Just when I thought that nothing else would impress me much on earth, I went to Jerusalem during the Catholic Holy Week and magic happened. I actually spent a week in Israel between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (and everywhere else in between). However, nothing prepared me for the incredible impact that Jerusalem would leave on me, including the desire to return and experience it again.
Although I am born and bred a Catholic, I do not consider myself an ardent worshipper by any measure, but I have to admit that going to Jerusalem did evoke my memories as a child of Bible Stories and made me think and feel my faith more intensely than I have felt in the last three decades.
The truth is that Jerusalem is not just important to Christians because it is the place where Jesus Christ was occasionally brought as a child and the place where he preached all of his adult life and later crucified. Jerusalem is as important to the Christians, as it is to the Muslims and the Jews who co-habit in the four quarters of Old Jerusalem.
The Fortress of Jerusalem is the Home to Three Distinct Religions
I will not go into the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians of the past or the present. The reason is
that when I visited Jerusalem, I touched regular life of four major cultures living in a densely populated city on top of a mountain, distinct in their languages, habit and culture, yet occupying a very intense small space.
Jerusalem has four quarters. The Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter (these two are by far the largest) the Christian and the Armenian (who are also Christian but Orthodox).
To give you an idea on how small Jerusalem is, it is enough to tell you that you can walk all the four quarters in less than two hours – and that is after doing the tourist thing of curio happy snapping.
When I was walking from one quarter to another, I literally thought I was hopping from one country to another. Jerusalem is diverse, intense, colourful, beautiful, rich, holy and Pandora’s box all at the same time. It is bursting with emotion.
In Hebrew, Jerusalem is known as Yerushalayim. In Arabic, it is known as al-Quds. Jerusalem is by far, one of the oldest standing cities of the world. Even if it has been fought over, destroyed, and conquered and also re-built several times over.
Notwithstanding the fact that Jerusalem has been a war ground at times, creating conflict and great division – there is one thing that is absolutely true of Jerusalem. It is a ground of common reverence of Armenians, Muslims, Jewish and Christians.
Why Is Jerusalem So Holy and Important to Three Major Religions?
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
For the Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located on the site where the whole story of the life of Jesus came to its climax. The Golgotha (the Top of the Mount) which is now topped by a The Church itself and therefore you hardly realize that you are actually on a hill. This is the spot where Jesus Christ was crucified. His tomb is inside the sepulchre and it is also the site of the resurrection.
I have to admit that I felt very moved when I arrived on this spot, having navigated up the narrow winding roads and alleys which are now populated with miniature houses or apartments that look like something out of Lilliput land. The winding uphill snake road is the way of the Holy Cross and allegedly the route of the 14 stations where Jesus carried his cross all the way up to the top.
It is by far one of the most visited pilgrimage destinations of the Christian community and a spot of almost feverish reverence.
Thousands of Catholics visit Jerusalem every year but the Holy Week leading to Good Friday and Easter Sunday is the peak of pilgrimages and processions.
I did take a guide with me on this tour because I was very interested in the history of each quarter. This is where my guide, a Jewish retired military man turned historian, explained that there are plenty who get gripped with Jerusalem Syndrome. The Jerusalem Syndrome is a phenomenon where a person develops a psychiatric disorder and starts obsessing and having psychosis-like feelings of being a Holy Person and will start dressing and acting as such. It mostly affects Christians who go to Jerusalem but not exclusively.
The Mosque in the Muslim Quarter
The Muslim Quarter is not just the largest and most colourful of quarters but it is also home to the al-Aqsa Mosque or the “Dome of Rock”. It is built on a plateau that is known by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
It is believed that The Prophet travelled to this spot from Mecca and prayed all night for the souls of all the prophets. It is also believed that Muhammed ascended to heaven from this spot.
As such in Islamic Religion this mosque is considered to be the third most relevant place in their holy sites.
Like Christians, Muslims visit Jerusalem all year round. However, during the month of Ramadan, Muslims come every Friday to pray in this mosque.
The Wall In the Jewish Quarter
Kotel or the Western Wall is found in the Jewish Quarter. It is but a remnant of the mount where once the Holy Temple stood inside of which the Holy of Holies once stood. In Judaism, this site is considered to be the most sacred place on earth. The wall is more famously known as the “Wailing Wall”
The Jewish people believe that this was the foundation where the world was created. It is believed to be the spot where God collected dust and from it created Adam. It is also believed to be the spot where Abraham was about to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God.
The Western Wall is managed by the Rabbi of Kotel and every year receives millions of Jews from all over the world to celebrate their heritage and pray. The height of visitors is during the High Holidays.
Exploring the Four Quarters of Old Jerusalem
Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world. Although there are four distinct quarters, there is actually no border between one and the other and you happen from one neighbourhood into the other. You only realize that you have moved from one quarter to another because people look different. Their body language is different and the way they dress is very distinctly diverse.
I took an image of this Map which is found inside the City itself so that you can visualize just how close the quarters are to each other. Having said that, nothing prepared me for how distinct one quarter is from the other. Walking through the roads of old Jerusalem, I felt that I was travelling from one continent to another in a matter of seconds.
I fell in love with this city for more reasons than one. The history of the city itself (and
most of Israel for that matter) really is a trail of history where the Knights of St John, also known as the Knights of Jerusalem, lost Jerusalem to the Ottoman Empire and later, were gifted Malta (after they also lost Rhodes where they moved to after Jerusalem).
Since I am from Malta, and the climate and architecture are very similar to that of Jerusalem, I felt I was immediately at home. The eight-point cross, which is the emblem of the Knights is also the Maltese National Cross. So for some reason, this City resonated with me more than any other place I have ever visited.
The City of Jerusalem has four quarters or neighbourhoods which are the following:
- The Armenian Quarter
- The Jewish Quarter
- The Muslim Quarter
- The Christian Quarter
What To Do and See in the Armenian Quarter
The Armenian Quarter is the only quarter that does not have the limelight landmarks like the other quarters. Whilst it does not have anything important like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Wall or the Mosque, Armenians are considered to be one of the very first countries to embrace Christianity. The role of the Armenians and hence the Armenian quarter has played a very important part in Jerusalem.
The Armenian Quarter makes up for charm where it lacks in highlighted landmarks. The winding alleyways, the quaint churches and rich Christian Orthodox decor do not fail to impress. The Chapel of St Mark is believed to be amongst the faithful the real-location of the Last Supper.
Whilst most churches appear to be simple from the facade, once I entered inside them, I was astounded by the opulence.
Let’s face it, Catholic churches are known for their show of wealth, art, marbles and tapestries. But the truth is that the Orthodox Churches really top the benchmark. Massive silver incense holders froth with sacred fumes, icons fight for space on walls, framed in intricate gold or silver and showcasing stylised holy images.
Massive solid silver candelabras, hold thick bees-wax candles which flicker gently and float honey aromas that mix with the scent of incense. The feeling is truly magical and holy. The air is always hushed.
I cannot even try to explain how distinct the reserved air of hush and prayer in the Armenian Quarter is diametrically opposed to the Muslim Quarter which is a feast of colour and noise.
The Armenian Compound is a fortress which is really a monastery and the residential area. The Compound is famous because after the Armenian Genocide it housed no less than a thousand Armenians who fled as refugees.
What is Interesting in the Jewish Quarter?
HaRova as the Jewish Quarter is also known – is found in the southern section. A lot of the original quarters were destroyed and rebuilt in the 20th Century and this has given archaeologists a field day – because up to today, layers of history are stored in the secrets of this mountain.
During the time that this quarter was being rebuilt, some stunning discoveries were made – including the famous depiction of the Temple Menorah which you can see for yourself if you visit. I also discovered the parts of the Roman Baths (which are also found in Malta) The white marble and the steps leading to the baths are still visible and one can only imagine the wealth when the Old City of Jerusalem was a thriving hub for the Roman Empire.
The most impressive place I visited was the Hurva Synagogue. This Synagogue was originally built in 1864 but it was destroyed and rebuilt several times. It was again recently opened in 2010 with great financial aid from many Jewish notable families all over the world.
And of course, I cannot help mentioning the Wailing Wall again. Irrespective of what your beliefs are or
which religion you follow – you will be humbled with the congregated faith and prayer. I watched from the top of the fortified walls down on the large courtyard – transfixed with emotion.
Israel and specifically the Jerusalem area – which is literally a stone throw away (walking distance practically) from Palestine, have always been politically charged areas – however, they have also played a very important part of world history and more so to all religions involved.
The Orthodox Jews are distinct in their wear with their long back coats, starched white chemise, the long locks and the different black hats or skullcap. The long-beards are notable too. The women are very discreet and also wear headscarves to cover their hair.
The Muslim Quarters – My Favourite Quarter
Although you walk from one neighbourhood to the other and there are no borders, you immediately notice that you have entered the Muslim quarters because it is so colourful, pungent, noisy and over the top. I loved the Muslim Quarter and its busy bazaar.
This neighbourhood is the largest and most densely populated with 22,000 inhabitants. You have to consider that the Old City of Jerusalem is just 900 square metres in total.
The Muslim quarters is where fruits, food, spices, bric-a-brac all collide in an explosion to the senses. The kids run unchecked around the roads like little imps. The elders sip sweet tea on the doorstep of the little shops and gossip and chat. And this is where hijab covered women busy themselves shopping for food to prepare the daily meals. The contrast between the Jewish Quarter and the Arab quarter couldn’t be sharper. Whereas the Jewish Quarter is hushed and kids are dutifully following parents in total obedience and silence, the Arab Quarter is a street party in comparison.
I suggest that you go to the Arab Quarters with an empty stomach and plenty of cash because you are definitely going to fall into temptation. I ended up buying a beautifully inlaid backgammon cum drafts set for what is possibly ten times what I should have paid for it. Simply because the seller knew I was not great at bargaining and had me eating out of his hand.
The food is amazing, garnished with a multitude of spices. Having lived in Asia for a while, I am a total sucker for spices and again you need a little bit more than loose change to buy these.
I highly recommend that you try the freshly pulped and squeezed fruit. My top favourite was pomegranate and ginger juice. I loved the sweet and bitter and spice of it. I would definitely recommend that you try the hummus which is creamy and delicious and eat it with the typical flatbread.
Finally, the kunafeh, an awesome flaking pastry stuffed with cheese is a dish I still salivate for!
The Arabs eat a lot of delicious homemade sweets. I happened to be there on a Friday after prayers, and they actually build an impromptu food and sweet market for the people to go home and celebrate the end of the week.
Naturally visiting the Mount Temple is an absolute must.
Walking through the narrow winding roads, I could not fail to see how the Religions overlap each other.
In the Arab Quarters, I discovered the largest part of the Via Crucis. The Stations of the Cross – which is what we are celebrating this Holy Week (and which has prompted me to write this article a year later in lockdown due to Covid-19)
Some of the more important Catholic spots in Jerusalem are actually in the Arab Quarters.
Notwithstanding that I felt no restrictions in moving from the Arab to the Jewish Quarters, there were several soldiers guarding the invisible entry and exit points, especially during important prayer times.
Another great place to visit is the Masjid Al Asqa ( Masjid is Mosque). This Mosque – in tiny Jerusalem can hold as much as four hundred thousand worshippers!
Just a word of recommendation, if you are planning to visit the Mosque or any other important place of worship for that matter, ensure that you are properly dressed.
Modesty is important in all the major religions. I carry a large scarf or shawl and use it as a great cover-up wherever and whenever it is necessary.
Sometimes it is draped over my head, sometimes it is used as a sarong, or plainly as a shawl. But respect and modesty are expected. If you are in the Moslem quarters, you are expected to remove your shoes and wash ahead before visiting the Mosque. The Al Asqa Mosque is the second oldest in the world and the stepping in inside it, really and truly leaves an impact irrespective of your religious belief. Again, I remembered one of my favourite books LIFE OF PI. A highly recommended travel book.
I have to say that I visited the Muslim quarters, more than four times in the ensuing three days that I spent in Jerusalem at different times of the day and night, just to drink in all its flavours.
Last But Not Least Christian Quarters – My Take
Naturally, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which I already mentioned earlier is one of the most impressive and devout places to visit on your trip to Jerusalem. The church itself was built in the fourth century and it is believed to have been a very holy spot.
I am writing this post on Good Friday 10th April 2020 – and it is the holiest day of the Catholic Calendar. It is the day when (according to the moons) we believe that Jesus Christ was crucified and later laid to rest and resurrected (Easter Sunday).
When in Jerusalem in this special time of the year, this is by far the highlight of the visit.
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I have to say I felt humbled by the prayer and devotion of the believers of the faith.
I was surrounded by people who made this trip, unlike myself – propelled by curiosity – because of their faith and as pilgrims. The Stone of Unction is believed to be the stone where the Body of Jesus was laid. I have already put an image of the faithful feverishly paying homage.
The Christian quarters as I explained earlier was the seat of the Knights Hospitaller Hospital which long ago was intended for the pilgrims visiting Jerusalem to manifest their faith.
The roads in the Christian quarters very similar to that of the Muslim Quarter. The Christian neighbourhood has its own Shuk. This open market is stuffed with an array of memorabilia which is almost identical moving from one to the other but is nonetheless exciting for bargain hunters.
Jerusalem – The Old City – Is it Worth Visiting?
I would say that you should definitely put Jerusalem and your bucket list and at least visit it once. And I could write so much more about it because it is totally diverse.
I will leave you with a parting shot. The most curious part of my trip to the Old City was looking across from the Mount of Golgotha to across the valley.
Over the centuries many Jews came back to Jerusalem so that they can live out their old age and finally be laid out to rest and buried in the Holy Soil of Jerusalem.
This old cemetery which literally sprawls over many kilometers, over the Mount of the Olives and the Kibron Valley, has grown from tradition and thousands of years of belief. Since the cemetery is very close to the Old City and the Temple Mount, it is believed that it is here that all souls will one day rise again when the Messiah will appear on the Mount of Olives.
If you want to be close to the real finishing line – you will choose to be buried here. It is already heavily populated and I wonder what it will look like on resurrection day!
Was Jerusalem Worth the Visit?
Jerusalem left me enthralled. It left me wanting to revisit and expose more of its intricate layers. It left me desiring so much more, that I promised my niece who graduated recently in Archeology to go back there and discover it together. Alas, so far, we cannot travel, but when we do, it will be the first destination in my proverbial bucket list.