The best part about travelling to Palestine is making a trip to Jerusalem and the best part about travelling to Jerusalem is being able to wonder in the Old City. The Old City is what contains many historical, cultural and religious sites that many people hold very close to their hearts. Every step you take in the Old City, you’re sure to be following in the footsteps of great historical figures.
The historic city of Jerusalem until 1860s constituted only of today’s Old City. It was then expanded to include other parts of the city and was split into East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem during the the 1948 war. Whilst West Jerusalem can be accessed through the Old City and mainly consists of Israeli neighbourhoods, East Jerusalem is entirely centred on the Old City and is the location of Masjid al-Aqsa.
As soon as you make your way through the Damascus Gate into the Old City, you’re left to feel mesmerised by the smells, foods, people and the twists and turns of the alleyways. Damascus Gate is the main entrance into the Old City from the north and is the ideal gate to go through if you’re wanting to head towards Masjid al-Aqsa immediately. Walking through I noticed women sat on the floor selling fresh figs and pomegranates with passers-by yelling, ‘How much?’ and ‘Can i taste?’. The ladies were kind enough to let buyers have a quick taste before buying. The Damascus Gate is one of the largest-sized gates and is built well-fortified as it is vulnerable to attacks and invasions.
Suleyman the Magnificent, from the Ottoman Empire, is to be complemented for his legacy of restoring these walls of the Old City. With constructions taking place between 1537 – 1541, the northern wall including the Damascus Gate were built first and then further extended to surround the Old City. Originally there were seven gates built for entry into the Old City until an eighth was added in the late nineteenth century.
Within the Old City there are four quarters; each of them are named according to the ethnic affiliation of most of the people who live in them. Historically, residential quarters were a collection of territories inhabited by different populations distinguished by religions, sects, financial states and place of origin. Till today, we have quarters of many kinds around the world.
Now, diving into the four quarters:
- The Muslim Quarter.
- The Armenian Quarter.
- The Christian Quarter.
- The Jewish Quarter.
The Muslim Quarter
Walking through this quarter will make you feel as though you’ve travelled back in time. This quarter has a very enchanting atmosphere which fills one’s heart with warmth knowing that Prophets had once-upon-a-time walked along these alleyways. The quarter had a very strong Middle Eastern feel and was filled with Islamic architecture. With the many mosques and Muslims in sight, you immediately know that you’re in the Muslim quarter. Also within the Muslim quarter you have the prominent site of Al-Haram Ash-Sharif. This is the name given to the entire compound which houses Masjid al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. According to Islamic traditions, this compound in it’s entirety is blessed and not just the physical buildings within it. This is also the site to which the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) travelled from Makkah and then ascended to the heavens in what is known as the night journey (Mi’raj), returning with the gift of the five daily prayers.
The Muslim quarter is the largest from the others and definitely is busier than the other quarters. You can feel a sense of activity and suspense here as tourists wonder along the alleyways whilst shop keepers wave them down to offer them a good price on their products.
Not only do Muslims live within this quarter, but recently there have been a rise in the number of Jewish families entering and residing.
The Armenian Quarter
This is the smallest of quarters and has the least amount of people residing within; around 2500 Armenians. The quarter is well-known for the Tower of David. If you do head over to the Armenian quarter, make sure to visit the Tower as well as one of the most beautiful cathedral in Jerusalem, the St. James Cathedral.
The Christian Quarter
Within this quarter you have many Palestinian Christians. Though you’ll find them speaking Arabic, the Christians here hail from the Greek Orthodox background which can be noticed in the way many of them are dressed. Within this quarter you will easily find many Christian items for sale such as crosses and icons of Virgin Mary. One of the more famous sites of the Old City, known as The Church of the Holy Sepulchre also lies within this quarter. We were fortunate enough to visit this church with our tour guide who also allowed to meet with the priest. The church has been a major site for pilgrimage for Christian visitors since it’s creation dating back to the 4th century. Christians believe that this is the place where Jesus was crucified. Also within this quarter, you have Via Dolorosa, known as Way of the Cross which is a sacred approximation of the path they believe Jesus carried the cross through to the site of his crucifixion. In total, Via Dolorosa consists of 14 stations with the first one starting at the Court of the Madrasa al-Omariyah ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Christians believe Jesus was crucified. Each station is marked by a plaque which can be quite difficult to spot hence it’s better to go with a tour guide or follow the Friday procession at the Lion’s Gate. The procession leaves at 3PM in the winter and 4PM in the summer from the Pilgrim’s Reception Centre, Lion’s Gate.
The Christian quarter is home to over 40 sites including Ecce Homo Arch, Bible Lands Museum, Monastery of the Cross, St George’s Cathedral, Church of St John the Baptist and many other churches. As well as these sites, you’ll find many friendly people and shop keepers offering you to try some of their food and drink.
The Jewish Quarter
This quarter is a lot quieter than the rest. With the quarter being filled with Jewish homes, schools, shops, restaurants and synagogues, it’s a great place to get a feel of what every day Jewish life is like. Here you’ll meet many devout Jews who are either residents or have come from far and wide to pay their respects and worship. The most famous site in this quarter is the Al-Buraq Wall, also known as the Wailing or Western Wall which is the holiest site in Judaism. This is a place where the Jewish attend, write their prayers and leave them between the cracks of the wall hoping for consideration and acceptance. According to Islamic traditions, this was the wall to which the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) tied al-Buraq (a winged celestial creature) on his night journey (Isra).
We had a really interesting encounter with a fellow Jewish man who was with his family. Outwardly my group and I were very noticeably Muslim and as we were roaming around this quarter we were approached by this friendly man who offered to take us to the Wailing Wall to show us around. Though we were denied entry, it made me happy and gave me hope that amidst all the tension and conflict, Jews, Muslims, Christians, and those of no faith can live in harmony with one another.
Another famous site within this quarter is the splendidly constructed Hurva Synagogue. The Hurva Arch is actually a reconstruction of a synagogue built by Askenazi Jews in the eighteenth century. Other sites include the Wohl Archeological Museum, Chamber of the Holocaust, Western Wall Tunnels, Museum on the Seam and the Israel Museum which contains a collection of archeological artefacts and works of art which provides an overview of around 5000 years of history.
Below is a map of the Old City. Feel free to zoom in and out to explore! Enjoy!