on Mount Zion. Many of these religious sites can still be visited today but there is a strict dress code and please be prepared to queue.

In 638 the Muslims conquered Jerusalem and over the next few centuries built the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is now the third holiest site in Islam. Following the Muslim conquest the Jews returned to Jerusalem, and around the 10th century this city once again became the spiritual capital for the Jews of the Land of Israel.

The Crusaders also wanted to rule Jerusalem. They conquered the city in 1099, massacred the Jewish and Muslim residents and made the city their own capital. Less than 100 years later, in 1187, the Crusaders were defeated following the Siege of Jerusalem when Balian of Ibelin surrendered the city to Saladin. Europe responded in 1189 by launching the Third Crusade led by Richard the Lionheart, Philip Augustus, and Frederick Barbarossa separately. At that time the Jews returned to Jerusalem and have been there ever since.

In 1250 the Mamluk dynasty rose to power in Egypt and its rulers conquered this region and became the new lords of Jerusalem. In 1517 the Ottoman Empire spread to Jerusalem and for 400 years was under Turkish rule. During the first 100 years the city flourished and its walls were rebuilt. In the second half of the 16th century, as the Ottoman Empire began to decline, so did Jerusalem’s fortunes.

By the beginning of the 19th century Jerusalem was a small neglected city hidden behind its walls, and only toward the end of the century (from 1860 onward), did the New City begin to grow, thanks to the generosity of English philanthropist Sir Moses ‘Moshe’ Montifiore, who financed the construction of Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first Jewish settlement built outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. The success of this new neighbourhood led to more settlements being built outside the walls. More Jews began moving to Jerusalem, becoming a majority of the population in 1873.

In 1917, with the start of the British Mandate period, Jerusalem retained its status as the capital of the land. When Israel was established in 1948, Jerusalem was declared the State capital, and all the major government institutions were built here. These included The Knesset (Israel’s parliament building), the Supreme Court and the various government offices.

During the War of Independence, following bloody battles and ceasefire agreements, Jerusalem was left divided between Israel and Jordan, until the capital’s liberation in the Six Day War in 1967, when the two parts of the city were united and Jerusalem became Israel’s largest city.

Today, Jerusalem is a city of overwhelming emotions, a city that promises a religious and spiritual experience, excitement and pleasure, interesting tours and entertaining adventures. Here, alongside Jerusalem’s fascinating historic and archaeological sites, there are amazingly modern tourist attractions for all lovers of culture, the arts, theatre and music, architecture and culinary delights.

At Jerusalem’s heart is the Old City, which is surrounded by a wall and divided into four quarters – Jewish, Armenian, Christian, and Muslim. Inside the walls are the important holy sites of the three major religions: the Western Wall, which is holy to the Jews, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. Within these venerable walls you will find a labyrinth of souks selling everything from religious icons to the necessities of life to Old City residents.

Jerusalem is also very important to Christianity, as Jesus Christ lived and died here. The Christian Quarter alone houses some 40 religious buildings. One of the most prominent and important sites in the Christian Quarter is the Via Dolorosa, the “Way of Sorrows”, Jesus’ final path, which according to Christian tradition led from the courthouse of Pontius Pilate to Calvary, or Golgotha, where he was crucified and buried. Many pilgrims come to Jerusalem to follow Jesus’ footsteps along a route that starts in the Muslim Quarter at Lions’ Gate, and passes the 14 ‘Stations of the Cross’, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

East of the Old City is the Mount of Olives, where there are other important Christian sites, and several churches: The Ascension, Pater Noster, Dominus Flevit, Mary Magdalene, Gethsemane, Lazarus and Abraham’s Monastery. Apart from the holy places throughout the Old City you will also find some fascinating attractions in the New City, such as the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Bloomfield Science Museum, and The Knesset.

Jerusalem is a city of superlatives, a city whose history can be heard in the whispering of the wind along the hallowed walls, where every stone tells a wondrous story of its long and tumultuous past.

Further information is at itraveljerusalem.com


- Peter Holthusen


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